When we are not busy debating about enzymes or have our eyes buried deep into research, we like to dig into history. History is full of life lessons and some of them have remarkable ones to offer us. We are going to share one of these with you today. It’s called ‘Night Vision’ and it’s the Caring Voice Editorial team’s ode to one of the most courageous figures in American history.
Why did we choose to call the story ‘Night Vision’, you might wonder? That’s a surprise that will be unraveled as we progress with our narrative.
One thing we can assure you. You are going to go back with lessons for life. So stay tuned.
Who is the story about?
This story is about the remarkable life of the Underground Railroad’s fearless conductor, Harriet Tubman. Some other names that she’s known by are the “Conductor of the Underground Railroad,” “General Tubman,” and “Moses,”. For those who are new to this, Harriet is credited with helping more than 1000 slaves escape a life of perpetual agony. That’s an incredible feat by today’s standards. Imagine being able to pull that off back then, that too with debilitating pain.
Most of us are probably unaware that she suffered during much of her life from a chronic, debilitating disorder. We think we jumped the gun a little. Let’s go back a little and start from the beginning.
Who was Harriet Tubman?
Harriet was born Araminta Ross between 1820 and 1824 in Dorchester County, Maryland, to Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green. She was one of nine children and was born on the plantation of Anthony Thompson.
We don’t know the exact birth year. But there’s a record of a payment to a midwife that indicates that it was probably 1822.
As an adult, she took her mother’s name, “Harriet,” and the surname, “Tubman,” when she married John Tubman. Tubman’s father was also a slave at the Thompson plantation. She, her mother, and her siblings were enslaved by Thompson’s stepson, the farmer Edward Brodess.
As a very young child, Araminta, who was known as “Minty,” learned the ropes of working on the plantation. Brodess even rented her out to other landowners. As you can imagine, life was brutal for the young girl. She was cruelly whipped and it left a barrage of deep scars on her body and soul.
Even when sick with measles, she was forced to haul muskrat traps through frozen swamps, wearing no shoes, her feet only covered with cloth. It is probably here that the grit developed though, which would later influence the lives of millions.
The Chronic condition
The story goes that during a routine, torturous day at work, Tubman witnessed an incident and tried to save another slave from a potentially fatal blow.
At the local general store, they met an unidentified young male slave who according to an overseer, was there without permission. He ordered Tubman to restrain the young man and quickly hurled a two-pound counterweight at him. However, the male slave quickly escaped from the store. After he darted out of the store, Tubman instead of trying to restrain or stop him, blocked the doorway. The weight that was aimed at the slave, hit Tubman in the head, fracturing her skull and nearly killing her.
She was merely a teenager then. This was the beginning of a lifelong chronic condition. The exact condition remained undiagnosed because of the time. But now, after reading extensively, the symptoms seem eerily similar to temporal lobe epilepsy and narcolepsy disease. She received no medical care.
After just two days of rest, she was forced to return to work. Her head still bleeding when she resumed work. It may have healed superficially. But as we all know now, a trauma as severe as that probably caused a cascade of problems in her brain. She started to experience what seems like trance-like states during which she would be motionless. Sometimes for an hour or more. Reports suggest that she would hallucinate during these episodes. It started off with one or two instances and quickly grew to multiple episodes a day.
The attacks would start randomly. Sometimes she would be in the midst of a task and just pause. On other occasions, she would be engaged in a conversation and pause for an hour. Then just resume the conversation from where she ended. It was like, for that brief period of time, she was never around. It was like the hour was never a part of her life.
She herself called them visions. During one of these visions, she described herself as flying over a vast, endless body of water. In addition to this, she also heard noises. Some of them were disturbing, more like screams. There was music too and the sound of rushing water. When asked about it, she would later say that she felt like her skin was on fire. But she was completely conscious and was aware of what was happening around her. The condition also caused her to experience severe, debilitating headaches. Maybe it was the vision or her experiences in life, but Tubman turned to religion for solace. In the years forward, she would become extremely religious, according to Kate Larson, the author of the bestseller, ‘Harriet Tumban: Portrait of an American Hero’
The Life Ahead
As we could imagine, her injuries made work a worse ordeal than it already was. The slavery market thrived on performance and there was no room for a slave who would randomly pause work, sometimes for hours. That too multiple times.
Tubman’s value as a slave depleted considerably. The other plantation owners to whom she was rented out, sent her back to Brodess. But Tubman quickly recovered and stepped into hardcore manual labor. She would dig out stumps, haul massive logs, chop wood and plow fields, tasks that would have the best of men quiver.
She first met John Tubman, a free black man when she was 25. She married him and he would join her in the plantation. Five years after this, Edward Brodess, the plantation owner died leaving behind a debt-ridden widow Eliza. Tubman feared the worst for her family. She knew that Eliza might send them South to work on chain gangs just so that she could pay off the massive debt. She had witnessed both her elder sisters, Linag & Soph sold to chain gangs earlier. So she escaped to Philadelphia.
The 90-Mile Walk
Tubman got out of the plantation and walked 90-miles to Philadelphia. She would use the North Star as a map and walk solely at night. It was something that she had picked from the African-American dockworkers and mariners she befriended during her stint at the docks when she unloaded massive tranches of produce.
Readers with a keen eye would realize that the mariners had a vital role to play later when the Underground Railroad’s communication network was set up. They helped deliver coded messages and provided important information about the outside world to those who were looking for freedom.
During her 90-mile journey, she would stop at Underground Railroad safe houses. Unlike her past experiences, she was fed, sheltered, and directed to the next house by Quakers, and black and white abolitionists. It was here that the desire to be a part of this movement took root.
Free State of Philadelphia
Tubman finally reached the free state of Philadelphia. She was overcome with emotions. But it was not merely joy that flooded her mind. The feelings were mixed. While she had finally managed to cross over into the state that she had always dreamt of, there was nobody here to welcome her. She was a stranger in a strange land. She had left home far behind. Her loved ones, her old folks, her siblings, were all left in that tiny cabin quarter in the plantation.
So, she took the resolution that day. She was free and so shall they be. She would set up home here and she would, with the help of God, bring them all over here.
Soon, she found work as a domestic help in Philadelphia and Cape May. She also worked as a cook in hotels where she earned enough money to help her come back to Maryland and help her loved ones escape the life of slavery. She wanted the freedom of her family.
In 1850, one year after her daring escape, Tubman returned to Maryland and retrieved her niece and her son and daughter. In 1851, she returned again, this time for her husband, John Tubman. But she discovered that he had already remarried and had no intention to join her back to Philadelphia. However, she found another group of slaves who were desperate to join her. So she took them under her wing and bought them back to Pennsylvania.
In the next decade, she made 13-trips back and forth during which she helped 70-slaves escape a lifelong of misery. She never lost a single passenger. A lot of these were her family members. But she also helped many others, who yearned to live a free life.
The Fugitive Slave Act
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This was not one, but two acts that allowed federal authorities to capture and return escaping slaves to their ‘rightful owners. The persons who helped them escape would face steep penalties.
Tubman realized that it was no longer safe to return to the northern states. So, she changed the destination. The new one was all the way in Ontario, Canada. She herself moved to Ontario in 1951.
In 1854, Tubman sent a coded letter to Jacob Jackson, a free black man who was literate and lived close to Tubman’s family in Maryland. This letter delivered the message to her three brothers of her plan to rescue them. In 1857, she finally helped her elderly parents to escape to a life of freedom.
The Great Escapes
Tubman herself led the escapes. They happened at night, the exact same way that she had escaped. They used the North Star as a guide. However, the authorities were now emboldened and they had to constantly devise new strategies to evade detection and capture. During one of the escapes, she had to dress as a man. During another one, she carried a bunch of chickens with her to make it seem like she was running errands. Sometimes, she would wear expensive dresses just to look like a free woman.
Another brilliant strategy was to plan the escapes on the weekend. This was because it would take a couple of days for authorities to print new Wanted Posters. So, it wouldn’t generally happen until Monday. It gave her a one-day head start which proved to be invaluable.
One of the challenges she encountered was babies. Babies crying in the middle of the night would alert authorities of slaves moving in the dark. So, she started to carry the drug ‘Paregoric’, which is a drug used to treat diarrhea. However, it is anhydrous morphine. So, it would put the babies to sleep.
