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Harriet Tubman's Perfect Record

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How did Harriet Tubman lead so many slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad? With careful planning, plenty of luck, and a little opium.

“I never run my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger”—so boasted Harriet Tubman, the most successful conductor on the Underground Railroad. Tubman ran up her unblemished record while leading groups of runaways on a 650-mile odyssey from eastern Maryland to St. Catharines, Ontario. Starting in 1850, Tubman made a total of 19 journeys, personally freeing more than 300 slaves. The rewards offered for her capture totaled an astronomical $40,000 (just over $1 million in today’s money), but the bounties went unpaid.

So how exactly did she score that perfect record? Here are some tips based on her harrowing adventures—call it the Tubman Technique.

KNOW THE TERRAIN; MOVE BY NIGHT: Many slaves had never ventured far from their owners’ property. Slave owners deliberately kept them close so they wouldn’t know how to escape. As a result, runaways needed Tubman to do the navigating. She led groups along dirt roads and paths by night. If no safe house was available during the day, Tubman hid her passengers in dense forests, swamps, or other places no one would think to look. When it was safer to split up—a decision she sometimes made when she knew the group was being hunted—Tubman gave simple, easy-to-follow advice for reaching a meeting point, like “follow the drinking gourd” (the Big Dipper, which points north).

MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS WHO’S IN CHARGE: With runaway slaves facing draconian punishments if they were caught, it’s no surprise that Tubman’s passengers occasionally changed their minds and wanted to return to servitude. But Tubman would have none of it—letting fugitives go back to their old homes risked exposing her entire network. When faced with timorous souls, Tubman would brandish her gun and offer them a simple choice: “You’ll be free or die a slave!”

KNOW YOUR LIMITS: Although there were thousands of slaves waiting to be freed, Tubman never bit off more than she could chew. Since large numbers would inevitably attract more attention, she usually conducted runaways in groups of 12 to 15—the most that could safely take cover in an out-of-the-way barn, cellar, or ditch.

DRUG THE KIDS: Since Tubman always tried to keep families together, her traveling parties often included small children who could slow the group down or, worse, give it away by crying at the wrong moment. To curb these problems, Tubman always carried paregoric, an opium tincture that could knock out tots for hours at a time.

WORK THE NEWS CYCLE: Slave owners often ran newspaper ads to alert bounty hunters and law enforcement about substantial rewards for capturing runaway slaves. So Tubman timed her rescues to begin on Saturdays—giving her passengers a 48-hour head start before masters could run ads in the Monday papers.

GET GOOD INTEL: During the Civil War Tubman ramped up her activities through a partnership with the Union Army, which freed slaves to weaken the Confederate economy. On June 1, 1863, Union officers provided 150 black soldiers for a Tubman-masterminded raid on rice plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. Tubman used an elaborate network of spies among the slave population to gather detailed intelligence about Confederate defenses, including the location of floating mines in the river. The raid freed around 750 slaves.

WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, TRY BRIBERY: Underground Railroad conductors were no strangers to “greasing the wheels” by paying off corrupt officials and ordinary citizens. Tubman found bribes especially effective at the Canadian border, where officials could be persuaded to turn a blind eye to “visitors” who clearly weren’t tourists. The bankroll for bribes came from supporters, both white and black, called “stockholders” in railroad lingo.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO USE LIVESTOCK: Tubman’s greatest strength was her ability to think on her feet—but her use of strategic poultry didn’t hurt, either. When a route forced her to pass through her own former master’s hometown, Tubman disguised herself as an old woman and bought two chickens, carrying one under each arm to complete the disguise of a domestic slave fetching dinner. When she spotted her former master approaching in the street, Tubman “lost” the chickens and went scrambling after them, to the amusement of her master and the other white townsfolk—thus allowing her to make a quick escape.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine, available wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold. Get a free issue here!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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