Vergennes abolitionist was first woman jailed for cause
VERGENNES — Delia Webster’s life probably would have been much less tumultuous if she had been born somewhere other than Vergennes. But such are the accidents of history. Because of the circumstances of her birth, Webster one day would find herself at the center of the national debate over slavery.
When Delia Webster was born in 1817, Vermont was deeply divided on the issue of slavery. But her hometown of Vergennes was, like its neighboring towns of Middlebury and Ferrisburgh, home to some of the most strident abolitionists in Vermont. Those towns formed a popular route north for African Americans fleeing slavery. Webster would join the fight to end slavery.
In addition to abolition, Webster’s other passion was education. By the age of 12, she was helping teach younger students at the Vergennes Classical School. And in her mid-20s, she traveled to the newly founded Oberlin College in Ohio to study to be a teacher. Perhaps not coincidentally, Oberlin’s president at the time was an abolitionist.
Webster never finished her studies, though. She left Oberlin after some undisclosed dispute with the faculty and fellow students. They didn’t question her “moral character,” a school official later wrote, just her honesty. One biographer wonders whether the disagreement was over Webster’s willingness to tell lies to serve a higher purpose.
If that was the case, then the people of Oberlin could hardly have been surprised two years later to read newspaper accounts of what Webster was accused of doing.
After leaving Oberlin, Webster settled in Lexington, Ky., where she lived in a boarding house and taught school. She made friends and was elected president of the Lexington Female Missionary Society. She also reconnected with an acquaintance from Oberlin, an itinerant Methodist minister named Calvin Fairbank who shared her abolitionist views. Together they hatched a plan to free a local African American family from slavery.
In September 1844, Webster told members of the missionary society that she would be accompanying Fairbank on an overnight trip “on church business.” She said she was glad to have the chance to leave “the smoky atmosphere of a crowded city.”
In those days, an unmarried man and woman traveling together might have been viewed as scandalous, even if people didn’t suspect their real purpose was to free slaves. But Webster coolly showed she had nothing to hide. She asked other members of the society to join her and Fairbank, confident that the bad weather that night would dissuade them. She even invited her landlady and fellow boarders. As she suspected, they all turned her down.
So Webster was able to ride off alone with Fairbank in a carriage drawn by two horses that he had rented to make the long ride. Fairbank had also paid for a slave named Israel to serve as coachman. They picked up the family — Lewis Hayden (pictured, right), his wife, Harriet, and their young son, Joseph — and planned to transport them some 73 miles to the town of Ripley in the free state of Ohio. They intended to return to Kentucky in time for Webster to teach her Monday morning classes.
Only 24 miles into their trek, however, complications arose. One of the horses fell ill. Fairbank drove the carriage to a tavern to see if they might borrow a horse. The tavern owner, a Mr. Holloway, was agreeable. He would even care for the sick horse. Holloway then began to banter with the people in the carriage. Joseph was hidden under the seat, but Lewis and Harriet were in the dark back seat. As a precaution, Webster and Fairbank had given them the most basic of disguises, cloaks to wear and flour to put on their faces. Somehow, the disguises worked. Holloway didn’t notice anything out of order.
With the borrowed horse, the escape party raced along the recently completed road to the border town of Maysville, Ky. They reached it by 9 a.m., and caught the ferry across the Ohio River. The Haydens were on free soil.
But Fairbank still had to return with Webster to Lexington, so she could teach her Monday classes, as if it had been the most ordinary of weekends.
On their journey south, they saw a handbill announcing that three slaves had escaped from Lexington. Word was out. They encountered two men coming the other direction. Fairbank would have recognized at least one of them, Parker Craig, who had rented him the horses and carriage. The other was Patterson Bain, the slave owner looking for the escapees. The men had connected the missing slaves with the rented carriage.
Webster and Fairbank were caught. The case against them was overwhelming. A slave had witnessed a boy being passed out the window of Bain’s house; countless others had seen Webster and Fairbank along the route to Ohio. Most damning, however, were letters between the two outlining the plan.
Newspaper readers followed the ensuing trials. Fairbank was sentenced to 15 years for helping the family escape slavery. As a woman, Webster was accorded leniency. She was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary, where she was the only female inmate. Warden Newton Craig, cousin of the man who had rented the carriage, treated Webster kindly.
Her story gained national attention. “In the roll of Liberty martyrs,” wrote W.H. Burleigh, editor of the Christian Freeman in Connecticut, “her name will occupy a proud eminence as the first of her sex to suffer imprisonment at the demand of that curse of curses, American Slavery.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote: “Miss Webster, the daughter of a New England farmer, is suspected of being a friend of freedom.” Pro-slavery writers, however, took no pity on Webster, whom they viewed as a common thief.
Kentucky’s governor pardoned Webster after she had served only two months. As a condition of her release, Webster reportedly swore she had never been an abolitionist — seeking to end slavery outright — though she did oppose slavery in the abstract. Webster also said she thought it wrong for people to interfere with slaveholding in Kentucky.
Upon returning to Vermont, Webster quickly wrote an account of her experience, which was apparently also a condition of her release. She again disavowed her previous abolitionist beliefs, but added that though the people of Kentucky had treated her well, she had been wrongly imprisoned in the first place. Webster seemed willing to do what she had promised, but no more.
Despite her disavowal of abolitionism, she wasn’t done. In October 1845, Webster was introduced to an audience of 3,000 at a major anti-slavery convention in Boston. She didn’t speak to the crowd, however, as women seldom did in those days. Two ministers spoke on her behalf. But she sat on the stage and sold copies of her book.
After little more than three years in the north, Webster headed south again; this time to Madison, Ind., on the Kentucky border, where she tutored children and became a governess.
Her employer was Newton Craig, the Kentucky warden. Webster tutored Craig’s children and travelled with them as far as Vermont. People began to believe that she had truly renounced her abolitionist ways. Among the believers was Craig, who, though married, fell in love with Webster and wrote her passionate letters.
Webster began raising money from wealthy abolitionists to buy farmland in Kentucky and import German immigrants to work it. She wanted to show that farms didn’t need slaves to be profitable. She even got Craig to loan her money.
Slaves suddenly started disappearing from the area near the farm. People suspected that the main reason for Webster’s farm was to serve as the first stop on the Underground Railroad for African Americans fleeing slavery. Hostile neighbors began raiding the farm, threatening workers and looting and burning buildings. Workers fled from the threats, but Webster remained.
Eventually, Webster and Craig had a falling out, perhaps over repayment of the loan. Webster turned on Craig, who was seeking re-election to the lucrative job of warden. She gave his love letters to his political rivals, who had them published in a party newspaper, on Valentine’s Day 1854.
Eventually, the raids on the farm and threats of imprisonment became too much and Webster left Kentucky for good. Webster, who never married, lived out her life in the Midwest, dying in 1904, at the age of 86. By then, she was largely forgotten, as she is today.
Note: Lewis and Harriet Hayden, whom Webster helped to freedom, settled in Boston and became important abolitionists, often taking freed slaves into their home, now a National Historic Site. Lewis recruited volunteers for Massachusetts’ famed 54th infantry regiment, a unit made up of black soldiers during the Civil War. He was eventually elected to the Massachusetts Legislature.
Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
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