Ona Judge slipped out
of the president’s house
one night and didn’t come back.
But unlike most runaway slaves,
she was never caught.
Two years after the death of her owner, Betty learned her mistress was to remarry. She most likely received the news of her mistress’s impending second marriage with great wariness as word spread that Martha Custis’s intended was Colonel George Washington. The colonel was a fairly prominent landowner with a respectable career as a military officer and an elected member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His marriage to the widowed Martha Custis would offer him instant wealth and the stability of a wife and family that had eluded him.
A huge yet necessary transition awaited Martha Custis as she prepared to marry and move to the Mount Vernon estate, nearly one hundred miles away. For Betty, as well as the hundreds of other slaves that belonged to the Custis estate, the death of their previous owner and Martha’s marriage to George Washington was a reminder of their vulnerability. It was often after the death of an owner that slaves were sold to remedy the debts held by an estate.
For enslaved women, the moral character of the new owner was also a serious concern. When George and Martha Washington married in January of 1759, Betty was approximately twenty-one years old and considered to be in the prime of her reproductive years. She was unfamiliar with her new master’s preferences, or more importantly, if he would choose to exercise his complete control over her body. All of the enslaved women who would leave for Mount Vernon most likely worried about their new master’s protocol regarding sexual relations with his slaves. But of greater consequence for Betty was the future for her young son, Austin. Born sometime around 1757, Austin was a baby or young toddler when his mistress took George Washington’s hand in marriage. To lose him before she even got to know him, to have joined the thousands who stood by powerlessly while their children were “bartered for gold,” as the poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote, would have been devastating
As she prepared to move to Mount Vernon, Martha Washington selected a number of slaves to accompany her on the journey to Fairfax County, Virginia. Betty and Austin were, to Betty’s relief, among them. The highest-valued mother-and-child pair in a group that counted 155 slaves, they arrived in April of 1759. Betty managed to do what many slave mothers couldn’t: keep her son. Austin’s very young age would have prohibited the Custis estate from fetching a high price if he were sold independently from his mother. Perhaps this fact, in addition to Betty’s prized position in the Custis household, ensured that she would stay connected to her child as she moved away from the place she had called home. As Martha Washington settled into her new life with her second husband at Mount Vernon, a sprawling estate consisting of five separate farms, Betty also adapted, continuing her spinning, weaving, tending to her son, and making new family and friends at the plantation. The intricacies of Betty’s romantic life at Mount Vernon remain unclear, but what we do know is that more than a decade after giving birth to Austin, Betty welcomed more children into the world. Her son, Tom, was born around 1769, and his sister Betty arrived in 1771.
Sometime around or after the June snow of 1773, Betty gave birth to a daughter named Ona Maria Judge. This girl child would come to represent the complexity of slavery, the limits of black freedom, and the revolutionary sentiments held by many Americans. She would be called Oney.
Bushy haired, with light skin and freckles, a young Ona probably spent some of her days playing with her siblings and other enslaved children in the Quarters. More often than not, though, she had to learn how to fend for herself. Judge and the other children at Mount Vernon cried out in loneliness for their parents, witnessed the brutality of whippings and corporal punishment, and fell victim to early death due to accidental fires and drowning. Childhood for enslaved girls and boys was fleeting and fraught with calamity. Many perished before reaching young adulthood. Judge’s childhood wasn’t shortened by a plantation fatality. Instead, hers ended at age ten, when she was called to serve Martha Washington up at the Mansion House.
On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office and issued an inaugural address from the balcony of New York’s federal hall. Notably absent from the ceremony was his wife. While the first lady had traveled to see her husband during the American Revolution as he led the colonists in battle against the British, she wanted nothing more than to stay put and resented her husband’s call to public service that was taking them away from their Virginia home.
The slaves at Mount Vernon knew all too well about the displeasure of their mistress and had to add that to their list of concerns. Ona Judge, in particular, one of the favored house slaves, responsible for tending to her mistress’s needs, both emotional and physical, had to balance the first lady’s deep sadness, resentment, and frustration with her own fears about the move.
