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William Troy, b. 1827
Hair-breadth Escapes from Slavery to Freedom
Manchester: Bremner, 1861.

Summary

Apart from the autobiographical details Rev. William Troy provides in his 1861 book Hair-breadth Escapes from Slavery to Freedom, little information about his life can be found. According to his own account, Troy was born March 10, 1827, in Essex County, Virginia. His father was a slave, but his mother was "a free person of colour," and because the status of children was determined by the status of their mother, Troy himself was also free (p. 1). White friends of the family educated Troy, though they had to do so in secret, as it was illegal to educate African Americans—slave or free—at the time. Troy "converted to the Lord" in June 1843, and joined the Baptist Church (p. 4). Over time, however, Troy became increasingly disgusted with his Virginia church's support of slavery: "the law of the country knew me as a thing, [and] the church knew me in the same way" (p. 6). After marrying—his wife's name is never given in the text—Troy left Virginia for Cincinnati, Ohio. There he joined a Baptist church with a very different opinion of slavery and eventually became a minister. At an unknown date he moved to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, where "eight hundred . . . coloured settlers from various portions of the Southern States of America" had settled, along with "about five hundred fugitive slaves" in the neighboring town of Sandwich (p. 8). Troy’s work as both a minister and an abolitionist was noteworthy enough that Benjamin Drew's The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856) and Rev. William J. Simmons's Men of Mark (1887) both mention him. At least one newspaper obituary of the time reports that he died in November of 1905.

Hair-breadth Escapes is prefaced by a letter from a friend of Troy's named Arthur Mursell. In this letter, which serves as a character reference recommending Troy to readers, Mursell calls Troy a "real man and a finished gentleman . . . another living contradiction of the doctrine which disparages the African as gifted with inferior intellect and possessed of baser feelings than the European" (p. vi).

The first chapter of Hair-breadth Escapes is a short history of Troy's life, but the book is not strictly an autobiography. In subsequent chapters, Troy recounts the stories of slaves who manage to escape from bondage. Many of them are, or were, Troy's parishioners in either Ohio or Canada. Telling their stories allows Troy to repeatedly highlight the cruelty of chattel slavery and argue that "slaveholding is one of the greatest evidences of man's total depravity, and nothing but moral and spiritual power can effectually tread it down" (p. 58). Most of the life stories that Troy recounts focus on both the horrors of slavery and the great lengths that fugitive slaves will go to in order to escape from it. For example, in the chapter "Three Attempts to Escape", friends John Taylor and Monroe Evans are enslaved in Alabama when an overseer fits them both with "a set of iron collars . . . with three iron prongs running high above their heads" (p. 95). These prongs have bells attached to them in order to deter any escape attempts. Nevertheless, one of the men manages to secret away a file, and Taylor and Evans collaborate, one man silencing the bells while the other files down the collars. Working this way night by night, the two eventually free themselves of the collars and escape into Canada. In "A Great Intrigue," Troy tells the story of a man named Hopkins who, while fleeing slavery in North Carolina, makes his way into Maryland, where he is sheltered for three years by a tribe of "wild Indians . . . that seemed to regard him as a brother" before conflicts between the Native Americans and neighboring whites force Hopkins to move on to Ohio (p. 34).

Perhaps the most outrageous tale of escape—and the story that best illustrates Troy's deep commitment to abolition—is "Betrayal by a Fortune-Teller". This chapter is the story of Lewis Williams, who is born in slavery in Kentucky, but escapes as a child and settles in Cincinnati. After Williams grows "to manhood" he falls in love with a girl and wonders if his feelings are reciprocated (p. 66). To find out, Williams consults a fortune teller. This woman asks Williams for information about when and where he was born and then contacts Williams's former master, who comes to Ohio and has Williams arrested. Troy, who is living in Ohio at the time, hears word of this and immediately begins organizing an escape plan. Working together with "the coloured people of the city," Troy and his co-conspirators use a man who looks like Williams as a body double, and free the real Williams (p. 68). When the authorities learn of the switch, a manhunt is launched; Troy then offers up his own house as a refuge for Williams, an act that puts Troy in considerable danger because "keeping or harbouring a [fugitive] slave" is a "violation of the law of the Federal Government" punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine (p. 69). Despite this risk, Troy feels that the moral laws of his faith demand that he break the legal law of the land, and so he continues to harbor Williams, "sustained in my act by a clear conscience, and, as I believe, by the favour of God" (p. 69). To get Williams safely out of Ohio and into Canada, Troy goes to a friendly woman and borrows "one of her dresses and skirts, and bonnet and veil" and "an old crinoline" and dresses Williams up in them (p. 70). Then Troy makes Williams "walk the floor, forward and back, to mimic . . . the ladies as much as possible in their way of walking" (p. 70). Williams succeeds in passing as a woman and successfully escapes into Canada.

Another theme that Troy stresses is the compassion he sees in all the escaped slaves that he ministers to in Canada: "there is very great interest shown upon their part, to relieve their brethren from want . . . [the community shows] those features of kindheartedness to all persons, irrespective of race or country" (p. 22). Troy's philosophy of child-rearing mirrors this open-mindedness: he says that he wants to teach his children "to be guided by principle and not by prejudice,—by a regard for worth rather than by a respect for the accident of the length of the hair, the shape of the nose, or the hue of the skin" (p. 27).

Hair-breadth Escapes ends with "Special Words to the Friends of Freedom and Christianity in England, Scotland, and Ireland" wherein Troy thanks European abolitionists who have contributed money towards the construction of a chapel in Windsor (p. 107). Several "Testimonials"—positive letters from early readers of the book and newspaper articles about Troy's work in Windsor—close the text (p. 110).

Harry Thomas

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