11 Things You Might Not Know About the Parker Sister Kidnappings

In Chester County, where Harriet Tubman worked the Underground Railroad, two free black girls were kidnapped by a slave catcher. A new book tells their story.


The Hosanna Meeting House, which guest speakers Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass used to shelter slaves. | Photo by Lucy Maddox

On Wednesday, when it was announced that Harriet Tubman will be featured on the new $20 bill, “Who is Harriet Tubman?” led all search-engine traffic. We’re proud to say she played a role in local abolitionist activities, especially along the Underground Railroad as it crossed the Mason-Dixon line between free state Pennsylvania and slave state Maryland. It was in Tubman’s day, in 1851, that a young, free black girl from Chester County, Elizabeth Parker, was kidnapped from the farm where she lived and worked, taken across the state line into Maryland, and sold into slavery. Not long after, Elizabeth’s older, teenaged sister, Rachel, was kidnapped as well. For more than a year, their white and black Chester County neighbors fought to free them and bring them home; Rachel’s employer, farmer Joseph Miller, died in the effort. Marylanders claimed he’d committed suicide; the Parkers’ neighbors said he was murdered. It took four exhumations to resolve the question.

The abduction of the Parker girls in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which inflamed abolitionist and slaveholder tensions along the Mason-Dixon Line, is the subject of The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping, a new recounting of their story by Georgetown professor Lucy Maddox, published by Temple University Press. Here are 11 of the historical notes in the book:

1. As early as 1775, Quakers in Pennsylvania formed a Society for the Protection of Free Negroes Held in Bondage, which sought to protect free blacks from kidnapping and buy back the freedom of those who were taken. Over the years, legislators in Maryland and Pennsylvania passed pro- and anti-slave-catching laws that aggravated citizens on the opposite side of the border. Such interstate conflicts were addressed by Congress with the 1850 act, which put the issue under federal control.

2. Plantation owners in the Deep South considered slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland especially valuable because they were accustomed to working in hot, humid conditions; slave traders used an Eastern Shore provenance as an advertising inducement. Slaves in Maryland who tried to run away were often sold further south, which they considered “the worst punishment inflicted on them.”

3. At Hosanna Meeting House, a small black church near the Chester County town of Oxford, guest speakers including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman reportedly used the church to shelter runaway slaves. During church services on Saturday evenings, fugitives mixed with the congregation in the pews and were then transported away in their wagons.

4. Of the 132 known agents on the Underground Railroad in Chester County, 82 were Quakers. But it was individuals, and not the Society of Friends, who worked against slavery and aided fugitives; the organization was opposed to any kind of conflict or breaking of the law. A statement on the subject by the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting noted that the Quakers had advised slaves “to endeavor to serve with patience and fidelity while in bondage, and to commit their cause into the hands of a merciful and omnipotent Father in heaven.”

5. It was the Fugitive Slave Act’s declaration that citizens of any state were legally bound to aid in the identification and remand of escaped slaves that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin; she hoped to portray the plight of such slaves in “a living dramatic reality.”

6. According to the act’s provisions, accused runaways weren’t permitted to speak on their own behalf in court. The law set up a system of county commissioners, appointed by the circuit courts, who passed “summary judgment” as to whether those captured by slave catchers were slave or free. The commissioners were paid $5 for each person they judged to be free and $10 for each one they found to be an escaped slave. Historian Stanley Campbell estimated that the commissioners ruled more than 80 percent of those brought before them to be runaways.

7. Philadelphia was home to a notorious slave catcher named George Alberti who engaged in two other unsavory enterprises: He was a freelance hangman, hired for executions in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and a “resurrectionist,” or provider (for a fee) of cadavers dug up from graveyards. Alberti was tried and convicted in 1851 for the kidnapping of an 18-month-old child born in New Jersey to a fugitive slave mother. The mother refused to abandon the child when Alberti arrested her in Philadelphia, so he took both mother and child to Maryland. He later argued in court that he was doing a kindness to the mother by not leaving her child behind. He was pardoned for his crime by Pennsylvania governor William Bigler in 1852.

8. When Thomas McCreary, the slave catcher who kidnapped the Parker sisters, went on trial for his crime — he claimed Rachel and Elizabeth were another set of sisters who were escaped slaves — 79 of their Chester County neighbors, men and women both, made the trip to Baltimore to testify to their identity. Testifying against them were a number of Baltimoreans who had never met the escaped slaves but swore that the Parker sisters looked a lot like the missing girls’ parents, whom they did know. The New York Herald, reporting on the trial, noted that “every stop seems to be involved in deeper mystery. There is either a singular mistake on one side or the other, or else a great quantity of very hard swearing.”

9. At the last possible minute, McCreary’s defense team produced a surprise witness: the man who’d helped him kidnap Rachel. That man, John Merritt, swore that Rachel’s employer, Joseph Miller, had helped in the kidnapping and had afterward hanged himself out of regret—a story that neatly tied up a number of loose ends and resulted in the large crowd in the courtroom “repeatedly manifesting their gratification in shouts and general rounds of applause,” according to the Baltimore Sun. The following day, the judge dismissed the charges against McCreary.

10. After this sensational conclusion to McCreary’s trial, Joseph Miller’s body was exhumed for a third and then a fourth time in an attempt to establish his cause of death. The final autopsy found arsenic in his stomach. News reports noted it would have been difficult for him to ingest a fatal dose of poison and then hang himself.

11. The Parker sisters were eventually released as the result of political maneuvering. (Among Rachel’s attorneys at a civil case to establish her identity were two men appointed by the governor of Pennsylvania: James Campbell, the state attorney general, and Thomas S. Bell, a retired justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.) Rachel had by then spent more than a year and Elizabeth six months in the Baltimore jail. A commemorative sign in East Nottingham in Chester County reads:

Emboldened by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Maryland slave catchers kidnapped Rachel and Elizabeth Parker from the Nottingham area in 1851. Rachel’s employer Joseph Miller was murdered in a failed attempt to rescue her from Baltimore. Public outrage led Pennsylvania officials to seek the sisters’ release in a Maryland civil court case that secured their freedom in 1853. The forcible enslavement of two young free black women galvanized anti-slavery sentiment.

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