In “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom” (Simon & Schuster), author Ilyon Woo recounts a remarkable 19th century story of deception, in which a fair-skinned enslaved woman and her husband flee the South masquerading as a male slave owner and “his” property.
Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Mark Whitaker’s interview with Ilyon Woo on “CBS Sunday Morning” January 15!
It is predawn in Macon, Georgia, and at four o’clock, the city does not move. The air is windless, chill, barely stirring the high, dark pines. Cotton Avenue is quiet, too, the giant weighing scales suspended, for the moment, behind closed warehouse doors. But the Ocmulgee River flows along the eastern shore, and so too, an enslaved couple moves, ready to transform, in a cabin in the shadow of a tall, white mansion.
They have scarcely slept these past few nights, as they rehearsed the moves they now perform. Ellen removes her gown, forgoing a corset, for once, though she needs to reshape her body in other ways, flatten or bind the swell of her breasts. She pulls on a white shirt, with a long vest and loose coat, slim-legged pants, and handsome cloak to cover it all. She does up the buttons, breathing in the late-December cold. Christmas is coming soon.
She dresses by candlelight, which flickers through the cottage, “her” workshop, locked with a key, the least of which she’ll lose if she is caught. All around are the tools of her trade—workbaskets stocked with needles and thread, pins, scissors, cloth. Her husband’s handiwork is in evidence as well: wood furniture, including a chest of drawers, now unlocked.
Ellen slips her feet into gentleman’s boots, thick soled and solid. Though she has practiced, they must feel strange, an inch of leaden weight pulling each sole to the ground, an extra inch she needs. Ellen may have inherited her father’s pale complexion, but not his height. Even for a woman, she is small.
William towers beside her, casting long shadows as he moves. They must do something with her hair, which he has just cut—gather it up, pack it. To leave it behind would be to leave a clue for whoever eventually storms down the door.
There are the final touches: a silky black cravat, also the bandages. Ellen wears one around her chin, another around her hand, which she props in a sling. She has more protection for her face, green-tinted glasses and an extra-tall silk hat—a “double-story” hat, William calls it, befitting how high it rises, and the fiction it covers. These additions hide her smoothness, her fear, her scars.
Ellen stands, now, at the center of the floor, transformed. To all appearances, she is a sick, rich, White young man—”a most respectable-looking gentleman,” in her husband’s words. He is ready too, in his usual pants and shirt, with only one new item, a white, secondhand beaver hat, nicer than anything he has worn before, the marker of a rich man’s slave.
To think it had been a matter of days. Four days since they had first agreed to the idea, first called it possible. Four days of stuffing clothing into locked compartments, sewing, shopping, mapping the way. Four days, they would claim, to prepare for the run of a lifetime. Or, a lifetime of preparation, narrowed down to this.
From “Master Slave Husband Wife” by Ilyon Woo. Copyright © 2023 by Ilyon Woo. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
For more info:
- “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom” by Ilyon Woo (Simon & Schuster), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available January 17 via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound