Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Levi Coffin, born October 28, 1798


Levi Coffin, back row center,
with Jonathan Cable and slaves escaping to freedom

Photograph taken in Cincinnati, Ohio
Credit for photo: Sylvia Rummel, a Cable Descendant
"I thought it was always safe to do right."
Levi Coffin was born on a farm near New Garden in Guilford County, North Carolina, the son of Levi Coffin Sr. and Prudence Williams Coffin.  He was a descendant of Tristam Coffin, who came to America in 1642 and was one of nine purchasers of Nantucket from the Indians.  


Guilford County, North Carolina
Levi's father had been born in in 1763.  In 1773, before the American Revolution, a large group of Quakers emigrated from Nantucket to North Carolina; Levi's grandfather, William Coffin, established a family farm in the New Garden community. William and Priscilla Coffin had ten children--eight sons and two daughters--all of whom lived to have families of their own. All were members of the Religious Society of Friends.

Levi's grandfather Coffin lived to be eighty-three, and his grandmother eighty-one years old; both died in the year 1803.  Levi wrote that he remembered them well, 
though I was young at the time of their death. Both were valuable elders in the religious Society of Friends, and were highly esteemed in the community. Their house had long been a resort and a place of entertainment for Friends who came into the neighborhood to attend religious meetings, and for traveling ministers.
Levi was his parents' only son, with six sisters.  He grew up working on the family farm and received little formal education. As the next to youngest child, he received the bulk of his education at home, under instruction from his father and sisters. His home schooling proved to be good enough for Coffin to find work as a teacher for several years. 


John Woolman
The family was greatly influenced by the teachings of John Woolman, who believed that slaveholding was not compatible with Quaker beliefs, and advocated the emancipation of slaves.  Levi shared his relatives' abhorrence for slavery. "Both my parents and grandparents were opposed to slavery," Coffin noted in his Reminiscences, published in 1876, "and none of either of the families ever owned slaves; and all were friends of the oppressed, so I claim that I inherited my anti-slavery principles."  According to his own account, he became an abolitionist at age seven:
At the time of which I speak, Virginia and Maryland were the principal slave-rearing States, and to a great extent supplied the Southern market. Free negroes in Pennsylvania were frequently kidnapped or decoyed into these States, then hurried away to Georgia, Alabama, or Louisiana, and sold. The gangs were handcuffed and chained together, and driven by a man on horseback, who flourished a long whip, such as is used in driving cattle, and goaded the reluctant and weary when their feet lagged on the long journey. One day I was by the roadside where my father was chopping wood, when I saw such a gang approaching along the new Salisbury road. The coffle of slaves came first, chained in couples on each side of a long chain which extended between them; the driver was some distance behind, with the wagon of supplies. My father addressed the slaves pleasantly, and then asked: "Well, boys, why do they chain you?" One of the men, whose countenance betrayed unusual intelligence and whose expression denoted the deepest sadness, replied: "They have taken us away from our wives and children, and they chain us lest we should make our escape and go back to them." My childish sympathy and interest were aroused, and when the dejected procession had passed on, I turned to my father and asked many questions concerning them, why they were taken away from their families, etc. In simple words, suited to my comprehension, my father explained to me the meaning of slavery, and, as I listened, the thought arose in my mind--"How terribly we should feel if father were taken away from us."
As the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 became more rigorously enforced, the family began conducting their assistance to slaves with greater secrecy and doing most of their illegal activities at night.  
Runaway slaves used frequently to conceal themselves in the woods and thickets in the vicinity of New Garden, waiting opportunities to make their escape to the North, and I generally learned their places of concealment and rendered them all the service in my power. My father, in common with other farmers in that part of the country, allowed his hogs to run in the woods, and I often went out to feed them. My sack of corn generally contained supplies of bacon and corn bread for the slaves, and many a time I sat in the thickets with them as they hungrily devoured my bounty, and listened to the stories they told of hard masters and cruel treatment, or spoke in language, simple and rude, yet glowing with native eloquence, of the glorious hope of freedom which animated their spirits in the darkest hours, and sustained them under the sting of the lash.
Levi continued to see the injustices of slavery:
I was sent to a blacksmith's shop, at Greensboro, to get some work done. A slave's master had arrived and taken possession of him, and brought him to the blacksmith's shop to get some irons put on him before starting back to his home. While a chain was being riveted around the negro's neck, and handcuffs fastened on his wrists, his master upbraided him for having run away. He asked: "Wer'n't you well treated?"
"Yes, massa."
"Then what made you run away?"
"My wife and children were taken away from me, massa, and I think as much of them as you do of yours, or any white man does of his. Their massa tried to buy me too, but you would not sell me, so when I saw them go away, I followed."
The mere recital of his words can convey little idea of the pitiful and pathetic manner in which they were uttered; his whole frame trembled, and the glance of piteous, despairing appeal he turned upon his master would have melted any heart less hard than stone.
The master said, "I've always treated you well, trusting you with my keys, and treating you more like a confidential servant than a slave, but now you shall know what slavery is. Just wait till I get you back home!" He then tried to make the negro tell where he had got his pass, who wrote it for him, etc., but he refused to betray the person who had befriended him. The master threatened him with the severest punishment, but he persisted in his refusal. Then torture was tried, in order to force the name from him. Laying the slave's fettered hand on the blacksmith's anvil, the master struck it with a hammer until the blood settled under the finger nails. The negro winced under each cruel blow, but said not a word.
As I stood by and watched this scene, my heart swelled with indignation, and I longed to rescue the slave and punish the master.
I was not converted to peace principles then, and I felt like fighting for the slave.
One end of the chain, riveted to the negro's neck, was made fast to the axle of his master's buggy, then the master sprang in and drove off at a sweeping trot, compelling the slave to run at full speed or fall and be dragged by his neck. I watched them till they disappeared in the distance, and as long as I could see them, the slave was running.
Levi Coffin was 62 years old when the Civil War began.


Levi Coffin wrote in his memoirs:
In the summer of 1821, my cousin, Vestal Coffin, suggested to me that we should organize a Sabbath-school for the colored people, and endeavor to obtain the consent of the slaveholders in the neighborhood to teach their slaves to read. We knew that the Caldwell family--the old doctor, and two or three of his sons who lived on their own plantations--and a few other slaveholders, were lenient and would have no objection to our teaching their slaves to read the the Bible. I heartily united with my cousin in this project, and we visited the Caldwells, the Dokes, and a few other slaveholders, and obtained the desired permission.
It was arranged that the slaves should come one Sabbath afternoon to the school-house, near New Garden Meeting-House. They collected at the time appointed, wondering at the new and unexpected privilege which had been accorded them. Among them was one of Thomas Caldwell's slaves, called Uncle Frank. He was a gray-haired old negro who had all his life been kept in ignorance, but his heart was full of love for God, and he was thankful for this opportunity of learning to read the Bible. He was quite a preacher in his way, and frequently exhorted the slaves in the neighborhood. On this occasion, he made a long and fervent prayer. . . . Then the negroes broke out with one of their plantation songs or hymns, led by Uncle Frank;  sort of prayer in rhyme, in which the same words occurred again and again.
After this was over, we arranged them in separate classes, and began to teach them the alphabet. It was new business to them, and they were so excited with the novelty of the situation that they accomplished little that day. The next Sabbath they made better progress, and in a short time some of them had mastered the alphabet and began to spell words of two or three letters. . .  
After we had continued the school every Sabbath for the most of the summer, and had been encouraged by the progress of some of our pupils, we found that we would be obliged to give it up. Some of the neighboring slaveholders, who were not friendly to our work, threatened to put the law in force against us, and visiting those who had let their slaves attend our school, told them they were guilty as well as the teachers, and that the school must be discontinued. They said that it made their slaves discontented and uneasy, and created a desire for the privileges that others had.  Our pupils were kept at home, and we were obliged to give up our school and succumb to the influence of the slave laws. 
Coffin became a member of the Manumission Society in Guilford County:
Some plan of gradual manumission was the theme of general discussion at that day, but none of the advocates spoke or seemed to think of immediate and unconditional emancipation. Manumission societies were organized in different counties. The first, I believe, was organized at New Garden, Guilford County. I was a member of it, and can well remember the proceedings. We also had several State Conventions, which were largely attended, and at which addresses were delivered and speeches made, by prominent men. . . . The first convention of this kind was held at Jamestown, in Guilford County, and Moses Swaim, a lawyer of Randolph County, delivered a lengthy and able address, which was afterward printed and widely circulated. It was a strong abolition speech, and would not have been allowed a few years later. 
By the early 1820s, Quakers in North Carolina were being persecuted for the assistance they were suspected of providing to runaway slaves. As persecution worsened, thousands of Quakers began to leave North Carolina for the Northwest Territories, where slavery was illegal and land was cheap.  There were already Quaker communities there,  and they had been influential in the passing of constitutional bans on slavery in Ohio and Indiana.
The laws relating to slavery were constantly made more oppressive. A law was finally passed prohibiting slaves who had been set free by their masters from remaining in the State, except in exceptional cases, where they had been manumitted for meritorious conduct.  Slavery and Quakerism could not prosper together, and many of the Friends from New Garden and other settlements moved to the West.
In 1822, Coffin accompanied his brother-in-law Benjamin White on his move to Indiana.  He stayed in Indiana with the Whites for about a year. He was convinced that Quakers and slavery could not coexist and decided that he would settle in Indiana, along with the rest of his family.

On his 26th birthday, October 28, 1824, Coffin married his long-time friend Catharine White, the sister of his brother-in-law. The ceremony was held in the Hopewell Friends Meetinghouse in North Carolina.  The couple postponed their move to Indiana after Catherine became pregnant with Jesse, 
who was born in 1825, the first of their six children. Coffin's parents moved to Indiana in that year.  Levi Coffin, Catharine and their son moved to Newport, Indiana in 1826.

After moving to Indiana, Coffin began to farm a tract of land. Within a year of his move, he opened a general store.  
In his later years, he credited his business success with granting him the ability to become heavily involved in the costly enterprise of the Underground Railroad. Although the term "Underground Railroad" did not come into use until the 1830s, the organization was operating in Indiana by the early 1820s. According to Coffin's own account, not long after moving he discovered that his home was on a line of Underground Railroad stops.  There was a large community of free blacks near Newport where fugitive slaves would hide before continuing north. Often, they were recaptured because their hiding place there was well known. Coffin made contact with the black community and made it known to them that he would be willing to hide runaways in his nearby home to better protect them.


Routes of the Underground Railroad
He first took fugitive slaves into his new home in the winter of 1826–1827.  Word of his activity quickly spread throughout the community.  Participants organized a more formal route whereby the fugitives could be moved from stop to stop until they reached Canada. Coffin referred to the system as the "mysterious road". 

