15 Facts About Blackbeard

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Extremely adept at capturing ships and plundering loot, the pirate Blackbeard struck fear into the hearts of New World seamen—and these days, he's unquestionably the most famous pirate of all time. You can find Blackbeard statues in North Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A brand of men’s hair dye was named after him. And the city of Hampton, Virginia throws an annual pirate festival in his honor. If you want to find out about Blackbeard, this list’s for you, matey.

1. BLACKBEARD WAS AN APPROPRIATE NICKNAME.

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Like many pirates from his era, Blackbeard is a figure with mysterious origins. Some say he was born in the English port of Bristol around 1680; others argue that he was born in Jamaica. He used to call himself Edward, but it's unclear what last name he used. Most primary documents refer to him as Edward Thatch (although the spelling isn’t consistent, and it may have been an assumed name anyway), but the Boston News-Letter and other contemporary newspapers tended to call him Edward Teach. The origin of the moniker Blackbeard, however, is easier to figure out. It was derived from eyewitness testimonies: People who had seen the pirate firsthand often described him as a tall, thinly built man with a long black beard.

2. HE MAY HAVE DABBLED IN PRIVATEERING.

For centuries, governments in Europe and elsewhere would hire private warships to further their own interests (think of it as piracy by commission). First, they’d approach the owners of heavily-armed vessels and give them legal permission to attack or plunder enemy nations. After recruiting a private ship, the government would hand the crew a “Letter of Marque”—essentially instructions for the sailors, which included detailed information about who could be attacked and under what circumstances.

These mercenaries were known as privateers. In the 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson (likely a pseudonym) asserted that, as a young sailor, Edward Thatch joined a privateering crew sailing out of Jamaica (then a British colony). No one’s been able to verify this claim, but it’s certainly plausible. Plenty of great pirates started out as privateers before they went rogue and turned on their homelands. Mr. Thatch wouldn’t have been an outlier.

3. THE PIRATE BENJAMIN HORNIGOLD IS OFTEN CITED AS HIS MENTOR.

In December 1716, merchant captain Henry Timberlake gave a deposition about a pirate attack he’d recently survived—one of the first written documents to mention Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch.

Timberlake reported that a few days earlier, his 40-ton brigantine had been attacked and plundered by two pirate sloops near the island of Hispaniola. One of those ships, he said, was commanded by somebody called Edward Thach [sic]; the other sloop’s leader was the pirate Benjamin Hornigold, a well-known outlaw with a sizable fleet. According to Timberlake’s disposition, Thatch and Hornigold divvied up his booty—which mostly consisted of food—between their crews.

It’s unknown if the two pirates actually worked together. Some historians think Blackbeard was a lieutenant of Hornigold’s at the time, but it’s also possible that the pirates were behaving independently, and that Thatch was never subordinate to Hornigold. Regardless, as a maritime legend, Blackbeard was about to come into his own.

4. HIS FLAGSHIP WAS AN EX-SLAVE VESSEL.

By the autumn of 1717, Blackbeard had established himself as the head of a small fleet. On November 28 of that year, two of his sloops came across La Concorde, a 200-ton slave ship with 16 cannons. The French vessel was on its third slave trading expedition across the Atlantic with hundreds of Africans on board, 100 miles from Martinique, when Thatch’s men caught sight of it. Despite its numerous cannons, La Concorde was an easy target: Blackbeard’s two sloops had a combined total of 150 crewmen, and La Concorde had fewer than 60 sailors in its crew, over half of whom were sick with dysentery and scurvy. Thatch seized the ship and renamed it the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It remained Blackbeard’s primary ship until June 1718, when it was wrecked on a sandbar near Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina.

5. IT’S SAID THAT HE USED TO PUT FLAMING MATCHES UNDER HIS HAT.

Blackbeard’s fame as an outlaw was solidified after he seized at least 15 ships near the harbors of New York, Philadelphia, and other east coast cities in the fall of 1717. Frightening stories were told and retold by those who’d survived an encounter with him. The tales grew tall. Blackbeard was said to adorn himself with flaming matches or candles, and according to 1724's A General History, “In time of action, he… stuck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful.”

