When I began working on my first book, Saint Maggie, I had no idea I would be learning a great deal about the Underground Railroad (UGRR). It all started because I needed a secret place in Maggie’s boarding house to move the plot along. I thought it would make sense to have it be a hiding place for runaway slaves. As I created my characters, Maggie, who is white, belonged to the Methodist Episcopal Church, her friends Nate and Emily Johnson were black and members of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and Maggie’s beau and later husband, Eli Smith, came from a Quaker background. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my characters represented part of the mix of diverse people who participated in the UGRR. I made Nate and Emily the originators of the station. When they eventually invited Maggie and Eli into it, the station’s hiding place was moved to a spot between Maggie’s house and Eli’s print shop.
For the next few posts, I thought I’d share what I have learned over the years about the Underground Railroad. But in order to talk about the UGRR, we first need some background, and that background is slavery.
Early European colonists in North America had a labor force consisting of African slaves, Native Americans slaves, and indentured servants (contract slavery). At that time, all kinds of trade in human beings existed. Most people became slaves as a result of indebtedness or conquest by another people. Slavery was not necessarily a lifetime situation, though. Once a debt was worked off, a person would be freed. And people enslaved because of conquest could stay in that condition for the rest of their life or they might be freed eventually, There were a number of variables.
But during the period in which North America was colonized by Europeans, things changed. Tobacco production was expanding in Virginia and the export of rice was increasingly important to South Carolina’s Coastal counties. This increased the need more slaves to work the land. For this, they turned more and more to people kidnapped and brought over from Africa, and these people were enslaved for life. (Note: Another reason for this was that Native American peoples could and did run away, escaping into familiar terrain, and indentured servants eventually would work of their debt and leave.)
However, this enslavement of African peoples was not confined to the Southern colonies. It also existed in the northern states and grew there as well, even though the northern states did not have an economy based on tobacco or rice. In the north, captured African people were used to work in houses, shops, and farming. And they also were enslaved for life. Freedom depended upon the largess of one's owner - and usually did not happen.
Of course, not every European living in America felt that slavery was an acceptable institution. Around the end of the 1700s, a movement grew supporting the gradual emancipation of slaves and prohibiting the import of slaves from Africa. On the other hand, other people supported the principle abolition, or the unqualified, immediate freeing of slaves. And yet, these white people too were wary of what would happen should abolition occur and large numbers of enslaved people suddenly became free.
And then there were folks, white and black, who would help a slave attempt an escape to freedom. Small networks of family and friends would shelter a runaway and attempt to have him/her resettled in another location. This locally situated effort usually moved an escaped slave a town or two away and no more than 10 or 15 miles from the slave owner. In the 1700s there was no larger organization and system for moving a self-emancipator far away from the slave owner’s reach.
Then something changed. The manufacture of textiles in England had been revolutionized by the factory system and by the industrial revolution and England became a huge market for American cotton. The good news was upland (or short-staple) cotton had a great per-acre yield. The bad news was that the seeds clung to the fiber and had to be pulled out by hand. It took one person a full day to clean one pound of seeds from harvested cotton. There was no way to fulfill the promise of selling enough cotton to satisfy English demand. Not with such a slow cleaning system for the cotton.
Enter Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1792. The cotton gin ("gin" is short for “engine”) was a machine that picked the cotton up on a roller studded with metal teeth. The roller carried the cotton around to a metal grill, which scraped the cotton and loosened its seeds until they dropped away. The output was amazing. When the machine was run by hand crank, one slave could do the work of 12. If the gin was powered by a water wheel, then it could do the work of hundreds of workers. This invention caused an expansion in American cotton exports from almost nothing in the early 1790s to six million pounds in 1796, and to 20 million pounds in 1801.
One would think that the cotton gin would lead to a decrease in the number of enslaved people required to farm cotton, but this was not the case. Instead, the powerful cotton economy spread slavery from the southern coastal states to other areas where it could be farmed, from the Mississippi Territory all the way to Texas. During this time of expansion, from 1800-1860, the number of enslaved people nearly quadrupled. in the United States. According to the 1860 census, the USA had 395,538 slaves, or 13% of the population, who were owned by 8% of the families. (Note: there were 476,748 free people of color in the country at that time.)