As time progressed the number of escaping slaves increased. Coffin estimated that on average he helped one hundred escape annually.  Coffin's home became the convergence point of three major escape routes from Madison and New Albany, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio.  The runaways gathered at his home and at times two wagons were required to transport the escapees further north. Coffin would move them from his home to the next stops during the night.  His home saw so many fugitives pass through, it became known as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad."  Coffin was first referred to as the "President of the Underground Railroad" by a slavecatcher who said, "There's an underground railroad going on here, and Levi's the president of it." 
They were told by some who were favorable to their cause, that it was quite probable that Levi Coffin, the notorious nigger thief of Newport, had got intelligence of their movements, and had hid their slaves among some of his friends in the neighborhood, for he had many friends there no better than himself, and there were many in Richmond who would give him warning of pursuers. This part of the company, after an unsuccessful search through the various neighborhoods, returned to Richmond, stopping on the way at a tavern three miles north of Newport. 
Here they uttered many threats against me, declaring they would hang me or shoot me, and burn my houses. The tavern-keeper was friendly toward me, though he did not believe in aiding runaway slaves, and he felt alarmed for my safety. After the hunters were gone, he mounted his horse and came to see me and warn me of my danger. He advised me to keep closely at home, not to venture out alone lest my enemies should take my life. I thanked him for his kindness, but told him that I felt no fear of danger. I had obeyed the commands of the Bible, and the dictates of humanity, in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and aiding the oppressed, and I felt no condemnation for it.  I should go about my business as usual, and if duty called me from home, I should pay no attention to the threats of slave-hunters, but attend to my duty.  The hunters made their headquarters at L---- B----'s tavern in Richmond, while awaiting the return of their companions from the lakes. They were not idle in the meantime, but made frequent night raids through our neighborhood and other settlements of abolitionists, supposing that their slaves might still be harbored among us.  
One evening, in company with several roughs of Richmond, they started toward Newport, making terrible threats against me. They would burn me out, if it cost them ten thousand dollars; they would shoot me down at sight or drag me into the woods and hang me to a limb, etc., etc. 
These threats were made publicly, and one of my friends who heard them became much alarmed for my safety. He mounted his horse and rode to Newport to give me warning. He arrived at my house about midnight, when all of us were asleep. He knocked loudly at the door, and when I arose and let him in, he repeated in an excited manner the threats he had heard, and seemed much alarmed. I thanked him for the interest he manifested in my welfare, and told him to make himself entirely easy, for I anticipated not the slightest disturbance. According to the old proverb, I said barking dogs never bite, and if these men intended to do such terrible things to me, they would not have told of it publicly. 
I discovered that he had a couple of loaded revolvers with him, and told him to put them away, for I did not want such weapons; I did not depend on fire-arms for protection. He said he thought he might come in contact with the slave-hunters on the way, and would need these to defend himself with. 
I had his horse put up, and persuaded him to go to rest. When morning came, my buildings were all standing, there was no smell of fire about the premises, I was not hanging to a tree, and my friend had found no use for his revolvers.
The hunters, who had gone northward toward the lakes, returned without having obtained any clue to their valuable missing property. They remained at Richmond a few days, then the whole party returned South.
But before going, they conferred upon me a high honor.  They said that they could never get the slightest intelligence of their slaves after they reached my house, and declared that there must be an Underground Railroad, of which I was president. They repeated this several times in Richmond, and I heard of it when next I went to attend the board of bank directors at that place.
Some of my friends asked me if I had heard of my promotion to office, and when I said I had not, they told me what the Kentuckians had said. I replied that I would accept that position or any other they were disposed to give me on that road--conductor, engineer, fireman or brakeman. . . . The saying of the Kentuckians soon became widely circulated, and I frequently received letters addressed to "Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad." I had the honor of wearing that title for more than thirty years, and it was not until the great celebration of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, by the colored people at Cincinnati, that I resigned the office, and laid aside the name conferred on me by Southern slave-hunters. On that occasion I said that our underground work was done, and that as we had no more use for the road, I would suggest that the rails be taken up and disposed of, and the proceeds appropriated for the education of the freed slaves.
Once when he was questioned in court about why he aided slaves, Coffin said,
I had read in the Bible when I was a boy that it was right to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and to minister to those who had fallen among thieves and were wounded, but that no distinction in regard to color was mentioned in the good Book, so in accordance with its teachings I had received these fugitives and cared for them. 
Coffin continued to have his life threatened by slave-hunters and many of his friends feared for his safety. They tried to dissuade him from his activities by warning him of the danger to his family and business.  Coffin, however, was deeply moved by his religious convictions and wrote of these fears later in life saying:
After listening quietly to these counselors, I told them that I felt no condemnation for anything that I had ever done for the fugitive slaves. If by doing my duty and endeavoring to fulfill the injunctions of the Bible, I injured my business, then let my business go. As to my safety, my life was in the hands of my Divine Master, and I felt that I had his approval. I had no fear of the danger that seemed to threaten my life or my business. If I was faithful to duty, and honest and industrious, I felt that I would be preserved, and that I could make enough to support my family.
His business had a period of poor performance.  Neighbors who were opposed to his activity boycotted his store. The population of Indiana was quickly growing however, and the majority of the new immigrants supported the anti-slavery movement.  Coffin's business began to grow. 
Early in the spring of 1828 I started to North Carolina on business for myself and others, taking with me a small drove of horses to sell.  I was accompanied by Ellis Mitchell, a light mulatto man, free born. He was from our neighborhood in North Carolina, where by his industry as a blacksmith he had become possessed of a comfortable little property adjoining the farm of my wife's father, Stanton White. In the fall of 1827 my father-in-law moved from North Carolina and settled in Spiceland, Henry County, Indiana. Ellis had long wished to pay a visit to the western country, but was deterred from making the attempt by a knowledge of the difficulties that beset a colored man, who traveled alone from a slave State to the free States. Therefore, when my father-in-law prepared to start, Ellis saw his opportunity. He offered his services to drive my father-in-law's team, and was gladly accepted.
He made the journey in safety and spent the winter in Indiana, visiting his numerous friends and acquaintances, who had emigrated from North Carolina. 
When he wished to return home in the spring, he offered to go with me and aid me in driving the horses, and I gladly availed myself of his services. Dr. Henry H. Way, who was then my partner in business, accompanied us on the first day's journey. We stopped at night at a tavern near Eaton, Ohio, had our horses put up and called for supper for three.
When we were called to the supper table, however, we found plates and seats for only two. The doctor observed to the landlady that we had ordered supper for three, but that she had prepared for only two, and remarked: "Perhaps you did not understand that there were three in our company."
"Yes, sir," she replied; "I did understand, but we don't admit niggers to our table to eat with white folks. I will give your servant his supper in the kitchen."
"He is not our servant," rejoined the doctor; "but a respectable gentleman, fully as worthy as we are, and nearly as white; he owns good property, and is really worth more money than either of us."
"I don't care," she replied; "he can't eat at my table with white folks."
In his quaint, peculiar style of speaking the doctor asked: "Do you ever expect to go to heaven?"
"I hope so," she replied, wondering how such a question could refer to the subject of their conversation.
The doctor said: "If this man should go there, as I trust he will, do you think he will be put in the kitchen?" and then went on to quote several passages of Scripture, with which the woman was apparently not familiar, concluding by saying: "I had much rather eat with this man than with a person who would not eat with him." 
But the landlady did not yield, and Ellis had to eat in the kitchen. We traveled through the State of Ohio, but had no further difficulty in regard to Ellis' accommodations until we crossed the river at Gallipolis and entered the State of Virginia. Then, Ellis was a "nigger" and had to go into the kitchen the most of the way.
Coffin was also active in the temperance movement.
I also engaged in the cause of temperance, which was as unpopular then as the anti-slavery cause.  . . . Our war with King Alcohol began in 1830, and continued for several years, resulting finally in a complete victory on our part. Newport was a small village of about twenty families, when I located there in the fall of 1826. A few mechanics, such as blacksmiths, wagon-makers, carpenters, shoe-makers, etc., had opened shops, and there were one or two dram shops where liquor was sold in small quantities. . . .  I first opened my store with a small assortment of dry-goods, groceries and hardware, such as was needed by the farmers, and gradually enlarged my stock as the demand for the articles increased.  The country was new and thinly settled, but emigrants from North Carolina and other places came in and the population grew in number year by year.
The liquor business increased as the village and neighborhood became more thickly settled, and other dram shops were added. It was no uncommon thing to see a drinking, swearing gang of rowdies about these places of dissipation, or to hear them quarreling and fighting among themselves. Frequently, on the last day of the week a company of roughs from the surrounding neighborhoods would meet at Newport and have a drunken spree.
The only religious denominations in the neighborhood were Friends and Methodists; the former were the most numerous, but the latter had a church organization. Friends in the village became much annoyed by the liquor shops and the noisy disturbances which resulted from them, and a few of us often labored with the liquor sellers, but to no effect. One evening Daniel Puckett, Dr. Henry H. Way and I met, according to agreement, to consult together in regard to this growing evil in our village. We felt that something must be done, if possible, to put a stop to it, but knew that before anything could be effectually accomplished, the public sentiment must be aroused, and that the people must recognize the enormity of this growing evil. How shall we proceed to do this? was the question that we considered. It was suggested and agreed upon that we should try to organize a temperance society, but the next question was, how will this take with the public?  We knew of no such organization west of the mountains, and realized that if we engaged in the work it must be as pioneers. We knew that Friends professed to be a temperance society; that our discipline prohibited our members from distilling, importing or vending spirituous liquors, and from the unnecessary use of the same, but we might differ as to what the necessary use of liquor was.
Friends were not, as a general thing, total abstainers from liquor, and the question to be considered was, will they sustain us in this move? To succeed, we knew that we must also get the Methodists of the neighborhood interested in the matter and gain their support, so we selected three of the most influential members of that denomination in the place, and invited them to meet us in council. . . The result of the council was that we united in calling a meeting at our school-house in the town for the purpose of organizing a temperance society.
. . . Public excitement was created and a large number of people--both men and women--assembled at the school-house on the appointed evening. . . . We expected to meet with opposition, but were not prepared for such formidable opposition from many of the prominent religionists of the neighborhood.  King Alcohol and his votaries opened fire on our little band of cold-water adherents, but we were well prepared for defense, having enlisted for the war, and expected a long hard struggle. Our number was small, but we felt that one, rightly armed, could chase a thousand, and two could put ten thousand to flight. . . . 
The society was organized under the name of the "Newport Temperance Society," and twelve signers to the constitution and pledge were obtained. The meeting then adjourned, to assemble again the next week at the same place. We knew that no church could be obtained for the purpose of holding such an incendiary meeting, as it was termed. At the next meeting the opposition was still formidable. All sorts of accusations were brought against us, and many flimsy arguments were adduced to prove that our work should not go on and could not end in success.
Among other things we were accused of wanting to take away their liberty as independent citizens, of wishing to connect Church and State, etc. 
. . . The women were now wide awake, and rallied to our side; this gave us strength and encouragement.  As the news of our organization spread over the neighboring country, the excitement became greater.
The frequent expressions were: "Our liberties are endangered by these fanatics at Newport; they are turning the world upside down in their fanatical zeal," etc.
. . . The liquor sellers became alarmed; not only those in Newport, but those in neighboring villages. Their business was in danger; something must be done to check the movement that had begun at Newport. They held a council at Williamsburg, a village four miles west of our place, and the result was that they sent us a challenge for a debate on the subject, between three men of their choosing and three men of our choosing. We called a meeting and accepted their challenge, appointing a committee to make all preliminary arrangements, and to select our three men. . . . It was agreed that the meeting should be held at our school-house, commencing at two o'clock in the afternoon.  A large company gathered, and strict attention was given to the proceedings. . . . The debate was long and hot on the side of the opposition, but their arguments were calmly and forcibly met by our valiant men, and a complete victory was gained for temperance.
. . . Public sentiment had so changed in our village and neighborhood, that a man who had any regard for his reputation would not be seen going into a liquor shop to purchase liquor for any purpose. Several of our liquor dealers were starved out for want of custom. They closed their shops and moved away when their licenses expired, not being able to renew them for want of the requisite number of freehold signers to their petitions.  Many of the drinking, rowdy class in our neighborhood moved away into a more congenial atmosphere, so that quite a change was wrought in our quiet little village and the surrounding neighborhood.  All the dram shops were now gone . .  Not a drop of liquor was now sold in our town; we had succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations.
Some of our citizens thought that it was necessary to have some spirits kept in Newport for medical and mechanical purposes, and the temperance society appointed me liquor seller, as there was no drug store in the place at that time, and no stock of medicines except the small assortment which I kept.  I reluctantly submitted to become liquor seller and obtained a permit from the trustees.  I procured at Cincinnati, from Allen & Co., druggists, three two-gallon jugs, one filled with French brandy, one with wine, the other with alcohol. Thus, my stock of liquor consisted of six gallons, which lasted for several months.  I was the only liquor dealer in Newport for about a year, then Dr. Way opened a drug store, and I gladly turned the business over to him. Newport still remains a temperance town, having been guarded and protected for more than forty years, as no other town in the State has been, so far as I have any knowledge.  After our work at Newport seemed to be accomplished, we extended our labors to other towns and villages near, but met with little encouragement. Public sentiment was opposed to us; the people did not seem prepared to receive temperance doctrine at that early day.
Levi and Catharine Coffin had six children, but only three lived to adulthood.  A second son, Addison, was born in 1827, but died in 1830.  Thomas was born in 1831 and died the next year.  Henry was born in 1836.  Their last two children were daughters: Anna, (1839-1850) and Sara (1843-1868). 

Coffin's father died in 1833, at the age of 70. Levi and Catharine then took his mother into their home and cared for her until she died in 1845, at the age of 88.

Coffin's prosperity continued and he made a substantial investment in the Bank of Indiana when it was first established in 1833. He soon became the director of the Richmond branch of the bank.  In 1836 he built a mill and began to produce linseed oil from flax he grew on his farm.



Levi Coffin
Coffin built a new two-story brick home in 1838, and had several modifications made to his house to create better hiding places for the slaves. 
Coffin Home in Newport (now Fountain City), Indiana
The house contained an unusual indoor well which concealed the amount of water necessary to sustain the many extra guests.


The indoor well with original interior bricks
is still fed by an underground spring


A secret door was created in his maids' quarters, opening to a place where up to fourteen people could hide in a narrow crawlspace between the walls. The space was often used when slave hunters came to Coffin's home in search of runaways.  Refugees were also hidden between mattresses of the featherbeds.