Of course, these stories about Blackbeard's fiery antics might be pure folklore—but the image is compelling!

6. BLACKBEARD DOUBLE-CROSSED THE SO-CALLED “GENTLEMAN PIRATE.”

Stede Bonnet was the wealthy, 29-year-old owner of a Barbados sugar plantation who—for reasons unknown—abandoned his family and became a pirate in 1717. Bonnet’s first move was to (legally) purchase a sloop, which he soon fitted with 10 cannons. Next, he hired a crew and started raiding vessels along the eastern seaboard. But although his men were experienced, Bonnet himself knew almost nothing about seafaring. And then he met Blackbeard.

By that point, Thatch was already a criminal celebrity. Soon, the two forged a partnership and started taking ships in the West Indies. Blackbeard, a worldly fellow, quickly deduced that his new partner—who had been nicknamed the Gentleman Pirate—was just a rookie. Bonnet’s flagship was a vessel called The Revenge. After some persuasion, he allowed one of Blackbeard’s men to be put in charge of the ship.

When the Queen Anne’s Revenge was wrecked on the sandbar, Blackbeard returned The Revenge to Bonnet. Likely seeking a pardon for some crimes he'd previously committed, Bonnet left the ship and went ashore. While he was away, Blackbeard stripped The Revenge of its supplies and sailed off. Bonnet vowed that he’d get even, but the Gentleman Pirate never saw Thatch again.

7. CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, HIS FLAG DID NOT LOOK LIKE THIS.

Fred the Oyster, Wikimedia Commons // CC0

Some picture books, magazine articles, and TV documentaries will tell you that Blackbeard’s ships used flags with a heart-stabbing horned skeleton on them. But historian E.T. Fox begs to differ. In his book Jolly Rogers: The True History of Pirate Flags, Fox points out that there’s no record of Blackbeard ever using this design. One newspaper report from 1718 said that Thatch’s ships flew “Black Flags” and “Bloody Flags,” but the writeup doesn’t go into detail. According to Fox, the horned skeleton design didn’t appear in any English-language document until 1912, when it was featured in the journal Mariner’s Mirror, incorrectly tied to a pirate named John Quelch. In all likelihood, the horned skull flag was invented during the early 20th century and only started being associated with Blackbeard as late as the 1970s.

8. IN 1718, HE BLOCKADED THE PORT OF CHARLESTON—AND DEMANDED MEDICAL TOOLS.

In May 1718, Charleston (then called Charles Town) found itself at the mercy of Edward Thatch. With four vessels and 400 men, Blackbeard effectively sealed off the city’s harbor; ships that tried to enter or leave it were plundered. On one of these ships, the Crowley, was Samuel Wragg—a member of the colony's governing council—and his young son. In exchange for the safe return of these hostages, Blackbeard demanded a chest of medical supplies. Within a few days, he got his wish. The city grudgingly handed over the equipment and Thatch sent his prisoners back unharmed.

9. HE TRIED TO SETTLE DOWN IN BATH, NORTH CAROLINA.

After the Queen Anne’s Revenge sank, Blackbeard found himself in a conciliatory mood. He and his (diminished) crew approached North Carolina’s governor Charles Eden and asked for an official pardon. Eden granted their request. Blackbeard settled in the coastal town of Bath; he reportedly married a local woman and fielded numerous dinner invitations from neighbors who saw him as an object of great curiosity.

But as the saying goes, old habits die hard, and despite his attempts to fit in, a normal life just wasn’t in the cards for Blackbeard. One day, Thatch set sail out of Bath and came back into port with a loot-filled French ship. Thatch swore that the vessel was abandoned at sea when he found it, a story that was understandably hard to believe.

