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31 Mar 2023

Badassed Women of Philadelphia: Ona Judge-part two

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March 31, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

Beyond the Bell Tours: Helping to highlight Philly’s great women

Beyond the Bell Tours is inspired by the stories that go untold in Philadelphia. The tours are designed to include and to share the incredible stories of women, people of color, queer folks and indigenous peoples who have made Philadelphia the city that we know and love. The tours have always been and will always be a love letter to the city of Philadelphia. Founded in 2018, Beyond the Bell is now proudly a top-ranking tour company in the Philadelphia area. 

The SUN is pleased to feature part two of the incredible story of Ona Judge, one of the subjects on the Beyond the Bell Tours schedule.

ABOVE PHOTO: The artistic rendition of Ona Judge is from a plaque at the President’s House Monument at 6th and Market Street. (Images courtesy: Beyond the Bell Tours)

By Alison Cooper


How Ona liberated herself

Ona’s escape became urgent when Martha Washington’s niece, Eliza, married. She was about to be sold to Eliza and her new husband Thomas Law. As Erica Armstrong Dunbar explains, “Although human bondage was horrific under any owner, there was always room for slaves to make comparisons.” The Washingtons were more or less stable, predictable owners. But Eliza and Thomas Law were known for their irritability, volcanic tempers, and shady reputations.

Ona must have feared abuse worse than she already suffered. She must have worried that she might be the next target of Thomas Law’s sexual violence. She began to plot her escape, planning for months. But she couldn’t foresee the lengths President Washington would go to dissuade and punish runaway slaves and the abolitionists who helped them.

President Washington passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which created a legal structure for the capture and return of fugitive slaves. This law allowed slave owners to seize a runaway slave, put them on trial in front of a judge, and if proven through written or oral “proof of ownership,” they would be returned to their slave owner.

Celebrated in the South and condemned in the North, the Fugitive Slave Act provided a dangerous environment to attempt to escape from enslavement. If Ona were to flee, she had to be successful or else face the auction block, sold off to the highest bidder.

Dr. Life of George Washington: The Farmer (By Junius Brutus Stearnes (c. 1853). Public domain)

Nonetheless, she knew the fate that lay ahead if she worked for Eliza and Thomas Law: violence, rape, and the impossibility of an escape. Her freedom was worth the risk.

As the Washingtons made preparations for their return to Mount Vernon, so too did Ona plan for her escape. “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 should never get my liberty,” Ona explained in an interview with The Granite Freeman Concord, New Hampshire.

And on Saturday, May 21, 1796, the moment finally came. While the Washingtons dined on their supper, Ona disappeared.

Life after bondage

Just two days after Ona Judge’s escape, the Washingtons put an advertisement in The Philadelphia Gazette. Offering a $10 reward (roughly $300 in 2019) plus further expenses, the Washingtons urged white citizens to look out for a “mulatto girl” who passed for a “free woman” and to return her at once.

Speed was crucial. Ona was now the most wanted fugitive slave in the country. She escaped Philadelphia via the Delaware River, the very same river that would become synonymous with President Washington’s valor, patriotism, and pursuit of American freedom.

Ona boarded a boat to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, commanded by Captain John Bowles, whose identity Ona kept secret until a decade after his death for fear that he would be prosecuted. As she told Reverend T.H. Adams in an interview for The Granite Freeman: “I never told his name till after he died, a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.” With Captain Bowles’s help, she had a new start as a fugitive and a liberated woman.

Once in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Ona found a place to live and work thanks to her network of free blacks. She worked as a domestic laborer, as this was the only job allotted to Black women at the time. The work was full of long, grueling days spent scrubbing floors and laundry, preparing meals, and assisting in the fields.

Still, as Erica Armstrong Dunbar notes, that Ona “elected to become a domestic, that she chose to endure physically punishing work in New Hampshire, rather than remain a slave, says everything we need to know about how much she valued freedom.”