Escaping slaves could be hidden in this small upstairs room
and the beds moved in front of the door 
A room at the rear of the house was constructed with 5 different doorways, so if a bounty hunter or slave seeker knocked at the front door, there were more options for escape routes for any freedom seekers who might be in the house at the time.
Abolitionism at that time was very unpopular. Some Friends advocated colonization, or gradual emancipation, and many joined the popular current of opposition to abolitionism. Some of us felt that there was need of more earnest labor and renewed exertions on behalf of suffering humanity, even among Friends who professed to bear a testimony against slavery--that an effort should be made to enlighten the minds of the people, and to advance the cause of immediate and unconditional emancipation on Christian principles. 
. . . To promote this object, a few of us, of Newport and vicinity, held, in the year 1838, a conference to consult in regard to our duty in this matter. . . The result was that we decided to establish an anti-slavery library at Newport, and to collect all the books, tracts, and other publications on the subject that we could, and circulate them among the people.  There was then a depository of anti-slavery publications open at Cincinnati.  The sum of twenty-five dollars was subscribed, and I was authorized to obtain the publications that we needed. I afterward bought others with my own means, and kept up the supply. We gave away these publications, or loaned them until they were worn out. The effect of this effort was manifested in a deep and increasing interest on the subject of slavery, in our neighborhood. . . . In that day of mobs and the ridicule of abolitionism, it would not do to call them abolition meetings, even though the anti-slavery sentiment was on the increase in Indiana.
About that time a number of Friends, who were in favor of immediate and unconditional emancipation joined with others in the formation of the State Anti-Slavery Society of Indiana, which was organized at Milton, in Wayne County.
In the year 1840, Arnold Buffum, a member of the Society of Friends, and one of the noble band of twelve that organized the American Anti-Slavery Society, in 1833, on the ground of immediate and unconditional emancipation, came to the West for the purpose of holding meetings among the people; to talk about the wrongs and sufferings of the slave, and to excite an interest in his behalf. It was a work that lay near his heart and one to which he believed himself called by his Heavenly Father. 
Arnold Buffum
 . . . After laboring for some time in Ohio, Arnold Buffum made his way to our neighborhood and came directly to my house. I had never seen him before, but had heard much of him and his work and the cold reception that he had met with in many places. I gave him a hearty welcome to my house and our State, and told him that when I heard he was pleading the cause of the poor slave in Ohio, I had earnestly desired that the Lord would send him to Indiana. We appointed a meeting for him at our meeting-house in Newport, and there was a good audience of Friends and others, to hear him on the subject of slavery. . . He was the first anti-slavery lecturer who had spoken in that part of the State, and he had ignorance as well as prejudice to contend with . . .  
It tried a man's soul to be an abolitionist in those days, when brickbats, stones and rotten eggs were some of the arguments we had to meet. 
. . . Newport was called by the pro-slavery party, "the hot-bed of abolitionism." My house was generally the home of the lecturers and speakers who were traveling through our neighborhood, pleading the cause of the slave. I was always glad to entertain them, and to do all I could in forwarding the cause we had so much at heart. Charles Burley, Frederick Douglass and other speakers from the East were among those who stopped at my house.
Frederick Douglass
But as the anti-slavery movement gained strength, the opposition to it became more powerful. Politicians and other prominent men opposed it, and their influence gave encouragement to the lower classes who possessed the mob spirit and who often interrupted the anti-slavery meetings. When Fred Douglass made his first lecturing tour through the West, accompanied by other prominent speakers from Massachusetts, he had to contend with prejudice expressed in the most insulting manner.  At their meeting at Richmond, while they were on the stand speaking, rotten eggs were thrown at them, and at Pendleton they were pelted with brickbats, stones and eggs, until they were driven from the platform.  M. C. White, my wife's nephew, who was on the platform, had two of his front teeth knocked out by a brickbat, thrown by one of the mob. Such disgraceful disturbances were of frequent occurrence in various parts of the State, when meetings were held to plead the cause of the slave. 
This, however, only served to forward the anti-slavery cause among quiet, well disposed citizens. . . .  But, notwithstanding this large increase of anti-slavery sentiment, the pro-slavery party still held the reins of government, in both Church and State, and there was a strong opposition to the abolition movement.
At one time, Arnold Buffum lived with the Coffin's while he was editor of an anti-slavery publication called The Protectionist. The printing press was housed above Coffin's store.  Coffin mentioned it in a letter to his son, Jesse, who was away at school:
Newport 1st mo 5th 1841
Dear Son
I received thy letter requesting me to send thee some money, but I have been so busily engaged in the pork business that I have not had time to write. I also saw the letter thee sent to Solom Way - We are all well except little brother Henry, he has a bad cold and is unwell to day, little Anne is well and very playful Grand mother is about as well as common and people are generly well, in these parts- Arnold Buffom and his wife Brandy are at our home he is editing a paper called the protectionist printed here- we have a printing press here up stairs over the stone room, there is some prospect of another paper being published by friends Anti Slavery Association, next 2ndday as the general convention of friends of Indiana Yearly meeting and the 3rd of next month is the Anniversary of the State A S Society . . .
Cousin John M. Wright was married last fifth day to Naoimi Morgan -  Levi Jessop said he intended to write to thee before long,- I think it is much better for thee to be at school at Mount Pleasant, than to be at home going to school, as there is always so much hinderance, that is not so good a chance to study as it is there I was much pleased with the the account thou gave of thy teachers and superintendants it is a satisfaction to us to hear that thou art pleased with thy teachers and I hope thou will conduct to as to please them and afford them satisfaction in having thee with them I hope thou will consider the worth of time and endeavor to spend thy time profitably, which I feel a satisfaction in believing thou art endeavoring to do from the accounts we have from thee, I cannot tell thee now when I shall come to Mount Pleasant, but I intend to come some time before this [session] is out, We have salted up about two hundred thousand pounds of pork and are still taking in some, the price of pork has gone down, and we fear that we shall lose something on it
I have enclosed three dollars to thee, which perhaps thee can get changed into small money for spending money, I hope thee will not spend any thing unnecessarily but I want thee to have as much as thee needs for any necessaries or any thing that thee ought to have, and to pay latter postage and if thee should lack any thing call on Cousin Barnabus and he will furnish thee on my account, and I will replace it to him, please to write to us after
In love to thee and thy teachers and caretakers.
I remain thy affectionate father
Levi Coffin
During the 1840s, pressure was brought to bear on the Quaker communities that helped escaping slaves.  In 1842, leaders of the the Quaker Meeting to which Coffin belonged advised all their members to cease membership in abolitionist societies and end activities assisting runaway slaves. They insisted that legal emancipation was the best course of action. The following year they disowned Coffin and expelled him from the meeting because he continued to take an active role in assisting escaping slaves.
The doctrine of immediate and unconditional emancipation was unpopular. Some prominent members of the Society of Friends opposed it, and favored colonization or gradual emancipation. This difference of opinion subsequently led to a separation in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends, which occurred in 1843, and was a sore trial to many of us.  . . . We were proscribed for simply adhering to what we believed to be our Christian duty, as consistent members of the Society of Friends, in regard to the anti-slavery movement; in uniting with others in anti-slavery societies, opening our meeting-houses for anti-slavery meetings, to plead the cause of the oppressed, and laboring for the spread of anti-slavery truth in every way we could, consistent with our profession as Christians. We asked only liberty of conscience--freedom to act according to one's conscientious convictions. We did not wish to interfere with the conscience or liberty of others, but strictly to live up to that part of our Discipline which bore a testimony against slavery. We had no new doctrine to preach; we advocated immediate and unconditional emancipation as we had done all our lives. This we understood to be the doctrine and testimony of the Society of Friends for generations past. 
But abolitionism was unpopular; an odium was attached to the very name of abolitionist. . . . .Strange as it may seem to the rising generation who read the part of Friend's Discipline relating to slavery, and who would naturally suppose that they would give their support to every movement opposing slavery, there was a spirit of opposition to abolitionism attributable to various causes, which had almost imperceptibly crept in among Friends, and which manifested itself in the Yearly Meeting. A few leading members were colonizationists, some were gradualists, and many were led to believe that there was some disgrace about abolitionism--they could hardly tell what--and they fell in with the current of opposition. . . . 
We were advised not to unite in abolition societies, nor to open our meeting-houses for abolition meetings.  This took place at the Yearly Meeting in the fall of 1842. These advices were sent down to Quarterly and Monthly Meetings, with a committee to see that they were carried out. Thus we had no alternative; we must separate, or be disowned for opposing the advice of the body, as they called it.  In the winter of 1843 we called a convention at Newport, Indiana, which was largely attended by members of the various Quarterly Meetings who felt aggrieved with the action of the Yearly Meeting.
We spent some time in prayerful deliberation and the result was the reorganization of Indiana Yearly Meeting and the establishment of the Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends.
Catharine Coffin with escaping slave;
detail from Webber painting
Catharine Coffin  organized a sewing society who met at the Coffins' home to produce clothing to give to the runaways.  Other aid was sought from neighbors and those sympathetic, but unwilling take the fugitives into their homes. Through these activities he was able to procure a steady supply of goods to assist in the operations efforts.  Coffin was a member of the Committee on Concerns of People of Color to Consider Their Education and was treasurer of funds to aid the poor and destitute. 

In his Reminiscences, Coffin wrote about some of the people he helped to escape:
Jim was a shrewd, intelligent chattel, the property of a man living in Kentucky. Having in some unaccountable manner got the idea that freedom was better than bondage, he resolved to make an effort to gain his liberty. He did not make his intention known to his wife or any of his fellow-bondmen, choosing to make the attempt alone. He watched for an opportunity to escape, and when it came he started for the Ohio River. He knew that he was a valuable piece of property, and that his master would pursue him and make strong efforts to capture him, so he let no grass grow under his feet till he reached the bank of the river. He wandered along this in the dark for some time, looking for a way to cross, and finally came to the hut of a colored man. He told his story to the negro living in the hut, and offered him part of the small sum of money he had if he would take him across in a skiff to the Indiana shore. The negro knew where a skiff lay drawn up on the shore, and consented to row him across. Jim reached the other side safely, and landed a short distance above Madison. It was now near daylight, and he must hasten to seek a place of concealment. 
He was directed how to find George De Baptist, a free colored man, who often aided fugitive slaves. George then lived in Madison, but soon after removed to Detroit, Michigan, for his own safety.  Jim made his way to the house of this friendly colored man, and remained secreted during the day. Some time in the day, George De Baptist learned that Jim's master had arrived in town with a posse of men, and that they were rudely entering the houses of colored people, searching for the missing slave. By shrewd management on the part of George, the hunters were baffled, and the next night Jim was conducted through corn-fields and by-ways to a depot of the Underground Railroad. 
George DeBaptist
 He was forwarded from station to station, at late hours in the night, until he reached William Beard's, in Union County, Indiana. Here he rested a few days, under the roof of that noted and worthy abolitionist, whose house was known for many years as a safe retreat for the oppressed fugitive. From that place he was conducted to our house, a distance of about twenty-five miles, and, after remaining with us one day, he was forwarded on from station to station, till he reached Canada. Here he remained a few months. In telling his story, he said: "Oh, how sweet it was to breathe free air, to feel that I had no massa who could whip me or sell me. But I was not happy long. I could not enjoy liberty when the thoughts of my poor wife and children in slavery would rise up before me. I thought to myself, I have learned the way and found friends all along the road; now I will go back and fetch my wife and children. I'll go to old massa's plantation, and I'll make believe I am tired of freedom. I'll tell old massa a story that will please him; then I will go to work hard and watch for a chance to slip away my wife and children."
William Beard
So Jim left Canada and wended his way back to the old plantation in Kentucky. His master was greatly surprised, one morning, to see his missing property come walking up from the negro quarters as if nothing had happened. Jim came up to him and made a low bow, and stood before him as humble as a whipped dog. In answer to the volley of questions and hard names that greeted him, Jim said: "I thought I wanted to be free, massa, so I run away and went to Canada. But I had a hard time there, and soon got tired of taking care of myself. I thought I would rather live with massa again and be a good servant. I found that Canada was no place for niggers; it's too cold, and we can't make any money there. Mean white folks cheat poor niggers out of their wages when they hire them. I soon got sick of being free, and wished I was back on the old plantation. And those people called abolitionists, that I met with on the way, are a mean set of rascals. They pretend to help the niggers, but they cheat them all they can. They get all the work out of a nigger they can, and never pay him for it. I tell you, massa, they are mean folks."
In narrating his story, Jim said: "Well, old massa seemed mightily pleased with my lies. He spoke pleasant to me, and said: 'Jim, I hope you will make a good missionary among our people and the neighbors.' I got massa's confidence, and worked well and obeyed him well, and I talked to the niggers before him, in a way to please him. But they could understand me, for I had been doing missionary work among them, and the neighbors' niggers too, but not such missionary work as massa thought I was doing."
Jim worked on faithfully through the fall and winter months, all the time arranging matters for a second flight.  In the spring, when the weather was warm, he succeeded in getting his wife and children and a few of his slave friends across the Ohio River into Indiana. He got safely to the first station of the Underground Railroad, with his party, numbering fourteen, and hurried on with them rapidly from station to station, until they reached our house. They were hotly pursued and had several narrow escapes, but the wise management of their friends on the route prevented them from being captured. They remained at our house several days to rest, as they were much exhausted with night travel, and suffering from exposure, and while they were concealed in our garret, their pursuers passed through the town. . . A few years after I had the pleasure of seeing Jim and his family in their comfortable home in Canada. Jim said he hoped God would forgive him for telling his master so many lies. 
In 1844, Coffin made his first trip to Canada:
 In the fall of 1844, William Beard, of Union County, Indiana, a minister of the religious Society of Friends, felt a concern to visit, in gospel love, the fugitive slaves who had escaped from Southern bondage and settled in Canada. A number of them had stopped at his house in their flight, and had been forwarded by him to my house, a distance of thirty miles. He felt that I was the person who should accompany him on this mission, and came to see me to present the subject. I heartily united with him, having felt a similar desire. We then laid the concern before our different Monthly Meetings, where it was cordially united with, and a certificate of unity and concurrence was given us. Thus provided with the proper credentials, and with the love of God in our hearts, we set out on our mission to the poor fugitives, intending also to visit the missionary stations among the Indians in Canada.
We started on horseback on the sixteenth day of the ninth month--September. On our way we visited several colored settlements in Ohio and Michigan, and held meetings with the people.  We reached Detroit on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, about noon, and in company with Dr. Porter, a noted abolitionist of that city, spent the afternoon visiting the colored schools and various families of fugitives, many of whom remembered us, having stopped at our houses on their way from slavery to freedom. In the evening we attended a good meeting among the colored people . . . On the twenty-sixth we passed over to Windsor, on the Canada side. Here, and at Sandwich, we visited a number of colored families, many of whom recognized me at once, having been at my house in the days of their distress when fleeing from a land of whips and chains.
. . . We had several meetings and visited many families, hearing thrilling stories of their narrow escapes, their great sufferings and the remarkable providences that attended their efforts to gain freedom. They told how they had prayed to the Lord, asking him to be with them and protect them in their flight from their tyrannical masters, and how he had never forsaken them in their time of need, but had fulfilled his promise to go with them. They frequently spoke as if they had held personal conversations with the Lord, and their simple and untutored language was full of expression of praise and thanksgiving. I was often led to believe that these poor ignorant and degraded sons and daughters of Africa, who were not able to read the words of the precious Savior, were blessed with a clearer, plainer manifestation of the Holy Spirit than many of us who have had better opportunities of cultivation. My heart was often touched and my eyes filled with tears on hearing their simple stories, or listening to their fervent earnest prayers in the services of family devotion, which we held from house to house. . .  
We visited all the principal settlements of fugitives in Canada West, as well as the various missionary stations among the tribes of Indians there, and had an interesting and satisfactory season among them. We spent nearly two months in this way . . . At the close of our religious meetings I generally addressed the colored people on the subject of education. I urged the parents to send their children to school, and to attend Sabbath-schools and night-schools themselves whenever opportunity offered; to learn at least to read the Bible.   
. . . William Beard and I afterward made short tours to Canada at different times to look after the welfare of the fugitives. At the time of our visit, in 1844, there was said to be about forty thousand fugitives in Canada who had escaped from Southern bondage.
Fifty miles east of Cincinnati in Ripley, Ohio,John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, also opened his home to slaves seeking freedom. Rankin had left the South in 1821 and settled in Ripley. Standing on a hill three hundred feet above the Ohio River, Rankin’s home was a literal beacon to escaping slaves: as a signal, he would shine a lantern in his window to signal when it was safe for them to cross the river. Many of the slaves who first stopped at the Rankin home were then passed onto Levi Coffin, who then helped them to travel north to Canada. 


John Rankin
One of the many slaves that Rankin and Coffin helped to escape was a girl who had crossed the Ohio River on a winter night when it was frozen over. Barefooted and carrying her baby, she was exhausted and nearly dead when she reached  the home of John Rankin in Ripley. He provided her with food, clothing, new shoes, and shelter before helping her to continue to the Coffins in Indiana, and then on to Canada.


Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850, and was well acquainted with the Coffins. as well as John Rankin.  She heard stories about many incidents, including that of "Eliza".  After leaving Cincinnati, she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin,  which was published in 1852. 


Eliza Harris, of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" notoriety, the slave woman who crossed the Ohio River, near Ripley, on the drifting ice with her child in her arms, was sheltered under our roof and fed at our table for several days. This was while we lived at Newport, Indiana, which is six miles west of the State line of Ohio. To elude the pursuers who were following closely on her track, she was sent across to our line of the Underground Railroad.
The story of this slave woman, so graphically told by Harriet Beecher Stowe in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," will, no doubt, be remembered by every reader of that deeply interesting book. The cruelties of slavery depicted in that remarkable work are not overdrawn. The stories are founded on facts that really occurred, real names being wisely withheld, and fictitious names and imaginary conversations often inserted. From the fact that Eliza Harris was sheltered at our house several days, it was generally believed among those acquainted with the circumstances that I and my wife were the veritable Simeon and Rachel Halliday, the Quaker couple alluded to in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I will give a short sketch of the fugitive's story, as she related it.
She said she was a slave from Kentucky, the property of a man who lived a few miles back from the Ohio River, below Ripley, Ohio. Her master and mistress were kind to her, and she had a comfortable home, but her master got into some pecuniary difficulty, and she found that she and her only child were to be separated. She had buried two children, and was doubly attached to the one she had left, a bright, promising child, over two years old. When she found that it was to be taken from her, she was filled with grief and dismay, and resolved to make her escape that night if possible. She watched her opportunity, and when darkness had settled down and all the family had retired to sleep, she started with her child in her arms and walked straight toward the Ohio River. She knew that it was frozen over, at that season of the year, and hoped to cross without difficulty on the ice, but when she reached its banks at daylight, she found that the ice had broken up and was slowly drifting in large cakes. She ventured to go to a house near by, where she was kindly received and permitted to remain through the day. She hoped to find some way to cross the river the next night, but there seemed little prospect of any one being able to cross in safety, for during the day the ice became more broken and dangerous to cross. In the evening she discovered pursuers nearing the house, and with desperate courage she determined to cross the river, or perish in the attempt. Clasping her child in her arms she darted out of the back door and ran toward the river, followed by her pursuers, who had just dismounted from their horses when they caught sight of her. No fear or thought of personal danger entered Eliza's mind, for she felt that she had rather be drowned than to be captured and separated from her child. Clasping her babe to her bosom with her left arm, she sprang on to the first cake of ice, then from that to another and another. Some times the cake she was on would sink beneath her weight, then she would slide her child on to the next cake, pull herself on with her hands, and so continue her hazardous journey. She became wet to the waist with ice water and her hands were benumbed with cold, but as she made her way from one cake of ice to another, she felt that surely the Lord was preserving and upholding her, and that nothing could harm her.
When she reached the Ohio side, near Ripley, she was completely exhausted and almost breathless. A man, who had been standing on the bank watching her progress with amazement and expecting every moment to see her go down, assisted her up the bank. After she had recovered her strength a little he directed her to a house on the hill, in the outskirts of town. She made her way to the place, and was kindly received and cared for. It was not considered safe for her to remain there during the night, so, after resting a while and being provided with food and dry clothing, she was conducted to a station on the Underground Railroad, a few miles farther from the river. The next night she was forwarded on from station to station to our house in Newport, where she arrived safely and remained several days.
Other fugitives arrived in the meantime, and Eliza and her child were sent with them, by the Greenville branch of the Underground Railroad, to Sandusky, Ohio. They reached that place in safety, and crossed the lake to Canada, locating finally at Chatham, Canada West.

Over the years, Coffin came to realize that many of the goods he sold in his business were the product of slave labor. Through traveling he learned of organizations in Philadelphia and New York City that only sold goods produced by free labor. He began to purchase stock from the organizations and marketed them to his fellow abolitionists.  
About the year 1844 I became so strongly impressed with the horrors of slavery, and its results, which were ever before me, that I was led to reflect more deeply on the subject than I had done before, and to view it in all its practical bearings. I read the testimony of John Woolman and other writers, and became convinced that it was wrong to use the product of slave labor.  I felt that it was inconsistent to condemn slaveholders for withholding from their fellow-men their just, natural and God-given rights, and then, by purchasing the fruits of the labor of their slaves, give them the strongest motive for continuing their wickedness and oppression. 
Knowing so well the sad realities of life on the Southern plantations, I felt that in purchasing and using cloth made from cotton, grown by slaves, I made use of a product which had been planted by an oppressed laborer, fanned by sighs, watered with tears, and perhaps dressed with the blood of the victim. The words of John Woolman found an echo in my heart: "Seed sown with the tears of a confined, oppressed people--harvests cut down by an overborne, discontented reaper, make bread less sweet to the taste of an honest man, than that which is the produce or just reward of such voluntary action as is a proper part of the business of human creatures."
The free States furnished a good market for the products of the South, and made slave labor valuable to the master. If it had not been so, then John Randolph's prophecy would have been fulfilled--the slave would not have run away from his master, but the master from his slaves, for they would have been a burden and expense to him. 
The object of the slaveholder was to make money by selling the cotton, sugar, etc., produced by his slaves, and without a market for these he would have been deprived of the great motive for holding the negroes in bondage. Northern consumers, by their demand for articles thus produced, stimulated the system by which they were produced, and furnished the strongest incentive for its continuance.
I felt by purchasing the products of slave labor, I was lending my individual encouragement to the system by which, in order to get their labor without wages, the slaves were robbed of everything else.
The free labor proponents in the eastern United States wanted to create a similar organization in the west. The members of the Salem Free Produce Association approached Coffin to see if he would be interested in managing the proposed Western Free Produce Association.  At first he declined, saying he lacked the money required to fund the venture, and that he did not want to move into the city.  In 1845, a group of abolitionist businessmen opened a wholesale mercantile business in Cincinnati.  The Free Produce Association raised $3,000 to help stock the new warehouse with goods.  Different groups continued to pressure Coffin to accept a position as the new business's director, claiming there were no other western abolitionists qualified to manage the enterprise.  Reluctantly, he finally accepted, but agreed to only oversee the warehouse for five years, in which time he could train someone else to run it.  The Coffins retained ownership of their house in Newport, planning to return.  
A committee was appointed to select the person, and to report his name to the convention the next day. The committee made choice of me and reported my name to the meeting. The resolution appointing me to the position was carried by acclamation, but I could not give my consent to accept the position. I thought it would prove too great a sacrifice to me to "pull up stakes" and move to Cincinnati. I had lived in Newport twenty years, and was much attached to my house and to my friends and acquaintances there.  A few years before I had built a dwelling-house, taking much pains to make it comfortable and convenient in all its appointments, with the expectation of occupying it as long as I lived.  Neither I nor my wife thought that we would like city life, so notwithstanding the deep interest I felt in the concern, I declined to accept the position.
The committee was continued for the purpose of finding some suitable person who would undertake to carry out the proposed plan, and individuals of different neighborhoods were appointed to raise the fund of three thousand dollars, by soliciting subscriptions from those who were interested in the subject. But the committee did not succeed in finding a suitable person to undertake the business, and again applied to me and urged me strongly to go to Cincinnati and open the desired depository.  During the winter I received many letters from different parts of the country soliciting me to engage in the proposed business. I was thought to be the most suitable person to engage in such an undertaking as I had already had several years' experience in dealing in free-labor goods at Newport. 
I finally consented to go to Cincinnati for five years, and try the experiment.  I sold out my business at Newport, rented my house and moved to Cincinnati the twenty-second day of April, 1847, having previously rented a store and dwelling-house in the city.  We fully expected to return to our home in Newport at the expiration of five years, or sooner, hoping that some suitable person would be found to take the business off my hands and continue it.  I went to Philadelphia and New York that spring and purchased as good an assortment of free-labor cotton goods and groceries as could be obtained. The demand for such articles was increasing, and the Philadelphia Association had enlarged their business and were furnishing a better supply of cotton goods.  Beside selling their own manufactures, they were obtaining from England a finer quality of cotton goods than their own mills furnished.  The English goods were manufactured at Manchester under the auspices of a free-labor association, and could be relied upon as being the product of free labor.
Coffin made arrangements for his home to continue serving as an Underground Railroad stop. His first task was working with the eastern organizations to set up a steady supply of goods for the business. The most constant problem to plague the enterprise was the poor quality of its goods.  Coffin had frequent difficulty procuring free goods that were produced with the same quality as those produced by slave labor. Because the goods were inferior in quality to his competition, he had a difficult time finding purchasers for the goods. The problem plagued the business for years, and as a result the enterprise was in a constant financial struggle.  The problem caused Coffin to begin to travel into the south to seek out plantations that did not use slave labor, but he met with only limited success. He located a cotton plantation in Mississippi where the owner had freed all his slaves and operated by paying them as free laborers.  The plantation was struggling financially because they had no equipment to automate the cotton production. Coffin helped the owner purchase a cotton gin that greatly increased their productivity and provided a steady supply of cotton for his association. The cotton was shipped to Cincinnati where it was spun into cloth and sold.
Nathan Thomas, a worthy member of the Society of Friends, who lived near Newport, Indiana, had gone with his wife to spend the winter with some of her relatives living near Holly Springs, Mississippi.  Pleasant Diggs, the uncle of Nathan Thomas' wife, with whom they spent most of the time, had been reared in a neighborhood of Friends and was opposed to slavery.  He owned no slaves and hired none, and the cotton which he raised was the product of free labor.  Knowing Nathan Thomas to be interested in the free-labor cause, I requested him to ascertain if cotton could be obtained in that part of the State, which could be relied upon to be clear of slave labor.  He wrote me that a large quantity was raised by free labor, but that it had all been ginned and baled by slave labor, as none of the farmers in that neighborhood owned a cotton gin. He added that he knew of other neighborhoods, in that county, where free-labor cotton was raised.  I corresponded with Samuel Rhodes, of Philadelphia,
concerning the information I had received from Nathan Thomas, and informed him that William McCray, who lived near Holly Springs, Mississippi, a son-in-law of Pleasant Diggs, made about thirty bales of cotton annually, cultivated entirely by free labor, and that he was willing to put up a gin and gin his own and his neighbors' cotton by free labor, if we would furnish him the gin and allow him to pay for it in cotton.
Pleasant Diggs
I suggested that the Philadelphia Association should join me in this enterprise, for I believed they could obtain a larger supply and a better quality of cotton than they got from North Carolina, and perhaps at less cost. The subject was brought before the board, and an agreement was at once made. I was authorized to purchase a cotton gin and ship it to William McCray, of Mississippi. I at once applied to James Pierce, of Cincinnati, who manufactured cotton gins for the South, and purchased an excellent thirty-saw gin for $300, and shipped it immediately that it might be put up at once, and be ready for use in the fall.  The Philadelphia Association authorized me to employ Nathan Thomas as our agent to go South, next winter, to see that all the arrangements made with the cotton planters were strictly carried out.  The second winter that Nathan Thomas spent in the South, he was authorized by the Philadelphia Free-Labor Association to travel through the different Southwestern States, and hunt out the settlements of small farmers and ascertain what quantity of free-labor cotton could be obtained.  He traveled through parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas, and gave the information he obtained in a series of letters, which were afterward published by the managers of the Free-Labor Association of Ohio Yearly Meeting.
The gin I shipped to William McCray proved to be an excellent one, and was known in that part of the country as the "Abolition Gin."  Arrangements were made to purchase all the free-labor cotton in reach of that gin, and other arrangements were made by which it could be hauled to Memphis--the nearest shipping point free of slave labor.  At Memphis it was to be delivered to a commission merchant, formerly of Philadelphia, who employed no slave labor, and who was recommended by Samuel Rhodes, and others, as a reliable man. This merchant shipped the cotton up the river by boats that employed no slaves.  By these means large quantities of free cotton were sent from the South, and we obtained a full supply.  The Philadelphia Association was enabled to ship cotton to the Manchester mills in England in exchange for a finer class of goods than they were making, and I was supplied with all the cotton I could purchase, for manufacturing at Cincinnati.  I had made arrangements with Gould, Pearce & Co, of Cincinnati, to spin cotton yarn, carpet warp, twine and candle wicking, and with Stearns & Foster to make batting and wadding from the cotton which I furnished.  Afterward, I induced Gould, Pearce & Co. to put up looms and make brown muslin for me, in addition to the other articles.
Other trips to Tennessee and Virginia were less successful, although he did succeed in spreading the word about the movement.  Despite his constant attention to the business, the poor supply of cheap and quality free labor products proved insurmountable, making it impossible for Coffin to return to Indiana or locate a replacement to run the company. The company had stayed in business primarily through the financial support of wealthy benefactors. Coffin sold the business in 1857 after deciding it would be impossible for the business to remain profitable.

Cincinnati already had a large anti-slavery movement which had had violent conflicts with slavery proponents in the years before Coffin moved to the city.  
He purchased a new home and store at the northwest corner of Elm and Sixth streets. He continued to be active in the Underground Railroad, setting up a new safe house in the city and helping organize a larger network in the area. At first he was very cautious about helping slaves until he was able to find people he could trust in the community, and the community came to trust him.


