Digital Feature

Stolen Across the Ohio

HUMANITIES, Summer 2020, Volume 41, Number 3
Published on

This excerpt is from Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America, which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for History. It tells the story of Henrietta Wood, who, born enslaved in Kentucky and later freed in Cincinnati in 1848, was kidnapped in 1853 and reenslaved for more than a decade. She eventually made her way back to Ohio with her son after the Civil War and sued her kidnapper, Zebulon Ward, in federal court for $20,000 in damages and lost wages. Amazingly, she won her case against Ward, who eventually had to pay her a sum of $2,500, the largest amount that had been awarded in a lawsuit to a former slave. Although Wood could not read or write, she told her story in the 1870s to two newspaper reporters, one of whom was a young journalist for the Cincinnati Commercial named Lafcadio Hearn.The dialog quoted below is taken directly from these interviews. Hearn would go on to become a well-known writer in New Orleans.The Library of America has published a volume of his American writings.

—Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W. Caleb McDaniel, Copyright © 2019 by W. Caleb McDaniel and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

The blinds had been drawn and buttoned over all the carriage windows. In hindsight, that should have been the very first sign of trouble. “Still I never suspected,” Henrietta Wood told Lafcadio Hearn more than two decades later, after she had finally returned to Cincinnati. Otherwise she might not have left behind in her room the papers that proved she was free.

Rebecca Boyd, her employer at the time, was the one who suggested the carriage ride to Covington, Kentucky, on the southern side of the Ohio River. “Henrietta,” Wood recalled her saying, the memory of that day still vivid in her mind, “I want you to come over the river with me; I have some friends to see, and we can get back in time for supper.”

Before that Sunday in April 1853, Wood had been working for Boyd for only about three months. She cleaned the rooms in the boardinghouse that Boyd ran on Fourth Street in Cincinnati. And every day she wondered whether she would be paid for her work. Boyd’s husband, a dentist, had an easier time yanking teeth from patients than Wood had pulling a wage from his wife—the worst employer Henrietta had known in the five years since she was freed. Boyd kept saying that she would pay, but Wood had not seen a cent.

Wood might have believed that Sunday would be different. Another employee later recalled hearing Boyd say she was crossing the river to see about some money she was owed. Maybe she finally intended to settle her account. Or maybe Rebecca Boyd made the trip seem like an olive branch. She knew that Wood was a woman used to being on her feet all day. Surely, then she might enjoy a leisurely carriage ride? A respite from the woodstoves and buckets, the chamber pots and slop jars, that had occupied most of her waking hours for the past twenty years?

Boyd sent for the hack. Wood got in. The driver steered them west on Fourth before turning left and heading south in the slanting afternoon light. Dust swirled in the carriage’s wake as it clattered along the cobblestones to the bases of Walnut and Vine, where a swath of unpaved ground sloped down toward the river. There, a steam-powered ferry was waiting to carry them and other passengers across a quarter mile of water, and the driver directed the curtained carriage right onto its deck. The ferry only took a few minutes to cross the Ohio River.

Even then, Wood did not suspect the extent of the danger ahead. In those days people moved regularly between Cincinnati and Covington, twin cities whose daily commerce required crossing the river. John Gilbert, the black man driving the carriage, returned to Cincinnati later that night, and Wood must have assumed that she would, too. But when the carriage drove straight through town and into the gloaming, she may have begun to fear the truth: She would not be back for supper.

The carriage had moved well into the country when the driver finally pulled on his reins. Boyd opened the door and got out to speak with three men on the road. Wood told Hearn that she recognized one of them as a man named Frank Rust, whom she had seen at the boardinghouse; the bumps on his face gave him away. Another she later identified as Willoughby Scott. Wood remembered watching from her seat as one of those men—or perhaps Zebulon Ward, the third man there—walked up to Boyd and shouted in mock anger.

“What are you doing with my nigger?”

Boyd laughed and joked back with a sarcastic reply.

“Oh, she’s free.”

More laughter pealed as Wood saw a roll of cash changing hands in the shadows. Then she heard an order to get out of the hack. The conversation that evening would haunt her for years, enabling her to recount it for Hearn.

“Now, don’t run, or I’ll shoot you,” one of the men said.

“I’ve got nothing to run for,” Wood replied.

“She talks mighty big, don’t she,” sneered one of the men. Another walked up and fixed her with a stare.

“Don’t you know me?” he asked.

The others laughed again. Boyd returned to her seat alone. Then the driver turned the carriage back toward the river.

That night, after the men had forced her to walk into Covington, Wood found herself trapped in a fourth-story room. In her interview with the Ripley Bee in 1879, she remembered that a white man stood guard at her door. Downstairs, she had seen men tying up their horses and drinking at a bar. Upstairs, the kidnappers frisked her and rifled through her pockets, failing to find what they wanted.

“Where’s your papers?” they demanded. She told them. They left. Later, though, one returned to taunt her with more questions.

“Don’t you want to see Josephine White?”

Wood said no, but the name must have struck her like a slap in the face: the sudden, stinging realization that Josephine was behind this. White’s mother, Jane Cirode, had helped Wood to secure the freedom papers that the men wished to find; Josephine and her husband, Robert, had always wanted Jane to sell Henrietta instead. A theory began to form in her mind as the daylight ebbed from her room. A landlady also came to her door with a meal of crackers and tea. But Wood did not feel like eating, so the woman retreated downstairs, muttering under her breath that the whole thing was a shame.

“I lay awake all night,” Wood later recalled, “and I prayed that the good lord would stand by me and deliver me out of my trouble.”

At sunrise, Wood rose and went to the window for “one last look at old Cincinnati, where I had a sweet taste of liberty.”  . . . Then a sharp knock on the door brought her back into the room.

“God damn you,” shouted the knocker. “Are you never going to get up?”

Wood left the room and followed the man down the stairs. There were now only two men from the night before: Rust and Scott. They put her into a buggy again, steering it onto the turnpike running south toward Lexington. Soon they arrived in Florence, a tiny crossroads town where travelers often rested after the steep climb from the river. The group checked in for the night at one of the village’s roadside inns, and Wood was forced to the floor in the same room as her captors.

Wood managed some sleep, but only “a little,” as she recalled. When dawn came the men roused her while preparing to leave for a short trip to nearby Burlington, where they planned to collect some slaves they had bought before going on to Lexington. She was to remain locked in their room until they returned. The kidnappers repeated a warning not to talk as they left: “You’d better know nothing about Cincinnati,” which meant, as she later put it, “Nigger, I’ll whip you if you do.” In so many ways, she found herself back where she began.

When her captors had gone, Henrietta was left to ponder their next moves—and hers.  She had passed her childhood right there in Boone County, Kentucky, not far from Florence and Burlington, though the Covington turnpike had not been built when she last lived nearby. She had spent no time in Florence, and now she was headed to Lexington, another unfamiliar town. More familiar, though was what the men likely planned to do. She figured that they would put her with some slaves “they were collecting for the Southern market,” forcing them all onto a steamboat bound for New Orleans, or marching them overland in a long line, each person shackled to another. She knew from having been there what awaited in New Orleans: a levee full of markets where human beings were sold. In the end she would probably be taken to the cotton fields.

At that point in her life, Wood had not yet been on the front lines of the cotton states, which by then produced two thirds of the world’s supply of the crop. But she had lived in Louisiana, and she knew that the shores of the Mississippi River were lined with booming plantations. She had seen the cotton bales that were carried on steamboats down the Mississippi and shipped to foreign ports such as Liverpool and Le Havre. Cotton had reorganized the rhythms of national and global markets that stretched far beyond her lines of sight.

Long before she ever saw a cotton plant, Wood also knew about the crop’s human toll. Most enslaved people who had lived in Kentucky or Virginia did. Nearly one million slaves had already been moved against their will from states in the Upper South to the cotton fields of what was then the nation’s southwestern frontier. The massive forced migration resembled a second Middle Passage, ripping apart and scattering countless black families. . . .

Those who were sent built new communities, formed new family ties. They tried to wring what concessions they could from those who wielded the whips and hoarded the region’s guns. Some fought back or ran away when they learned they were being sold “down the river.” Others kept on fighting when they arrived. And still others destroyed themselves in final acts of defiance or grief. At various points on the bottom of the Mississippi were the bodies of those who had jumped overboard and drowned themselves on the way to the cotton states. They picked a death of their choosing instead of what awaited them there.

Henrietta Wood now confronted a similar mix of options, though her power to choose among them was terribly constrained. One option was to try to regain her freedom, to fight her abduction even to the death. A different kind of struggle was already familiar: the daily fight to live as freely as she could within slavery. The taste of liberty lingered; Cincinnati was nearby. But if she had any hopes of returning across the river, she knew that she would have to defy her captors’ threats. She would have to tell her story.

The first chance arrived when a young white man entered her room in Florence, interrupting her racing thoughts. The man (Wood recalled guessing that he was the innkeeper’s son) informed her about the captors’ orders not to let her out, not even for meals downstairs. Although he was accustomed to boarding slave traders and their captives, these instructions had raised his suspicions.

“Now, I want you to tell me the truth,” the man said. “Where did they get you?”

Years later, Wood gave the man’s name as “Williams,” probably the Jonathan Williams listed in records from about that time as a Pennsylvania innkeeper, the owner of one slave. Whoever he was, Williams urged her to confide in him.

She hesitated, even though the man seemed sincere. “I didn’t want to tell him,” Wood later confessed, “because I was afraid.”. . .

“You need not fear,” Wood remembered Williams saying. “They’ll not be back before eleven o’clock, and I’ll not betray you.”

Wood remained unsure, she recalled. But at last, she “took courage,” perhaps a deep breath. Then she “told him all.”