Though she lived as a liberated woman, Ona still had to be cautious. She was one of the most wanted fugitive slaves in the country.

Washington’s hunt for Ona

President Washington was infuriated to learn of her escape. Not only did he lose a slave, but her escape also created a further problem: a public relations catastrophe. By rotating slaves every six months, he avoided the North’s anti-slavery legislation. Further, he could maintain his slaves and still appear sympathetic to the abolitionist movement. If he pursued Ona even though the law was on his side, he would be exposed as a slave owner, and the public’s reaction could be disastrous for his reputation and political career.

Not only did he have a public relations problem, but her liberation set a bad precedent for his other slaves. If Ona could disappear and become free, why not them? He had to act. 

A group listens intently during a Beyond the Bell Tours walking trip. (Images courtesy: Beyond the Bell Tours)

As the search continued, a senator’s daughter spotted Ona in Portsmouth. But only later she realized that Ona was President Washington’s fugitive. Ona’s location and identity compromised, Washington developed a plan. He recruited Joseph Whipple, a customs collector in Portsmouth, to act as an intermediary. Whipple would meet with Ona to hire her as a domestic worker.

Through subterfuge, Whipple planned to capture Ona and return her to the first family. But Whipple, not being the cleverest or most loyal ambassador, exposed his true intentions by inquiring a little too much about Ona’s past and her previous “employer.”

His cards revealed that Whipple tried to reason with her to return to the Washingtons. In fact, he was sympathetic towards Ona and freed black slaves. He guaranteed that she would be treated fairly and would return to her role as the First Lady’s favorite servant.

Ona reluctantly agreed to meet Whipple at the ship. But she knew that she would never choose to return to her life as an enslaved woman. The only way she would be moved would be by force. Besides, she wanted to start a new life of her own through marriage and a family. She duped Whipple, just as he deceived her, and never showed up to board the boat back to the Washingtons. Though her freedom remained secure for now, the President would not yet cease hunting for her. 

A family of her own

Although separated from her brothers and sisters who remained enslaved in Mount Vernon, Ona sought to create her own family. She became engaged to Jack Staines, a free Black sailor. Their marriage served to protect her freedom. A marriage certificate, recognized by the state, guaranteed that if Jack Staines died, Ona would be the legal beneficiary of his estate.

News of the couple’s engagement traveled around Portsmouth, including to President Washington’s reluctant accomplice, Joseph Whipple. In a conversation with the Portsmouth clerk, Whipple exposed Ona’s identity as the first family’s infamous fugitive. This made the couple’s marriage certificate impossible in the city.

Yet the crafty couple bypassed Whipple’s roadblock. They traveled outside the city where Ona’s fugitive status was unknown. Jack and Ona married on January 14, 1797. Soon after they grew their family. The couple had three children: Eliza, Nancy, and William. The family lived in poverty for their entire lives, but their liberation meant everything to Ona.

Speaking truth to power

The Washingtons never quit hunting for Ona. They called on their political allies, bounty hunters, and slave catches to return her. For years, Ona lived in fear that she may be recaptured and forced back into slavery. Only President Washington’s death in 1799 sealed the end of his failed pursuit. As Ona explained to The Granite Freeman, “they never troubled me anymore after he was gone.”

Against all odds, Ona escaped the most powerful man in the nation. She — and her freedom — survived.

Liberated from the fear of recapture, Ona knew the importance and value of her story. Towards the end of her life, she was interviewed for two abolitionist newspapers, The Granite Freeman and The Liberator. These interviews offer a fascinating first-hand testimony of her life.

Ona once said she would rather suffer death than return to slavery. After fifty-two years of struggling for her liberation, on February 25, 1848, Ona Judge Staines died a free woman.

You can learn more about Ona Judge’s fascinating story on Beyond the Bell Tour’s Badass Women of Philadelphia Tour. To learn more about President Washington and slavery in Philadelphia, check out our Philly Classic Tour. Availability, booking, and further information can be found at: You can also check us out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

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