The Coffins' home at Sixth and Elm Streets, Cincinnati
When we moved to Cincinnati in the spring of 1847, my wife and I thought that perhaps our work in Underground Railroad matters was done, as we had been in active service more than twenty years.  We hoped to find in Cincinnati enough active workers to relieve us from further service, but we soon found that we would have more to do than ever. When in the city on business, I had mingled with the abolitionists and been present at their meetings, but some of them had died, and others had moved away, and when I came to the city to live, I found that the fugitives generally took refuge among the colored people, and that they were often captured and taken back to slavery.  Most of the colored people were not shrewd managers in such matters, and many white people, who were at heart friendly to the fugitives, were too timid to take hold of the work themselves. They were ready to contribute to the expense of getting the fugitives away to places of safety, but were not willing to risk the penalty of the law or the stigma on their reputation, which would be incurred if they harbored fugitives and were known to aid them.
Abolitionists were very unpopular characters at that time, both in religious and political associations, and many who favored the principles of abolitionism lacked the moral courage to face public opinion, when to do so would be to sustain an injury in their business and to lower their reputation in public esteem. But there were a few noble exceptions--brave and conscientious workers--who risked every thing in the cause they believed to be right. I had already risked every thing in the work--life, property and reputation--and did not feel bound to respect human laws that came in direct contact with the law of God.
I was personally acquainted with all the active and reliable workers on the Underground Railroad in the city, both colored and white. There were a few wise and careful managers among the colored people, but it was not safe to trust all of them with the affairs of our work.  Most of them were too careless, and a few were unworthy--they could be bribed by the slave-hunters to betray the hiding-places of the fugitives. We soon found it to be the best policy to confine our affairs to a few persons, and to let the whereabouts of the slaves be known to as few people as possible.
This house at 3131 Wehrman Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio, was the home of Levi and Catharine Coffin. The Coffin's two story, wood shingle home on Wehrman Avenue was around the corner from the home on Gilbert Avenue where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived with her family, and where Coffin was a frequent guest.
Photo by W.P.A. Writers' Projects, 1936
Coffin moved several times during his life in the city, including a home on Broadway and Franklin.  The family finally came to reside on Wehrman Avenue.  It was a large home, and rooms were rented out for boarding.  With the many guests coming and going, the home was an excellent place to operate an Underground Railroad stop without arousing much suspicion. Catharine sewed clothes of all kinds, and when fugitives arrived they would be dressed as butlers, cooks, and other workers.  Some of the mulattoes were even able to pass as white guests. The most frequently used disguise was that of a Quaker woman. The high collar, long sleeves, gloves, veil, and large brimmed hat could completely hide its wearer when their head was tilted slightly downward.
Our house was large and well adapted for secreting fugitives. Very often slaves would lie concealed in upper chambers for weeks without the boarders or frequent visitors at the house knowing anything about it. My wife had a quiet unconcerned way of going about her work as if nothing unusual was on hand, which was calculated to lull every suspicion of those who might be watching, and who would have been at once aroused by any sign of secrecy or mystery. Even the intimate friends of the family did not know when there were slaves hidden in the house, unless they were directly informed. 
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed by the Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850.  It was one of the most controversial laws compromise and heightened Northern fears of a "slave power conspiracy".  

After 1840, the black population of rural Cass County, Michigan had grown rapidly as families were attracted by white defiance of discriminatory laws, by numerous highly supportive Quakers, and by low-priced land. Free and runaway blacks found Cass County a haven. Their good fortune attracted the attention of southern slaveholders. In 1847 and 1849, planters from Bourbon and Boone Counties in northern Kentucky led raids into Cass County to recapture runaway slaves. The raids failed of their objective but strengthened Southern demands for passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), that states did not have to offer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, greatly weakening the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.  In response to the weakening of the original fugitive slave act, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $28,000 in present-day value).  Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant's sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.  Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.  According to Coffin, the penalty on those who befriended slaves included not only fine and imprisonment, but sometimes the payment of the full value of the slaves.
One company of twenty-eight that crossed the Ohio River at Lawrenceburg, Indiana--twenty miles below Cincinnati--had for conductor a white man whom they had employed to assist them. The character of this man was full of contradictions. He was a Virginian by birth and spent much of his time in the South, yet he hated slavery. He was devoid of moral principle, but was a true friend to the poor slave.
. . .  The company of twenty-eight slaves referred to, all lived in the same neighborhood in Kentucky, and had been planning for some time how they could make their escape from slavery. This white man--John Fairfield--had been in the neighborhood for some weeks buying poultry, etc., for market, and though among the whites he assumed to be very pro-slavery, the negroes soon found that he was their friend.  He was engaged by the slaves to help them across the Ohio River and conduct them to Cincinnati. They paid him some money which they had managed to accumulate. The amount was small, considering the risk the conductor assumed, but it was all they had. Several of the men had their wives with them, and one woman a little child with her, a few months old.  John Fairfield conducted the party to the Ohio River opposite the mouth of the Big Miami, where he knew there were several skiffs tied to the bank, near a wood-yard. When I asked him afterward if he did not feel compunctions of conscience for breaking these skiffs loose and using them, he replied: "No; slaves are stolen property, and it is no harm to steal boats or anything else that will help them gain their liberty."
The entire party crowded into three large skiffs or yawls, and made their way slowly across the river. The boats were overloaded and sank so deep that the passage was made in much peril. The boat John Fairfield was in was leaky, and began to sink when a few rods from the Ohio bank, and he sprang out on the sandbar, where the water was two or three feet deep, and tried to drag the boat to the shore. He sank to his waist in mud and quicksands, and had to be pulled out by some of the negroes. The entire party waded out through mud and water and reached the shore safely, though all were wet and several lost their shoes. 
They hastened along the bank toward Cincinnati, but it was now late in the night and daylight appeared before they reached the city. Their plight was a most pitiable one. They were cold, hungry and exhausted; those who had lost their shoes in the mud suffered from bruised and lacerated feet, while to add to their discomfort a drizzling rain fell during the latter part of the night. They could not enter the city for their appearance would at once proclaim them to be fugitives. When they reached the outskirts of the city, below Mill Creek, John Fairfield hid them as well as he could, in ravines that had been washed in the sides of the steep hills, and told them not to move until he returned.  He then went directly to John Hatfield, a worthy colored man, a deacon in the Zion Baptist Church, and told his story. He had applied to Hatfield before and knew him to be a great friend to the fugitives--one who had often sheltered them under his roof and aided them in every way he could.   
John Fairfield also knew me and knew that I was a friend to the slave. I had met him several times, and was acquainted with the plan of his operations in the South, but I was opposed to the principles on which he worked. . . . When he arrived, wet and muddy, at John Hatfield's house, he was scarcely recognized. He soon made himself and his errand known, and Hatfield at once sent a messenger to me, requesting me to come to his house without delay, as there were fugitives in danger. I went at once and met several prominent colored men who had also been summoned. While dry clothes and a warm breakfast were furnished to John Fairfield, we anxiously discussed the situation of the twenty-eight fugitives who were lying, hungry and shivering, in the hills in sight of the city.  Several plans were suggested, but none seemed practicable. At last I suggested that some one should go immediately to a certain German livery stable in the city and hire two coaches, and that several colored men should go out in buggies and take the women and children from their hiding-places, then that the coaches and buggies should form a procession as if going to a funeral, and march solemnly along the road leading to Cumminsville, on the west side of Mill Creek.  In the western part of Cumminsville was the Methodist Episcopal burying ground, where a certain lot of ground had been set apart for the use of the colored people.  They should pass this and continue on the Colerain pike till they reached a right-hand road leading to College Hill. At the latter place they would find a few colored families, living in the outskirts of the village, and could take refuge among them. 
Jonathan Cable, a Presbyterian minister, who lived near Farmer's College, on the west side of the village, was a prominent abolitionist, and I knew that he would give prompt assistance to the fugitives.  I advised that one of the buggies should leave the procession at Cumminsville, after passing the burying-ground, and hasten to College Hill to apprise friend Cable of the coming of the fugitives, that he might make arrangements for their reception in suitable places.  My suggestions and advice were agreed to, and acted upon as quickly as possible, John Hatfield agreeing to apprise friend Cable of the coming of the fugitives. We knew that we must act quickly and with discretion, for the fugitives were in a very unsafe position, and in great danger of being discovered and captured by the police, who were always on the alert for runaway slaves.
While the carriages and buggies were being procured, John Hatfield's wife and daughter, and other colored women of the neighborhood, busied themselves in preparing provisions to be sent to the fugitives.  A large stone jug was filled with hot coffee, and this, together with a supply of bread and other provisions, was placed in a buggy and sent on ahead of the carriages, that the hungry fugitives might receive some nourishment before starting. The conductor of the party, accompanied by John Hatfield, went in the buggy, in order to apprise the fugitives of the arrangements that had been made, and have them in readiness to approach the road as soon as the carriages arrived. Several blankets were provided to wrap around the women and children, whom we knew must be chilled by their exposure to the rain and cold. The fugitives were very glad to get the supply of food, the hot coffee especially being a great treat to them, and felt much revived. About the time they finished their breakfast the carriages and buggies drove up and halted in the road, and the fugitives were quickly conducted to them and placed inside.  The women in the tight carriages wrapped themselves in the blankets, and the woman who had a young babe muffled it closely to keep it warm, and to prevent its cries from being heard. The little thing seemed to be suffering much pain, having been exposed so long to the rain and cold.
All the arrangements were carried out, and the party reached College Hill in safety, and were kindly received and cared for.  But, sad to relate, it was a funeral procession not only in appearance but in reality, for when they arrived at College Hill, and the mother unwrapped her sick child, she found to her surprise and grief that its stillness, which she supposed to be that of sleep, was that of death.
All necessary preparations were made by the kind people of the village, and the child was decently and quietly interred the next day in the burying ground on the Hill.
When it was known by some of the prominent ladies of the village that a large company of fugitives were in the neighborhood, they met together to prepare some clothing for them.  Jonathan Cable ascertained the number and size of the shoes needed, and the clothes required to fit the fugitives for traveling, and came down in his carriage to my house, knowing that the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society had their depository there. I went with him to purchase the shoes that were needed, and my wife selected all the clothing we had that was suitable for the occasion; the rest was furnished by the noble women of College Hill.  I requested friend Cable to keep the fugitives as secluded as possible until a way could be provided for safely forwarding them on their way to Canada.
Friend Cable was a stockholder in the Underground Railroad, and we consulted together about the best route, finally deciding on the line by way of Hamilton, West Elkton, Eaton, Paris and Newport, Indiana. West Elkton, twenty-five or thirty miles from College Hill, was the first Underground Railroad depot. That line always had plenty of locomotives and cars in readiness. I agreed to send information to that point, and accordingly wrote to one of my particular friends at West Elkton, informing him that I had some valuable stock on hand which I wished to forward to Newport, and requested him to send three two-horse wagons--covered--to College Hill, where the stock was resting, in charge of Jonathan Cable. I said: "Please put straw in the wagons so that they may rest easy on the journey, for many of them have sore feet, having traveled hastily over rough ground. I wish you to get to College Hill to-morrow evening; come without fail."
The three wagons arrived promptly at the time mentioned, and a little after dark took in the party, together with another fugitive, who had arrived the night before, and whom we added to the company. They went through to West Elkton safely that night, and the next night reached Newport, Indiana. With little delay they were forwarded on from station to station through Indiana and Michigan to Detroit, having fresh teams and conductors each night, and resting during the day. I had letters from different stations, as they progressed, giving accounts of the arrival and departure of the train, and I also heard of their safe arrival on the Canada shore.

Coffin, Cable, and the slaves they helped to escape
Coffin's cousin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, was also an abolitionist. She and her family lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but visited the Coffin family in Cincinnati on at least one occasion.

Coffin's role began to change as the Civil War approached.  He made a trip to Canada in 1854 to visit the community of escaped slaves that was living there and offer assistance.  The Coffin family traveled with Laura Smith Haviland.  During the 1830s, the Haviland family had begun hiding runaway slaves on their farm. Their home became one of the first Underground Railroad stations established in Michigan.  After her husband’s death, Laura Haviland continued to shelter fugitive slaves in her home; in some cases, she personally escorted them to Canada. She also traveled to the South on multiple occasions to aid slaves. 


