It was the night of April 15, 1848, when slaves crept out of their enslavers’ homes and slipped through the fields and streets of Washington, D.C. How a ‘Judas’ foiled America’s largest escape attempt of 77 slaves.
They were headed to a wharf to board a ship that had promised them freedom from the clutches of slavery. About 77 in all, the slaves made it on board the Pearl, a Chesapeake Bay schooner that would sail them down the Potomac River and then cross over the Chesapeake Bay into the free state region of New Jersey.
This is the largest recorded non-violent slave escape attempt that could have been successful had it not been for a frustrated slave.
Now known as the Pearl Incident, the escape attempt had gone through months of preparations and planning. According to varying accounts, 1848 was a busy year for the people of Washington, D.C.
Congress was, at the time, having intense debates about the question of slavery in the new territories. Washington, D.C. which was then an active participant in the slave industry had a host of abolitionists who were strongly against the practice.
There were also freed blacks in the city who had married enslaved women and were heavily seeking freedom for their partners. Paul Edmonson was one of the freed black men who sought freedom for his wife and 14 children who were still enslaved.
Worried about the fate of his family, Edmonson consulted Paul Jennings, who was also active in the anti-slavery movement in the city. Jennings had been the slave of President James Madison’s family until his wife freed him in her will.
Jennings and Edmonson hatched an escape plan and discussed this with William Chaplin, an abolitionist in Washington. Chaplin and a philanthropist, Gerrit Smith, among others agreed to the plan and decided to fund it.
An abolitionist sympathizer, Daniel Drayton, also expressed interest in the development and hired the small schooner, Pearl, as the escape vessel. When news spread that the ship would leave on the night of April 15, many slaves came up with plans to leave their masters’ homes unnoticed and make it to the wharf.
About 77 made it to the Pearl under the cover of darkness and would have sailed to freedom but for the weather and a slave named Judson Diggs.
Diggs was a driver who was hired to take two of the escapees to the Pearl. Upon their arrival, the two slaves were not able to pay him for the ride. Frustrated, Diggs would later inform slaveholders about what he had seen at the wharf
As historian John Paynter wrote in 1916: “Judson Diggs, one of their own people, a man who in all reason might have been expected to sympathize with their effort, took upon himself the role of Judas”.
In the dark, the Pearl set sail, headed to the Chesapeake Bay and then to New Jersey where slaves were considered free. By morning, the ship was moving easily down the Potomac River, but approaching the mouth of the river, tides and fierce winds prevented the ship from entering the Chesapeake Bay.
Passengers and crew were, therefore, compelled to anchor in a nearby harbour, near Point Lookout where they hoped to rest for the night and prayed for any kind of pursuit to be delayed. They were not fortunate, as, by daybreak, slave owners in Washington and its environs realized that their slaves were nowhere to found.
With Diggs’ help, some armed white men, and local law enforcement officers sailed down to the river to Point Lookout, Maryland, and captured the slaves, bringing them back to Washington.
“All on board were…made prisoner without bloodshed, although it was evident that the slaves would have resisted if there were any chance of escape,” wrote a local newspaper.
On their arrival at Washington, an angry mob that had gathered at the dock hurled insults at them, including Drayton and his colleagues. The crowd also attacked the offices of an abolitionist paper belonging to Gamaliel Bailey, over allegations that he had assisted in planning the mass escape
The slaves captured from the Pearl were sold into harsher conditions in the Deep South, where they would work on plantations under hard labour while separated from their families.
Drayton and his collaborators were jailed four years for illegally transporting a slave and aiding a slave. They were, however, pardoned by President Millard Fillmore in 1852.
Now described as one of the “most heroic and tragic episodes” in American history, the Pearl Incident’s immediate result was disastrous for the slaves involved.
It, nevertheless, piled pressure on authorities to end the slave trade in the capital and by 1850, Congress disallowed the import and sale of slaves into the District of Columbia
The largest escape attempt in American history also influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that helped to change perceptions of slavery during the years before the American Civil War.
The book eventually played a major role in the battle to end slavery in America.