For Harriet Jacobs, escaping slavery meant hiding for several years in a prison of her own devising. Born a slave in North Carolina, Jacobs spent her teenage years living in fear of a cruel master who refused to let her marry and made repeated and increasingly brutal sexual advances toward her. When the harassment continued even after Jacobs had two children by another man, she resolved to make a break for freedom. In 1835, she fled her plantation and briefly hid in some friends’ houses. Knowing her chances of making it to the North were slim, she eventually holed up in a small attic crawlspace in her grandmother’s home. The rat-infested room was tiny—only nine feet long and seven feet wide, with a sloping ceiling that never reached higher than three feet—and Jacobs later wrote that it offered “no admission for either light or air.” Nevertheless, she would spend an astonishing seven years living in the coffin-like space, watching her children play in the yard through a small peephole and only leaving for brief periods of nighttime exercise.
Jacobs finally made her escape to the North in 1842, after a friend helped her secure passage on a boat bound for Philadelphia. From there, she proceeded by train to New York and reunited with family members. She spent the next few years working in New York and Boston, but remained wary of being captured by her former master until friends helped arrange her purchase and manumission. Jacobs later became an influential abolitionist and published a searing account of her ordeal called “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”