By Kellie Mullarkey
HCA Historic Sites Interpreter
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published on this week in 1852 (March 20th, to be exact). The best-selling novel opened readers’ eyes to the truths of slavery and fueled the abolitionist movement. Most of us are taught that much along the road in grade school, but what many don’t realize is that it was followed by a second book the following year: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. As the subtitle suggests, the “Key” substantiates the author’s depiction of slavery in her first work. In doing so, it also identifies a little-known connection between the historic manuscript and Delaware.
In 1848, Thomas Garrett and fellow abolitionist John Hunn were put on trial at the New Castle Court House for aiding a family of slaves in escape. They were ultimately found guilty and fined heavily, but the outcome of the trial did not impinge on Garrett’s fight to end slavery. He continued to help slaves escape to freedom for the remainder of his life and is credited with helping nearly 3,000 find freedom.
In the “Key” Thomas Garrett is revealed as the inspiration for the Uncle Tom’s Cabin character of Simeon Halliday. Like Garrett, Simeon was unafraid of risking fines or imprisonment for helping his fellow man. As Beecher Stowe was writing the follow-up volume in 1853, Garrett was encouraged by Charles Whipple, a Boston abolitionist, to send the author an account of his experiences on the front-lines of abolitionism. You can read this letter as it was published in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Google’s free eBook version.
Thomas Garrett’s influence did not end with Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 19th century. In more recent history, his part on the Underground Railroad was portrayed in the documentary film, Whispers of Angels, and his story is movingly told on a regular basis by interpretive staff at the New Castle Court House.
What other Delaware Underground Railroad stories would you like to see made into a book or movie?