In December 1851, a farmer in Chester Country, Pennsylvania named Matthew Donnelly sent his tween helper, Elizabeth Parker, out to the farmyard to retrieve a slop bucket. This was an odd request as Matthew had just returned from the yard but Elizabeth was a live-in servant and so she did as she was told.
She never made it back into the house.
In the yard she was abducted, bound and gagged by two men who sealed her into a wooden box with air holes and brought her to a Baltimore, Maryland slave pen. Matthew Donnelly was suspected of helping a notorious slave catcher arrange the kidnapping.
Within two weeks, Elizabeth, having been born a free black person, found herself sold into slavery and shipped to New Orleans, Louisiana.
Nearly two weeks after Elizabeth’s kidnapping, her 17-year old sister Rachel was also kidnapped and brought to the same slave pen in Baltimore. Rachel had worked as live-in help for another family in the same area.
Indeed, the same men had kidnapped both of the Parker sisters. A free black person sold into slavery was not an uncommon occurrence in 1851. It was also not uncommon for that person to be lost to the people back home forever. This is where our story is different.
In the Beginning
Rachel and Elizabeth Parker were born in Nottingham, Pennsylvania to Rebecca “Beck” and Edward “Ned” Parker in 1834 and 1841, respectively. Beck’s mother died when she was just five-years old and Beck was passed between white families as a hired helper, an act seen as charity then. When she was 20, she married the older Ned.
Ten years after the wedding, Ned left Beck for another woman taking their son Jim but leaving the two girls behind with their mother. Rachel and Elizabeth went to work at young ages and the family spent more time apart in other people’s families than in their own.
Elizabeth went to work first when she was just 4 or 6 years old because the family needed the money, and maybe more so, because Elizabeth’s strong will made her relationship with her mother contentious from childhood.
In Plain Sight
When Thomas McCreary abducted Elizabeth he did so under the protection of night with no one around. When he kidnapped Rachel, he did so in full view of the household in broad daylight. Rachel’s employer, the farmer Joseph Miller, pursued the kidnapper and Rachel on foot.
Despite the large knife McCreary brandished, Joseph charged ahead full speed, caught up to McCreary and jammed a fence post into McCreary’s buggy wheels.
McCreary whipped Joseph with his horse whip and once his wheels were free, made his way with Rachel to the Baltimore bound train.
Joseph returned home and spread word of the kidnapping. Groups of men formed search parties and rode on horseback looking for Rachel. Eventually, they boarded a train to Baltimore, hostile territory for anti-slavery Quakers. They arrived just after McCreary and Rachel.
In Maryland, McCreary was well-known as a slave catcher and kidnapper. He’d been indicted several times before (in Downington, Pa., Wilmington, Del. and Chester County, Pa.) but escaped penalty-free each time, earning a reputation for efficiency and ruthlessness.
When he wasn’t kidnapping, McCreary worked as a mail carrier. This was convenient because his job brought him through towns where he scouted newcomers and vulnerable people. It also brought him around the Parkers.
One disgruntled resident complained of the mail carrier: “McCreary the contractor is known for kidnapping and his slave chasing is interfering with his duty to oversee timely [mail] deliveries.”
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
In Baltimore, Rachel was located with the help of a local Quaker who’d noticed her distressed arrival at the train station. (He was later beaten for his sympathetic help). Campbell, the owner of the slave pen McCreary delivered his abductees to, refused to keep the now legally suspect Rachel on his property and forced McCreary to bring her to the local authorities.
With Rachel now in a local jail, waiting to prove her free status, the Quaker search party returned to the train station to ride home for the night. Maryland would not be safe for them.
Riding a roundabout way to the train, they had been careful of their surroundings. But before the train could leave, Joseph left the platform to smoke a cigar. This worried his friends but even more so when McCreary was spotting boarding a different car on the same train. They were right to worry. They would never see Joseph Miller alive again.
Days later Joseph was found hanging from a tree in the woods near the train station. The job had been hastily done with handkerchiefs tied together. He hadn’t even been tied high enough for his feet to leave the ground. Local authorities buried him, right where they found him, in a 2-foot deep grave. His death was declared a suicide.
The search party for Joseph that had formed back in Pennsylvania now went to retrieve his body. They dug him up and transported him home with great difficulty. No one in Baltimore would been seen assisting them and the winter weather made their task arduous.
An autopsy revealed Joseph had been poisoned with arsenic and was dead before he’d been hung. His body would be exhumed four times, passed between Pennsylvania and Baltimore as they quarreled over trying McCreary, and buried five times. The case was never officially solved.
Let Freedom Ring?
In New Orleans, Elizabeth had been sold to a Creole woman who owned a local flower market and made homemade molasses candy. The dances and theaters were she sold flowers felt glamorous. However, locals noticed that Elizabeth spoke differently than a Southern slave and she was taken to a magistrate who sent her back to Baltimore. Initially, she hesitated to return.
Why would Elizabeth hesitate to escape slavery? Unfree in the South, the conditions were so poor up North for black people that it felt like an “approximated slavery.” Chester County where Elizabeth lived, sat on a tense border between lands of freedom and slavery. Fugitive slaves and free black people were frequently targeted by slave catchers who didn’t care if you were free or not. It was a dangerous place to live with little hope or freedom of choice.
Elizabeth had also not experienced the typical life of a slave either. She was not working in fields or on-call 24/7 in a house as a servant.
When Elizabeth eventually returned North, she and Rachel were jailed in Baltimore while they awaited a trial to determine if they were slaves or free. 79 volunteers from their home in Pennsylvania volunteered to serve as witnesses. The Quakers raised $3,000 for lawyers and transportation fees to fight for the Parkers’ freedom.
Rachel spent a year in jail, Elizabeth six months as a slave and six months in jail, before they were finally freed. Despite a legal fight that lasted a year, McCreary was never convicted by the state of Maryland for his crimes and Pennsylvania was unable to try him in person.
In the End
Rachel returned to the Miller’s farm for a few weeks after her release before securing new work with the Coates family in nearby Lancaster County. In 1865, 31-year old Rachel married George Wesley, a Civil War (13th U.S. Colored Infantry) veteran. George was from Maryland and may have been an escaped slave. Together, they had four children.
Eight years later, the couple separated. Rachel remained with the Coates for over 30 years. By 1900, she was retired and living with her eldest child, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband. She died in 1918 at the age of 83.
Elizabeth, always more free-spirited, was harder to pin down. She first moved to the northern part of Chester County (West Chester, Pa.) and continued to move around, marrying and becoming widowed by the time she was 38. She gave several interviews over the years to local newspaper reporters about the kidnapping.
Matthew Donnelly, the farmer who complicity orchestrated Elizabeth’s kidnapping, moved to Kentucky to escape creditors and the neighbors who believed he was involved with McCreary. McCreary had been indicted in Pennsylvania for the kidnapping and while they could never successfully convict him there, Donnelly was worried he would be implicated next.
Thomas McCreary stayed largely within the borders of Maryland, keeping his slave catching within legal limits (only catching fugitive slaves). In 1852, he was appointed as a constable for his county among other political appointments. In his retirement he served as sexton of a local church and died in 1870.