Exploring The Life Of A For-Hire Abolitionist | St. Louis Public Radio

Exploring The Life Of A For-Hire Abolitionist

Oct 13, 2014

'Ain't No Harm to Kill the Devil' by Jeffrey Copeland
Credit Courtesy of Jeffrey Copeland

Among abolitionists, John Fairfield was unique: He was brutal, not above a shootout; he created elaborate ruses to rescue slaves; and he charged for his work.

Fairfield was born in Virginia to a slave-owning family.

“John, as a very young man, had a very dear friend, one of the younger slaves, he grew up with,” said author Jeffrey Copeland . His book “Ain’t No Harm to Kill the Devil: The Life and Legend of John Fairfield, Abolitionist for Hire,” examines Fairfield’s life.

“It was actually at the point when his uncle decided to sell that childhood friend off that (Fairfield) realized, ‘Wait a minute. There’s something just terribly, incredibly wrong here.’ He helped his childhood friend to freedom and the uncle put a bounty on (Fairfield) for his arrest, and (Fairfield) just went back. He stole the uncle’s horses and the rest of his slaves, took off for Ohio and never looked back.”

In the years leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists deployed often risky and radical tactics to try to end slavery. Abolitionists created the Underground Railroad, for example, to move slaves from the south to free states in the north.  

“Levi Coffin, the president of the Underground Railroad, and other abolitionists said (Fairfield) ‘is a snake. He’s absolutely horrible in what he does,’” Copeland said. Fairfield was respected and admired by abolitionists for his results, but most did not care for his methods, Copeland said. Like charging for his services.

“But that’s not as gruesome as it sounds,” Copeland said.

“He took slaves to their freedom, and then after slaves who were freed were making enough money, they would pay Fairfield to go back south and rescue their relatives — their mothers, their fathers, brothers, and so on, and bring them back to their freedom as well.”

The money Fairfield collected often was used to prepare for his adventures.

“He would go into towns and pretend to be everything from a dentist to a blacksmith to a land buyer for the railroad to a buyer of horses for those going west, and create these elaborate ruses so he could get in the good graces of people in the towns where he knew there were slaves he wanted to usher to their freedom,” Copeland said. “And then when he would leave town later, after getting in the good graces and finding out where the slaves were, he would take (the slave owners’) money, their jewelry, their slaves and anything else he could carry with him back to freedom.”

One of Fairfield’s schemes included staging a funeral to get a group of 19 to 26 people across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state, to Ohio, a free state.

“He came up with the idea of stealing an undertaker’s carriage. He put a casket in the back; put one of the slaves in it — had him cross his arms and everything else to pretend he was the poor deceased. And they made this very huge, very elaborate funeral procession right through the middle of this town,” Copeland said. “All of the people in town actually took off their hats; they put their hands over their hearts and paid their respects to the dearly departed. Fairfield took them right down to the river and told the townspeople, ‘We’re taking this poor soul to a cemetery for slaves right across the river and we’ll be right back.’”

Fairfield took the slaves the he freed north across Lake Erie into Canada, to a place called the Elgin Settlement.

“The Elgin Settlement in Ontario was one of the few places where former slaves could actually purchase their property and become a part of an established community,” Copeland said.

The money that Fairfield didn’t use in his schemes was used to set up businesses for the new Elgin Settlement residents. “He would actually provide the funds for former slaves to begin the businesses that they would then go into, whether it be blacksmithing work or whether it be the lumber business,” Copeland said. “Fairfield never took a dime for his own pocket.”

Fairfield certainly made enemies along the way. He was actively hunted by “slave chasers.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it legal for anyone to kill Fairfield for “aiding and abetting” slaves. Fairfield wasn’t afraid to fight back, and used his creativity to give himself an upper-hand. Weapons at the time were fairly primitive: Guns, for example, did not have cartridges and it was time-consuming to load them.

“Fairfield had a special coat made whereby he could take seven pistols at a time with him to a gun battle, and rather than reload, he would fling a gun to the side, reach in and grab another and continue firing when the other people he was shooting at were sitting there trying to load their guns,” Copeland said. “He was a master of weapons, much like a James Bond character we would think of today.”

While much is now known about Fairfield, how many slaves he freed remains a mystery.

“John Fairfield wanted to build this mystique,” Copeland said. “He wanted to know that it was possible to bring slaves north, so he fibbed at every turn about how many people he took with him. By all accounts that I gathered, I can say that realistically, he took at least 500 to their freedom, but it could have been as many as 1,000. It puts him in the top 10 of the abolitionists who were able to get slaves to their freedom.”

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