Telling the Truth, Slowly and Suspiciously

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Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center


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One challenge of being a Quaker stationmaster of the Underground Railroad was combining the moral imperative of helping freedom-seekers while telling the truth.  One stationmaster skilled at this task was John Vickers of Caln Township, just north of Kennett.

R.C. Smedley, in his History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County, relates a story about Vickers from 1818.  Two young men had escaped from slavery and traveled first Vickers’s father’s house and then his own.  Visiting his father, John found that slave hunters were searching that house from top to bottom, and they were coming next to his.  He hastened home, sending the men out the house and into a field and woods beyond.

After the hunters had arrived at his house, Vickers told them, “It will be of no use to search my house, for I know there are no fugitives in it.”  The hunters insisted, and he eventually gave in and led them slowly around the house, denying that any such people were there.  When they saw a trap door to the attic, they felt they had found the hiding place. Once again he calmly argued they would find no one, in a manner that aroused suspicion.  Reluctantly he got them a ladder, and they spent a good deal of time “grop[ing] around in the dark.”  Finally they gave up, but all this while the freedom-seekers “were fast lengthening the distance between themselves are their pursuers.”