Laura Smith Haviland,
holding slave irons
In the summer of 1854 I was on a visit to Canada, accompanied by my wife and daughter, and Laura S. Haviland, of Michigan. At the close of a meeting which we attended, at one of the colored churches, a woman came up to my wife, seized her hand, and exclaimed: "How are you, Aunt Katie? God bless you!" etc. My wife did not recognize her, but she soon called herself to our remembrance by referring to the time she was at our house in the days of her distress, when my wife gave her the name of Eliza Harris, and by relating other particulars. We visited her at her house while at Chatham, and found her comfortable and contented. 
Many other fugitives came and spoke to us, whom we did not recognize or remember until they related some incident that recalled them to mind. Such circumstances occurred in nearly every neighborhood we visited in Canada. Hundreds who had been sheltered under our roof and fed at our table, when fleeing from the land of whips and chains, introduced themselves to us and referred to the time, often fifteen or twenty years before, when we had aided them.
On the first day of August, 1854, we went, with a large company from Windsor, to attend a celebration of the West India emancipation. The meeting was held in a dense settlement of fugitives, about eight miles south of Windsor. Several public speakers from Detroit were in our party. A platform had been erected in a grove near the school-house, where Laura S. Haviland had established a school for fugitives. The day was fine, and there was a large crowd of colored people, who had come from various settlements to hear the speaking. Here we met quite a number of those whom we had helped on their way to freedom, and the gratitude they expressed was quite affecting. One old white-headed man came to my wife, and said he wanted to get hold of her hand. She reached her hand to him, and while he held it, he said: "Don't you 'member me, Misses?"  She looked at him closely, and said: "No, I believe I do not remember thee."  Then the old negro said: "La me! Misses, don't you 'member when dey was close after me to take me an' you hid me in de feather bed and saved me? Why, bress your heart! if it hadn't been for you I should nebber been here. It's more dan twenty years ago, and my head is white, but I hasn't forgot dat time."  She shook his hand heartily, and said: "Now I remember thee."
One important consequence of the Fugitive Slave Act was that Canada had become a major destination for runaway slaves; the black population of Canada increased from 40,000 to 60,000 between 1850 and 1860.
Jack and Lucy were husband and wife, and belonged to a man who lived in Kentucky about ten or twelve miles from Cincinnati. They were very valuable property, and the master, through reverses of fortune or for some other reason, was obliged to dispose of them. He sold them to a Southern slave-trader, and promised to deliver them at Louisville, at a certain time, in season for a down-river boat. The night after the bargain was made, they were locked in a back-room up stairs, for greater safety. In spite of this precaution, they managed to escape. Tying their bedclothing together, and fastening one end securely to the bedpost near the window, they let themselves down to the ground in the back-yard, and ran away, barefooted, bareheaded, and very thinly clad. 
When they reached the bank of the Ohio, they found a little skiff tied to the shore, and breaking it loose, they got in and rowed across to the other side. Reaching Cincinnati, they went to the house of a colored friend, who brought them immediately to my house, where they arrived about daylight.  They were placed in a garret chamber and locked up, none but myself and wife knowing of their presence in the house.
Their escape was discovered in the night, and the master with a posse of men started immediately in pursuit. They crossed the river between Covington and Cincinnati, about the same time that the fugitives were crossing below the city. Supposing that they had not had time to cross yet, the pursuers watched the river for some time, in hope of capturing them, not knowing that they were safely ensconced in our garret.
Finding himself foiled, the master then went to Covington, and had handbills printed, offering four hundred dollars' reward for his property.  Jack and Lucy were worth a thousand apiece, and their owner felt that he had rather pay a large reward for them than to lose them entirely. These handbills were distributed among the policemen of Cincinnati, and scattered about the city, and one of them soon came into my hands.  A vigilant search was made for several weeks, but no less vigilant were we who secreted the fugitives. From a small window in their room, Jack and Lucy saw their master passing up and down the street in front of the house, and often some of his company passed by, late at night, as if reconnoitering, but no attempt was made to search the premises.
After keeping Jack and Lucy secreted in our garret for two weeks, during which time the ladies of the Anti-Slavery Sewing Society provided them with clothing, the hunt seemed to be over and it was decided to send them on to Canada.  Money was to be raised to hire a carriage to take them away, and I considered myself appointed to collect it. Starting out one morning, I went into a store where I was slightly acquainted. I did not know whether the proprietor was friendly to the cause or not, but asked him if he had any stock in the Underground Railroad. . . . I received a dollar, and went on to another store whose keeper was a Jew. I did not know his sentiments, but as soon as I informed him that money was wanted for Underground Railroad purposes, he handed me two dollars. I went next to a wholesale drug store, and explaining my errand, received one dollar from each of the proprietors, who were abolitionists; then to a queensware store and received a similar amount from each proprietor. 
I next called at a wholesale grocery on Pearl Street, where I had business to transact. I knew that the principal member of the firm was not in sympathy with my anti-slavery work, but resolved to speak to him on the matter. Meeting him at the door, I introduced the subject . . . I then left him and went into the counting-room to transact some business with the book-keeper. When this was done, I turned to go, but as I was passing out of the store the merchant, who was waiting on a customer, called to me. I stopped, and he came to me and said in a low tone: "I will give you a trifle if you want something."  I replied: "I want nothing; but if it is thy desire to contribute something to help those poor fugitives I told thee about, I will see that it is rightly applied."
The merchant then handed me a silver half-dollar. I took it, and said: "Now I know thou wilt feel better," then left the store. About a week afterward I was passing down Walnut Street, below Fourth, when I saw this merchant coming up on the opposite side. When he saw me, he crossed over and coming up to me, smiling, he shook hands, and asked, in a whisper: "Did they get off safely?"
I laughed outright, and exclaimed "Ah, thou hast taken stock in the Underground Railroad, and feels an interest in it; if thou hadst not taken stock thou wouldst have cared nothing about it. Yes, they got off safely, and by this time are probably in Canada."
Margaret Garner was an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow the child to be returned to slavery. She and her family had escaped across the Ohio River  to Cincinnati, but were captured by slave catchers. Her story was the inspiration for the novel  Beloved (1987) by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, that later was adapted into a  film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey. 

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's 1867 painting,
The Modern Medea, was based on Garner's story
Margaret, described as a mulatto, was born to Priscilla, a house servant to the Gaines family who lived on a farm in Boone County, Kentucky.  She may have been the daughter of the plantation owner, John Pollard Gaines.  

Margaret married another slave on the farm, Robert Garner, in 1849.  That December, the plantation was sold along with all the slaves to John P. Gaines' younger brother, Archibald K. Gaines.  Three of Margaret's children (Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla) were described as mulattos; each was born 5 to 7 months after a child born to Archibald K. Gaines and his wife. These light-skinned children were likely the children of A.K. Gaines, the only adult white male at the farm. The timing suggests they were each conceived after his wife had become pregnant and was unavailable to him.

At the time of the family's escape attempt, her two boys were about four and six years old; her daughter, Mary, was two and a half, and Priscilla was an infant. On January 28, 1856, in the coldest winter in 60 years, Robert and a pregnant Margaret, together with family members, crossed the ice on the frozen river at daybreak,  just west of Covington, Kentucky. 

Perhaps no case that came under my notice, while engaged in aiding fugitive slaves, attracted more attention and aroused deeper interest and sympathy than the case of Margaret Garner, the slave mother, who killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery. This happened in the latter part of January, 1856. The Ohio River was frozen over at the time, and the opportunity thus offered for escaping to a free State was embraced by a number of slaves living in Kentucky, several miles back from the river.  A party of seventeen, belonging to different masters in the same neighborhood, made arrangements to escape together. . . .  An old slave man named Simon, and his wife Mary, together with their son Robert and his wife Margaret Garner and four children, made their way to the house of a colored man named Kite, who had formerly lived in their neighborhood and had been purchased from slavery by his father, Joe Kite. They had to make several inquiries in order to find Kite's house, which was below Mill Creek, in the lower part of the city. This afterward led to their discovery; they had been seen by a number of persons on their way to Kite's, and were easily traced by pursuers. The other nine fugitives were more fortunate. They made their way up town and found friends who conducted them to safe hiding-places, where they remained until night. They were then put on the Underground Railroad, and went safely through to Canada.
Kite felt alarmed for the safety of the party that had arrived at his house, and as soon as breakfast was over, he came to my store, at the corner of Sixth and Elm Streets, to ask counsel regarding them. I told him that they were in a very unsafe place and must be removed at once. I directed him how to conduct them from his house to the outskirts of the city, up Mill Creek, to a settlement of colored people in the western part of the city, where fugitives were often harbored. I would make arrangements to forward them northward, that night, on the Underground Railroad.
Kite returned to his house at once, according to my directions, but he was too late; in a few minutes after his return, the house was surrounded by pursuers--the masters of the fugitives, with officers and a posse of men. The door and windows were barred, and those inside refused to give admittance. The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery.
Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage. The slave men were armed and fought bravely. The window was first battered down with a stick of wood . . . The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house. At this moment, Margaret Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were vain seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best. She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work. The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail.
The trial lasted two weeks, drawing crowds to the court-room every day. Colonel Chambers, of this city, and two lawyers from Covington--Wall and Tinnell--appeared for the claimants, and Messrs. Jolliffe and Getchell for the slaves. The counsel for the defense brought witnesses to prove that the fugitives had been permitted to visit the city at various times previously. It was claimed that Margaret Garner had been brought here by her owners a number of years before, to act as nurse girl, and according to the law which liberated slaves who were brought into free States by the consent of their masters, she had been free from that time, and her children, all of whom had been born since then--following the condition of the mother--were likewise free.  The Commissioner decided that a voluntary return to slavery, after a visit to a free State, re-attached the conditions of slavery, and that the fugitives were legally slaves at the time of their escape.
. . . Jolliffe said that in the final argument of the case he intended not only to allege, but to demonstrate, conclusively, to the Court, that the Fugitive Slave law was unconstitutional, and as part and parcel of that argument he wished to show the effects of carrying it out. It had driven a frantic mother to murder her own child rather than see it carried back to the seething hell of American slavery. This law was of such an order that its execution required human hearts to be wrung and human blood to be spilt.  "The Constitution," said he, "expressly declared that Congress should pass no law prescribing any form of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof. If Congress could not pass any law requiring you to worship God, still less could they pass one requiring you to carry fuel to hell."  These ringing words called forth applause from all parts of the court-room.  Jolliffe said: "It is for the Court to decide whether the Fugitive Slave law overrides the law of Ohio to such an extent that it can not arrest a fugitive slave even for a crime of murder."
. . . Margaret Garner, the chief actor in the tragedy which had occurred, naturally excited much attention. She was a mulatto, about five feet high, showing one-fourth or one-third white blood. . . . On the left side of her forehead was an old scar, and on the cheek-bone, on the same side, another one. When asked what caused them, she said: "White man struck me." That was all, but it betrays a story of cruelty and degradation, and, perhaps, gives the key-note to Margaret's hate of slavery, her revolt against its thralldom, and her resolve to die rather than go back to it.  She appeared to be twenty-two or twenty-three years old. While in the court-room she was dressed in dark calico, with a white handkerchief pinned around her neck, and a yellow cotton handkerchief, arranged as a turban, around her head. The babe she held in her arms was a little girl, about nine months old, and was much lighter in color than herself, light enough to show a red tinge in its cheeks.  During the trial she would look up occasionally, for an instant, with a timid, apprehensive glance at the strange faces around her, but her eyes were generally cast down. The babe was continually fondling her face with its little hands, but she rarely noticed it, and her general expression was one of extreme sadness. . . The case seemed to stir every heart that was alive to the emotions of humanity. The interest manifested by all classes was not so much for the legal principles involved, as for the mute instincts that mold every human heart--the undying love of freedom that is planted in every breast--the resolve to die rather than submit to a life of degradation and bondage.
. . . Among those who visited Margaret in prison was Lucy Stone, the well-known eloquent public speaker. It was reported that she gave Margaret a knife, and told her to kill herself and her children rather than be taken back to slavery . . . 
Lucy Stone
The Commissioner remanded the fugitives back to slavery. He said that it was not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of his sympathies; the law of Kentucky and of the United States made it a question of property. . .  By a provision of the law, previously referred to, they could not be tried on the warrant for murder, and their indictment on that charge was practically ignored. . . . The fugitives were then delivered to their owners, who conveyed them in an omnibus to the wharf of the Covington ferry-boat. A crowd followed them to the river, but there was no demonstration. The masters were surrounded by large numbers of their Kentucky friends, who had stood by them and guarded their interests during the trial, and there was great rejoicing among them, on account of their victory.
. . . Gaines had sent her down the river. . . . It was reported that on her way down the river she sprang from the boat into the water with her babe in her arms; that when she rose she was seized by some of the boat hands and rescued, but that her child was drowned.
The Hutchinson Family Singers
During the time of the Margaret Garner trial, the popular vocalists and anti-slavery singers, the Hutchinson family, of New England, were in Cincinnati. They had given several concerts here which had attracted large audiences, as their anti-slavery concerts generally did.  They felt a deep interest in the trial and offered to give a concert for the benefit of the fugitives.  A meeting of the friends of the fugitives was held, and a committee, of which I was a member, was appointed to secure a suitable hall and make all the necessary arrangements for the concert.  Smith and Nixon's hall, on Fourth Street, the best public hall in the city at that time, was kindly offered by the proprietors for the occasion. A part of the committee met next morning, but as not all the members were present, it was agreed to hold a meeting at three o'clock that afternoon to complete all the arrangements, and in the meantime to notify the absentees of the hour agreed upon. It was laid upon me to notify Samuel Alley, who was absent. About two o'clock in the afternoon, while looking for him, I was informed that he was in the court-room listening to the proceedings in the fugitive case. The trial had then been going on for several days, and a large number of special marshals had been summoned as guards to fend off the abolitionists--a few unarmed, inoffensive men, who felt it right to plead the cause of the oppressed, and to endeavor, by moral suasion, to convince the people of the evils of slavery.
These special marshals were mostly brought from the Kentucky side of the river--all at the expense of the United States--to see that the infamous slave law of 1850 was executed. These Kentuckians, invested with a little brief authority, were stationed in and around the Court-House, and often assumed authority to prevent colored people and the particular friends of the slaves from entering the court-room. One of these marshals was stationed at the door. When I was about to pass in, he inquired, abruptly: "What are you going in for? Are you a witness?"
I replied: "That is my business, not thine--we live in a free State on this side of the river," and passed by him into the court-room. . . . I saw Samuel Alley standing near the stove in the end of the room, and made my way through the crowd to him, but neglected to take off my hat.  The Kentucky marshal at the door, noticing this; spoke in a loud commanding tone, and said: "Take off your hat!" several times. I paid no attention to him. He then made his way through the crowd to me, and said, loudly and angrily: "I command you to take off you hat, sir!"
I spoke in a low tone, and asked: "What is the matter with my hat? I suppose that it will not hurt anybody."  He spoke as before, and said: "Why, sir, you are in the United States Court. I have authority; I command you to pull off your hat."  I replied: "I shall not pull off my hat to accommodate thee. It is not my habit nor the habit of my people to make obeisance to men."
He repeated, angrily, "You are in the United States Court, sir, and I command you to pull off your hat."  I replied, mildly, "It is not the first time that I have been in the United States Court. I have served on juries in different courts, and in various States, and was never commanded to pull off my hat; and I am not aware that a Commissioner's Court, trying a fugitive slave case, is a more sacred place than other courts."
The attention of the crowd seemed to be drawn to us; they turned their eyes in our direction to watch the marshal's movements, and listened to the words that passed between us.  The marshal, seeing that I was not disposed to obey his commands, seized my hat rudely and jerked it off my head.  He then offered it to me, but I did not take it, or pay any attention to it further than to say, "I thought thou wanted my hat."  Turning quietly toward my friend Alley, I resumed conversation with him, in a low tone, regarding the business of our committee meeting that afternoon. The marshal stood a short time holding my hat, and looking quite foolish (others said); then seeing that I paid no attention to him, and was not disposed to relieve him of the care of my hat, he began to look around for some place on which to lay it.
He espied a table or bench in one corner of the room, and kindly laid my hat upon it, then made his way back to his station at the door.  A member of our city police who knew me came to me and said, "You had better go and get your hat; it might get lost." I replied: "I did not put it there and I shall not go after it." The policeman then went after it and brought it to me.  I thanked him, and put it on my head. The marshal at the door soon discovered it, and began to cry out, as before, "Pull off your hat!" Seeing that I paid no attention to him, he made his way through the crowd toward me, and again commanded me to take off my hat, saying that he had authority; that I was in the United States Court, etc. I replied again that I had often been in courts before, and had never been commanded to pull off my hat. "I have been in the Queen's Court," I said, "and was allowed to wear my hat there without molestation. Friends have been permitted to approach kings and emperors with their hats on; I told thee before that we did not make obeisance to men; I generally take off my hat, for my own comfort, when seated in a house; but I do not wish to take it off now; it is not uncomfortable this cold day."
Again he seized my hat and pulled it off in a rude manner.  He offered it to me, as before; but I appeared not to notice it, and went on talking with Alley as though nothing had occurred to interrupt our quiet conversation. The marshal started across the room to lay my hat where he had laid it before, but on the way he met our city officer, who took hold of it and said, "Let the gentleman's hat alone." I could not hear the marshal's reply, as he spoke in a low tone on that occasion, but I heard the city officer say, sharply, "I have as much authority as you have, sir." He then took my hat from the marshal, brought it to me and kindly placed it on my head.
. . . When the marshal took off my hat the second time, his action seemed to arouse a feeling of indignation among the people standing near me. When he started away with it, some of them manifested a spirit of fight; one said: "Let him try that again;" another said: "I can't stand that;" and a third exclaimed, with an oath: "I won't stand that." I did not turn my head to see who these men were, nor pay any attention to what they said, but continued my conversation with Samuel Alley.  A Gazette reporter was present when this occurred, and next morning an article appeared in that paper giving an account of the marshal's rudeness in reference to my hat, and remarking that it did not appear to throw me off of my usual equanimity. 
. . . I then returned home, and finding there Jonathan Cable, a stanch abolitionist and Presbyterian minister, from College Hill, I related to him my adventure with the marshal in the court-room.  Cable immediately picked up his hat and said: "I will try him." He hastily made his way to the court-room, and passed in, by the marshal at the door, keeping his hat on his head.
The marshal cried out several times: "Pull off your hat!" but seeing that his order was not obeyed, he pressed through the crowd to the place where Cable stood, and in an authoritative manner commanded him to take off his hat. Cable made no reply nor paid any attention to him, and the marshal jerked his hat from his head, as he had done mine. He then offered it to him, but Cable declined to take it and said to him: "Are you a United States officer?" 
"Yes, sir," replied the marshal.  "Well, then," rejoined Cable, "you are a servant of ours; you may hold my hat;" adding, in a sharp, commanding tone, "don't carry it off."
The officer seemed perplexed and stood for a short time, holding the hat. Court adjourned, at that juncture, and Cable, taking his hat, returned to my house in a very good humor, and related his experiment.
The story of my adventure with the marshal, respecting my hat, soon became extensively known. The accounts given of it in the Cincinnati papers were copied by other papers in various parts of the country. The editor of the Gazette told me that he had seen it in sixteen of his Southern exchanges.
For several days I could not walk the streets without being accosted by some one who would assert that I had whipped the marshal. My general reply was: "I didn't hurt a hair of his head."
Levi Coffin with his hat
Another "conductor" of the Underground Railroad that Coffin worked with was John P. Parker, one of the most daring slave rescuers. Carrying two pistols and a knife, he frequently went into Kentucky to guide the fugitive slaves to the river and then row them across in his skiff before their pursuers could catch them.  Even in Ripley, Parker was in danger. Some Ripley residents were slave-catchers who could expected a lucrative reward for each slave caught and returned to his or her owner. Kentucky slave-owners also would come to Ripley hunting for their runaway slaves. They were prepared to shoot anyone who had aided them.  No photographs of Parker exist. He refused to let his photograph be taken because he didn't want his face on posters that offered $1,000 for his capture, dead or alive.  In his autobiography, Parker refers to his slave-rescue work as "my own little personal war on slavery."


