Jeffery S. Copeland will discuss his new book, “Ain’t No Harm to Kill he Devil: The Life and Legacy of John Fairfield, Abolitionist for Hire” 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 17. This is a free event at the Ripley Library and everyone is welcome to attend. The program is sponsored by The Rankin House, John P. Parker House and the Ripley Library.
Copeland is a professor of English in the Department of Languages and Literature’s at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches courses in literature and English Education. This is Copeland’s fourth book describing the adventures and exploits of important Americans that too few people know about.
One of the most amazing characters in American history was John Fairfield, a member of the Underground Railroad who helped slaves to freedom before the Civil War. His exploits are mentioned by notables such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Levi Coffin (the “President” of the Underground Railroad). All greatly admired him but were shocked by his tactics.
Fairfield was the only high-profile abolitionist to charge people for his work. Some assert Fairfield exploited the slaves because he charged relatives in Canada to get their family members to safety, but he used the fees to help concoct elaborate ruses that he used to steal the slaves and help them to freedom. One time he led 19 slaves to freedom by pretending to be an undertaker taking the body of a slave across the Ohio River to a slave cemetery on the other side. He had one slave (in an open coffin) pretend to be the deceased-and the other 18 marched in a funeral procession right through the middle of town in plain sight. The townspeople stepped aside, out of respect for the “deceased,” and watched him take all of them across the river to their freedom.
Another time he pretended to be a poultry dealer, gaining the respect of all in a town, and then stole their slaves. Still another time he passed himself off as a businessman who needed to build boats to take salt to the South for a very profitable venture. He got many of the leading citizens of that town to invest in his project, and when the boats were finished, he chose a moonless night to get all the slaves to the boats-and had them row to freedom. Many of the crossings happen between the Cincinnati and Maysville section of the Ohio River.
Fairfield was seen by some as a scoundrel, a con-man, and a criminal. Others saw him as a very religious man who believed with all his heart that the evils of slavery needed to be wiped out-and he was willing to go to extremes to help with that cause. Fairfield wasn’t as violent as, for example, John Brown, but he still got the job done.
For questions call the Ripley Library at 937-392-4871.