It wasn’t always so easy though. When nothing else worked, she had a pistol tucked away. This was used solely for protection against bounty hunters and slave catchers. Also, it was a warning for the slaves themselves who would sometimes develop cold feet in the middle of the journey and try to escape and make their way back to the plantations. She couldn’t let them endanger the rest of them. Nor could she risk exposing her routes.
So, the Great escapes continued on the underground railroad.
A very interesting letter dated December 29, 1854, written by Thomas Garret, Wilmington, Delaware Underground Railroad Stationmaster states how they made arrangements to send away Harriet Tubman with six men and one woman to Allen Agnew. They were then to be forwarded across the country to different cities. Harriet’s shoes were completely worn off. Thomas would then pay them two dollars to help them get better footwear. He also hired a carriage so that they wouldn’t have to walk that part of the journey.
The Civil War and Life Ahead
In 1859, Tubman finally made her return to America. She moved to Auburn, New York where she purchased a house from her friend, Senator William H. Seward. She bought her parents back with her. Later, this home would become a hub for her relatives, friends, and many other former slaves.
The Civil War started in 1861. Tubman was working with the Union Army in South Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. She was a spy, a scout, a leader, and a nurse. By then, her abilities as a leader and caregiver were legendary. Her knowledge of herbal treatments that she had picked up during her stint with slavery in the Maryland plantations was unparalleled. She helped restore many critically ill soldiers and nursed them back to good health. Part of her knowledge was also acquired from Edward Brodess’s stepbrother, a doctor who ran a pharmacy. It is said that she often brewed a tea with herbs that would help heal soldiers with the worst case of dysentery, and would probably die if left untreated.
One of the most adventurous events in her colorful life is when she disguised herself as a sick, elderly woman to perform reconnaissance for the Union army in Confederate towns. One of these led to the famous Combahee Ferry Raid, which she scouted and planned herself. Colonel James Montgomery and Tubman led the raid. She led 300 black soldiers and helped free more than 700 slaves from South Carolina. She was also instrumental in recruiting volunteers for the Harpers Ferry raid in West Virginia. She herself couldn’t join that one though.
Marriage and Injustice
In 1869, Tubman married Union Army veteran Nelson Davis. She had earlier met him in Auburn. But here’s the tough part. Despite all her achievements and her remarkable accomplishments, Tubman was denied a military pension. Instead, she would receive a pension as Davis’ widow after his death. It was 30-years later in 1899, that her work was acknowledged and she would finally begin to receive a pension for her own service.
60-years after she received the traumatic blow on her skull, Tubman underwent surgery at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. It was primarily to help her reduce the pain that she had experienced all her life. The debilitating headaches that she had endured even while she helped thousands of men and women to escape slavery. The exact details remain unknown. But it is believed that the surgery did help her get some sort of relief from the incessant pain.
The Final Days
In 1908, Tubman set up the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York. A life that was spent in rescuing people, and nursing the ill back to health, was now spent in caring for the frail and elderly. One of her neighbors say that the home would take on anyone in the sunset years, regardless of their health. This includes the demented, the epileptic, the blind, the paralyzed, [and] the consumptive. Ironically, Tubman’s health started to deteriorate not much later. She herself was taken care of in the home that she had set up.
In 1913, Harriet Tubman passed away due to Pneumonia in Auburn, New York. She received full military honors and was buried at Fort Hill Cemetery.
We always seek inspiration from the selfless and brave heroes that unfortunately, History has failed to honor. While it is true that Harriet Tubman got the military pension and military honors for her burial, it was nothing in comparison with what she managed to achieve in her lifetime. To be fair, she deserved much better.
A letter written fifty years before her death by the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, sums it up beautifully. He states in this letter, addressed to Tubman herself, that there’s a marked difference in the two of them. He has worked for the cause in public and has received a lot of encouragement for the same. But Tubman has toiled relentlessly in the shadows. She was never a hero in the public eye, although their achievements mirror one another. He worked in the light of the day. She worked in the night with the North Star as a trusted lieutenant. Hence, Night Vision.
That sums up our story.
We hope that you enjoyed reading it as much as we did sharing it. If you like it, do share it with your friends and relatives. We shall soon meet again with a new story of inspiration, from the Caring Voice Team.