10. HE THREW A WILD BEACH PARTY WITH ANOTHER INFAMOUS PIRATE.

In September or October 1718, the dreaded captain Charles Vane and his crew of 90 sailed into Bath with the goal of recruiting Blackbeard for an attack on Nassau. Vane and Thatch threw a huge party on Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard’s men had set up a private campsite. The drunken festivities reportedly lasted for days on end. Afterwards, Vane and Thatch parted ways; they would never cross paths again.

11. IT WAS VIRGINIA’S LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR WHO ORCHESTRATED BLACKBEARD’S DEMISE.

Governor Eden and Blackbeard had a cordial relationship—so cozy that it raised eyebrows. The governor’s critics wondered if Thatch was secretly providing him with stolen goods, and other colonies weren’t too happy about the fact that a notorious outlaw was now living freely on American soil.

Shortly after Thatch and Vane’s epic bash, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, hatched a plan to rid the continent of Blackbeard once and for all. In the late fall of 1718, he sent two ships under the command of naval officer Robert Maynard down to North Carolina. The expedition’s legality was questionable at best; Spotswood had decided to invade a separate colony without consulting its government [PDF], after all. But he persisted anyway.

Maynard’s ships reached Ocracoke Island on November 21, 1718. Arriving at dusk, he saw that a sloop of Thatch’s called the Adventure was anchored nearby. The next morning, Maynard’s men quietly approached. They were seen and attacked by the pirates, and a battle broke out. When the fighting erupted, there were only 18 crewmen aboard the Adventure. Blackbeard was present also, but it should be noted that he’d been drinking heavily the night before. Though the pirates put up a good fight, Maynard prevailed—and Thatch was killed.

12. HIS SEVERED HEAD WAS PUT ON DISPLAY.

Once the dust had settled, Maynard counted five bullet holes and 20 sword-made cuts in Blackbeard’s dead body. On his orders, Thatch’s head was removed and the rest of his corpse was tossed into the ocean. (According to another account, Blackbeard was killed when one of Maynard’s men cut off his head.) Maynard then tied the severed remains to one of his bowsprits. The gruesome prize was taken back to Virginia, where Spotswood had it mounted on a tall pole near the intersection of the Hampton and James Rivers. It stayed up there for a few years as a morbid warning to other pirates.

13. ONE OF HIS SUBORDINATES WAS WRITTEN INTO TREASURE ISLAND.

Newell Convers Wyeth, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Israel Hands is generally considered Blackbeard’s second in command. Unlike Thatch, he didn’t participate in the battle with Maynard. When the fighting started, he was over in Bath—possibly recovering from a leg injury (according to A General History, he was shot in the leg by a drunk Blackbeard). Later, Maynard’s men captured Hands, who testified against some of his own former crewmates in court. Thanks to his damning testimony, Hands was allowed to go free. Robert Louis Stevenson went on to give the man a role in his novel Treasure Island. The book casts Hands as the wily first mate of Long John Silver. Jim Hawkins winds up killing him in self-defense.

14. THERE’S NO PROOF THAT HE BURIED ANY TREASURE.

Tales of buried treasure are legendary, but there’s only one confirmed case of a pirate who actually did bury some treasure (that pirate was William Kidd, who in 1699 hid precious loot worth a million dollars in today's money under the sands of Gardiners Island, New York, which was soon dug up again to be used against him in trial). Did Edward Thatch try to bury a chest or two of his own? Probably not—none of the available evidence suggests that Blackbeard ever stored any loot underground.

15. THE WRECKAGE OF THE QUEEN ANNE’S REVENGE WAS REDISCOVERED IN 1996.

Credit for the find goes to the private research firm Intersal, Inc. Off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina, their team found a sunken ship on November 21, 1996. It appeared to match the description of the long-lost Queen Anne’s Revenge. At the end of a protracted inspection process, in 2011, experts confirmed that the wreckage was indeed Blackbeard’s former flagship. More than a dozen cannons have been recovered from the site, along with a bounty of other artifacts. These treasures include a medical syringe and a scrap of paper that presumably came from a 1712 adventure book. The booty did not include a lot of gold: Only a few grams of gold dust were discovered.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

