On this day in 1913, Harriet Tubman passed away in Auburn. Her age was unknown, but it was somewhere between 90 and 95.
Below is the full obituary for the American icon that appeared in The Citizen the next day.
(Editor's note: Two quotes attributed to Tubman contain exaggerated phonetic spellings that most would now consider racist. The quotes have been transcribed as they were originally published in the interest of historic preservation. One use of a racial slur has also been paraphrased.)
HARRIET TUBMAN IS DEAD
"I Go to Prepare a Place for You" the Last Words She Uttered.
BORN IN SLAVERY NEARLY 100 YEARS AGO
She Rendered Wonderful Service to the Cause of the Abolitionists and Her "Underground Railroad" Had a Record of Never Running a Train Off the Track or Losing a Single Passenger — Too Feeble to Withstand Pneumonia — A Sketch of Her Career.
Harriet Tubman-Davis, Aunt Harriet, died last night of pneumonia at the home she founded out on South Street road near here. Born lowly, she lived a life of exalted self-sacrifice and her end closes a career that has taken its place in American history. Her true services to the black race were never known but her true worth could never have been rewarded by human agency.
Harriet's death was indeed the passing of a brave woman. There was no regret but on the contrary she rejoiced in her final hours. Conscious up to within a few hours of her passing she joined with those who came to pray for her and the final scene in the long drama of her life was quite as thrilling as the many that had gone before.
Yesterday afternoon, when the trained nurse, Mrs. Martha Ridgway of Elmira, and Dr. G. B. Mack had decided that her death was but the question of a few hours, Harriet asked for her friends, Rev. Charles A. Smith and Rev. E. U. A. Brooks, clergyman of the Zion A. M. E. Church. They, with Eliza E. Peterson, national superintendent for temperance work among colored people of the W. C. T. U., who came here from Texarkana, Tex., to see Harriet, and others, joined in a final service which Harriet directed. She joined in the singing when her cough did not prevent, and after receiving the sacrament she sank back in bed ready to die.
LOVE TO ALL THE CHURCHES.
To the clergymen she said: "Give my love to all the churches" and after a severe coughing spell she blurted out in thick voice this farewell passage which she bad learned from Matthew: "I go away to prepare a place for you, and where I am ye may be also." She soon afterward lapsed into a comatose condition and death came at 8:30 o'clock last evening. Those present when she died included Rev. and Mrs. Smith and Miss Ridgway, the colored nurse.
Two grandnieces of Harriet, Miss Alida Stewart and Miss Eva Stewart, were in Washington attending the inaugural and had not returned to Auburn. Harriet's nephew, William H. Stewart, and his eon, Charles Stewart, were in attendance during the final hours.
Harriet's age was unknown Born a slave of slave parents her lowly origin did not become a matter of sufficient moment to demand chronicling until it was too late to obtain other than a vague story of her childhood.
Today, more than half a century after John Brown said: "I bring you one of the bravest and best persons on this continent" when he presented Harriet to Wendell Phillips, a glance over her remarkable career shows that the hero of Harper's Ferry might well be quoted in selecting Harriet Tubman's epitaph.
First Married in 1844.
Harriet was first married to John Tubman, the marriage taking place in 1844. She became separated from her husband at the time of the Civil War when she was active in the violation of the fugitive slave law. Her husband died during this period. A number of years ago she married Nelson Davis of this city.
Harriet Tubman-Davis, or "Aunt Harriet" as she was familiarly known to Auburnians, died in the modest institution she founded here several years ago under the name of The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes. The building is out on South Street road and the property on which it is located adjoins a place that was given to Harriet by William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state. The place had been deeded to the African Methodist Episcopal Church and among the leading colored people who is interested in it is Bishop C. R. Harriss, D. D., of Salisbury, N. C., one of the most prominent Zion A. M. E. clergymen. Booker T. Washington, on his visit here two years ago, considered a visit to Harriet Tubman as the most important duty he had here on that occasion.
It had been Aunt Harriet's hope that her home in Auburn would receive support on a par with that extended to Hampton and Tuskegee, but her hopes were not realized. Up to the last, however, Harriet labored faithfully for her Home and spent much of her time about town seeking local aid for her charges.
Exact Age Not Established.
Her age has never been established, but it is known that she was over 90 years and possibly was even more than 95 years. To a reporter, who met her some time before she was finally compelled to remain at the Home, she replied to the question of her age: "Indeed I don't know, Sir. I am somewhere's about 90 to 95. I don't know when I was born, but I am pretty near 95." She was in the office of Superintendent of Charities F. J. Lattimore at the time, and her mind was unusually clear.
Medal from Queen Victoria.