Parker House in Ripley, Ohio
A white man once called at my house, and when he was ushered into the parlor, he introduced himself as a friend of the oppressed slaves, who had often heard of my efforts in their behalf, and wished to enter into an arrangement with me by which a number in Kentucky could be liberated. He made many professions of interest in, and sympathy with, my work for the fugitive, but I did not like his appearance and manner, and after questioning him closely came to the conclusion that he was a spy. I informed him that he was "barking up the wrong tree," and that his little plan of engaging me in an attempt to liberate some Kentucky slaves would not work. 
I said that I had nothing to do with slavery on the other side of the river, and did not believe in interfering with the laws of slave States, except by moral suasion.
If persons came to my house hungry and destitute, I received and aided them, irrespective of color, but I had no intention of engaging in a plan such as that proposed. The man left discomfited, and I afterward learned that he was a slaveholder, who had designed to entrap me.  . . . Several similar attempts to entrap me were made by agents and spies from Kentucky, but they were unsuccessful.
. . . Besides aiding fugitives, I often assisted the poor and destitute among the free colored people of our city, visiting the sick and afflicted among them who seemed to be neglected by the white people, and was often accused by those who were prejudiced against colored people, of thinking more of the colored race than I did of the white. To such accusations I generally replied that I was no respecter of color or race, that the negroes had souls equally as precious as ours, that Christ had died for them as well as for us, and that we were all alike in the divine sight.
The poor and destitute among them were not looked after as such classes were among the whites, and on that account I felt it my duty to seek them out and help them. I often gave them employment in preference to whites, not that I felt any greater attachment to them on account of their color, but because I knew that they were often unjustly refused and neglected.
Sometimes I heard people say that they would not have a negro about them; they had never hired one that did them any good, etc. I replied that my experience had been different; the best servants I had ever employed belonged to that despised race. "But," I added, "it is quite natural that they should not work with much zeal for those who dislike and hate them."
Levi Coffin was 62 years old when the Civil War began in April 1861.


Levi Coffin, photograph taken during the Civil War
When the first news of the war reached me, I said: "This war will never end while slavery lasts," but I was told that the rebellion would soon be put down, leaving slavery untouched. The popular religious denominations were still under the influence of that pro-slavery power which had so long had the ascendency. Prayer-meetings were held in all the churches to pray that the rebellion might be put down and the awful calamities of war averted. Acknowledgments were made of our sins, such as intemperance and Sabbath-breaking, and the forgiveness of God was implored, and He was asked to restore peace and brotherly love to our land; but the sin of slavery was not mentioned, not a prayer for the poor suffering slaves was heard in these meetings in Cincinnati. . . . 
About this time that noble friend to the slave, John G. Fee, of Berea, Kentucky, came to the city on business and stopped at our house, as he generally did when in Cincinnati. He asked me if I had attended those morning prayer-meetings. I said, "I have attended but one; I have very little faith in those meetings. The real cause of the war is not alluded to; the poor slaves are not remembered in their prayers, and the sin of slavery is not mentioned. The same pro-slavery spirit that has ruled the church so long still exists. This was has been permitted by the Almighty to come upon us as a judgment and the North must suffer as well as the South, for we are partners in the national sin. I believe that this war will not end until the great sin of slavery is removed from our land."  Friend Fee heartily united with me in these sentiments. He had preached and prayed and labored for many years in Kentucky, in behalf of the poor slave, and had suffered mob violence and persecution of every kind, for doing what he believed he had been appointed by his Divine Master to do.
John Gregg Fee
 The next morning we went together to the business men's prayer-meeting. It was largely attended; many prayers and short speeches were made, and every sin but that of slavery was mentioned. Toward the close of the meeting John G. Fee rose and spoke of the real cause of the war --slavery, that great and crying sin of the nation, to which no one had alluded. The chairman of the meeting at once brought down his mallet, as a signal for him to stop, but Fee continued to speak, for a few moments, with great earnestness and power. His words seemed to create a stir and uneasiness with many in the meeting. When a few more sharp taps of the mallet had been given, he took his seat, but immediately kneeled in prayer, and prayed with such earnestness and power that he was not interrupted, although he brought before the Lord the great sin of slavery and alluded to it as the cause of the terrible judgment that was hanging over us. At the close of the meeting, Horace Bushnell, a minister and a warm friend to the slave, came up and taking Fee by the hand said: "Brother Fee, you drove in the nail and then you clinched it, and they can't get it out."

As soon as the war broke out in 1861, Coffin and his group began to prepare to help the war's wounded. Although as a Quaker, he was opposed to war, he did support the Union cause. He and his wife spent almost every day at Cincinnati's war hospital helping to care for the wounded. They prepared large buckets of coffee and distributed it freely to the soldiers and took many into their home.

The Defense of Cincinnati occurred from September 1 through September 13, 1862, when Cincinnati, Ohio was threatened by Confederate forces. Confederate General Henry Heth had been sent north to threaten Cincinnati, then the sixth largest city in the United States. Heth was under orders from his superior, General Edmund Kirby Smith, not to attack the city, but to make a "demonstration". Cincinnati's mayor, George Hatch, ordered all business closed, and Union General Lew Wallace declared martial law, seized sixteen steamboats and had them armed, and organized the citizens of Cincinnati, as well as the riverfront cities of Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for defense.  On the 1st of September, Wallace set up headquarters in the Burnet House hotel, where he met late into the night with the mayors of Cincinnati, Newport and Covington. By the next morning, 15,000 volunteers were drilling in the streets.



