Note: Contains Sexual and physical violence
Lost souls or a New Year?
By, Cal Kirby
Susie was born on a plantation on July 4, 1836, in rural North Carolina. She was the daughter of the slave Anna and possibly her Master, James Ryan. Master Ryan was a drunkard, abusive and an owner of 120 acres of tobacco land in North Carolina. Susie was a lighter-skinned daughter Anna never really wanted, but fell in love with when the baby first opened her eyes. Anna never knew whether James or his brother, Needham, was the father.
Anna had served Master Ryan since she was purchased from Master Ryan’s brother, Needham, when she was thirteen. She was raped by Master Ryan and Needham when she was brought to the Ryan Plantation for the sale. Both the men were staggeringly drunk. That’s when Susie was conceived.
Susie was a very bright and curious child and was well thought of by the Mistress of the house, Rachel Ryan. Little did Rachel know that Susie could possibly be her husband’s child? On the sly, when Master Ryan wasn’t home, Rachel taught Susie to read and also write. Susie was a quick learner.
When Susie was six, Anna met Luther Briggs, a free Negro and sharecropper from the farm next to the Ryan Plantation. Luther brought his vegetable crop to the plantation to sell and that is when he fell in love with the vision of Anna hanging wash on the clothes line. “She’s the most beautiful thing I ever seen,” Luther thought to himself. “Massa Ryan, is she for sale?” Luther queried. “Hell no, she’s ain’t for sale,” the belligerent slave owner exclaimed. “She’s worth more than you cud ever afford!” Anna was immediately smitten with Luther’s looks and physique.
Over the next three years Luther worked as hard as he could and saved every penny he could to purchase Anna’s freedom. Luther also started trapping beaver and selling their pelts to earn more money. Every week when Luther went to the plantation to sell his crops, he made sure he got more and more acquainted with Anna and, to find out later, Susie. He loved Susie as well. Susie thought Luther was the nicest and handsomest man she ever saw.
Finally, the day came when Luther came to the plantation to purchase of Anna and Susie. Luther approached Master Ryan and queried how much it would take to buy Anna and her daughter. “You ain’t got enuf money you low-down black bastard,” the sloppily drunk white slaver shouted. Luther didn’t bat an eye and just said, “How much?” “Nine hunnered dollas!”
Luther counted out exactly $900.00 and held it up to Master Ryan and said, “Deal!” Luther grabbed Anna and Susie and headed his wagon down the back road to where he dreamed he and his new family would live happily ever after. James Ryan stood in the wake of the dust and was stupefied.
Luther, Anna and Susie were in for a big surprise. The next day, the Sherriff, another one of James Ryan’s brothers, went to Luther’s house and arrested him for theft of two slaves. Sherriff William Ryan didn’t want to listen to Luther’s and Anna’s protests that Luther had purchased the two slaves and “paid nine hundred dollars to Master Ryan.”
James Ryan’s cousin, Judge Thomas Hartley, read to himself the verdict for the trial of Luther Briggs. The jury foreman then stood and announced loudly, “Guilty.” Judge Hartley, slammed the gavel on his podium and stated loud and clear, “Ten years hard labor.” Anna and Susie were returned to the Ryan Plantation and they never saw Luther again.
Now, at the age of 9, Susie was helping her mother with the household chores and stealing some time with Rachel on her reading and writing. Rachel was very kind and so unmatched with the crude, slovenly James Ryan. Maybe when he was younger he may have been a catch for Rachel. Who knows?
This way of life continued for the next three years and then tragedy again struck the lives of Anna and Susie. When James Ryan came home, unexpectedly, he caught Rachel teaching Susie her multiplication tables. He went into a rage and then slapped Susie and threw her out of the house. Rachel tried to protect Susie but to no avail. James was too strong and shoved Rachel hard and she flew back into the open fireplace and cracked her head on the stone mantel. She couldn’t survive until the doctor arrived.
James was distraught and said to the jury, “I didn’t mean for her to die.” With his cousin, Judge Hartley presiding, James Ryan was pronounced not guilty in the death of his wife, Rachel.
Susie was growing and becoming more beautiful every day. Now at the age of 16, she had attracted the glances and comments from the field hands and Master Ryan. One day Master Ryan came home earlier than usual from his daily rounds of the plantation. He saw Susie leaning over the woodpile in a bin next to the stove, getting wood to stoke the fire, and knew he had to have her.
While Anna was outside, James snuck up behind Susie and grabbed her around the waist and covered her mouth so she couldn’t scream. He wrestled her into the bedroom, threw her on the bed and lifted her skirt with one hand while still covering her mouth with his other hand. Anna returned to the house before James had time to penetrate the young girl. Anna saw the two on the bed and screamed. James jumped up and immediately went for Anna, while Susie, crying, ran past her mother and went out the door. Anna, was not so fortunate and the burly James had his way with her again, after many years of her carefully avoiding him. At least she protected her daughter’s virtue.
James sobered up, cleaned himself up real nice and started courting Betsy (Shaw) Hartley who had been married to Judge Hartley’s brother, Jed, for 6 years and they had twin boys, aged 4 years. Jed Hartley was killed when he fell out of the upper level of his tobacco barn and was impaled on a pitch fork. Although Betsy didn’t really feel any romantic connection to James, she was getting desperate to find someone to take over the farm responsibilities and provide for her and her boys. They were married 6 weeks after their first date.
Three weeks after the wedding, James was back to his drunken, slovenly ways. Susie and Anna didn’t care for the new Mistress of the plantation, or the two boys. The boys were spoiled brats and Betsy (Shaw Hartley) Ryan was a horror to deal with. Neither Anna nor Susie could do anything to please her. Anna took the brunt of the Betsy’s vitriol and decided she couldn’t take it much longer. Susie, of course, had to be part of her plan once she figured out what exactly she would do.
The plantation Mistress didn’t lift a finger to do anything but crochet, read and sip on the blackberry wine James kept near his easy chair. Because Anna was also responsible for filling the wine bottle from the barrel in the barn, James never paid attention to what his new bride was sipping.
In the quiet of their shack, Anna confided to Susie her plan to escape and head north and try to make it to Canada. When Anna had been with Luther during his visits to the plantation, he had told her about the Underground Railroad and Canada. He told her of his plan to purchase her and Susie from Master Ryan, but if it didn’t work out he would help her escape and they would join together in Canada.
Two weeks after Anna disclosed the plan to Susie, they each packed a knapsack with as much clothing and food they could carry. They carefully hid the knapsacks behind a large tree near the shack and went to the main house for what they hoped would be their last time.
Susie took care of dinner for the two boys and then put them down to bed. Anna fixed the most delicious dinner and poured the Ryan’s each a tall glass of Blackberry wine. Anna had earlier laced the bottle of wine with a good amount of arsenic she had found in the barn. Anna said, “We’ll be back to clean up after you finish your suppa, so enjoy your Christmas Eve dinner and relax with your glasses of wine.”
Anna and Susie left their shack and followed the North Star in the beautifully clear North Carolina sky. Traveling on Christmas Eve would maybe protect them because everyone would be inside celebrating the coming of the Savior.
The town of Damascus, Virginia, was the first Underground Railroad station about 45 miles away. They made good time before dawn and were about 11 miles north of the Ryan Plantation. Both women needed rest after working all day the day before and walking all night. They found a small hedge of forsythia bushes along the fence of a dairy farm. They hid and hoped the noises of the cows and other farm animals would protect them from being discovered.
After about three hours, Anna and Susie were startled by a nosey dog, who started barking loudly. They ran as fast as they could until they were exhausted. They were able to make another three miles before finding a resting place, among a small grove of trees. They settled in and slept most of Christmas day.
Anna and Susie made their way from the grove of trees and travelled another 18 miles before settling down in a gully running along a small river. Anna figured they were only about 15 miles from the hopeful safety of the Damascus site.
The morning after Anna and Susie’s escape, Luke Jennings, the plantation overseer went to the main house when Master Ryan didn’t show up at his usual time to check on things at the tobacco barn. After knocking on the door, little Jed Hartley opened the door and said “Hi’ya Luke!” Luke said, “Is Master Ryan here?” “He’s sleepin’,” young Jed said. “And so’s momma.” Luke peaked in the door and saw James Ryan slumped over the table and Betsy Ryan lying flat on the floor. After checking their vital signs, Luke realized he had to get hold of the Sherriff and went looking for Anna or Susie to take care of the boys, while he rode to town.
The women were not in the shack, and Luke started yelling until one of the colored field hands came running up the dirt road.
Luke headed to town to the Sherriff’s home, being that it was Christmas day and the Sherriff would be home with the family.
After the coroner examined the bodies, he said “I think they were poisoned.” The Sherriff told Luke and a Sherriff’s deputy to “Go find them bitches!”
After retrieving some clothing left in Anna’s shack, Luke hitched a horse to the wagon and went to the back of the main house to get the hounds. Luke and the deputy headed out looking for the runaways, with the hounds running ahead. In the daylight the hounds and two men were making good time, but they were quite a few hours behind the slave women.
While the terrain was a little rough for the wagon, Luke held it steady and followed the hounds closely. They made about 10 miles before it got too dark and settled down in the wagon bed for a well-deserved sleep before heading out the next morning. The hounds, stopping and sniffing every few hundred feet, made the travelling slow.
