Delia Webster

Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Delia Webster was a teacher and abolitionist in Kentucky, where she was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tried and convicted for helping runaway slaves in their escape to freedom, she was the first woman imprisoned for assisting fugitive slaves. Webster was also an artist, writer, and an independent woman, unusual for her time.

Image: Delia (front left) with her sisters, clockwise Martha, Mary Jane, and Betsey

Delia Ann Webster was born December 17, 1817, one of four daughters born to Benejah and Esther Bostwick Webster in Vergennes, Vermont. She attended the Vergennes Classical School, and began teaching school at 12 years of age. She then attended Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college in the United States to accept women and African American students. The town of Oberlin was called a “hotbed of abolitionism.”

Early in 1843, at age 25, Delia Webster traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, where she taught several painting classes with friends and teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer. The three were asked to open a high school there, and Webster became co-founder of the Lexington Female Academy. When the Spencers were taken seriously ill with intermittent fever and returned to the North, Webster took charge of the Academy.

Calvin Fairbank
Originally from New York, Reverend Calvin Fairbank began his career freeing slaves in 1837 when he ferried a slave across the Ohio River to free territory. Soon he was delivering escaped slaves to Quaker abolitionists Levi and Catherine Coffin in Newport, Indiana. From there, they were transported on the Underground Railroad to northern US cities or Canada.

The Methodist Episcopal Church ordained Fairbank as a minister in 1842. Twenty-eight-year-old Calvin Fairbank traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to rescue the wife and children of an escaped slave named Gilson Berry, who had already escaped to Ohio.

Delia Webster soon made contact with Fairbank. She had become an active abolitionist in Lexington, but much of her Underground Railroad activity remains secret. She learned that Fairbank had some experience with helping slaves cross the river into Ohio, where they began their journey along the Underground Railroad to northern cities or Canada. He claimed that he had rescued at least forty-four by 1844.

Hayden Escape
Webster called Fairbank’s attention to the plight of the slave named Lewis Hayden and she may have financed their joint venture. On September 28, 1844, Webster and Fairbank left Lexington in a carriage. They then picked up Hayden and his wife Harriet and their young son Joseph. The boy was hidden under the carriage seat in times of danger, while his parents disguised themselves by covering their faces and hands with flour.

This desperate group traveled the Maysville-Lexington Turnpike, their ultimate destination being the home of Reverend John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio, just across the Ohio River. Rankin was a well-known conductor on the Underground Railroad. The Haydens were left safely in Ripley; they later made their way to Oberlin, Ohio. After they were pursued, fled to Sandusky, Ohio and eventually to Canada.

After one of their horses became sick, Webster and Fairbank were forced to stop at a tavern, where two black men from Lexington recognized them. Unfortunately, Webster and Fairbank did not know the men who had identified them. These men returned to Lexington and notified the slaves’ owner and the livery stable owner connect the rented carriage with the disappearance of the slaves.

Lewis and Harriet Hayden
Lewis Hayden was born enslaved in Lexington, Kentucky in 1812. His first wife Esther Harvey and their son were sold to U.S. Senator Henry Clay, who then sold them farther south. Hayden was never able to find them. Eventually, Hayden married Harriet Bell and they escaped to Canada in 1844, and then to Detroit in 1845.

The Haydens made their way to Boston by January 1846, where Lewis ran a clothing store and became one of Boston’s most visible and militant black abolitionists. The Haydens turned their home into a boarding house, where they cared for self-emancipated African Americans. Records from the Boston Vigilance Committee indicate that scores of people received aid at the Hayden home between 1850 and 1860.

Lewis Hayden helped rescue slaves Shadrach Minkins and Anthony Burns. William and Ellen Craft were Lewis and Harriet Hayden’s most famous house guests. The Crafts had escaped from the South on a passenger train to the north. Ellen was light-skinned and she played the role of a southern gentleman, while William acted as her personal servant.

