Visiting author's book lauds heroes of Underground Rail

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Author and journalist Ann Hagedorn spent the first 20 years of her career writing about "crime, grime and slime" for daily newspapers.

Even her first two books were exposes -- one focusing on terrorism, the other on the horse racing industry.

Just when she was about to dismiss the idea that people could be decent and courageous, she stumbled across a story about a hamlet of heroes on the Ohio River.

By day, they risked their reputations speaking out against slavery; by moonlight, they risked their necks transporting fugitive slaves from one safehouse to the next until they crossed the Canadian border to freedom.

These extraordinary folks -- the Rev. John Rankin and his family, John B. Mahan, former slave John Parker and others -- became the players in "Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad." In her third book, Hagedorn vividly recreates the real-life drama of the Ripley, Ohio, line of the Underground Railroad with the aid of court documents, property records, autobiographies and newspaper accounts.

"I was totally mesmerized by their actions," Hagedorn says of the "conductors" of the Ripley line. "These people made courageous choices in their lives. They said no to slavery when most Americans were indifferent to it or saying yes. I was fascinated by that courage and the fact that they devoted their lives to something larger than themselves."

Hagedorn, who lived in Lawrence and worked at Kansas University in the late 1970s, will return Tuesday to read parts of the story and sign copies of her book.

A beacon of freedom

Hagedorn has written for the San Jose Mercury News, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. She traveled the world researching her book on terrorism. But for "Beyond the River," she dropped life in the city and moved to a little house in Ripley. The room where she cranked out pages and pages of carefully crafted words looks out on the Ohio River and beyond to the Kentucky banks.

"I saw that river in every season when I was writing. In the winter months, I would look out there and think, 'Oh my gosh, how did people escape across this river?'" she says. "Living right on the river was a really good experience. It really made me understand what people were up against."

On a hill 600 feet above Hagedorn's riverfront perch, Rankin's home still stands. In the mid-19th century, slaves on the Kentucky side of the river came to recognize the house on the hill with the lantern shining brightly in the window as a beacon of freedom.

The geography of the area rendered it an ideal escape route. The Ohio River narrows near Ripley. It's shallow, and a system of creeks flows into it. Dogs would lose the slaves' scent as soon as they hit the water. And on the coldest winter nights, "what was once a river separating the North from the South, free states from slave, became a glassy road that seemed almost to connect them," Hagedorn writes.

It was on just such a night in 1838 that a slave woman braved the icy waters with her 2-year-old child, a search party fast at her heels. Waiting for her on the Ohio side was a notoriously wretched slave hunter who, seeing the woman's infant, forfeited his normal "coon hunting" payment and directed her to Rankin's hilltop refuge.

Her heroic story inspired the character Eliza in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Hagedorn nearly left the anecdote out of the book, but then a librarian in Ripley found a third account of the incident, and Hagedorn discovered a story by a Cleveland journalist who, in the late 19th century, retold the tale as recollected by old-timers in Ripley.

Other rumors, like chatter that Rankin had a black mistress with whom he had at least one child, didn't make the cut because there wasn't any evidence to back them up.

"There's a lot that's not in this book, a lot of stories people told me that I literally could not verify," Hagedorn says. "The path to the truth is cluttered with folklore, and I didn't want my book to be folklore."


What she wanted, instead, was to "take the Underground Railroad beyond the architecture, beyond the tunnels and the secret rooms in the houses, to the people, to their spirits and souls, hearts and minds."

She also hopes the book debunks the myth that slaves were utterly helpless and were rescued by benevolent white folks.

"When you get deeply into the research, you realize that blacks were kind of typecast as victims in this history. They were sandwiched between the white villain being the slave owner and the white hero being the Underground Railroad participant," Hagedorn says. "That's just not the reality. That really undermines the African-American role in this period in history."

In fact, John Parker, himself a former slave, was considered the most daring of the Ohio abolitionists. He risked his freedom by making dozens of trips across the river to personally rescue slaves.

Ann Hagedorn will read from and sign copies of her book, "Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

Hagedorn, whose faith in humanity has been rejuvenated since she completed "Beyond the River," thinks often about what can be learned from the heroes of Ripley.

"I think this story will remind people that sometimes it takes a long time for justice to be done but that you just have to stick with it. Some of these people died before slaves were emancipated," she says. "I think the biggest impact the book had on me was it got me back into the process of life instead of always looking at the goals.

"When you live in uncertain times like we do, if you can't engage in the process of the everyday, you're lost."