However, as the number of enslaved people increased, something new emerged for slave owners: the fear of insurrection. The horrors of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and a successful slave insurrection in Haiti in 1791 made people who owned slaves fearful that America would be the next to have an insurrection. The fear grew in 1800 when a Virginia blacksmith named Gabriel confessed that a slave revolt had been in the works, saying that the plan was for all whites except Quakers, Methodists, and the French were to be killed.
Fear on the part of whites led to oppressive new laws throughout the states that had an impact of black people both free and enslaved, especially in the southern states. Voluntary manumission without official approval was prohibited. Newly freed blacks were forced to leave the state in which they had been freed or face re-enslavement. Free blacks who traveled without authorization papers could be arrested, fined, and possibly re-sold into slavery. They also could be re-enslaved if they defaulted on a fine or did not pay their taxes. In addition, free people were barred from starting schools and from meeting together if the meeting was perceived to be threatening to whites.
So that is what the United States looked at a time when it was permissible to own other people.
On Friday, we’ll look at slavery in the state of New Jersey.
P.S. I'd love to give you my resources for the above information, but I'm having trouble finding it! This comes from a talk I had given on the Underground Railroad a few years ago. With any luck, I'll have some references for you on Friday. I'm such a geek, I know they're somewhere in that particular file.
On Twitter recently another author played a game asking us to sum up our book and/or series with this fill-in-the blank statement: “[Name of Your Book/Series]: Come for the ____, stay for the _____.” So I played along and wrote something for the Saint Maggie series, which I have since tweaked to read: “The Saint Maggie Series: Come for the nostalgia, stay for the explosions.”
I worded it that way because the full-length novels in the Saint Maggie series start out deceptively low-key and rather nostalgic. Ah, the 1800s. It was a simpler time. A gentler time. Broken only by a war that split the nation, the Industrial Revolution, massive urbanization, and waves of immigration. But sooo much simpler and gentler than now.
The confusion and challenges of the nineteenth century may be why things start spiraling and eventually explode or go crazy in the Saint Maggie novels.
Let’s take a brief look at how each novel in the series handles this process.
In Saint Maggie, we start with Maggie and Emily preparing to welcome the new minister to the Second Street Boarding House. As the story progresses, Maggie and Eli begin courting and eventually get married. But Maggie also discovers some uncomfortable things about Jeremiah Madison and then Jeremiah begins using her as a Mother Confessor and tells her things she rather would not hear. And that is when things go completely crazy: Maggie becomes dangerously ill, which followed by a murder, a high-profile trial, a surprising confession, an execution, and gunfire.
Walk by Faith, on other hand starts off with a bang. Eli and Mr. Carson are away working as war correspondents and the young men courting Maggie’s daughters have joined in the army. While they are away, a mysterious fire destroys the Second Street Boarding House, threatening the lives of all who live in it. After the fire, Maggie, family, and friends take up temporary residence with her brother Samuel but are bullied by a group of young “Copperheads.” So, Eli moves everyone into his family’s old home to keep them safe. Great, right? Enough excitement has happened already. Now they get a rest. Wrong. The stuff that preceded the move was the calm before the storm. That's because Maggie and the family have moved to Gettysburg, it is 1863, and the war comes right to their doorstep. Kaboom!
A Time to Heal picks up where the battle of Gettysburg left off. The old Smith House is being used as a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers. The family is dealing with a sense of rootlessness and woundedness in a variety of ways. As the story moves along, Frankie strikes up a friendship with an injured Confederate soldier named Caleb. The young soldier has not heard from his wife in some time and is pining to go home to Virginia and find her and his infant son. Frankie’s compassionate response to Caleb's confession results in a broken law, an arrest, and a hearing that puts Eli at risk of imprisonment or hanging. So that story has an explosion after a rather quiet build.
Finally, in Seeing the Elephant, Eli is offered the opportunity to be Editor-in-Chief of The Blaineton Register, a newspaper owned by their former nemesis, Tryphena Moore. The grateful family returns to New Jersey. With Maggie’s permission, Tryphena has sold Maggie's old lot on Second Street and, upon their return, the family discovers that Tryphena has purchased a new home for them. And what a home it is - the Greybeal House, a large estate on the edge of town. It looks as if good things finally are beginning to happen. Emily starts baking for the town’s tea shop. Nate sets up a carpentry shop on the estate. Maggie does some editing for The Register. They hire two young maids to help them care for the massive house. And Frankie goes to work as an attendant at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Wait. Frankie's working at a hospital for the Insane? If you think that sounds like trouble, you're right. When the kindly superintendent of the hospital is ousted and replaced by an industrialist who wants to turn the place in to a money-making venture, things spiral into another explosion that sets angry, rioting inmates against the town’s sheriff and his posse.
