Franklin County Historical Society Teaches Myth

On Saturday, April 29, 2017 I visited Chambersburg, PA for their special History Day, where a number of sites of historical importance were open with free admission.

I first visited Mary Ritner’s Boarding House, which is the house John Brown used to plan his Harper’s Ferry Raid.

The house has some really good artifacts and recreations of 19th Century life.

They do fall down in one respect. In discussing John Brown’s plans, they asserted he was trying to overthrow the United States Government. Such was not the case. Brown’s plan was to establish a breakaway slave area in the mountains.

My next stop was the old Franklin County jail, which had been in operation from the early 1800s all the way to 1970.

It was interesting to see the cells, which had very small doors and were depressing to look at, even at this date.

Unfortunately, they too fell down in their historical interpretation. In a display on slavery, they perpetuated the myth that there were quilts that had secret codes to help guide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad.

There is absolutely no foundation for this ludicrous claim.

Those two stumbles were disappointments in an otherwise interesting visit. The good folks at the Ritner House should try to stock their gift shop with biographies of John Brown and books about the Harper’s Ferry Raid. It would help them also if their docents read those biographies.



  1. Not sure which biography of Brown you think is okay. Personally I like Reynolds. But like all things leading to the Civil War, I like things written at the time — by those who bragged about doing things, like killing people in Kansas to spread slavery. Brown’s son was killed by men who bragged about killing, and bragged about the reason they killed, to spread slavery.


    1. I liked Reynolds’ biography a great deal. I thought it was eye-opening and very useful.
      The rest of your comment strayed very far away from the post, especially the insults to Professor Foner.

  2. Al, My wife took up quilting as a hobby. On a visit to a small quilt shop in Washington state I saw a book that told the story of how quilts were used to identify safe houses for the underground railroad. Are you sure that the quilt story was just a myth?

    1. Absolutely positive, Pat, and that book is the prime reason for the myth. Just think about this one question: How would the meaning of the alleged code be known to enslaved people throughout the South?

  3. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    From the NAtional Geographic web page

    Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard first posited the quilt code theory six years ago in their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, published in 1998. In the book, the authors chronicled the oral testimony of Ozella McDaniel, a descendant of slaves. McDaniel claims that her ancestors passed down the secret of the quilt code from one generation to the next.

    in rebuttal:

    Giles R. Wright, a New Jersey-based historian, points to a lack of corroborating evidence. Quilt codes are not mentioned in the 19th century slave narratives or 1930s oral testimonies of former slaves. Additionally, no original quilts remain.

    “What I think they’ve done is they’ve taken a folklore and said it’s historical fact,” Wright said. “They offer no evidence, no documentation, in support of that argument.”

    from Quilt History

    While these diaries[slave narratives] are a certainly a valuable source of information about the Underground Railroad, a more reliable source may be the thousands of interviews done in 1936 – 1938 by the Federal Writers Project which recorded firsthand reports of slave life. These interviews documented many escape routes, both on and off the Underground Railroad.

    The idea of quilts being used in the Underground Railroad for purposes other than bedding was not mentioned either in the written documents of the period or in the interviews given years later. That is not to say they could not have been used in a form not discussed. However, care must be taken not to romanticize this possibility.

    Thank you for this post, as it inspired me to do some of my own reading up on the topic 🙂

    1. You did well to go to a reputable site, Shoshana. Historian Ralph Luker has also written about the myth.

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