While Anna and Susie had been sleeping during the day in the gully on the second day of their escape, Luke and his hunting team had made good time and were only about two miles behind them. Luke didn’t know for sure how close they were, but had a feeling in his bones that he was about to claim his prize and make them pay.
“Shit,” yelled Luke when his wagon hit a rock and broke the rear axle. They were nowhere near any place to get it fixed. He decided they were going to have to go the nearest farm house and try to borrow a wagon. The farmer had a wagon that they could borrow and gave them a spare bedroom to sleep before starting out again the next day.
Anna and Susie experienced the joy of finding their first station on the Underground Railroad. The station (actually a blacksmith’s stable and house on the edge of town) was run by the “Station Master,” Blacksmith Lewis Delaney, and his wife Rose. Anna had identified the Underground Station from Luther’s description he had given her. The two upside-down horseshoes, on the fence gate of the Blacksmith’s corral, completed Luther’s description. Anna wondered if she’d ever see Luther again?
Shortly after arriving, Anna had been transformed into an elderly black man with greying hair and a matching grey mustache. This was done in the secret room that Lewis had built in a space between the house and the stable. Rose had cut Anna’s hair to resemble a man’s cut of the day and used the cut hair to make the mustache and corn flour to put a greying look to the hair. She also bound Anna’s chest to hide her bosom under the vest of the suit she would wear. A cane with a silver handle and a bowler hat completed the new character for Anna. Susie’s disguise was a little simpler in that Rose put her in an oversized dress that Rose had sewn small pillows in to make Susie look dumpy, which was hard to do. Rose also used some of her husband’s shoe black to discolor Susie’s front teeth, so she’d look even homelier.
Luke and the deputy arrived in Damascus late in the day and the hounds stopped and started barking at the gate in front of the Blacksmith’s stable. Luke went up to the door of the stable and saw Lewis banging a horseshoe on an anvil. Lewis turned with a start when Luke spoke. “Hey mister, we’ve been trackin’ two runaway slave women from down in Carolina and their scent stopped at your gate.” “Have you seen em?”
“You durn tootin’ I have,” Lewis exclaimed “and I turned them over to one of them slave hunter fellas, who said he’d give me money when he collected the reward. They left out on the road over there headin’ south about four or five hours ago.”
Luke said “Giddy up,” and yelled back at Lewis, “Thank ye very much,” and headed south with the hounds tied in the wagon. Luke would be in for a big surprise when he got back to the plantation and no slave women were there.
Lewis smiled as Luke was now beyond the rise in the road.
An Underground Railroad Conductor arrived to guide Anna, now dressed as an elderly gentleman, and his dumpy, spinster daughter, on their trip north. It took Anna and Susie a little getting used to their new looks and names. The thin black woman Conductor, disguised as the elderly gentleman’s wife, left with Anna and Susie after midnight and headed on a long journey north to freedom. The Conductor, Anna and Susie boarded a wagon and made their way to an actual train station in Richmond, Virginia. By morning of the fourth day the two fugitive slaves and the Conductor boarded the train for Philadelphia, where they would transfer and then head to a “safe house” in Rochester, New York.
Sherriff William Ryan was at the plantation when Luke and the deputy returned without the two slave women. “Where are the slaves?” the Sherriff screamed at Luke and the deputy. “I was told up in Virginny that a man who caught slaves and returned them to their owners for rewards was bringin’ them here,” Luke tried to explain, while trying to think what he was going to do now that his boss was dead.
The Conductor, Anna and Susie got close to being discovered outside Baltimore, Maryland. A real train conductor came through the train and stopped in front of Anna, Susie and the Conductor. Anna was slumped over against the window and Susie was rubbing her hands. Their disguises were perfect and the Conductor told the white male conductor that they were traveling back to Rochester, New York, after visiting a dying relative in Richmond. She presented their papers and said her husband was a little weary from the traveling so far. The white male conductor looked over at the “old man,” and said, “Have a good journey Ma’m,” which startled the trio.
Traveling on through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and on to Rochester completed a big part of their mission. Now on to Canada.
After a quick stay in a safe house in Rochester, with Frederick Douglass and his family, the Conductor, now back in her home territory and with her regular clothes, met a large man with wild hair and beard by the gate. He was sitting in a two-horse-drawn wagon. “Anna and Susie, this is John Brown, he’ll be taking you the rest of the way to Canada.” Anna and Susie had changed out of their disguises and were now appearing more like themselves, but with new clothes and some money in their pockets.
As the wagon turned to leave, John Brown yelled, “See you next time Miss Tubman and Happy New Year.” The Conductor yelled back, “Happy New Year and call me Harriet!”
NOTE: While some of the characters portrayed in this story were actual true names of historical figures, the actions and circumstances surrounding the figures are purely fictitious renderings from the mind of the author.