The Crafts toured the United States, Canada and Great Britain speaking against slavery, and they became celebrated public figures. While they were still living in Boston, slave catchers were sent to reclaim the Crafts. However, Hayden stated that he kept two kegs of gunpowder near the entrance of his home. Should slave catchers attempt to reclaim their property, Hayden would blow up the house than surrender the Crafts. The slave catchers soon left Boston.

During the Civil War, Lewis Hayden recruited African American men for the 54th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. He also served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and worked for the Massachusetts Secretary of State. Lewis Hayden died on April 7, 1889. In her will, Harriet Hayden bequeathed money to be used as a scholarship for African American students at Harvard Medical School.

Arrested for Assisting Runaway Slaves
As they returned to Kentucky after leaving the Haydens, Webster and Fairbank were accosted by angry slave owners and the livery stable operator before they reached Lexington. Webster’s landlady had searched her room during her absence and found incriminating letters linking her to abolitionists and the Underground Railroad. Webster was arrested for assisting runaway slaves and locked up in a private room upstairs at Megowan’s Hotel.

Authorities also found damning evidence on Fairbank; he was arrested and put into irons. The driver of their carriage, a slave named Israel, was beaten until he admitted what they had done. Fairbank was tried in 1845 and sentenced to a 15-year term in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, five years for each of the slaves he helped free.

In 1849, Lewis Hayden raised the $650 demanded by his former master, and Fairbank was pardoned by Governor John Crittenden. Fairbank was arrested again in 1851 in Louisville for assisting fugitive slaves, and he remained in prison until 1864.

Webster Trial
Abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and others involved in the antislavery movement initially praised her. Funds were raised in Vermont for Webster’s defense. Her attorneys managed to win her a separate trial since most of the evidence pointed toward Fairbank. There was considerable sympathy for her. Webster pled not guilty but was convicted in December 1844 and sentenced to two years in the state prison.

It was said that “Northern Kentucky suffered greatly for her effective work.” Webster’s abolitionist efforts in Lexington were described in a 1921 article in Indiana Magazine of History:

She came to be hated by the slave masters as well as feared by them. While nothing could be established against her, she was constantly under suspicion and was subjected to threats intermingled with much persecution. With all this opposition, she continued her work just the same, traveling from one locality to another, always coming in contact with slaves and teaching them the avenues of escape and very frequently aiding them directly in the work herself.

The judge sentenced Delia Webster to two years at hard labor in the Kentucky State Penitentiary at the state capital in Frankfort, which she entered January 19, 1845. Because she was the only female prisoner in the penitentiary, she was housed in a wooden cottage in the center of the prison yard.

The warden there was Captain Newton Craig, and Webster claimed to fear mistreatment from him, since he was closely related to several of her enemies. Parker Craig, the livery stable owner from whom Fairbank rented the carriage they drove the Haydens in, was his cousin, and his wife was Parker Craig’s sister and a cousin of her first jailer, Megowan.

Newton Craig was a strong advocate of slavery and he regularly delivered evangelical sermons to his inmates. And yet he was enamored of Delia Webster and was tempted into a compromising relationship with her. Webster became the idol of Frankfort society and leading ministers and members of the state legislature visited her prison cell, while John Greenleaf Whittier and other Northerners praised her and her abolitionist work.

Webster Pardoned
Delia Webster was pardoned by Kentucky Governor John Crittenden, at Newton Craig’s urging. She was set free on February 24, 1845, having served barely five weeks of her sentence. After Webster was pardoned, she did not contact Craig again. He was reported to have been annoyed and desired to exact revenge “for being tricked.”

Delia Webster was pardoned by Kentucky Governor John Crittenden, at Newton Craig’s urging. She was released from prison on February 24, 1845, having served barely five weeks of her sentence. After Webster left the prison, she ignored Craig. He was annoyed, and wanted to exact revenge on her “for being tricked.”

Webster returned to Vermont by way of Ohio River towns and Philadelphia. Soon after, she published a booklet about events in Kentucky, entitled Kentucky Jurisprudence: A History of the Trial of Miss Delia A. Webster (1845). She later claimed that she was sick in bed, and too weak to resist her father’s pressure to tone down her abolitionist beliefs and activities.

