Free at Last

A t the end of Life of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave. Written by Himself., Grimes’s statement that “I have learned to read and write pretty well” is proven by the 30,000 words preceding it. Whereas most of the writing published that year, in 1825, would likely hold little interest for readers in 2023, the main subject matter of Grimes’s tale, which starts in Virginia and ends in New Haven, is timeless and gripping, as are many of the flourishes of his pen.

“My father was a wild sort of man, and very much feared by all his neighbors,” Grimes writes near the beginning, describing the wealthy white plantation owner in King George, Virginia, who would later shoot two men and resist arrest “until a military force was called out.” But Grimes’s mother, half-black and half-white, was enslaved at a neighboring plantation, and thus too, according to law and convention, was Grimes. The master there “was very fond of me, and always treated me kindly,” Grimes writes, while the mistress, his wife, “would beat me until I could hardly stand.”

When Grimes was 10, he was sold to the master’s brother-in-law, the owner of a plantation called Montpelier (which still exists today). For a few weeks Grimes worked in the home there, living a life of relative privilege, until another slave, the new mistress’s “head servant and seamstress,” began sabotaging his work, hoping that one of her own children would be promoted from the fields to the house. (Treachery between enslaved people, perhaps not something contemporary minds would expect, is a recurring theme in Grimes’s book.) Repeated whippings and beatings ensued, and, thinking things couldn’t get worse, Grimes volunteered to work the fields instead, where he found himself at the mercy of the “overseers,” both white and black, who wielded “unlimited controul [sic] over the slaves” and would “exercise their authority in the most tyranical [sic] manner.”

A failed escape attempt landed him back at Montpelier, where the beatings continued alongside starvation conditions. Grimes’s suffering lent power to fearful ideas and an apocalyptic vision, followed narratively, of all things, by the moment a seed of the Elm City was planted in his mind:

Several of the servants in the spinning room died, and after that there was a groaning heard in that room… Sometimes when I was as wide awake as I am now, the spirits would unlock the doors, and come up stairs, and trample on me, press me to the floor, and squeeze me almost to death: I should have screamed, but the fear of my master, who would not believe, but would have whipped me, prevented.

There was, not long after this, a great hurricane and earthquake; and I saw the sky part, and it looked as red as crimson. The earth shook, and every thing that was on it; and I heard them talk of many thousands who were drowned.

There was, I recollect, at my master’s, two gentlemen from Connecticut, Parson Beebe, and Doct. Goodsell. … I heard them talk about New-Haven, but I little thought I should ever see it.

Grimes would indeed see it, but not for another 38 pages, or about 60% of the total manuscript. By then, after being sold to a string of masters exhibiting various degrees of control and cruelty—including one who beat him, then had him tied and thrown for weeks into a lice-riddled jail as punishment for requesting to be sold—Grimes was truly, finally the “runaway” of the book’s title. He’d been sent to the docks of Savannah, Georgia, to assist in loading a New York-based cargo ship, whose “Yankee sailors” hatched a plan to stow him away among a shipment of cotton bales. Grimes jumped at the opportunity and, weathering a few complications, made it safely to New York City—only to find himself immediately, and by total chance, face-to-face with Oliver Sturges, one of his former masters. Sturges assumed in the moment that Grimes was there on the business of his current master, but Grimes knew it was only a matter of time before word of his location found dangerous ears. Fearing being hauled back into slavery if he stayed, “the next morning,” Grimes writes, “after purchasing a loaf of bread, and a small piece of meat, I started on foot for New-Haven,” hitching carriage rides here and there along the three-day trip.

The morning after his arrival, Grimes recounts, he went to work for a livery stable owned by black brothers Abel and William Lanson, the latter now locally famed for his extraordinary achievements in engineering and business. Abel “set me at work in a ledge of rocks, getting out stone for building,” Grimes writes, and, amazingly, “I found [it] to be the hardest work I had ever done, and began to repent that I had ever come away from Savannah, to this hard cold country.”

The twists and turns of his life began to arrive quickly. After just a few months in New Haven, Grimes ran into an associate of a former master and was forced to flee once more; took up farm work in Southington, where a runaway cattle cart left him crawling until he could afford a pair of crutches; returned briefly to New Haven, where he earned a bit of money digging a well with Abel Lanson and chopping firewood for Yale; headed to Rhode Island, where he co-opened a barber shop before being compelled to leave at the urging of a judge; returned to New Haven, where he barbered for Yale students and courted his wife wearing fine clothes they’d gifted him; fled again, this time for Litchfield, where he barbered for students of the town’s law school (who were apparently no help as a series of legal conflicts left him “poor and friendless”); returned again to New Haven, where, from a friend named Barber Thompson, he inherited his own barber shop; and, finding himself increasingly recognized by southern students and visitors, fled once more to Litchfield, where agents of his former master, via instruments of the law, demanded he buy his own freedom (or else).

The purchase cost Grimes “my house and land, all I had.” In the book, he spends a paragraph on the absurdity of the notion that a person should have to buy his own liberty for being born enslaved—and yet, as he relates it, his immediate reaction to the transaction was joy, relief, even gratitude.

“If it were not for our hopes, our hearts would break,” Grimes writes early in the book, and alongside deep (and perfectly understandable) resentments, Grimes also seems always to find room for a belief in the possibility of better days ahead. Sales of the book, he hoped, would help get him and his family back on their feet, and the story of his life, he hoped, might one day change America:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. Let the skin of an American slave, bind the charter of American Liberty.

Written by Dan Mims. Image, of the Beinecke Library’s first-edition copy of Grimes’s book, sourced from the Beinecke’s Facebook page.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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