The young Ona Judge was far from an experienced traveler. The teenager knew only Mount Vernon and its surroundings and had never traveled far from her family and loved ones. For Judge the move must have been similar to the dreaded auction block. Although she was not to be sold to a different owner, she was forced to leave her family for an unfamiliar destination hundreds of miles away. Judge would have had no choice but to stifle the terror she felt and go on about the work of preparing to move. Folding linens, packing Martha Washington’s dresses and personal accessories, and helping with the grandchildren were the tasks at hand, and it wasn’t her place to complain or question. Judge had to remain strong and steady, if not for herself, then for her mistress who appeared to be falling apart at the seams. Like Judge, Martha Washington had no choice about the move to New York. Her life was at the direction of her husband, who was now the most powerful man in the country. Mrs. Washington and Ona Judge may have shared similar concerns, but of course only Martha Washington was allowed to express discontent and sorrow: Martha Washington was unhappy, and everyone knew it, including her frightened slave.
It is impossible to know how familiar the slaves at Mount Vernon were with the specifics of the changing laws of the North, of one state’s mandate versus another’s, but what is certain is that Judge had witnessed the act of running away. The slaves at Mount Vernon who successfully escaped reminded the bond people who remained that there were alternatives to the dehumanizing experience of slavery. Freedom, of course, was risky, and was never considered without great caution and planning, but perhaps a trip to New York would yield opportunities never imagined by the slaves who lived at Mount Vernon? Maybe life would be better in New York and perhaps they could find their way to freedom? As the slaves pondered what the move to New York might mean for them, they did so subtly. A slave could not appear to be too calculating or strategic, and no one wanted to spook the Washingtons, especially the very fragile Martha Washington.
The president and his wife were well aware that the practice of slavery was under attack in most of the Northern states. They also knew that though New York’s residents still clung to bound labor, public sentiment regarding African slavery was changing. Unwilling to even think about abandoning the use of black slaves, the president and the first lady were careful in their selection of men and women who traveled with them from Mount Vernon. Their selections involved only those slaves who were seen as “loyal” and therefore less likely to attempt escape. Skills in the art of house service were also a necessity.
The only bondwomen who were set to travel to New York were Ona Judge and Moll, a fifty-year-old seamstress. Judge and Moll would serve the first lady as housemaids and personal attendants. Judge would draw her mistress’s bath, prepare her bed clothing, brush her hair, tend to her when she was ill, and travel with her throughout the city on social calls. Moll would be responsible for the grandchildren who lived with the Washingtons. Moll would wipe noses, calm anxious souls awakened by nightmares, and make certain that the Washingtons’ grandchildren were well fed and dressed. Ona would help Moll in whatever way she could above and beyond fulfilling Martha Washington’s needs. The two women worked all day and every day under the careful watch of their mistress. The life of an enslaved domestic carried grueling and constant demands. Private time, time away from their mistress and master, was all but fleeting.
For decades, New Yorkers grappled with the issue of black emancipation. The Revolutionary War found men in the coffee shops of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York discussing the topics of freedom and citizenship, prompting some New Yorkers to rethink their commitment to slavery. But the drive to maintain human bondage was a slow-burning fire that stayed lit well into the nineteenth century. So, Washington’s decision to bring seven slaves from Mount Vernon to his new home on Cherry Street in 1789 was not considered unseemly or unusual. As was the case for many other elite whites, Washington’s use of slave labor was acceptable. Governor George Clinton owned eight slaves, and New York resident Aaron Burr owned five of his own. Yet these men were also involved in the New York Manumission Society, as were John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Although the society engaged in conversation about gradually ending slavery, most of New York’s leaders remained uncommitted to this goal. Slave ownership was still a sign of upper-class status, so slavery in New York lived on.