It is no exaggeration to say that Harriet Tubman, as she is best known, furnishes a career of self-sacrifice that, in her services to the negro race, does not fall far short of the brilliancy of Joan of Arc, Grace Darling or Florence Nightingale. She has been honored by thousands and exalted personages have been equally eager to pay homage with the humble folk that she labored for. She was the friend of William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, John Brown, Gerrit Smith, Seward, Lincoln and others connected with the Anti-Slavery period. One of the treasured possessions that she leaves behind is a medal given to her by Queen Victoria.
Her Underground Railway.
Her premier claim to recognition rests in the wonderful manner in which she operated for 15 years the Underground Railway by which she personally conducted over 300 runaway slaves safely into Canadian territory. Her shrewdness in doing this work was nothing short of marvelous. She made no less than 19 trips down into the Southland in her dangerous work, and this in the face of the fact that her own eyes beheld in every railroad station and post office the placards of the State of Maryland which offered $12,000 reward for her body, dead or alive, while a reward of $40,000 additional was offered by an association of Southern planters whose slaves she was spiriting away to freedom.
Fortunately for Harriet she was unable to read so that her very ignorance probably was her salvation, because she proceeded in simple faith to carry out her plans without the strategy that might have been observed had she known that her life was in constant danger. Indeed her instinctive knowledge that danger was near when such proved to be true caused her friends, both negro and white, to believe that she was divinely inspired. The prices set on her head were high but nobody ever succeeded in capturing Harriet, although she had many narrow escapes and on one occasion hid herself and six fugitive slaves in "potato holes" dug in the fields, the runaways covering themselves completely with dirt. The Eliza-crossing-the-ice episode of Uncle Tom's Cabin was not more thrilling than many of the escapes in which Harriet figured.
In later years Harriet's wonderful career was recognized by several friends and one, a daughter of one of the professors of Auburn Theological Seminary, collected the facts that were then available concerning Harriet Tubman and made the aged negress the heroine of the book:"Harriet, The Moses of Her People."
Her Wit Was Sharp.
Harriet's sharp wits maintained their edge even in late years. In a visit to Rochester just prior to the death of the late Susan B. Anthony the latter presented Harriet as the "Conductor" of the Underground Railway. Harriet promptly declared: "Yes, ladies, I wuz de conductor ob de Undergroun' Railway an' I kin say what mos' conductors can't say—dat I nebber run my train off de track an' I nebber los' a passenger."
Born in Slavery in Maryland.
Harriet was born in slavery, her parents being Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green. Her birthplace was on an estate in Dorchester County, Maryland, and the time has been fixed as in the decade of 1815-1825. In later years her relatives became known under the name of Stewart and have borne that name for over 60 years. Harriet took her parents and brothers to Canada but came to Auburn with her kinsmen when the Civil War settled for all time the question of slavery. As a child Harriet was known as "Araminta" but later was called "Harriet." She moved on a plantation near Cambridge, Md. Those who tried to obtain a definite date for her birth when her career was being studied 30 years ago decided that 1814 was the year, but Harriet herself did not believe that she was so close to rounding a century when she last talked with the reporter.
Skull Fractured at 12 Years.
As a child of six years she was apprenticed to a weaver but was turned to work in the fields. When she was about 12 years of age she was struck on the head by a metal weight thrown by an angry overseer at a fleeing insubordinate slave. The blow resulted in a fracture of Harriet's skull and caused her to be subject to periodic fits of insensibility during her after life. This injury was largely relieved after the Civil War when she submitted to an operation at the Massachusetts General Hospital. There, despite the fact that the use of anaesthesia had come into general use, Harriet insisted that the operation go on without ether, and it is recorded on good authority that the task was accomplished by the surgeons.
In her youth Harriet's injury had caused her to be unfitted for high class labor and she was put to work driving oxen, carting, plowing and hard manual labor. This developed her physically so that in time her strength became so great that she did more work than a male slave and her market value stood at the current rate paid for a first class male slave, $150.
In 1844 Harriet's owner was a kind man and she was allowed to marry a free negro, John Tubman. Soon afterward, however, her owner died and she became the property of a minor son and in turn she was placed in charge of a Doctor Thompson, guardian for the minor. The sale of the slaves was ordered in settling the estate, and then Harriet conceived the great idea of liberation. She resolved to break her own shackles and one night stole away, following the North star as her guide. By day she hid and by night she traveled, ever Northward until she reached Philadelphia where the good Quakers befriended her. Establishing herself as a free negress her work of liberating other slaves began.
Big Reward for Her Capture.
In December, 1850, she visited Baltimore where she secretly met her sister and two children who were fugitives and brought them to Philadelphia. The next year she went "down into Egypt" to get her husband, but he had married another negress and at this point their ways parted forever. Instead of taking her husband to freedom she took a party of fugitives, and her success and their gratitude caused her to devote her life to this work.
She established a headquarters at Cape May, N. J., and in the Fall of 1852 disappeared from her usual haunts to reappear in a few weeks with nine fugitives. Then the Fugitive Slave Law drove her from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York into Canada, her only refuge. With Thomas Garrett, the well known Quaker abolitionist of Wilmington, Del., she aided in freeing over 3,000 slaves, her personal conduct taking 300 of them into Canada. Through Garrett she met the leaders in the Anti-Slavery movement and soon had established her Underground Railway, stations being located in every abolitionist center wherein fugitives were concealed and fed by day and aided on their way to Suspension Bridge and Canada by night. Journey followed journey to the South and Harriet's depredations became so great among the slaves that the Legislature of Maryland was forced to act and a reward of $12,000 was put on her head while slave owners privately banded together and put up $40,000 for her capture. Detectives everywhere, North and South, were on the watch for her and she had many narrow escapes, but a divine providence seemed to watch over her. Many times she sat huddled in Southern railway trains while the cars used by the "(black people)" were placarded inside and out with rewards for her capture persons actually shoved her aside to read the bills. Harriet in her ignorance not knowing the import of the signs. On one occasion she went back to her own home and found a former overseer, who knew her well, coming down the street. Her ready wit had caused her to prepare for such an emergency. On entering the town she had purchased two chickens which she tied together, and as she carried them along the highway she was unsuspected. When about to be confronted by her former overseer she allowed one of the chickens to escape and giving chase created a laugh but eluded close inspection and probable discovery. She laughed last. Her remarkable career is filled with such incidents and that a complete volume on her life has not been written leaves a peculiar vacancy in Abolitionist bibliography.
Freed Mother and Father.
In 1857 Harriet made one of her most important trips South and brought away to freedom her mother and father. They were conducted by Underground to Auburn, an important "station" where the coming secretary of state for Lincoln, Seward, resided. Out on South Street, where William H. Seward's mansion is, that kind gentleman sold to Harriet on easy terms a plot of ground where she built a home for her fugitive slave parents. It was in this house that Harriet spent many years, and she lived long enough to see her last ambition gratified in the foundation on adjoining premises of the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes. One time, however, she broke off active participation in its behalf, because, as she explained to the writer: "Wen I gabe de Home over to Zion Chu'ch w'at you s'pose dey done? Why, dey make a rule dat nobody should cum in widout a hundred dollars. Now I wanted to make a rule dat nobody should cum in 'nless dey didn't hab no money. W'at's de good of a Home if a pusson w'at wants to git in has to have money?"
Scout Army Nurse and Spy.
Harriet's possessions at one time included many letters and documents of interest to the historian. They included letters from the most prominent abolitionists and generals of the Federal Army during the wartime period.
It must be said that Harriet Tubman was probably the only woman who served through the war as scout, army nurse and spy, taking her life in her hands many times in the last capacity. She was proud of the fact that she had worn "pants" and carried a musket, canteen and haversack, accoutrements which she retained after the war and left as precious relics to her colored admirers. When the war broke out she did not wait for the Emancipation Proclamation but began at once forcibly to free slaves. In 1863, when it was decided to use negro troops, Harriet was instantly alert to became nurse for a regiment, and when the famous Fifty-fourth Massachusetts marched away from Boston, the event now commemorated by the bronze tablet of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his men opposite the State House on Boston Commons, Harriet followed a few days later with a commission in her pocket from Governor Andrew. She cooked for Colonel Shaw and dined with him, too, on certain occasions, and when she was not acting cook she was turned loose as escaped "contraband" to browse around in the enemy's lines, only to reappear soon with valuable news of the Confederate movements.
On one occasion she informed Major General Hunter at Hilton Head of mines planted in the river and several gunboats sent to the scene removed a lot of torpedoes that would certainly have destroyed an expedition about to pass over that dangerous ground. Harriet went to Fort Wagner after that famous charge was made there and aided in burying the black soldiers and their white officers, and in nursing the injured. Her success as a nurse, especially her ability to cure the men of dysentery by means of native herbs, became so well known to the army surgeons that she was transferred by the War Department to Fernandina, Fla., which in 1863-65 was a military base, as in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
She Drew a Pension.
Her services were subsequently recognized by Congress which issued her a pension, which during the past seven years, owing to the efforts of Hon. Sereno E. Payne, leader of the House and a resident of Auburn, was increased. Yet she died in poverty, all of her money having been expended as fast as acquired in aiding indigent negroes.