Cincinnati Militia
The war excitement was greatly increased when the news came that the rebel General Kirby Smith had approached near Cincinnati with a large army, and great preparations were at once made for defense; the city was at once put under martial law. . . . The Mayor of the city issued a proclamation requiring every man, without distinction of age, color, or country, to report at the voting places in the various wards, to be organized into military companies for the protection of the city. The Governor of the State had also issued a proclamation requiring all volunteer military companies to rally at once to our assistance. Arms and ammunition were ordered here from other points. Cannon were placed on Mount Adams, and the high hills above and below the city, in position to rake the river if the rebel army attempted to cross. It was feared that they would shell the city, and that a general conflagration would be the result.
The excitement pervaded all classes of society. A number of women and children were sent out of the city for safety, and money from the vaults of the banks was transferred to banks at other points. General Wallace, of Indianapolis, arrived in the city, with a number of Indiana soldiers, and took command. . . . Men of all classes dropped their business and rallied to the defense of their State. Judges, lawyers, preachers, professors, and students of colleges, were in these companies, as well as farmers armed with their squirrel-guns and other weapons that were at command. We soon had an army of over one hundred thousand men in Cincinnati--many of them raw, untrained soldiers, without any preparation for camping or supplies of provisions. These were called "Squirrel Hunters," but they were fully in earnest, and determined to protect the city against the rebel army that threatened our destruction.  
Preparations were at once made to feed our protectors, and the ladies of each ward did their duty nobly. Tables were spread in the market-houses and parks, and (in some wards) on the public side-walks, and bountifully furnished with provisions by the ladies--many of whom attended as waiters. Public halls and other places were used as headquarters and lodging places for the soldiers. In our ward a table was spread on the sidewalk of Franklin Street, from Broadway to Sycamore--in front of our house and Woodward College--where five hundred could be fed at one time. It was supplied with provisions for several days by the ladies of the ninth ward.  Our basement kitchen was made the depository for the victuals between meals; and our large cooking-stove was used to furnish hot coffee and tea. At that table were fed the Oberlin students, and other abolitionists from the northern part of Ohio, many of whom we knew. After meals, they frequently formed in line in front of our house and sang "John Brown," and other anti-slavery songs--the whole company joining in the chorus. 
Nearly every night, while this great excitement lasted, we had sick soldiers to care for. Many of our acquaintances from the country were among the new volunteers, or "Squirrel Hunters," and not being used to soldier life, a number of them became sick. We took them in and cared for them; although we did not believe in war and fighting, we always considered it right to take care of the sick and feed the hungry, and in this way we did our full share by the soldiers. To some of the young men who had none, my wife gave blankets for use in camp. 
One morning one of our city officers, with a posse of men, came to my house and demanded to know why I had not reported for service at the place designated by the Mayor in his proclamation. He said he was instructed to visit all in that ward who had not reported, and if they refused to comply to compel them to report. I told him that I should not comply, and he said: "Then I shall be obliged to compel you to do so."  I replied: "Thou might find that to be a difficult job. I am a non-resistant, and thou would have to carry me to the place, and that would look ugly." 
The officer laughed, and said he guessed I would go without carrying.  I said: "If thou wast to get me there it might be very difficult to compel me to report for service in the army. I could not take a gun and go out to shoot anybody; that is contrary to the spirit and doctrines of the gospel. Christ instructed us to love our enemies and to do good to them that hate us, and I am a full believer in his teachings. I can not comply with the Mayor's proclamation. General Wallace is now in command in the city, and he will not require such service of me, for he knows my principles."
The officer left me, and I was not again troubled. . . . During the excitement our house was more like a military post than a depot of the Underground Railroad. We had a number of boarders, and all the men armed themselves and reported for service, in obedience to the Mayor's proclamation. They placed their guns by their bedsides, and when an alarm was sounded on the fire-bells in the night, they sprang up, seized their weapons and hurried to their posts. These signals were to be given when the rebel army attempted to cross the river, and the city was kept in a state of constant excitement, though the alarms proved false. . . . 
Many of the colored men did not understand why they should be called upon, having never before been recognized as citizens, and neglected to report; some of them were alarmed and hid themselves. The police hunted them out and forced them into the ranks. One day a posse of men came to our house and asked if there were any colored people about the place who had not reported for service. I said, "Yes, there are several colored persons about our house," and invited the captain to come in. He followed me through the hall into the kitchen, where we had two or three colored women employed. I introduced them to the officer, saying, "These are all the colored people we have at present." He laughed and said he did not want women, and asked if these were Underground Railroad passengers. I said: "No, but if they were you would not let the rebels have them, would you?"  He replied: "No, sir," and left the house.
My wife reproved me for being mischievous.
Judge Dickson, who was the colored people's friend and in whom they had entire confidence, organized a separate company of colored men. They rallied willingly to him. A pontoon bridge was made across the Ohio River, between Cincinnati and Covington, and a large army marched over into Kentucky. A few miles back of Covington they went into camp and made great preparations for defense, throwing up breastworks and extending their lines. so as to prevent the approach of the enemy to the city. Colonel Dickson's colored regiment was marched over to aid in making the fortifications, and was said to be the most orderly and faithful regiment that crossed. After they were released and marched back to the city, the men contributed money to buy a fine sword, which they presented to Colonel Dickson as a testimonial of their regard for him, accompanied by an able speech from one of their company selected for the occasion.
The rebel army had retreated southward, and the excitement that had been so high in this city seemed to die away, but we were constantly reminded that war was going on. Regiments of volunteers, regularly organized and equipped, from Indiana and other Northwestern States, passed through this city on their way to the South and East. Among the Indiana companies were many noble young men of our acquaintance--some of them our relatives--and our feelings were continually harassed with the thought that they might never return. It was not long till the terrible battles of Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, and Pittsburg Landing, on the Tennessee River, were fought. Steamboats from this place, with doctors and surgeons on board, hastened to the scenes of carnage to aid in caring for and removing the wounded. They were brought to Cincinnati, but sufficient hospital room had not been provided for them. A meeting was held by the citizens, and a committee appointed to call on families and ascertain how many would be received in private houses. We were called upon and agreed to take eight of the wounded soldiers in. our house and care for them.  Many others volunteered to take a greater or less number, and next morning the names of those who thus volunteered, and the number they agreed to receive, were published in the morning papers. The committee succeeded, however, in renting a large house for a hospital, and only two soldiers were brought to our house. We nursed them carefully until they were able to go to their homes. At various times we took in sick soldiers and cared for them until they were able to travel, feeling that it was our duty to do so.
Within a short time after the beginning of the war, Coffin transitioned from his work on the Underground Railroad providing relief for slaves displaced by the war; they were often known as "contraband".
The slaves flocked within the Union lines, as the armies advanced through Tennessee to Memphis, and other points in the southwest, and were protected. Many of the slaveholders fled farther South, taking their able-bodied slaves with them, and leaving the women and children, aged and sick ones, to take care of themselves. In many cases there was nothing for this helpless class to live upon. The two vast armies that had swept over the country had consumed all the provisions, and the poor slaves were left in a suffering condition.
Thousands gathered within the Union lines, and were sent to various points up the river. Some were brought on boats to Cincinnati, and left on the wharf without food and shelter, or means of obtaining them. I was frequently called upon for aid and assistance. The colored people here acted nobly, taking as many as they could and caring for them. Several thousand contrabands, as the slaves were then called, were sent to Cairo, Illinois, and placed under charge of J. B. Rogers, chaplain of the Fourteenth Wisconsin Volunteers. 
Hearing of the great destitution and suffering at that place and other points, I resolved to visit the quarters of the contrabands, and learn what their real condition and wants were.  Cairo is at the mouth of the Ohio, five hundred miles from Cincinnati. . . . I met with my friends, Job Hadley and his wife, from Hendricks County, Indiana, who were on their way to Cairo, on a similar mission. We were greatly rejoiced to meet, and proceeded on our way together. . . . Job Hadley and his wife had left home with the intention of opening a school among the colored people, if privilege could be obtained, and remaining with them through the winter. No schools had yet been opened among the contrabands; they were not yet called Freedmen, as it was before the emancipation proclamation of President Lincoln. 
Job Hadley
We called that evening on General Tuttle, who had command at that military post. He received us cordially, and, when he understood our mission, seemed to be pleased and offered us any privilege we might wish. In regard to opening a school, he referred us to J. B. Rogers, the superintendent, who had charge of the contrabands' camp. On the morning of the next day, which was the Sabbath, we visited the old military barracks where the contrabands were located. We first went to the office of J. B. Rogers, the chaplain and general superintendent, who gave us a very cordial reception. Although an entire stranger, he appeared much rejoiced to meet us, and gave us a general account of the conditions and wants of the contrabands under his care. He went with us to visit some of them in their crowded huts and sick rooms. 
We found their condition to be even worse than it had been represented to us before leaving home. The deepest emotions of pity and sympathy were called forth as we witnessed their extreme destitution and suffering. Many were sick from exposure and for want of sufficient clothing; they had no bedding nor cooking utensils, none of the comforts and few of the necessaries of life. The scanty rations issued by Government were their only subsistence. The weather being quite chilly, many of them were suffering with coughs and colds; that dreadful scourge--small-pox--was quite prevalent among them, and added to the horrors of their situation. A large part of the contrabands collected at this point were women, children, and old people. Superintendent Rogers--a noble Christian worker--was doing all in his power to make them as comfortable as the scanty means at his command would allow.  To give them better shelter than their poor huts afforded he was fitting up the old barracks--stopping the cracks to keep out the cold wind, and making other repairs.
We believed friend Rogers to be the right man in the right place, and felt much sympathy with him in his arduous work. He evinced a deep interest in the welfare of the contrabands, in every sense, and was fitting up a large room in which to hold religious meetings. This apartment was also to be used as a school-room, but the school had not yet been organized. It seemed to be a great relief to friend Rogers when Job Hadley and wife offered to take charge of the school. The assistance of Job Hadley in other work would also be of great service to him. . . 
Coffin helped form the Western Freedman's Aid Society in 1863 to offer assistance to the slaves freed during the war. Coffin's group began collecting food and goods to be distributed to the former slaves.  Coffin petitioned the government to create the Freedmen's Bureau to offer assistance to freed slaves.  
After my return from Cairo I devoted my whole time and energy to the work for the freed slaves. I wrote many letters to my friends in the country--in Ohio and Indiana--and they began at once to collect bedding, clothing, and money, and forward them to me. We had no facilities for sending them to the various camps of the freedmen, or for properly distributing them. It seemed necessary to have some regular and responsible organization here on the border, to receive and forward the supplies.
A meeting was called, and the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission was organized, comprising many prominent members of the different religious denominations of our city. I was appointed general agent of this commission. We went to work at once and opened an office and wareroom where the supplies sent for the freedmen could be received, and stored until forwarded to their destination.
The members of the Society of Friends in various parts of the country had become deeply interested in the subject, and were actively at work. Miami Quarterly Meeting had appointed a committee, the members of which had issued a printed circular, to Friends, on the subject of the sufferings and wants of the freedmen. The response to this appeal came in the shape of supplies from various parts of Ohio and Indiana.
The Aid Commission was organized in January, 1863. It will be remembered that President Lincoln's emancipation proclamation took effect the first day of that year.
General Grant, who at that time had command of the Southern division of the army, gave us free transportation for all supplies for the freedmen and for our agents and teachers. We sent efficient agents to attend to the proper and judicious distribution of the clothing and other articles, and a number of teachers, well supplied with books, to open schools among the colored people.
. . . The work constantly increased, and the demands upon us far exceeded our supplies. During the winter and spring I frequently took hasty trips into the country to endeavor to arouse a deeper interest on this subject among the people, and attended many of the Quarterly Meetings of Friends in Ohio and Indiana, to encourage increased action in behalf of the freedmen. These efforts were blessed with success, and our supplies largely increased.  Other denominations began to take a lively interest, and as our organization was anti-sectarian, all were united in this work of benevolence, and labored together harmoniously.
In 1864 he went to the British Isles; there he was instrumental in organizing the English Freedmen's Aid Society, which sent over one hundred thousand dollars in money and supplies to America in a single year.
I found a great deal of misconception and prejudice to combat among some of those occupying high positions. I endeavored to correct the false impressions made by Southern agents and copper-head papers as to the real cause of the war, and in answering questions I had to talk a great deal on the various subjects connected with our struggle in America. I felt deeply sensible of the necessity of great care and watchfulness in all that I said, and earnestly craved to be guided by best wisdom in all my movements.
. . . I sailed for America, having been absent more than twelve months. I left England with a thankful and cheerful heart; it had been one of the happiest years of my life. I could reflect upon my labors with satisfaction; they had been blessed beyond my expectation. Over a hundred thousand dollars in money, clothing, and other articles for the freedmen had been forwarded to our association in Cincinnati during the year, and there was a prospect that other fruits of my labor would follow.
Coffin was involved in helping freed slaves after the war in establishing businesses and getting educations. The society provided food, clothing, money, and other aid to the newly freed slave population in the United States. 

In 1867 he was a delegate to the International Anti-Slavery Conference in Paris. 

Coffin did not enjoy being in the public eye and considered his job as begging for money, which he thought to be demeaning.  He recorded in his book that he gladly gave up the position once a new leader for the organization was found.  He was concerned about giving money freely to all blacks, some of whom he was believed would never be able to care for themselves unless adequate education and farms were provided to them.  He believed the society should only be giving their limited resources to those who were best able to benefit from them.  The society continued to operate until 1870, the same year blacks were guaranteed equality in constitutional amendment.  He later wrote in his book that "I resign my office and declare the operations of the Underground Railroad at an end."


Catharine White Coffin
In 1874, Levi and Catharine celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Portrait of Levi Coffin in his book,
Reminiscences of Levi Coffin
He spent his final year writing a book about the activities of the Underground Railroad and his life. The book, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, was published in 1876 and is considered by historians to be one of the best firsthand accounts of the activities of the Underground Railroad.  Louisa May Coffin, daughter of Levi's cousin Emory Dunreith Coffin, assisted him with writing and organizing the book.  

Trusting that this volume will accomplish something toward the eradication of the spirit of caste, which still exists in our land--though, in the providence of God, slavery itself has been removed--and in the acceptance and practice of that command, which reads: "Love thy neighbor as thyself,"
I now commend it to the reader.

~ LEVI COFFIN, CINCINNATI, Eighth Month, 1876
Levi Coffin died on September 16, 1877 at around 2:30pm in his home in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati. He was 79 years old.  He was survived by his wife, Catharine and their two sons, Jesse and Henry.

His funeral ceremony was held in the Friends Meeting House. The crowd was too large to be accommodated and hundreds had to remain outside. Four of his eight pallbearers were free blacks who had worked with Coffin on the Underground Railroad.

The Cincinnati Daily Gazette reported:
The funeral of Levi Coffin, the philanthropist, drew an overflowing audience to the Friends Meeting House, corner of Eighth and Mound streets, at eleven o'clock yesterday morning. . . . Near the platform were the venerable widow of the deceased and her sons, Henry and Jesse. . . . The casket, of plain black walnut, with four black bar handles, was borne into the meeting-house by eight pall-bearers, of whom Ezra Bailey and Mr. Geo. D. Smith are members of the Society of Friends, the Rev. R. S. Rust and the Rev. J. M. Walden were old co-workers with the deceased, and Mr. George Peterson, Robert Scott, Peter H. Clark, and T. Colston are colored men.
 After a few moments spent in silent worship, Mr. Murray Shipley read a lesson from the eighteenth chapter of Acts, and the twentieth of Ephesians, appropriate to the character of the deceased, and offered prayer.  After an expressive pause, he read again a few passages of Scripture, and dwelt at some length on the clause: "He went about doing good, for God was with him." 
. . . He recalled the scene of the lad seven years of age, standing on the road and acquiring his first anti-slavery sentiments at the sight of a passing gang of slaves, manacled to prevent them from running away, while marching from the mart to the plantation. He told of his work while yet in North Carolina, in 1818, in gathering slaves together and teaching them the Bible. Thus he started out in life with a healthy hatred of all oppression, and an unselfish purpose to follow the course of his Master in ministering to the poor and the outcast. . . . Levi Coffin worked with all his powers and faculties, and he lived to see the emancipation of millions of slaves in his own country and the world over.
. . . Mr. Charles F. Coffin gave some reminiscences of the life of the deceased, in Indiana; of his love for children and friends, and his exemplification of the text, 'Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.' The great question with him was not, is it popular? but, is it right? At no period of his life was there ever a spirit of gloominess; but ever pleasant, happy, enjoying life's blessings, and looking joyfully to the grand results in the future. The speaker commented upon the unselfishness of the life ended upon earth, and commended it to young and old. . . 
Peter Humphries Clark
 The body was then conveyed to the Quaker burying-ground, on West Fork, near Cumminsville, followed by a large concourse of friends.  At the grave, Mr. Murray Shipley read a selection from Whittier's poem, "Joseph Sturge," beginning with the line, 'His faith and his work, like streams that intermingle.' Prayer was offered by Charles F. Coffin.  Mr. Peter H. Clark (colored) followed in an appropriate address.  The Rev. Mr. Scott, pastor of the Avondale Baptist Church (colored), told of the voluntary and unsought assistance deceased had rendered to his church in time of its distress, relieving it from an oppressive debt.  The Rev. Dr. Montfort closed. The body was then lowered to the grave.
Monument at the Coffins' Grave in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio
Levi Coffin was buried in a West Cumminsville Cemetery; in 1898, the bodies of Levi and Catharine Coffin were re-buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in an unmarked grave. On July 11, 1902, African Americans in Cincinnati erected a monument over the Coffins' grave to honor their work.  







Charles T. Webber was a leader in Cincinnati art circles during the latter half of the 19th century. He is best known for the historical painting, "The Underground Railroad" around 1893, as a tribute to the work of abolitionists earlier in the century. The painting shows fugitive slaves with Levi and Catherine Coffin and Hannah Haycock leading a group of blacks to freedom on a cold wintry day. The painting was created for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.


"The Underground Railroad" by Charles Webber
Now in the Cincinnati Art Museum
Coffin's home in Indiana was purchased by the state of Indiana in 1967 and restored to its original condition. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 by the United States Department of the Interior, the Coffin house was purchased by the state in 1967 and leased to the Wayne County Historical Society. The Society, after generous donations from the community and the Lilly Endowment, renovated the structure and opened it to the public as a museum in 1970. 



Volunteers from the Levi Coffin House Association offer tours of the Federal-style brick home built in 1839 (the Coffins' fourth home in Newport). The home's fireplaces, floors, doors, and most of the woodwork are original. The furnishings all predate 1847 and as nearly as possible are typical of the time period and those of a Quaker family.


Desk that once belonged to the Coffins
July 2014 Update: 
We visited the Coffin Home and enjoyed the tour very much!  The volunteers love and care for the house, history and family, and it really comes through in the tour.  They are informative and great about answering questions - as many times as they have given tours, it doesn't sound like they're "reciting" it.  We highly recommend a visit!

Coffin Home

Parlor

Footwarmer


Fireplace with utensils
for making toast and waffles

Bedroom
Chamberpot


Back of house

2 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful piece. I would like permission to link it to our website www.HamitlonAvenueRoadToFreedom.org. Please go on to our site and read about the Escape of the 28 that Coffin was a part of. Where did you find the picture of William Beard?

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  2. Please give Sylvia Rummel Credit for the photo at the top of your blog. She is a Cable Descendant--this is Levi Coffin and Jonathan Cable with at this point still unidentified group. We believe that it was taken in Cincinnati since this is where Cable and Coffin worked together in public. WE would like to know much more about the photo.

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