It would have only taken a short time for Judge to figure out that the majority of whites who owned slaves didn’t own a great number of them. Unlike an estate such as Mount Vernon, which counted its bondmen and bondwomen in the hundreds, most slaveholders in New York City held one or two slaves. The majority of those who claimed human property were artisans, living above their small stores and rented shops, placing their human property in the attics and cellars of their already cramped homes. New York slave owners simply couldn’t own more than a couple of slaves, for there was nowhere to lodge them, unlike the slave quarters and cabins at Mount Vernon, which allowed slaves to sleep, eat, laugh, and love each other outside the walls of a master’s house.
What may have been even more surprising to Judge as she settled into residency in New York was that the majority of the blacks with whom she became acquainted were women. Although artisans and other slaveholders who invested in slave labor preferred male slaves, black women (both slave and free) were a significant presence in the city. Northern slavery was different from what the young Virginian knew. In cities of the North and Mid-Atlantic, slavery was an institution that depended upon black women not for their ability to reproduce but for their agility with the most arduous kinds of domestic work. Meal preparation, cleaning, and sewing were extremely taxing in the eighteenth century, and without the luxuries of running water or electricity, much of the work required lifting heavy buckets of water and cooking in unbearably hot kitchens or freezing sheds. For most black women who toiled as domestic slaves or servants, their bodies were broken, and their time was never their own.
Martha Washington, who had been so reluctant to join her husband in New York, now found herself saddened that as a result of a political compromise, brokered by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, the capital was moving to Philadelphia.
It was Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson who brokered the famed compromise between Southern and Northern coalitions in which the federal government assumed all state debt related to the American Revolution in exchange for landing a permanent nation’s capital along the Potomac River. The construction of the capital would take close to a decade, and Philadelphia’s consolation prize was the temporary relocation of the capital for a period of ten years starting in 1790.
One day, Attorney General Edmond Randolph appeared at the Executive Mansion, wanting to speak with the president regarding a pressing concern. Mrs. Washington typically had Ona Judge by her side, but she would have dismissed her slave before such a sensitive conversation took place. Angry and frustrated, the attorney general confided in the first lady, telling her about a problem that plagued slaveholders who resided in Philadelphia. Three of his slaves had run off, and the attorney general knew that he would not be able to get them back. Randolph reminded the first lady that Pennsylvania law required the emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months. The attorney general either took for granted that his slaves would never learn of the law or believed that they were unfathomably faithful and would decide to remain enslaved to their master, even when the law did not require it.
Randolph offered his own experience as a cautionary tale, suggesting that the president’s family be careful about their own slaves, fearing that “those who were of age in this family might follow the example, after a residence of six months should put it in their power.” This warning gave Martha Washington reason to pause. The first lady understood the seriousness of the house call as well as the need for discreet and swift action. She listened to Randolph intently, thanked him for his visit, and quickly began discussions about the best plan of action. Her husband had to be notified immediately, and the slaves who lived on High Street needed to be kept from such inflammatory news. But the President’s House was not spacious, and voices carried through the hallways. Very little remained private in a space that was typically filled by twenty or more people. Just as Randolph’s slaves came to understand and utilize the gradual abolition law, so, too, might the Washingtons’ slaves. It would be painfully embarrassing and financially damaging if the president’s own slaves turned the laws of the state against him.
So the Washingtons devised a plan: the couple would shuffle their slaves to and from Mount Vernon every six months, avoiding the stopwatch of Pennsylvania black freedom. If an excursion to Virginia proved a hardship for the family, a quick trip to a neighboring state such as New Jersey would serve the same purpose. The hourglass of slavery would be turned over every six months, and the president knew there was no time to waste.
If Ona Judge and her enslaved companions uncovered the truth about their slave status in Philadelphia, they would possess knowledge that could set them free. Power would shift from the president to his human property, making them less likely to serve their master faithfully, and eventually, they might run away. Washington wrote that if his slaves knew that they had a right to freedom, it would “make them insolent in the State of Slavery.”
