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Book Review: ‘Master Slave Husband Wife,’ by Ilyon Woo – The New York Times

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“Master Slave Husband Wife,” by Ilyon Woo, relates the daring escape from bondage in Georgia to freedom in the North by an enslaved couple disguised as a wealthy planter and his property.
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MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom, by Ilyon Woo
A few days before Christmas in 1848, an enslaved woman named Ellen Craft donned a stovepipe hat in Macon, Ga. The hat completed a daring costume that Craft used to disguise herself as a white man and book travel all the way to Pennsylvania on a series of trains, steamboats and carriages. Ellen told fellow travelers that she was a planter going north to seek medical care. Her enslaved husband, William, came with her, pretending to be her property.
The ruse worked. Together, Ellen and William Craft pulled off one of the most dramatic escapes in American history by performing, in broad daylight, as master and slave. But their story did not end there. By the time the American Civil War began, the Crafts had international reputations. And as Ilyon Woo makes clear in her excellent new book, “Master Slave Husband Wife,” the couple also played no small part in the sequence of events that led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
It started with a plan that some sources, including Woo, credit to Ellen, who was born enslaved to her own father,James Smith, a white planter who also enslaved Ellen’s 18-year-old mother, Maria. The laws of slavery offered Maria no protection from rape by her owner, and in 1837, no doubt because of Ellen’s light complexion and physical resemblance to Smith, his wife gave Ellen to their daughter Eliza, as a wedding present upon her marriage to Robert Collins of Macon.
In Macon, while legally owned by her half sister, Ellen met and fell in love with William Craft, an enslaved cabinetmaker in town. They shared traumatic memories of separation from family members. In Ellen’s case, her transfer from Smith’s plantation to Collins’s house wrenched her away from her mother. William had been permanently torn from a beloved sister, who was sold at a public auction when the siblings were children. Determined not to be separated from each other or to have children who might be sold away from them, the Crafts decided to act on their plan for escape as 1848 came to a close.
The first half of “Master Slave Husband Wife” is a suspenseful, sensitively rendered account of their four-day journey to the North, interspersed with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Along the way, Woo, the author of a previous book, “The Great Divorce,” about a scandal involving a feuding couple and the Shaker religious sect in the 1810s, explains how they managed to do it. A key part of the plan was Ellen’s costume, which included dark green glasses, a sling for her right arm, a black cravat and that “double-story” silk hat, “befitting how high it rises, and the fiction it covers.” As they boarded train cars and entered dining rooms filled with white travelers, Ellen also wore bandages on her face and hand to convince any observers that she was the ailing young scion of a wealthy family, traveling across the Mason-Dixon line with a loyal manservant to consult with a physician. Her injured hand also served as a ready explanation for why she couldn’t sign travel documents at several stops, concealing the fact that she had never been allowed to learn how to write her name.
Woo tells the story of that disguise, and the journey it launched, with a cinematic eye. She excels at setting scenes, conjuring the sensations experienced by the Crafts at each harrowing point: the sound of “Ellen’s boot heels clacking down hard with every step up the gangway” to a steamboat in Savannah, the medicinal odor of the poultice William tenderly applied to her face before she went to sleep in her berth, “freshly plastered in reeking flannel.”
The vivid details help Woo to convey the Crafts’ attention to every element of their plot. Ellen’s skill as a seamstress surely aided her in altering the clothes she wore. William had purchased pieces of her costume with money he had managed to save by doing carpentry work for customers willing to pay token wages to an enslaved man. But of even greater value to the fugitives was Ellen’s hard-won knowledge of the mannerisms of young white men, gleaned from her work within the intimate spaces of the Collins’s home. Likewise, William knew how to perform the role that white Southerners expected of him on the trip: that of an obsequious attendant rushing to anticipate his sickly master’s every need.
Above all, their disguise worked because of the prerogatives afforded to white male Southerners simply at a glance. “As a white man’s son,” Woo notes, Ellen Craft “now had infinite mobility through the streets she had once been forbidden to walk without a pass.” “Master Slave Husband Wife” argues convincingly that the Crafts’ escape exposed and subverted the rickety foundations of the gendered and racialized categories of master and slave.
But the couple were not out of danger in the North. After following the Crafts from Philadelphia to Boston, where they settled after a stint on the antislavery lecture circuit, Woo’s narrative slows briefly to inform readers about the politics surrounding the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The story then picks up again as she details the collective resistance of Black Bostonians and their white allies to the infamous law. Its enforcement would face its earliest test in Boston when Robert Collins sent two agents to capture the Crafts.
In the battles that ensued in Boston’s courtrooms and streets, the couple determined to fight re-enslavement by any means necessary; William brandished a pistol on more than one occasion and made clear he would use it. In the end, Collins’s agents left empty-handed, stymied in part by confusion among officials over the new Fugitive Slave Law. But it was clear that the slave catchers would be back.
No longer safe in the United States, the Crafts moved to England, where in 1860 they published a narrative of their escape, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” contributing to the trans-Atlantic pressure campaigns that accelerated the sectional crisis over slavery. William toured overseas as a lecturer with the abolitionist William Wells Brown, a fellow fugitive. Ellen began raising their children — they eventually had six — while navigating the fractious politics of the British antislavery movement. And both husband and wife pursued the formal schooling they had been denied while enslaved.
Their partnership, Woo maintains, continued to challenge convention, though even in England Ellen could not entirely escape the social order that she had bent to her advantage while disguised as a white man. Abolitionists, including her husband, frequently referred to her as a “white slave,” despite her disapproval, and William Craft alone was credited as the author of their book. Throughout the narrative he referred to Ellen simply as “my wife,” and claimed she initially recoiled from the escape plan, even though, Woo argues, she played the leading role and may have hatched the idea.
As Woo notes, the archival record contains fewer traces of Ellen’s voice than William’s, though at certain key moments the woman who had once impersonated a master “assumed narrative mastery,” too. One great achievement of Woo’s book is its careful attention to the moments when Ellen Craft’s perspective does flash through the archive, such as in a signed letter, an overheard song or an acerbic laugh at a minister, as well as its probing examination of what her silences might mean.
In a brisk but moving coda, Woo also reflects on a final silence in the archive: the exact date and cause of Ellen’s death after the Crafts had, remarkably, returned to the American South following the Civil War. Ellen would be buried under a tree back in Georgia, after a dangerous and dispiriting two decades in the post-Reconstruction South whose twists and turns could fill many more pages.
Yet the part of her story Woo chooses to tell richly deserves this book-length treatment. Soon after the Crafts’ escape, the famous abolitionist Wendell Phillips predicted, “Future historians and poets would tell this story as one of the most thrilling in the nation’s annals, and millions would read it with admiration for the hero and heroine.” He was right, and Woo’s book should augment those legions of admirers, especially of her heroine.
W. Caleb McDaniel is the author of “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America,” which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for history.
MASTER SLAVE HUSBAND WIFE: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom | By Ilyon Woo | Illustrated | 410 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $29.99
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