|The decades preceding the Civil War were rife with fierce sectarian violence along the borders between slave and free states. The Ohio River was one such border. Here in the river towns of Ohio and Kentucky, abolitionists and slave chasers confronted each other during the "war before the war." Slave masters and bounty hunters chased runaway slaves from Kentucky into Ohio, hoping to catch their quarry before the slaves disappeared on the underground path to freedom. In the river town of Ripley, the slave hunters inevitably confronted John Rankin and his determined, courageous colleagues.
One of the early abolitionist leaders, Rankin began his career when he wrote a series of letters denouncing his brother's recent purchase of a slave in Virginia. The letters were collected and published as Letters on American Slavery and influenced William Lloyd Garrison, among others. Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and a farmer, bought property on a high hilltop overlooking Ripley and the Ohio River. His house was visible for miles into Kentucky, and he hung a lantern at night to help guide runaways. He and his fellow abolitionists, both black and white, formed the front line of freedom, and some of them paid a high price for it.
In 1838, abolitionist John B. Mahan, a colleague of Rankin's, was lured into a trap and transported to Kentucky for one of the most celebrated trials of the era. Charged with breaking Kentucky laws, even though he had not been in the state for nearly twenty years, he was imprisoned in a windowless cell for three months, shackled at his wrists and ankles. At his trial, slaveholders tried in vain to identify and break the Ripley line "conductors."
Another celebrated conductor on the Ripley line, John Parker, a former slave himself, was regarded as the most daring of the Ohio abolitionists. He made dozens of trips across the river into Kentucky to bring out slaves trying to escape, risking his life and his own freedom every time.
Ann Hagedorn moved to Ripley from her home in New York City to research and write this book. Ripley's historic area is little changed from antebellum days, and Rankin's house still stands high on the hill behind the town. With this enthralling and compelling book, she has restored John Rankin and the Ohio abolitionists to their proper place in American history as heroes of the Underground Railroad.