And yet, in the midst of all the craziness in the novel series, hope and love and mercy manage to shine through. And this makes me wonder whether I should rewrite my statement to read, "The Saint Maggie Series: Come for the explosions, stay for the hope, love, and mercy." The series seems to be a mix of danger, threats, and (often) violence tempered by generous doses of kindness, hope, and love.
Interestingly this “Normal/Nostalgic/Happy to Horrible Explosion” thing has not carried over into the related Saint Maggie short stories and the novellas. These tend to be much gentler in nature, looking at human emotions – love, fear, despair, faith, frustration, and so on. There are no major explosions of any nature. In fact, the stories are fairly simple. In The Dundee Cake widow Maggie tries to help new friends Nate and Emily financially while struggling to afford a nice Christmas dinner for family and friends. Meanwhile, in The Christmas Eve Visitor, a little peddler mysteriously arrives at Maggie’s door at a time when the household’s children are dangerously ill and the family demoralized after the Battle of Gettysburg. The peddler then proceeds to present them with gifts that seem designed to soothe their pain and doubt.
Both novellas, The Enlistment and The Great Central Fair, focus on young love. In The Enlistment, Frankie runs away from home to join beau Patrick at Camp Fair Oaks, the recruitment center located in Flemington, NJ. But she has some adventures and encounters along the way that just might change her mind. The Great Central Fair takes place two years after The Enlistment. Maggie’s daughters are young women now. They decide to see their beaus off to their new post at Mower General Hospital in Philadelphia and visit the Sanitary Fair while they are in the city. Someone even gets married during their visit, which, I suppose, makes the story a bona fide romance. The only tension in it is how to tell Maggie and Eli about this.
Oddly enough, I did not until recently notice that the full-length novels, novellas, and short stories used different processes to spin out their plots. Apparently, I adopted a different storytelling technique depending upon the length of the project, and did it unconsciously. Weird.
Oh, well! Whatever it is that draws you to the Saint Maggie series, I hope you stay for the adventure, humor, characters, and inspiration.
See you Wednesday, readers.
Quite a few things made it into Saint Maggie. One reviewer complained that I seemed to be including everything I had ever learned about the nineteenth-century. I, however, like to think I was adding context. Novel reading is a subjective process!
Part of the nineteenth-century American context in my historical fiction books are issues like race relations, the quest for women’s rights during the First Wave of American feminism, and hypocritical behavior among church folk.
First up: race relations. The first book, Saint Maggie, starts in 1860 and ends in 1861. If you know anything at all about American history, you know that this was the era in which people owned other people. More specifically, white people owned people of color. It also was an era of great division, something that led in 1861 to the outbreak of hostilities between the Northern states and the Southern states. So while we whine and beat our breasts about how divided we are in the early 21st century, maybe we should look back on the things that divided us during the early-to-mid-1860s. It might help us understand some of what we're going through now.
The state of New Jersey was not a rabidly abolitionist state. Attitudes among the populace regarding slavery ranged from “abolition now” to “gradual emancipation” (something the state carried out when it abolished slavery) to support for the slave-holding states. Maggie, as we know, sides with abolition.
Her attitudes regarding the full humanity of black Americans were advanced for her time, although some nineteenth-century white people held the same beliefs. I have long suspected that our stereotypes about other human beings get bashed to pieces once we get to know the people who are not like "us." It has happened to me, and I know Maggie’s long friendship with Emily and Nate shaped and sharpened her understanding that all people were equal, regardless of color. As a result, Maggie tries to see people not “according to the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. said back in 1963.
The relationship with Emily and Nate Johnson is what brings Maggie (and Eli) into the Underground Railroad. Historically, most white Northerners were not involved in this act of civil disobedience, although it often has been portrayed like that. I wanted to make it clear that Emily and Nate decided to break the law and help self-emancipators first, and then, once they felt they could trust them, invited Maggie and Eli to help.
But just because Maggie and Eli try to see all people as equals, another rule prevails in Blaineton. The black citizens in the town live on Water Street. History indicates that race relations in mid-nineteenth-century New Jersey were poor and, as a document in the Digital Collections of the New Jersey State Library revealed, their population declined dramatically from 8.0% of the total population in the 1800 census to 3.8% in the 1860 census. So, the Water Street community was small and the white population of the town were perfectly content to have them remain there. People of color needed to stay in their place, as far as they were concerned. It would not do to have black folk living in a house prominently located on the town square. And yet, with Maggie Blaine Smith, that is exactly what they got. No wonder most of the town looks askance at Maggie.
Maggie's tentative steps into another quest for equality begins when Eli gives her a feminist book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller Ossoli. The book stimulates her to think about other possibilities and pushes her to be supportive of greater opportunities for her daughters. When daughter Frankie expresses an interest in ministry, Maggie becomes aware on a personal level of women’s subordinate position in the church.
Women were told they could not be ordained and could not preach because Jesus had no male disciples and because the Apostle Paul seemed to be forbidding women to speak in church. (Paul's words, however, also can be seen as an effort to control the disorder and disruption that occured in worship when early Christians responded to the radical freedom of the Good News.)
However, some females of Maggie's era argued that God indeed had called them into ministry as preachers and church leaders. They pointed to verses that indicated God was more interested in one's spiritual state than what one looked like and to Jesus' welcoming interaction with women. Earlier in the nineteenth century, the experiences of a nationwide revival called the Second Great Awakening had opened the door for women preachers, the argument being that God calls and gifts the soul, not the sex. Even though many men and women frowned upon it, a number of women preachers actively circulated in the nineteenth century. Among them were Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Jarena Lee, Anna Howard Shaw, and Amanda Berry Smith. Inspired by such women and other forces, a young girl like Maggie's daughter Frankie may very well have dreamed of pursuing a theological education at Oberlin College in Ohio. (Founded in 1833, Oberlin was visionary. From its inception, the school was co-educational.)
The church figures large in Maggie’s life. She is a faithful Methodist and strives to follow what she calls “Jesus’ law of love.” But throughout Saint Maggie, intolerant and judgmental behavior by the a few powerful people in the Blaineton Methodist congregation drive her out of her faith home. I am not certain a pious, nineteenth-century evangelical like Maggie really would have walked out of her church and started attending an African-American congregation. But the Moore sisters and their ilk at Blaineton Methodist Episcopal challenge her "rule of love" and a frustrated Maggie is forced to search for a more congenial environment.
I have served six United Methodist congregations to date. Living in a church community is not all sweetness and light. Disagreements can and do arise. As the old saying goes, "there's no fight like a church fight." But it is helpful to remember that congregations are not comprised of saints but rather of recovering sinners. Those who complain that churches are full of hypocrites and un-Jesus-like types are correct. We’re a hot mess sometimes. In fact, the United Methodist Church is a hot mess right now. We're having a huge fight over whether or not LGBTQI people should be ordained. Decisions that are made this year very well might split the denomination as thoroughly as the issue of slavery split the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844.
But tensions and hurt feelings also exist on the congregational level. That is because on any given day someone in our midst may be having a bad moment or a struggle or an injury that the rest of us know nothing about and/or perhaps are not perceptive enough to notice. Being oblivious can result in a great deal of pain. Holiness is not a matter of 24/7 purity, goodness, and rule-following. Rather, it is a journey God-wise, a process. It is messy and uncomfortable and at times downright frustrating. The only way we as a congregation can get through it all and stay together is by the grace that comes from a Love greater than ourselves.
Maggie knows this. What she does not know is how to deal with the amount of vitriol thrown her way by certain members of the congregation. She needs healing and so goes elsewhere to recover.
On some level, I wrote Saint Maggie because we live in a world every bit as uncertain, unnerving, and angry as Maggie’s. I suspect that in the end what matters is not so much what happens to us, but rather how we respond to the things that happen in our world, to one another, and to the journey we call life. Like Maggie, I choose to believe that our journey is about faith, hope, forgiveness, and love – but primarily about love. And so, we have a choice: cave in to the forces of darkness and violence – or stand up to them through the power of love.
Digital Collections of the New Jersey State Library. Author unknown, “Afro-Americans in New Jersey,” p.16;
While I often say that the Saint Maggie series is about hope, love, forgiveness, and faith, it also has a darker side. The negative aspects of being human turn up in all the novels with subjects as diverse as the Battle of Gettysburg, soldiers with PTSD, the treatment of the mentally ill, and industrialization, to name a few. In the original novel, Saint Maggie, the darkness emerges in murder, trial, execution, and how people respond to these things.
