When next at the Delaware shore looking out to the horizon, you may well see a ghost of the single-masted schooner “Little John” heading from Philadelphia to the Indian River inlet. Stolen by University of Maryland Professor Richard Bell uncovers the role the Delmarva region played in the Reverse Underground Railroad.

Because of the growing demand for labor by cotton plantations in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and the decreased need for labor as more northern farmers changed from tobacco to wheat production, the trafficking of kidnapped free Blacks and slaves to the deep south was rampant in the 1820s and 1830s. Richard Bell lived with the ghosts of the five boys and other victims while researching primary documents to shed light on this horrible period of history. 

While the historical research for this book is deep, the story of the five boys during their captivity and the return of four reads like a thriller. Cornelius Sinclair (10 years old), Samuel Scomp (15), Enos Tilghman (10), Alex Manlove (8) and Joe Johnson (14 or 15) were kidnapped in Philadelphia and taken to the Little John.  Four of the boys had been free; Samuel was a runaway “bound laborer.” Captain Joseph Johnson sailed his human cargo down the Delaware Bay and up the Indian River to his home near the Nanticoke River. His son Ebenezer and his wife Sally marched the boys 1000 miles south to Mississippi. In Tuscaloosa, Johnson sold Cornelius as a slave to raise money for supplies. Nearing Natchez in December, Joe died after being beaten by Johnson for complaining of pain from frostbite.

The book includes transcripts of key documents, including Samuel Scomp’s deposition to the Mayor of Philadelphia upon his return and the initial letter that notified the mayor of the whereabouts of the boys. While one can rejoice in the return of some of the boys to their families, one cannot help but weep for Joe and the thousands of others who lost freedom and often their lives on the Reverse Underground Railroad. As Bell states, while there was suffering and death on the Underground Railroad, the goal of the conductors like Harriet Tubman was freedom for those fleeing. The goal of the conductors on the Reverse Underground Railroad was greed.

Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home
By Richard Bell
37INK an imprint of Simon & Schuster (2020)

Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.