In early 1860’s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.
Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle and he owed his freedom to them. Determined to never have to stand by and watch a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people. Shortly after being freed, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. Being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. However, the amputation took place too late. The infection from the injury had spread throughout his body and killed him.
A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.
She raised Rachel on her own and had a red school house built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes could attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, making Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.
Miss Rachel, though always courteous to the other townspeople, was thought to be standoffish. She kept to herself and never acted with deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. When patronizing their businesses, like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them in the eye. Some townspeople said her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder length black hair were why she acted that way. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.
Never seen with a suitor, Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. Folks said a pocket watch could be set by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But if asked, Samuel would have said they only sat in the parlor talking, their mannerisms more common to siblings than lovers.
In fact, it was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. Usually, after arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d ask after Samuel. When Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick. Amazed, as he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do tricks. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced each trick and technique until he mastered it. Mr. Bart then started buying tricks from a shopkeeper in town and giving them to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d do it for Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel.
Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one room school house, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she made him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel performed as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.
To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. With hardly a glance, the shop keepers would dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d place them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them between horse backs and saddles to make sure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish from sight.
Daybreak, on the day of the show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler atop his head, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, Samuel’s head swiveled left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleyways.
Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Inside the saddlebags were Samuel’s performance clothes and freeman papers. A second set of his freeman papers lay in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.
In the center of town, Samuel stopped for a moment and looked at the makeshift wooden scaffolding erected for hangings. It would serve as the site for his evening performance. Then he continued on his way until he reached the far end of town. There, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. As Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the strap of the saddle bag. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. He removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with the dark stagnant water of the trough. Then he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. He dried himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, then slid on his black performance trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. Then, after putting on his socks, he set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair, then brushed his hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as the thick kinky hair could.
With his toilet complete, Samuel started practicing the tricks he planned to perform, save two. He began by rehearsing close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. Crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into it, opening his hand to reveal an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in his hand, he jerked his wrist downward, the pieces reassembling into a single solid rope. He rehearsed trick after trick, speaking in his mind the patter designed to enable his feints, misdirection, and movements to distract and confuse the audience.
As the sun sank in the sky and the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered, Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform, dropping a lumpy canvas bag upon it. An immediate hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Samuel, expecting this moment, used it to leap down into the crowd and pull a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch.
Remounting the stage, Samuel proceeded from one trick to another, building suspense interspersed with brief interludes for the crowd to applaud. Reaching the finale of his show, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men from the audience and invited them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, preparing to do one of the two tricks he never rehearsed. While the crowd hooted, hollered, and laughed at their embarrassed neighbors and friends, Samuel bent down and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. He handed them to the men, instructing them to bind him well. As children balanced on the tips of their toes straining their necks to see, a grave deep quiet fell over the crowd. The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body until the chains dug into his wrists and ankles cutting off his circulation. He then asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body this way and that. On thirty, he spun around and as the chains fell to the stage at his feet, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped from the stage into the crowd. Holding his hat, he collected the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.
When everyone had left, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He mounted him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As they’d agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it, signaling it was safe.
As Samuel moved further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. As he drew closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes and the beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. Two of them, either regretting leaving behind loved one’s or unable to conquer their fear of the unknown, relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. The others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.
With decisions made, Samuel offered a woman pregnant with child a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing him toward an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel settled the old man astride Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom. They moved under the cover of darkness, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. The slave owners’ being stalwart devout Christians would only delay their pursuit of their property long enough to complete Sunday morning church services. After that, the tracking hounds would be loosed to scamper between the hooves of horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways until they recovered what they deemed rightfully theirs. Despite their hiding by day and traveling only at night, the slave owners came close to falling upon the runaways many times. During those moments, Samuel would slow his breath, preparing to do the only illusion he held in reserve, making himself and those around him disappear.
For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through forests, across fields and streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. On the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst, their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”
Samuel crossed the room to the bed and reaching it, he bent his head down. Miss Rachel reached up, cupped his face between her frail hands, and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the room, the house, and over to the abandoned school house. Jim opened the door and after receiving her kiss, stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.
“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”
The group of runaways crowded around her each person taking her small hand in theirs. As they thanked her for rescuing them, tears trickled down the face of the old woman, their conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.
J L Higgs is a former financial services employee. Primarily, his short stories
focus on the lives of black Americans. He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston.