On the night of April 15, 1848, slaves throughout the Washington D.C. area silently crept through the streets to reach the “Pearl”, a schooner waiting at the docks to take as many slaves as it could hold to freedom. Known as the “Pearl Incident”, it was the largest attempted slave escape in American history. A total of 77 slaves were part of it including the Edmonson sisters and their four brothers.The story of Mary (1832-1853) and Emily (1835-1895) Edmonson inspired the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Paul Edmonson was a free Black, but his wife Amelia and their 14 children were not. Four of their children had managed to purchase their freedom; ten others remained enslaved. The Edmonson sisters and four of their brothers along with 71 other slaves were able to get on board the “Pearl”. The white crew set sail but were soon caught by a posse of slave owners on Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout, Maryland. The “Pearl” and its cargo of fugitive slaves were quickly brought back to Washington D.C. The slaves and crew were paraded through the streets of Washington D.C. and tormented by angry crowds.
The captain of the ship, Edward Sayres, and the man who financed the escape by hiring the vessel, Captain Daniel Drayton, were arrested, fined, and spent four years in jail until they were pardoned by President Millord Filmore. The 77 slaves were sent down South to Bruin & Hill slave traders in New Orleans. The beautiful Edmonson sisters, who were only 13 and 16 years of age, were put out on the porch to attract buyers, but when an outbreak of yellow fever started, they were brought back inside to protect Bruin & Hill’s investment.
Paul Edmonson tried desperately to get his daughters back. Bruin & Hill set a price of $2,250 for their release. ($72,835 in modern currency) Paul was advised to ask Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, to help raise the money. The money was raised. The sisters were purchased, freed, and brought north where they became celebrities for abolition. Funds were raised for their education and they attended Oberlin College. Sadly, Mary died of tuberculosis at the age of 20. Her sister Emily went on to marry Larkin Johnson and became founding members of the mostly Black Hillsdale community of Washington, D.C. Their long time friend and neighbor was Frederick Douglass. Emily died in 1895.