Delia Webster



That's Delia in the front, on the left. The other three women are her sisters. Next to her is Mary Jane, and behind Delia is Martha.  Betsey is the lady at the top right.



















Delia Webster was born on December 17, 1817, in Vergennes, Vermont, and eventually found herself in Oberlin, Ohio as a student.  Oberlin at the time was a location where abolitionists gathered.  She subsequently came to Lexington, Kentucky, where she started a girl’s school – The Lexington Female Missionary Society - and was quite successful, until she and Calvin Fairbank, in the fall of 1844, rented a carriage to take Lewis Hyden and his family to Maysville, and then across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, to put them on the Underground Railroad.  Fairbank and Webster were caught, tried, and convicted.

 Delia was tried and sentenced first, and was imprisoned until Fairbank’s trial was over.  The warden, one Newton Craig, would lobby for her release, and would later board his children with her for their education, in Madison, Indiana.  She was soon pardoned – the good gentlemen of Kentucky couldn't bear the imprisonment of a lady even if she did steal slaves. She returned to Vermont and wrote a book about her ordeal: Kentucky Jurisprudence: A History of the Trial of Miss Delia A. Webster.

 She later turns up in Madison, Indiana  near the time Fairbank is released from prison.  And she’s not in Madison long before she buys, on November 16, 1852, with money primarily from Eastern abolitionists, a large farm on the Ohio River in Trimble County, just down river from Milton.

 And it’s not long after she buys the farm that lots of slaves start disappearing from Trimble and other nearby counties, presumably sent north on the Underground Railroad, presumably by Delia Webster.  The Louisville Democrat reported strange steamboats at the landing at night, and said that $25,000 to $30,000 worth of slaves disappeared after Delia came to live there.

 The citizens of Trimble County responded.  There was a trial in Bedford accusing one of Delia’s partners, Norris Day, of spiriting away 2 slaves.  The trial began on November 29, 1853, and while it ended in a hung jury, there was enough public sentiment, and vigilantes, that Day sold out and moved to Indiana after a daring nighttime escape from Kentucky.

 It was on February 6, 1853 that a mass meeting was held in Bedford to determine what to do about Delia Webster and her “slave stealing.”  On February 7, fifty or so citizens delivered to Delia their demands that she leave the county.  She defied them.

It took a month for the citizenry to determine what to do next, but on March 7, 1853, they delivered the ultimatum: “Unless you consent forthwith to sell us your plantation, and speedily leave the State, no more to return, you will be mobbed at a dead hour of the night. And the threats of the masses executed.”  The threats of the masses included “your fences will be burned, your fine orchard ruined, your valuable timber destroyed, your cattle and horses slain before your eyes, your barns and outhouses burned, your dwelling houses blown up, and yourself assassinated at the midnight hour.”

Six days later, the authorities came to house, arrested her, and she was jailed.  It was a cold late spring, and there was snow.  It got down to 29 degrees one night, and when they finally consented to light the jail cell's stove, there was no vent, so there was heat, but smoke.  Authorities at the time freely admitted their purposed was to make the stay unpleasant.

It worked. She moved to Madison, and sold her farm.

 It should also be noted that there were rumors of more than simple friendship between Delia and both Fairbank and Craig.  It’s pre-Civil War, so there’s nothing explicitly written one way or the other, but there was innuendo and hints that romantic and perhaps sexual relationships existed.  There is absolutely no proof, one way or the other.  Also, some of Delia’s financial dealings were, well, let’s say that in retrospect, they were less sound than she would have had others believe.

 Lewis Hyden went on to become a key figure in the Northern abolitionist movement.

 There’s a good article on Calvin Fairbank, credited with setting free 47 slaves in his lifetime, at Wikipedia, here.

 And last but not least, you can read the book. The Amazon link to it is at left.  It’s called Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad.  The author, Randolf Paul Runyon, is on the faculty at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, and the book is published by the University of Kentucky Press.  He follows what seems to be every last scrap of documentation on Delia Webster, and follows the tangled web of Hayden, Craig, and Fairbank as well.  We recommend it to you, although, if your only interest is Trimble County history, you’ll find the first half of it not real relevant.

Delia lived to be 87 years old, and died a bitter old women while living with a niece in Des Moines, Iowa, where's she's buried.