Resources and Context for Chapter 5

This chapter details Basil Biggs’s assistance of a family running away from slavery. While the account is entirely fiction, the nature of these movements is pretty accurate, and the actual danger was probably higher than what is portrayed here. Compare the account of a runaway who was due to be conducted on the Underground Railroad through Gettysburg. (This account is found in the William Still title referenced in resources for the Runaway chapter.) His trip wound up being derailed by betrayal and violence, and only through a bloody fight and sheer force of wills did this man make his escape and finish his trek to the north.

Notice in the account that the formerly enslaved people were armed. At least some sources suggest that Basil Biggs and others on the Underground Railroad furnished runaways with weapons ranging from shotguns to pistols to knives and clubs. Runaways were often prepared to fight for their very lives, even against members of law enforcement.

In this chapter, we also meet Constable John Burns.

Burns was appointed constable in the town in the 1850s. The position was largely ceremonial and was often passed to someone who was older as a means of giving them something worthwhile to do. Burns, however, took the position seriously and greatly irritated various townspeople with his cantankerous personality, his tendency to believe in conspiracies, and his insistence that various laws be followed. HistoryNet captures a handful of incidents with townspeople that get more to the heart of Burns than the old hero we typically hear about.

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