Judge spent the next five and a half years in Philadelphia, rotating every six months back to Mount Vernon or out of state, serving her masters while she watched the rest of the city’s enslaved population break free from the bonds of slavery. Her interactions with paid servants, contracted hired help, and with her own enslaved housemates informed her thoughts about her life and the possibilities of freedom. After the information breech regarding the Washingtons’ slave rotation, it would have been virtually impossible to keep Judge in the dark about the laws of the state.
Ona Judge was not the only person in Philadelphia who wondered about the future. While emancipation touched the lives of many black men and women who lived in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it was a process that was slow and cumbersome. Pennsylvania may have been revolutionary in its move to gradually end African slavery, but for black Philadelphians, especially those who were enslaved, change didn’t come fast enough. Some refused to wait for freedom, choosing to live the vulnerable life of a fugitive. During the 1780s, more than 160 slaves took their chances and headed north from the city, looking for freedom and anonymity. Most runaways were young black men, but the few women who attempted escape in Philadelphia often did so to join free husbands scattered about New England, often with their children in tow.
The enslaved who lived at the Executive Mansion measured their triumphs in the smallest of ways. Victories were days marked by the first lady’s good mood and defeat was palpable when the president was angered. For Ona Judge and the other slaves who served the Washingtons, the future was never predictable, and the smallest of matters, such as an accidental overcooking of a meal or antagonistic political news, could change the mood of their owners with the snap of a finger.
By his peers, the president was not considered a violent slave owner, but all of the slaves who worked for him in Philadelphia and at Mount Vernon knew that on occasion, he did lose his temper. And in February 1796, a letter arrived that prompted everyone, slave and servant, black and white, to tread lightly around George and Martha Washington.
None of the slaves at the President’s House knew what the future held. For Ona Judge, however, the uncertainty vanished with a startling piece of news. The marriage of Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eliza Custis was to cut her post in Philadelphia short.
Martha Washington knew that her granddaughter was completely unprepared for her new marriage to Thomas Law, British businessmen with the East India Company twenty years her senior who had two mixed-race children. She understood that the teenage Eliza knew nothing about the duties that accompanied a new marriage, let alone about setting up a new household in the Federal City. In an effort to help Eliza ease into her new matrimony, Martha Washington stepped in, and offered her granddaughter the support she needed: she would bequeath Judge to Eliza as a wedding gift. If Judge ever believed that her close and intimate responsibilities for her owner yielded preferential treatment, she now understood better. The bondwoman now knew for certain that in the eyes of her owner, she was replaceable, just like any of the hundreds of slaves who toiled for the Washingtons.
The pangs of anxiety she felt were based not only on having to leave Philadelphia but also on having to work for and with Eliza Custis Law, a young woman with a stormy reputation. All who were acquainted with the president’s granddaughter commented upon her stubbornness and complete disregard for protocol. Eliza was unlike many elite eighteenth-century women in that she was assertive and refused to shrink from male authority. Family members joked that in “her tastes and pastimes, she is more man than woman and regrets that she can’t wear pants.” Eliza did what she wanted to do, often appearing irritated and labile. On occasion, she refused to go to church and other obligatory social functions, and her quick engagement to Thomas Law was a reminder to everyone that Eliza would be the architect of her own life.
Ona Judge would have also worried about the newest member of the Washington family, a man with a shadowy reputation. Thomas Law grew his fortune in India before arriving in the District of Columbia. The land speculator purchased close to five hundred lots around the new city, expecting to line his pockets with cash once the nation’s capital moved South. While his quick engagement to the president’s granddaughter painted him as an opportunist, Judge would have worried more about his principles and behavior, especially given his sketchy familial past. The new member of the family had arrived in America with two of his three sons, both illegitimate and both the children of an Indian woman. While there were many biracial children at Mount Vernon (Judge herself was one of them), Law’s children spoke to every slave woman’s fear: Thomas Law slept with nonwhite women, and wasn’t concerned about the gossip.
