After several failed attempts to escape from slavery in Texas, Lavinia Bell followed the North Star to New York in January of 1861. When she arrived at Rouses Point, New York's northernmost port on Lake Champlain, a kind man performed the "Christian act" of paying her train fare to Montreal.
This is an abridged account of her escape:
Narrative of the Escape of a poor Negro Woman from Slavery
(From the Montreal Gazette)
We lay before our readers to-day a brief account of the sufferings of a poor woman from the lips of the woman herself.
Born in Washington of free parents, while yet an infant stolen, she was taken down to Galveston, Texas, the property of William Whirl. She was brought up as a show girl, taught to dance, sing, cackle like a hen, or crow like rooster, sent into the cotton field with no clothes whatever, exposed to the glare of a southern sun, harnessed to a plough. She often attempted to escape, but, having no knowledge of the way, was easily overtaken. She and her husband made an unsuccessful attempt. The poor man was shockingly beaten and died. Her mistress, Polly Whirl, at last told her of Canada, that refuge for the hunted fugitive, and pointed out to her the North Star as her guide by night. This, of course, was done without the knowledge of the brute Whirl.
She again started, subsisting on herbs and nuts, gave birth to twin children, one of them dead. Her master, having some difficulty proving her identity, slit both her ears, then branded her on the back of her left hand with a hot iron, cut off with an axe the little finger and bone of her right hand, searing the wound with a hot iron, branded her on the stomach with a letter. She again escaped. They took her child from her. Again she got away, traveling through Ohio to New York State. When near Rouses Point, some man performed the Christian act of paying her way to Montreal by railroad, and on Monday evening last she arrived here, was brought to the house of a man of her own race, Mr. Cook, in a state of perfect destitution. Her object now is to earn money to support herself, and raise enough to purchase the freedom of her child. The poor woman is still very ill, but is receiving every medical attendance from Dr. Reddy, who will continue his attendance as long as necessary.
On January 28, Dr. Reddy reported,
I was requested by Mr. Cook to call and see a Negro woman who had arrived the previous day in Montreal, he telling me she was very ill from injuries she had received while a slave. On visiting the woman, she complained of severe pain in her right side, cause as she said, by a violent wrench which she had received at the hands of her owners. On making examination I found her body very much distorted, her spine curbed towards the right side and the ribs forced completely in the same direction, having a very bulged appearance. I also found the following marks of ill treatment on her person. A 'V-shaped' piece had been slit out of each ear; there was a depression on the right parietal bone where it had been fractured and is now very tender to the touch; the corresponding spot on the opposite side had a large scar uncovered by hair; there is large deep scar, 3 1/2 inches long on the left side of the lower jaw; several of her teeth are broken out; the back of her left hand has been branded with a heated flat-iron; the little finger of her right hand, with a portion of the bone that it connected with, has been cut off; the abdomen bears the mark of a large letter 4 inches long in one way and 2 1/2 inches in another, also branded with a hot-iron; her ankles are scarred, and the soles of her feet are all covered with little round marks apparently inflicted with some sharp instruments which she accounts for by her stating that she was obliged to walk over hackles used for hackling flax; her back and person are literally covered all over with scars and marks now healed, evidently produced by the lash. Altogether she presents a most pitiable appearance.
Bud Jones of Brockville, Ontario, has a proud addendum to the story:
The person who aided her in her flight was young George Edward Jones, My Great-Grandfather's younger brother whose off-spring still reside in Montreal. And who had made many journeys back to the States as a conductor on the UGR. My Great-Grandfather James Henry Jones, also a Barber, (all the Jones's were Barbers and at one time all worked together in McGill Street.) As a matter of fact, after George died Anna Cook known in the Black Community a "Granny Cook" took in George's daughter Isabella after his death and adopted her. She later became "Granny" Johnston to the community, and had inherited all of the Cook property which included a large Country home in Plage Laval, just on the outskirts of Montreal.
On April 12, 1861, a lease for a one-story wooden dwelling at 4 St. Urbain Street was signed by a laborer named William Henry Smith and "Levinia Wormeny widow of late Henry Bell in his lifetime, of Texas." Each made the mark of an X, a sign used by people who had not had the privilege of learning how to write their name.
Two weeks later, someone else signed a lease for the same dwelling.
We are left with an unanswered question: what became of Mrs. Bell?
In 2007, retired educator Ella Lewis portrayed Lavinia Bell during the Galveston Historical Society's Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth is a widely observed annual celebration which commemorates June 19, 1865, as the day when General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the emancipation of slaves in the Lone Star state. The United States had abolished slavery two and one half years earlier.
The dramatic life of Lavinia Bell is featured in our DVD, Northward to Freedom. For broadcast rights, email the Agency for Instructional Technology.
For an article on Rouses Point, see our Winter-Spring 2007-2008 newsletter.
Montreal Witness February 2, 1861, courtesy John Leblanc.
Bud Jones, e-mail to author (n.d.).
Frank Mackey, Black Then: Blacks and Montreal 1780s-1880s. (Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca: McGill-Gueen's University Press, 2004).
Galveston Historical Foundation Presents "The Making of the Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom" Galveston Historical Foundation, 11 June 2007, press release, 3 March 2009.
Image of George Edward Jones, courtesy Bud Jones.
John W. Blassingame, ed. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, ed. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
Lease of 12 April 1861 from Louis Dechantal to William Henry Smith et al. Deed #6586 from the records of notary Joseph-Evariste-Odilon Labadie at Archives nationales du Québec.
"Narrative of the Escape of a Poor Negro Woman From Slavery" was published in three Montreal newspapers. It first appeared in the Montreal Gazette and Evening Pilot on January 31, 1861. An abbreviated version was published in the Montreal Witness on February 2, 1861.
Rouses Point Steamboat and Train Terminal image, courtesy Special Collections, Benjamin F. Feinberg Library, State University of New York at Plattsburgh.