Excerpt: “Master Slave Husband Wife”, the story of an escape from slavery

Excerpt: “Master Slave Husband Wife”, the story of an escape from slavery

Excerpt: “Master Slave Husband Wife”, the story of an escape from slavery

In “Slavemaster Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom” (Simon & Schuster), author Ilyon Woo tells a remarkable 19th-century tale of deception, in which a light-skinned slave woman and her husband flee the South posing as a slave owner and “her” property.

Read the excerpt below, and don’t miss Mark Whitaker’s interview with Ilyon Woo on “CBS Sunday Morning” January 15!

The cottage

It’s dawn in Macon, Georgia, and at four o’clock the city is still. The air is windless, cool, barely stirring the tall dark pines. Cotton Avenue is quiet too, the giant scales hanging, for the moment, behind closed warehouse doors. But the Ocmulgee River flows along the east bank, and so does a slave couple settling down, ready to transform, into a cabin in the shade of a large white mansion.


Simon & Schuster

They’ve barely slept for the past few nights as they rehearse the moves they perform now. Ellen takes off her dress, forgoing a corset, for once, though she needs to reshape her body in other ways, to flatten or bind the swelling of her breasts. She puts on a white shirt, with a long waistcoat and a loose coat, skinny pants and a nice cape to cover it all up. She buttons the buttons, breathes in the cold of the end of December. Christmas is coming soon.

She dresses in the light of the candles which sparkle in the cottage, “her” workshop, locked, of which she will lose the slightest if she is caught. All around are the tools of her trade, baskets filled with needles and thread, pins, scissors, fabric. Her husband’s handiwork is also in evidence: wooden furniture, including a chest of drawers, now unlocked.

Ellen slips her feet into gentleman’s boots, with thick, solid soles. Although she’s been practicing, they must feel strange, an inch of lead weight pulling each sole to the ground, an extra inch she needs. Ellen may have inherited her father’s pale complexion, but not his height. Even for a woman, she is small.

William stands beside her, casting long shadows as he moves. You have to do something with his hair that he has just cut: pick it up, wrap it. To leave it behind would be to leave a clue to whoever will eventually rush out the door.

There is the final touch: a silky black tie, the bandages too. Ellen wears one around her chin, another around her hand, which she keeps in a sling. She has more protection for her face, green-tinted glasses, and an extra-tall silk hat—a “two-tiered” hat, William calls it, based on her height and the fiction it covers. These additions hide his sweetness, his fear, his scars.

Ellen now stands in the center of the floor, transformed. To all appearances, he is a sickly, wealthy young white man – “a very respectable-looking gentleman”, in the words of her husband. He’s ready too, in his usual pants and shirt, with just one new item, a second-hand white beaver hat, prettier than anything he’s worn before, a man’s slave marker rich.

To think it had only been a matter of days. Four days since they had first accepted the idea, had first called it possible. Four days of storing clothes in locked compartments, sewing, shopping, tracing the path. Four days, they claimed, to prepare for the ride of their lives. Or, a life of preparation, reduced to that.

Excerpt from “Master Slave Husband Wife” by Ilyon Woo. Copyright © 2023 by Ilyon Woo. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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