9 Unsung Heroes of the Underground Railroad

An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
An illustration depicting fugitives along the Underground Railroad in Maryland, taken from William Still's 1872 book The Underground Railroad.
Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Considering that the massive network of hidden paths and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad stretched from the Deep South all the way to Canada, it makes sense that hundreds of people were involved in its operation. Some, like Harriet Tubman, were “conductors,” who led the rescue missions, while others—John Brown, for example—were “station masters,” hosting fugitives in their homes and arranging safe passage to freedom. Here are nine other valorous heroes who risked life and limb to help people on their way to liberty.

1. William Still

A sketch of William Still from Wilbur Henry Siebert and Albert Bushnell Hart's 1898 book The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom.Macmillan, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born to formerly enslaved parents in New Jersey in 1821, William Still moved to Philadelphia at age 23 and took up the abolitionist mantle in more ways than one. He taught himself to read and write, got a job as a clerk for the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and advanced through the organization until he was named chairman of its new Vigilance Committee in the early 1850s. In that position, Still oversaw the region’s network of safe houses—his own house among them—and raised money to finance key rescue missions, including a few of Harriet Tubman’s.

It’s estimated that Still ferried about 800 people to freedom during his tenure; one of them was his brother Peter. But there’s another reason he’s often referred to as “the Father of the Underground Railroad.” Still documented the stories of more than 600 escapees and published them all in a groundbreaking volume called The Underground Railroad in 1872, making him the only Black person ever to write and self-publish a firsthand account of activity on the Underground Railroad. He hoped that the “extraordinary determination and endeavor” exhibited in the harrowing narratives would inspire Black Americans to continue the struggle for civil rights.

“The race must not forget the rock from whence they were hewn, nor the pit from whence they were digged,” he wrote in the introduction. “Like other races, this newly emancipated people will need all the knowledge of their past condition which they can get.”

2. John P. Parker

Parker's house in Ripley, Ohio.Nyttend, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When John P. Parker was 8 years old, a merchant separated him from his enslaved mother in Norfolk, Virginia, and sold him to a doctor in Mobile, Alabama. There, Parker apprenticed at an iron foundry—and learned to read and write, with the help of the doctor’s children. At age 18, he persuaded one of the doctor’s patients to purchase him and let him gradually buy back his freedom with his foundry earnings. The plan worked, and Parker left for Ripley, Ohio, where he built a house, started a family, and patented a few popular mechanical parts for tobacco machines during a successful career as a foundryman.

Through it all, Parker made regular excursions across the Ohio River to spirit fugitives from Kentucky back to Ripley’s safe houses (one belonged to John Rankin, a prominent white abolitionist who lived less than a mile from Parker). Parker’s rescue missions were especially dangerous, partially because bounty hunters looking for fugitives knew who he was, and partially because Parker himself was dauntless. Once, an enslaver suspected a married couple would attempt to escape, so he took their baby and put him to sleep in his room. Parker snuck into the room, carefully plucked the child from the bed—where the enslaver also lay sleeping—and dashed back through the house. The enslaver awoke and tore after him, firing his pistol, but Parker and the family managed to escape across the river.

Parker recounted these rescues to journalist Frank M. Gregg during a series of interviews in the 1880s, but the manuscript sat forgotten in Duke University’s archives until historian Stuart Seeley Sprague unearthed it and published it in 1996.

3. and 4. Harriet Bell Hayden and Lewis Hayden

A portrait of Lewis Hayden from William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.The Liberator, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1812, Lewis Hayden watched enslavers tear apart his family not once, but twice. First, his siblings were sold to a different enslaver; and later, his wife and son were bought by Kentucky senator Henry Clay [PDF] and sold somewhere in the Deep South. Hayden never saw them again. In the early 1840s, he married an enslaved woman named Harriet Bell, adopted her son, and soon began plotting their escape.

With the help of Calvin Fairbank, a minister, and Delia Webster, a teacher, the Haydens fled their enslaver’s estate and eventually arrived safely in Canada. By 1846, they had returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where they opened a clothing store. Before long, Lewis and Harriet had joined the Boston Vigilance Committee and turned their home into a boarding house, which became a highly trafficked stop on the Underground Railroad.

A drawing of Harriet Bell Hayden from her obituary in The Cleveland Gazette.The Cleveland Gazette, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though slavery had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1783, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that enslaved people who had escaped to free states could still be found and returned to their enslavers in the South. The Haydens fearlessly protected hundreds of people from bounty hunters who tried to do just that. Ellen and William Craft, for example, had garnered widespread attention for their risky escape from slavery in Georgia, which involved Ellen impersonating a white man and William posing as her Black servant. When bounty hunters pursued them to the Haydens’ house, Lewis announced that he’d readily blow up the whole property with the two kegs of gunpowder he kept inside if they tried to kidnap the Crafts. The bounty hunters didn’t chance it, and left empty-handed.

Lewis also helped recruit Black soldiers for the 54th Massachusetts Infantry—one of the Union’s first all-Black military units—and was even elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly in 1873. When he died in 1889, Boston’s city council praised him as “one of the pioneers in the freeing of this country from the curse of slavery.” Harriet, who died in 1893, donated her entire estate to Harvard Medical School for the purpose of establishing a scholarship for Black students, which still exists today.

5. Henrietta Bowers Duterte

A photo of Henrietta Bowers Duterte with one of her children.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1852, Henrietta Bowers, a 35-year-old tailor, married a Haitian-American undertaker named Francis A. Duterte. They both came from well-respected Philadelphia families, and Francis’s mortuary was successful; in other words, it should have been a long, happy union. But by the end of that decade, Henrietta was alone: Her children had all died young, and Francis had also passed away suddenly. Instead of handing the mortuary business over to a man—which would have been expected at the time—Henrietta took it over and, in addition to running the mortuary, turned it into an especially clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.

Not only did Henrietta use funeral processions as opportunities to help disguised fugitives slip unnoticed through the city, but she also sometimes smuggled them out of Philadelphia in actual coffins. The mortuary continued to be lucrative, and Henrietta funneled the profits into organizations that served Philadelphia’s Black community, like the First Colored Church and Stephen Smith’s Philadelphia Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons. In 1866, she helped arrange the Freedman’s Aid Society Fair to support formerly enslaved people in Tennessee.

6. David Ruggles

A political cartoon depicting a slave owner raging against Ruggles and two other abolitionists who had helped one of his servants escape.Edward Williams Clay, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

David Ruggles, born free in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, moved to New York City at age 17 and opened a grocery shop, which he staffed with emancipated Black Americans. Before long, Ruggles pivoted to lending and selling abolitionist books, pamphlets, and newspapers, too, making him the nation’s first Black bookstore owner. In 1835, Ruggles and other local abolitionists founded the New York Vigilance Committee, an interracial organization which, like the one in Philadelphia, helped people escape from slavery. Not only did he provide legal aid to Black Americans targeted by bounty hunters, but he also housed many fugitives in his own home on Lispenard Street.

One of these temporary guests was Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and arrived in New York penniless and famished in 1838. He was rescued, he explained in his 1845 autobiography, “by the humane hand of Mr. David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance, I shall never forget.” Douglass wrote to his fiancée, Anna, who joined him within a few days, and Ruggles even arranged a marriage ceremony in the house. Soon after the wedding, Ruggles gave the couple $5 and booked their passage on a steamship to New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Throughout his years as an Underground Railroad station master, Ruggles distributed countless anti-slavery publications and advocated for “practical abolitionism,” or the idea that each person should actively take part in emancipating Black Americans. He wasn’t without enemies: twice his shop was burned down, and he was physically attacked on several occasions. By his late twenties, Ruggles’s health was failing, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child encouraged him to come live with the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a self-sufficient community in Florence, Massachusetts, that championed equal rights for all. There, Ruggles regained some of his strength through hydrotherapy, and he eventually opened his own hydrotherapy hospital, where Douglass often visited him. When he died at age 39, it was Douglass who wrote his obituary.

