Boston: Lewis & Harriet Hayden House

If you won your freedom, would you be more likely to protect it at all costs or to risk it in order to save others?  This week we look at the life and home of a man and his wife who took the more heroic path.  Lewis Hayden and his wife Harriet spent their lives in Boston fighting for fugitive slaves from their home in the Beacon Hill neighborhood - a fight that had an especially personal meaning to Lewis, a former slave himself.

Lewis Hayden was born in Lexington, KY, to a family of 25 slaves.  He had two early life experiences that helped him determine his worth: first, at the age of 10 he was traded by his first owner for a pair of carriage horses which was his market value, and then later at the age of 14 he happened to meet Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette, who tipped his hat to the boy and gave him a sense of his real value as a person.  His first wife, named Esther, and their child were bought by Senator Henry Clay and then sold again, separating the family forever.  By the time he married a second time, Lewis Hayden was planning a way to escape in order to keep his family together.  In fact, by that point in time he had already convinced a pair of men to purchase him as an investment, negotiating a way to serve them for fees which would earn them profit but would also begin to allow him to save up to purchase his freedom.

In 1844, at the age of 32, Lewis got his chance.  Along with his wife, Harriet, and stepson, Joseph, they were aided in their escape by a minister and teacher.  These two, Calvin Fairbanks and Delia Webster, took the Hayden family north until they were able to meet up with the Underground Railroad who took them through Detroit into Canada, but upon their return to Lexington the duo were arrested, whipped, and imprisoned.  Webster was released a few months into her sentence, but Fairbanks served four years before Hayden was essentially able to bribe his former owner for the sum of $650 to secure a pardon.  A year after reaching Canada, the Hayden family returned to America to settle in Detroit, where they founded both a school and a church within the city that was full of fugitive slaves.  His desire to do the most for the cause of abolitionism, however, drew Lewis to the hub of anti-slavery activity: Boston.

Once in Massachusetts, Lewis Hayden opened a clothing store and began speaking for a time as an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society.  His home served not only his family, but countless escaped slaves as a boarding house along the Underground Railroad.  The Haydens were known to have placed two barrels of gunpowder beneath their front stoop, and when slave-catching bounty hunters arrived they answered the door with lit candles, promising to drop them and blow the house up rather than surrender those under their protection.  It was within this house, in fact, that the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, met with a large group of fugitives, the likes of which she had never seen.

Lewis Hayden spent his remaining years serving on the Boston Vigilance Committee to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which he saw as an ungodly law, to the point that it nearly ruined him financially.  A recession forced him to downsize his business, and a fire in the new location sent him into bankruptcy.  During the Civil War he helped recruit for the 54th Regiment and his son was mortally wounded while serving in the Union Navy.  He was politically active, convincing his friend John A. Andrew to run for governor, and was rewarded with a patronage position as Messenger to the Secretary of State to help support him.  He even served one term as a representative from Boston in the Massachusetts legislature.  When Lewis Hayden died in 1889, Harriet gave money in his honor to Harvard Medical School in order to establish a scholarship for African American students.  Having seen the worst of slavery, he committed his life to doing all he could to end it, and to help provide freedom to as many of those as possible who would follow in his footsteps.  You can read more about the man and his home, dubbed a "Temple of Refuge" by the Massachusetts Secretary of State, here:


  1. This was a really good article... so full of information and enabling you to really get into the mind of this great American.


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