For a young woman such as Judge, the dangers of the unfamiliar— Eliza’s temper and Law’s sexual profile—served as an urgent incentive to run away.
Judge had heard the stories of just how difficult it was to run away from an owner. One of the first obstacles for fugitive slaves to confront was the issue of Northern climates. The weather in cities such as Philadelphia up to the small towns of New England fluctuated constantly, and brutal Northeastern winters prompted slaves to consider spring or summer escapes. Two to three months out of every year, the Delaware River froze over, eliminating the sea as an escape route. The small rivers and creeks across the North were also impassable, often sending brave and desperate fugitives to premature, icy deaths. Roads, impassable from heavy snow and frozen mud, disabled even the strongest and most agile fugitives, trapping men and women on the run. Many lost their lives to hypothermia as they hid in the caves, barns, and alleyways of the North, with little to no food, or a proper winter coat or shoes.
Beyond the weather and difficult conditions, Judge likely contemplated just how few women made successful attempts at escape. Unlike Judge, the majority of fugitives—90 percent—from Pennsylvania down to Virginia, were male. The same held true for South Carolina and parts of the Upper South. There were many reasons for the extremely low number of female escapees, but historians have focused on the relationships between mothers and children as the main deterrent for female slaves.
Childless, Judge would not have to confront the horror of leaving one’s children behind for the opportunity of freedom. Of course, if she made the decision to escape, she would cut ties from her family back at Mount Vernon, a terrible choice to consider, but one that was altogether different from leaving behind a baby.
She had examined the facts—the mercurial Eliza, the biases against blacks, the treatment of blacks in the aftermath of the yellow fever epidemic, the danger of the Fugitive Slave Law—and Judge realized that if she ran away, she couldn’t plan her escape alone. So she took the biggest of gambles and confided in a group of crucial associates: free black allies.
Judge knew what the future held should she not heed the advice of her free black associates. “She supposed if she went back to Virginia, she should never have a chance to escape.” Once she learned that “upon the decease of her master and mistress, she would become the property of a grand-daughter of theirs by the name of Custis,” she knew that she had to flee. She imagined that her work for the Laws would begin immediately, not after the death of her owners, prompting a fierce clarity about her future and her dislike for Eliza Custis. “She was determined never to be her slave.” Her decision was made. She would risk everything to avoid the clutches of the new Mrs. Law.
Judge was well-informed, and knew that her decision to flee was far more than risky. But still, she was willing to face dog-sniffing kidnappers and bounty hunters for the rest of her life. Yes, her fear was consuming but so, too, was her anger. Judge could no longer stomach her enslavement, and it was the change in her ownership that pulled the trigger on Judge’s fury. She had given everything to the Washingtons. For twelve years she had served her mistress faithfully, and now she was to be discarded like the scraps of material that she cut from Martha Washington’s dresses. Any false illusions she had clung to had evaporated, and Judge knew that no matter how obedient or loyal she may have appeared to her owners, she would never be considered fully human. Her fidelity meant nothing to the Washingtons; she was their property, to be sold, mortgaged, or traded with whomever they wished.
The waiting was difficult. For nearly two weeks, Judge had to calm her nerves and suppress her anger, as allies completed the planning for her escape. She could not raise suspicions, so Judge worked in tandem with the rest of the household, as they made the necessary preparations for a lengthy trip back to Mount Vernon. Judge later stated, Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I never should get my liberty
Not only did Ona Judge have to pack her things to leave, she also had to determine when she would escape. Although the Executive Mansion possessed more slaves and servants than did most Northern residences, Judge was the first lady’s preferred house slave and had to be available at all times for whatever reason.
There was only one duty from which she was exempt: meal preparation. The president often entertained dinner guests, extending the festivities into the evening and inviting guests to retire to the parlor to enjoy a bit of wine and additional conversation. This would be the only moment that Judge could use to her advantage.
