Beyond the River brings to brilliant life the dramatic story of the forgotten heroes of the Ripley, Ohio, line of the Underground Railroad.
From the highest hill above the town of Ripley, Ohio, you can see five bends in the Ohio River. You can see the hills of northern Kentucky and the rooftops of Ripley’s riverfront houses. And you can see what the abolitionist John Rankin saw from his house at the top of that hill, where for nearly forty years he placed a lantern each night to guide fugitive slaves to freedom beyond the river.
In Beyond the River, Ann Hagedorn tells the remarkable story of the participants in the Ripley line of the Underground Railroad, bringing to life the struggles of the men and women, black and white, who fought “the war before the war” along the Ohio River. Determined in their cause, Rankin, his family, and his fellow abolitionists—some of them former slaves themselves—risked their lives to guide thousands of runaways safely across the river into the free state of Ohio, even when a sensational trial in Kentucky threatened to expose the Ripley “conductors.” Rankin, the leader of the Ripley line and one of the early leaders of the antislavery movement, became nationally renowned after the publication of his Letters on American Slavery, a collection of letters he wrote to persuade his brother in Virginia to renounce slavery.
A vivid narrative about memorable people, Beyond the River is an inspiring story of courage and heroism that transports us to another era and deepens our understanding of the great social movement known as the Underground Railroad.
Although the title suggests otherwise, this book could serve as a biography of John Rankin, one of Ohio's most active "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. Rankin (1793 1886), a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist in Ripley, where the Ohio River separated the free state of Ohio from the slave state of Kentucky, was equally well-known among the enslaved and their enslavers. To runaway blacks, Rankin's house was a gateway to freedom atop Ripley's highest hill. To slaveholders in Kentucky, Rankin was a formidable force in the borderland war with Ripley, that "abolitionist hellhole," on the other side of the river. One of the earliest leaders in the antislavery movement, Rankin published his Letters on AmericanSlaveryin 1823, which became standard reading for American antislavery advocates. Hagedorn (Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping) brings to life the story of Rankin, his family, free blacks and the other forgotten heroes on the front line who assisted hundreds of blacks on the trek to freedom. Rankin's story is inspiring, but often not as captivating as those of the other heroes who are secondary characters here. The author brilliantly chronicles threats of midnight assassins, riots in Cincinnati and a pivotal trial in Kentucky in the 1830s, and a slave woman's nighttime escape across the icy river with her two-year-old (and the woman's risky return across the Ohio three years later to rescue her daughter and seven grandchildren from a Kentucky slaveholder). Hagedorn's decision to relocate to Ripley during the book's completion no doubt inspired her immediate and vivid prose, bringing these historical figures to a wider audience.
Beyond the River
Ann Hagedorn does a masterful job bringing Rankin, Parker and the Abolitionists to life. She is an historian whose passion for her subject is palpable. Her truths are bracing and fresh.