In late August, 1825, a sloop sailed down the Delaware Bay from the port of Philadelphia, bound for the Indian River in southern Delaware. Chained in its hold were five young African-American boys, the eldest of whom was about 14. They were being taken into slavery, kidnapped from the streets of Philadelphia, destined for the lower Mississippi River four months later.
Their story is emblematic of what my guest Richard Bell calls the “Reverse Underground Railroad”, the network of criminals who kidnapped free African-Americans in the north and moved them south, into the insatiable maw of the slave economy. But unlike so many others, four of the kidnapped boys returned to the north. How they were taken, and how they returned, is the subject of Richard Bell’s Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home.
Richard Bell is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He has previously written about suicide in the early American republic, and co-edited another on incarceration in early America. Richard Bell, welcome to Historically Thinking.