7. and 8. Harriet Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis

A daguerroeotype of Robert Purvis from the 1840s.Boston Public Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Robert Purvis, the son of a white man and a free Black woman, was active in practically all facets of Philadelphia’s anti-slavery movement from the 1830s through the Civil War. He helped found and lead the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and its Vigilance Committee, which offered boarding, clothing, medical attention, legal counsel, and northern passage to fugitives; and he also worked alongside prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society a few years later.

Since women weren’t originally allowed to be members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Robert’s wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, joined Lucretia Mott and other activists in forming the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December 1833. Harriet, like Mott, would go on to become a leader in the suffrage movement, too.

Robert and Harriet had both come from extremely successful and respected Philadelphia families, and they used their influence—and financial resources—to assist escapees in any way they could. Their house on Lombard Street became a well-traversed thoroughfare for fugitives heading north.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of the travelers upon that road,” read Robert's 1898 obituary in The New York Times.

A portrait of Harriet Forten Purvis circa 1874. ExplorePAhistory.com // Public Domain

The couple’s high-profile work sometimes made them a target for those who opposed the upward mobility of Black Americans. In August 1842, a parade celebrating the eighth anniversary of the end of slavery in the British West Indies devolved into violence when an Irish mob—resenting their own low position in society—attacked the revelers and began looting and setting fire to Black-owned buildings along the street. The rioters planned to progress to the Purvises' house, where Robert stood armed and waiting, but a Catholic priest reportedly diverted them.

After that, Robert and Harriet moved their family to a farmhouse in Byberry, a northeastern neighborhood of Philadelphia, and promptly turned their new estate into another station on the Underground Railroad. Robert approximated that between 1831 and 1861, he had helped emancipate about one person per day (though it’s possible that this calculation included his broader work with various anti-slavery organizations).

9. Samuel D. Burris

A sketch of Samuel D. Burris from William Still's book The Underground Railroad.Delaware Historical & Cultural Affairs, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Samuel D. Burris worked tirelessly during the 1840s to lead fugitives through his home state of Delaware and into Philadelphia, where he lived with his wife and children. Though Burris was a free man, he could be imprisoned and sold into slavery if caught helping fugitives in Delaware—and in 1847, he was.

Officials apprehended Burris when he was trying to smuggle a woman named Maria Matthews onto a steamship. Since they set his bail at $5000 (more than $157,000 today), he was forced to spend months in jail while awaiting trial. “They uphold and applaud those slave traffickers, and those inhuman and unmerciful leeches, in their soul-damning conduct, by making the colored people legal subjects for their bloody principles to feast on,” he wrote from his cell, in a letter that was later published in William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

On November 2, 1847, Burris was convicted, fined $500, and sentenced to 10 more months in prison. After that, he’d be sold into slavery for 14 years. While Burris was serving his 10-month sentence, a group of Philadelphia abolitionists amassed $500 and sent a Quaker named Isaac Flint to pose as a trader and purchase Burris at the auction. Luckily, Flint ended up being the highest bidder (though according to William Still’s account in The Underground Railroad, luck had little to do with it: Flint savvily bought off a Baltimore trader who had tried to top his bid).

“[Burris] was not by any means aware of the fact that he had fallen into the hands of friends, but, on the contrary, evidently labored under the impression that his freedom was gone,” Still wrote. “The joyful news was whispered in the ear of Burris that all was right; that he had been bought with abolition gold to save him from going south.”

As Delaware State University historian Robin Krawitz told CNN, Burris continued helping fugitives after his release, and angry Delawarians actually petitioned the government to discipline him more severely. After officials enacted legislation that recommended public whipping as punishment for anyone caught a second time, Burris halted his operations in Delaware. Instead, he moved to San Francisco, where he raised funds to help newly freed people establish themselves.