For the next few years, Webster was active in abolitionist work in New England. During this time she met Reverend Norris Day, who became her spokesman. Webster did not speak to audiences at lecture engagements. She sat on the stage while Day addressed the crowds who had come to see her. There were rumors that the couple may have been involved in a romantic relationship.

At the same time, Newton Craig was writing letters to Webster, begging her to return to Kentucky. After her release from prison, Webster claimed that she taught school for three years (1845-1848) while living with her parents in Vergennes, Vermont. She then moved to New York City, where she taught at a school for young women, and visited seaside resorts to improve her health.

Supposedly under a doctor’s orders, Webster then moved farther south. Madison, Indiana was a charming town on the Ohio River near Louisville, Kentucky and the last stop on the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. It was also the center of Underground Railroad activity in the area.

Back in Kentucky
With a group of investors and Northern abolitionists, Delia Webster formed the Webster Kentucky Farm Association and bought a six-hundred-acre farm in November 1852 for $9,000. Newton Craig contributed at least $1,100 toward the purchase. Her plan was to establish a school and experiment with free labor. She hired freed blacks as farm workers.

fugitive slaves escaping to freedom
Image: Illustration of Fugitive Slaves Running Toward Freedom
Artist unknown

Webster’s new neighbors reported seeing strangers at the farm and boats stopping on the river. Soon after slave owners reported that a significant number of their slaves had disappeared, and Webster was the first suspect. Her associates and laborers began leaving, and local slave owners threatened her. Webster refused to leave, but her property was repeatedly under attack. Crops were torn up, trees cut down, buildings burned, and furnishings destroyed.

In February 1854, a town meeting in Bedford, Kentucky passed this resolution:

Whereas it is known that Miss Delia A. Webster had recently run off numerous slaves from Trimble county, therefore resolved that it is the will and determination of the citizens of said county that Miss Delia A. Webster leave the State.

Webster refused to give up her farm, and she was arrested. After a brief trial, she was placed in the Trimble County Jail in Bedford, but authorities released her on a technicality. In June 1854, she was indicted with new charges related to her activities in Lexington in 1844, but she escaped to Indiana before they could arrest her.

She hid in various locations around Madison, Indiana until she was captured and tried there for the 1844 charges. She was acquitted, and by 1855, had returned to New England. Four years later, she returned to Indiana and hid out in various locations in and around Madison. However, she was soon captured and jailed, pending a trial, which was conducted in Madison in late July. She was tried on both warrants and then discharged from custody.

When she returned home she found that about $9,000 worth of household goods, farm equipment, and personal belongings had been stolen or broken. When she was unable to make her loan payments, people in the anti-slavery movement from Boston came to her aid. With their assistance, she was able to keep the farm.

Webster was planning to build a school on her property, and had purchased materials for the project. In November 1866, arsonists began setting fires; they eventually burned seventeen buildings, four barns, and finally Webster’s residence. Without sufficient financial resources, she lost possession of her property in October 1869.

Late Years
Delia Webster never married. In her old age, she lived with her sister Martha Goodrich, first in Wisconsin and later in Le Grand, Iowa, where the family had business interests. She also lived in La Porte, Iowa. After the death of her sister, Webster made her home with her niece Alice Goodrich, the first female graduate of the University of Iowa’s medical school and a prominent doctor in Des Moines.

Delia Webster died in Des Moines, Iowa in 1904 at age eighty-six, at the home of her niece, Dr. Alice Goodrich.

In 1996 Webster was honored as one of the Kentucky Women Remembered, an exhibit in the Kentucky State Capitol that honors the contributions of women from the Commonwealth. The exhibit consists of over 60 watercolor portraits of outstanding Kentucky women.

Lewis and Harriet Hayden
Wikipedia: Calvin Fairbank Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad by Randolph Paul Runyon

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