For sheer creativity and daring, few slave escapes can match the 1848 getaway masterminded by William and Ellen Craft. The two had married in Macon, Georgia, in 1846, but were held in slavery by different masters. Terrified of being separated, they devised an ingenious plan to flee the Deep South for Philadelphia. The light-skinned Ellen cut her hair short, dressed herself in men’s clothing and wrapped her head in bandages to pose as an injured white man. William, meanwhile, assumed the role of her loyal black manservant. On December 21, 1848, the Crafts donned their disguises and boarded a train to begin the long journey North. The scheme seemed doomed from the very start after Ellen found herself sitting next to a close friend of her master, but her elaborate costume prevented her from being recognized.
The Crafts spent the next several days traveling by train and steamer through the South, lodging in fine hotels and rubbing elbows with upper class whites to maintain their cover. Since she could not read or write, Ellen placed her arm in a sling to avoid signing tickets and papers, but her ruse was nearly found out when a Charleston steamer clerk refused to sell the pair their tickets without a signature. Luckily for the Crafts, the captain of their previous ship happened to pass by and agreed to sign for her. The Crafts arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas Day and were sheltered by abolitionists before continuing on to Boston. Fearing slave hunters, the couple later set sail for England, where they wrote a popular account of their escape and raised a family.