Saturday, February 6, 2016

Black History Month: Calvin Fairbank

When Reverend Calvin Fairbank was released from the Kentucky State Penitentary in 1864, he headed straight for his home in Ohio.  Upon reaching the state, he fell to the ground, "kissed the dirt of my adopted State, and rising to my feet, and throwing my hands high in (the) air, I shouted:  Out of the Mouth of Death!  Out of the Jaws of Hell!!"

His crime?

Helping slaves to freedom.

Calvin Fairbank, a Methodist minister, was born in New York State on November 3, 1816.  In his autobiography, he told of listening to the story of a former slave woman who had been sold and separated from her husband and family. He was outraged, and told his father, "When I get bigger, they shall not do that."

Fairbank, in 1840, became licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church.  By then, he'd already freed his first slave, and by 1844, he'd claimed to have rescued at least 44 slaves.  That year, he attempted to rescue the wife and children of a slave, Gilson Berry.  While he was unable to rescue that family, he did come across another slave, Lewis Hayden.  When Fairbank asked, "Why do you want your freedom?"  Hayden answered, "Because I am a man."

The Hayden family--their faces powdered with flour to make them appear white--managed to escape. Fairbank did not.  He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to prison at the Kentucky penitentary in Frankfort.  

He was pardoned in 1849 by Kentucky governor John J. Crittenden.  Upon his pardon, he went right back to helping slaves escape.  In 1851, he helped a female slave named Tamar flee from Kentucky to Indiana.  On November 9 of that year, marshals from the state of Kentucky abducted Fairbank and took him back to Kentucky, where he again stood trial for helping a slave escape.  Again, he was tried, convicted, and sent back to the penitentary.  When Fairbank began his second term in jail, he heard the warden say, "Take Fairbank to the hackling house and kill him."  The hackling house, part of the hemp production area, was so brutal that three inmates deliberately chopped off a hand do they wouldn't have to work there.  

While Fairbank was in jail for the second time, he was repeatedly flogged -- over 1,000 times, he reported -- and at one point, he was hit by a club and temporarily blinded.  

His ordeal ended on April 15, 1864, when the Lieutenant Governor of Kentucky, Richard T. Jacobs, pardoned him.  He'd been released, as he said, out of the jaws of hell.  

Fairbank may have come out of the jaws of hell, but the brutal treatment he received there broke his health. He did marry and have a son, but he was unable to support his family. In 1898, he died. 

Fairbank, during his lifetime, reportedly helped 47 slaves escape. Those 47 people would not have known freedom without Calvin Fairbank being willing to put his life, health, and freedom on the line. 

Sources used:  

Prichard, James M. "Into the Fiery Furnace : Anti-Slavery Prisoners in the Kentucky Penitentary 1844-1870." Kentucky's Underground Railroad: Passage to Freedom," web site.
Fox, Aloysius, "November 9, 1851: Minister Calvin Fairbank Imprisoned," The Pandora Society website, November 9, 2015
Fairbank, Calvin. Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times: How He Fought the Good Fight to Help Prepare the Way. Chicago: R.R. McCabe, 1890, retrieved from
Chesson, Michael. Review of Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad, posted at H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

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