Among Harriet's effects are papers indicating her intimate friendship with men and women of prominence before and after the war. She lived for a time at the home of Emerson in Concord, then with the family of William Lloyd Garrison, and visited the Alcotts, the Whitneys, Mrs. Horace Mann and Phillips Brooks. A letter written by Wendell Phillips to an Auburn lady in June 16, 1868, says regarding Harriet Tubman: "The last time I ever saw John Brown was under my own roof when he brought Harriet Tubman to me saying: 'Mr. Phillips, I bring you one of the best and bravest persons on this continent — General Tubmen, as we call her.' The famous leader of Ossawatommie narrating to Boston's famous preacher the career of Harriet and concluding for himself, said: 'In my opinion there are few captains, perhaps few colonels, who have done more for the colored race than our fearless and sagacious friend, Harriet.'"
A Treasured Pass.
Letters from such important personages are found in abundance among Harriet's belongings and there are tributes from Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, Queen Victoria, John Brown, Seward, Phillips, Generals Baird, Gilmore, Hunter, Montgomery, Saxton, Surgeon General Barnes, etc., etc.
One of her most treasured "passes," most of which are hardly decipherable owing to wear and tear in service during the war, and now dim with age, is the following issued to her by Maj. Gen. David Hunter of Port Royal near Hilton Head, S. C., headquarters of the Department of the South in 1863 at a time when carte blanche privileges were conferred only upon the most trusted persons in the service of the Federal government. The pass reads:
"Pass the bearer, Harriet Tubman, to Beaufort and back to this place, and wherever she wishes to go; and give her free passage at all times, on all government transports. Harriet was sent to me from Massachusetts by Governor Andrew at Boston and is a valuable woman. She has permission, as a servant of the government, to purchase such provisions from the Commissary as she may need.
"Major General Commanding."
Shimer and the Gold.
In Auburn there has grown up a wealth of anecdotes about Harriet that illustrate her unique character. None is better known, perhaps, than her adventure with the late Anthony Shimer. In this Harriet has been generally conceded to have been an innocent pawn moved by clever swindlers who mulcted the Auburn miser of $2,000. A negro named Stevenson had come to Auburn in 1873 with a story that another negro, Harris, had come from the vicinity of Charleston, S. C., with a hoard of $5,000 in gold which he had found during the war and had concealed and which he dared not to exchange for the more convenient greenbacks in the South because the government would seize the gold. The negro, it was said, would gladly change his gold for greenbacks and after some interest had been stirred in Seneca Falls the people who like to obtain much for little in Auburn began to warm up to the proposition.
Through the late John Stewart, a brother of Harriet Tubman, the latter was interested in the matter and she called upon many prominent citizens. They advised her not to have anything to do with the offer but she had faith in it and finally after Shimer had heard of the proposition through one Thomas, a Seneca Falls negro, he accepted as corroborative the stories told by Harriet. Shimer knowing that gold bore a premium of 12 per cent at the time, agreed to give $2,000 in greenbacks for $2,000 in gold, and a party consisting of Shimer, Charles O'Brien, then cashier of the City Bank, Harriet Tubman and her husband, her brother, John Stewart, and the man Stevenson started out to make the exchange in the seclusion of a forest in the South end of the county. They drove to Fleming Hill expecting to find the representative of the owner of the gold there, but he was not there so they drove on to Poplar Ridge where they got out and put up at the tavern. Then the man Stevenson explained that the transaction was of such a secret character that only himself and Harriet could meet the mysterious stranger with the gold and Shimer easily handed over his money to Harriet, who departed with Stevenson. They were to return as soon as the gold had been passed for the greenbacks.
After due time had passed and they failed to return the party became suspicious for the first time and started out to search for the missing pair with the $2,000. Stevenson was never seen again. Harriet was found bleeding and gagged, her clothing torn and making her way along as best she could. She was taken back to the tavern where she told a story that was generally accepted as a romance. It was apparent that the man Stevenson and his pal, Harris, were swindlers and that having taken Harriet alone to a secluded place they had forcibly taken the money from her. Harriet, however, narrated a story that included hypnotism and ghosts to account for the loss of the money and her injuries, and Shimer, who was the "goat," probably for the first time in his life, almost suffered heart disease at his loss. He attempted in his characteristic manner to hold Harriet and her brother responsible for his loss, charging that they had "borrowed" the money from him. He was never able to collect the money.
Harriet leaves very little property, and so far as known her possessions include only the seven acres, little brick house and barns on the place out on South Street road where she lived so many years.
Funeral Arrangements Incomplete.
The arrangements for the funeral were incomplete at a late hour this afternoon. Rev. Charles A. Smith and Rev. E. U. A. Brooks are in charge of the matter and expect to complete the arrangements late today.