And when the moment arrived, she gathered her steely nerves and fled. On Saturday, May 21, 1796, Ona Judge slipped out of the Executive Mansion while the Washingtons ate their supper. She disappeared into the free black community of Philadelphia.
No one knows exactly when Martha Washington realized that her prized slave was missing. Perhaps dinner ran well into the evening, and Judge’s absence went unnoticed until late that night. Or maybe the president and his wife uncovered her escape just minutes after Judge left the Executive Mansion. The details may never be uncovered. But once the Washingtons realized that Judge was gone, they quickly understood that it was highly unlikely that she possessed any intention of returning. Washington was accustomed to slaves running away from Mount Vernon. On occasion, they would return after several days or weeks, but unlike past attempts made by fugitives, Judge’s starting point was in the North. And the Washingtons knew time wasn’t on their side.
On May 23, 1796, just two days later, Frederick Kitt, the steward for the Executive Mansion, placed an ad in the Philadelphia Gazette acknowledging the disappearance of Ona Judge. He placed another ad in Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser the next day with additional details about the escape. The language of the runaway ad was similar to others that appeared in eighteenth- century newspapers, describing Ona Judge while simultaneously announcing that she had defied the president: Absconded from the household of the President of the United States on Saturday afternoon, ONEY JUDGE, a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair— She is of middle stature, but slender, and delicately made, about 20 years of age. Judge’s runaway ad went on to describe the possessions that she had packed up. The ad noted that Judge had “many changes of very good clothes of all sorts, but they are not sufficiently recollected to describe.”
Judge would have been warned against spending any time in New York, the place she once called home and where she was recognizable. Free blacks in Philadelphia would have urged her to flee with the most urgent speed and to make no stops along the way to her final destination. Harboring a fugitive was punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment, and to assist the president’s slave in her escape would have been even more dangerous. Those who aided Judge pushed for an expeditious departure, knowing the president was prepared to use all of his immense power to recapture his property. Judge needed to leave Philadelphia as fast as possible and looked to the wharves of the Delaware River to make her escape.
In fact, Judge escaped the city by boat. In her 1845 interview, Judge told of her journey to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a vessel that was commanded by Captain John Bowles. Judge remained secretive about her escape almost her whole life, only announcing the name of the captain more than a decade after his death, in July of 1837: “I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.” Ona Judge knew that she owed her life to Bowles.
Ona Judge had never before sailed on such a ship, a single-masted sloop that could carry up to seventy-five people (depending on the size of the cargo). These vessels were designed to haul freight from one coastal town to the next, but ship captains like Bowles earned extra money by allowing passengers to ride along. Any seafaring voyages that Judge might have taken with the Washingtons would have been close to enjoyable. Short river crossings in relatively luxurious vessels were what Judge had come to know, but she had turned her back on all of it. Now on board the Nancy, space was minimal and travelers lodged themselves wherever there was room. Once again, the fugitive found herself sleeping in tight quarters, but this time it was with strangers—some were traveling home to visit with family and friends and others who, like Judge, were leaving behind a difficult past for the possibilities of a new future in Portsmouth.
For five days, Judge contained her fear. She could not appear too nervous, as passengers were already throwing quick and curious glances toward the light-skinned black woman who traveled alone. She knew that the Washingtons were looking for her and that by now her name and a bounty probably appeared in many of the Philadelphia newspapers. She wondered how much of a reward was attached to her recapture, a thought that sent her eyes to scan the strangers on board. Surely none of Washington’s agents had made it to Bowles’s ship before it left Dock Street, but she wouldn’t know this for certain until the Nancy reached New Hampshire. The beautiful and expensive clothing that she wore to serve the Washingtons was packed away, and instead, Judge would have dressed in inconspicuous clothing, allowing her to hide in plain sight. She was a hunted woman and would try to pass, not for white, but as a free black Northern woman.
From Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. © 2017 by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Reprinted by permission of 37 Ink/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.