When an execution is carried out these days, only a select few are chosen to watch and to be witnesses. While the press may interview the victim’s family members about the murderer’s death and while there may be articles focusing on forgiveness, pain, vengeance, and anger, it is rare for us to gather around the penitentiary, unless there is a protest.
By the mid-nineteenth century, public executions in New Jersey were illegal, just as they are today. But with regard to high-profile murder cases things were quite different.
The Rev. Jacob Harden’s execution was like a rock festival. It was a carnivalesque party. Officials had distributed tickets to control the number of people who could witness the murderer’s death – but we know that some tickets were scalped, and “unauthorized” individuals somehow got into the proceedings. And, outside the jail, people were selling souvenirs to the massive crowd of curiosity seekers that had invaded the town of Belvidere, the county seat where the trial was held.
The attitudes expressed in news articles of the time reveal the ambiguous and confusing emotions that accompanied this particular murder trial and execution. Also, Karen Halttunen’s excellent essay, “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror,” gave me insight into how early-to-mid-nineteenth century Americans responded to murder, trial, and execution.
We probably have been struggling to understand why people commit murder as long as humans have been around. How often do we hear of a heinous crime committed by a person who inevitably is described by neighbors as quiet, polite, friendly, and private? We desperately want to paint the murderer as a soulless monster but cannot rectify the murderer's violent actions with the more benign aspects of his or her personhood. The individual may be or appear to be charming, friendly, and caring, and yet do horrific things to other human beings. So, we often label the murderer as a hypocrite, liar, mentally ill, or perhaps even possessed (Halttunen). And yet, somehow, someway, our explanations and diagnoses are not satisfying. Something feels wrong. Something is missing.
Perhaps our Puritan forebears were correct. Their public executions almost always included a sermon reminding the crowd that any of them also could commit a horrible crime (Halttunen). You know. There but for the grace of God. But we don’t want to believe that we personally could ever do such terrible things. It is far easier to see monstrous acts as committed by someone who is “other.” They are not, cannot, should not be like "us."
A significant storyline in Saint Maggie is a community leader who has the trust of the entire town but who does a reprehensible thing. How do the town's folks respond to it? Is forgiveness at all possible when someone has let them down in such an appalling way? Having a central character (Maggie) who knows the murderer allowed me to wrestle with these questions.
The history behind my story says that Jacob Harden rented a room from a family. I could not find any details about his landlord and landlady. I don't know how they felt about what their pastor did. But for my version of the story, I needed a protagonist who tries to look at the world through the lens of love. I decided it would be more effective to tell the story through the eyes of a woman who ran a boarding house, rather than one who simply rented an empty room to the minister. Having a widow with two daughters alone with my minister, Jeremiah Madison, was too claustrophobic. I needed more space. So, Maggie became the landlady of a rooming house containing four boarders, her two daughters, and two close friends (Nate and Emily Johnson).
Another thing I avoided was having Maggie fall in love with Madison. I did not want her to meet Louisa Dorland Harden’s fate. It was a practical decision. If Maggie got killed off, through whose eyes would the story be told? I needed and wanted a central character with conflicted feelings toward the minister, but one who would not be involved romantically. So I gave Maggie a suitor. Enter Eli Smith, the newspaperman who rents Maggie’s outbuilding as his print shop and living quarters. At the outset of the novel, we learn that he and Maggie, after five years of friendship, have developed deeper feelings for each other. I made Eli pudgy, short, and bespectacled. Not your ordinary historical fiction hero, but one who contrasts nicely with the tall, handsome, and charismatic Jeremiah Madison.
To put up another barrier to romance between Maggie and Jeremiah, I placed her at age 39 and his at 25. Yes, I know older women can fall for younger men. But the idea of Maggie as a cougar makes me fall over laughing. No, she would be attracted to someone nearer her age (Eli). It also gave me the opportunity to have Eli mistake Maggie's maternal and friendly feelings for Jeremiah as something else. He wrestles with his own feelings of dislike and jealousy, things that threaten to creep into the editorials and articles he writes for his newspaper.
Since my central characters would not fall in love with Jeremiah, he needed to become entangled with another person. That person happens to be Maggie’s niece, Leah, and it worked for me. The relationship between Jeremiah and Leah more or less followed the historical storyline.
I’ll conclude on Friday with some background into race relations, feminism, and bad behavior by the churchy people in Saint Maggie.
Halttunen, Karen. “Early American Murder Narratives: The Birth of Horror” (The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History. Ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder