Description of the prison — Ladies in the prison — Evening of a public day — Song — Obstinate coffee pot — Order of attack — Escape — Race — Great excitement — Our friends in the thicket — Prisoners gain the thicket — Flight — Encounter — Climb a tree — Faint — Prayers — Night favors us at last — Loss of my horse — Journey on foot — Reflections.
July 4, 1839
The prison at Columbia was situated in the same square with the court house, being on the north edge of the town. Between it and the wilderness, where our friends held the horses in waiting, there were several fields and fences, say for the distance of half a mile, consisting of meadow and pasture land, and all in full view of the town. The prison consisted of a block house, two stories high, with two rooms below and two above. The keeper and his family occupied one end, and the other was used as the prison — the only entrance being through the lower room of the dwelling part, which was occupied by the family, and then up a steep flight of stairs, at the head of which was a heavy oaken door, ironed, locked and bolted as if to secure a Bonaparte or a Samson. On the inside of this was still another door, which was but slender, with a square hole near the top, of sufficient size to hand in the food and dishes of the prisoners.
The large, heavy door had always to be opened when food, drink, or other articles were handed in; and while open, the inner door served as a temporary guard to prevent prisoners from escaping, and was not always opened on such occasions, the food being handed through the hole in the top of the door, while the door itself remained locked. However, as a fortunate circumstance for us, the coffee pot when filled would not easily slip through the hole in the door, and, rather than spill the coffee and burn his fingers, the keeper would sometimes unlock and open the inner door, in order to set in this huge and obstinate pot; and once in, the door would immediately close, and the key be turned, while the outer door would perhaps stand open till the supper was finished, and the dishes handed out.
Now, our whole chance of escape depended on the question, whether the inner door would be opened that evening, or the coffee pot squeezed in at the hole in the top. Mrs. Phelps and Mrs. Gibbs were in the upper room of the keeper’s apartment, near the head of the stairs, and only a log or timber partition between us and them, and several open crevices in the same, so that we could easily communicate with them. One of them was waiting the issue of the great scene about to be enacted with almost breathless interest and feverish anxiety, as on the good or ill success of that moment depended her future hopes through life, while the other was totally ignorant of the whole affair. In a far corner of our prison sat Luman, the old apostate, entirely ignorant of the whole plan, and with no other anxiety than a slight wish for the sun to go down, that he might enjoy his supper and the society of his dear “Phila” in his curtained bed in the upper room, while we were locked in the dungeon below to sleep on an oak floor, amid cobwebs and filth.
The citizens of the town were now some of them gathering in small groups outside of their doors to enjoy the quiet of a summer evening, to smoke a cigar or chat over the merits of the celebration; while others were on horseback, to enjoy an evening’s ride or to return to their homes. Bands of music, or rather an occasional beat of the drum, or blast of the bugle, was still to be heard in the distance; while a few soldiers, or rather militia in uniform, were hurrying to and fro. Groups of boys were playing about the square, and last, though not least, our flag was still on high, with “Liberty” and the eagle in bold colors waving to the night breeze. This had so attracted the attention of the little fellows that once and again they begged of us to make them a present of it; but we told them we could not spare it till the next morning — the fact is, we were not willing to surrender our castle before the time, or till we made good our retreat.
As the sun began to decline behind the long range of forest which bounded the western horizon, and the lengthened shadows of the tall trees were thrown over our prison, we called upon the Lord to prosper us and open our way, and then sang aloud the following lines:
Lord, cause their foolish plans to fail,
And let them faint or die:
Our souls would quit this poor old jail,
And fly to Illinois —
To join with the embodied Saints,
Who are with freedom blest:
That only bliss for which we pant,
With them awhile to rest.
Give joy for grief — give ease for pain,
Take all our foes away;
But let us find our friends again
In this eventful day.
These lines were sung several times over, with the spirit and with the understanding also, and very loud and distinct — being heard by the old apostate and his wife, and by the keepers of the prison; but the doctrine of spiritualizing had become so prevalent that neither this, nor the flag of liberty, nor any other Scripture seemed to them to have any literal meaning, till they found too late the true interpretation by the fulfilment.
The sun was now setting, and the footsteps of the old keeper were heard on the stairs — the key turned, the outer door grated on its huge hinges, while at the same moment we sprang upon our feet, hats and coats on (rather an unusual dress for a hot day in July — for, by the bye, my hat proved to be a fur cap, which I wore when first taken in November previous), and stood by the door to act the part of waiters in receiving the dishes and food for supper, and placing them on the table. Dish after dish was handed in through the small aperture in the door, and duly received and placed upon the table by us, with as much grace and as calm countenances as if we thought of nothing else but our suppers. And I will now venture to say that famishing men never watched the movements of a coffee pot with more anxiety than we did on this occasion. At length the other dishes all being handed in, the huge pot made its appearance in the hole in the top of the door, but one of us cried out to the keeper — “Colonel, you will only spill the coffee by attempting to put it through, besides, it burns our fingers; it will be more convenient to unlock and hand it in at the door.
” With this it was lowered again, and the key turned on the inner door.
In this, as in most other fields of battle, where liberty and life depend on the issue, every one understood the part assigned to him and exactly filled it. Mr. Follett was to give the door a sudden pull, and fling it wide open the moment the key was turned. Mr. Phelps being well skilled in wrestling was to press out foremost, and come in contact with the jailer; I was to follow in the centre, and Mr. Follett, who held the door, was to bring up the rear, while Sister Phelps was to pray.
No sooner was the key turned than the door was seized by Mr. Follett with both hands; and with his foot placed against the wall, he soon opened a passage, which was in the same instant filled by Mr. Phelps, and followed by myself and Mr. Follett. The old jailer strode across the way, and stretched out his arms like Bunyan’s Apollion, or like the giant Despair in Doubting Castle, but all to no purpose. One or two leaps brought us to the bottom of the stairs, carrying the old gentleman with us headlong, helter skelter, while old Luman sat and laughed in his corner of the prison, and Mrs. Phelps exclaimed, “O Lord God of Israel, thou canst help.” Old Mrs. Gibbs looked on in silent amazement, while the jailer’s wife acted the part of the giant Despair’s wife, Diffidence, and not only assisted in the scuffle, but cried out so loud that the town was soon alarmed. In the meantime we found ourselves in the open air, in front of the prison and in full view of the citizens, who had already commenced to rally, while Mr. Phelps and the jailer still clinched fast hold of each other like two mastiffs. However, in another instant he cleared himself, and we were all three scampering off through the fields towards the thicket.
By this time the town was all in motion. The quietness of the evening was suddenly changed into noise and bustle, and it was soon evident that the thrilling scenes of the great drama of the 4th of July, and of the Columbian celebration of liberty were yet to be enacted. The streets on both sides of the fields where we were running were soon thronged with soldiers in uniform, mounted riflemen, footmen with fence stakes, clubs, or with whatever came to hand, and with boys, dogs, etc., all running, rushing, screaming, swearing, shouting, bawling and looking, while clouds of dust rose behind them. The cattle also partook of the general panic and ran bellowing away, as if to hide from the scene. The fields behind us also presented a similar scene. Fences were leaped or broken down with a crash; men, boys and horses came tumbling over hedge and ditch, rushing with the fury of a whirlwind in the chase; but we kept our course for the thicket, our toes barely touching the ground, while we seemed to leap with the fleetness of a deer, or as the young hart upon the mountains.
Our friends who had stood waiting in the thicket, had watched the last rays of the sun as they faded away, and had observed the quiet stillness of the evening as it began to steal over the distant village where we were confined; and had listened with almost breathless anxiety for the first sound which was to set all things in commotion, and which would say to them in language not to be misunderstood, that the struggle had commenced. For some moments after the last golden beam had disappeared they listened in vain. The occasional lowing of a cow as she came home from the woodland pasture, impatient for her calf and the milkmaid to ease her of her rich burthen; the mingled sound of human voices in the distance in common conversation, the merry laugh of the young beaux and their sweethearts, the quiet song of the whippoorwill, mingled with the merry notes of the violin, the thrill of the bugle, or the soft and plaintive notes of the flute, stole upon the silence of the evening, and were occasionally interrupted by the clatter of hoofs, as a few of the citizens were retiring from the enjoyments of a public day to their own peaceful homes in the country. These, and the beatings of their anxious and almost bursting hearts, were the only sounds which fell upon their ear, till suddenly they heard a rumbling and confused noise, as of footsteps rushing down the stairs of a prison, then a shrill cry of alarm from Mrs. Diffidence, the giantess, and soon followed by the shouts and rush of men, dogs, horses and prisoners towards the spot where they were located. They then sprang forward to the edge of the fields and ran back again to the horses, and again returned, as if the using of their own limbs would serve to add nimbleness to those of the prisoners, and to quicken their speed.
As soon as the prisoners drew near, they were hailed by their friends, and conducted to the horses. They were breathless and nearly ready to faint; but in a moment they were assisted to mount, and a whip and the reins placed in their hands, while the only words interchanged were — “Fly quickly, they are upon you!” “Which way shall we go?” “Where you can; you are already nearly surrounded.” “But what will you do? They will kill you if they cannot catch us.” “We will take care of ourselves; fly, fly, I say, instantly.” These words were exchanged with the quickness of thought, while we were mounting and reining our horses; in another instant we were all separated from each other, and each one was making the best shift he could for his own individual safety.
I had taken about the third jump with my horse when I encountered a man rushing upon me with a rifle, and, taking aim at my head, he said, “G—d d—n you, stop, or I’ll shoot you.” He was then only a few paces from me, and others were rushing close in his rear, but I turned my horse quickly in another direction, and rushed with all speed into the thickest of the forest, followed for some minutes by him and his dog; but I soon found myself alone, while I could only hear the sound of distant voices, the rushing of horsemen in every direction, with the barking of dogs. What had become of my companions or our friends, I knew not. I rode on at full speed for a mile or more, when the woods terminated, and no alternative was left for me but to go either to the right or to the left into one of the public highways where I would be every moment exposed to my pursuers, or go over the fence and pass through the open fields to the wilderness beyond, or, on the other hand, to turn back into the heart of the forest, partly towards the town and prison from whence I had escaped.
As horses’ feet and men’s voices were already heard along the highways which lay on each side of me, I determined upon the latter. I, therefore, changed my course, took my back track, and plunged into the depth of the forest. I then dismounted, tied my horse in a thicket, walked some distance from him and climbed a tree — intending to wait in this situation amid the concealment of the thick foliage till the darkness of evening would enable me to proceed with safety. Seating myself in one of its forked branches, and placing my arms in two other similar forks, I was supported from falling, although in a moment after I had ceased my exertions I fainted away. In this situation I remained for some time, without the least power to change my position or help myself; my breath was gone through over exertion, and my mouth and throat parched with a burning thirst, my stomach sickened, and as I began to breathe I was seized with vomiting, and threw up nearly all the food which my stomach contained. I then gradually recovered my strength till I could speak, when I began to call on the Lord, saying, “O Lord, strengthen me this once, deliver me from my persecutors and bring me in safety to a land of liberty, and I will praise thy name and give thee all the glory, and the remnant of my days shall be wholly devoted to thy service; for surely my life is now at stake, and if preserved, it is thy gift, therefore I shall owe it all to thee.” 1
The darkness of evening was now fast setting in, and every moment seemed to increase my safety and security from immediate discovery, although I could still hear the distant sound of tramping horses, and the voices of men and dogs in pursuit, and sometimes so near that I could distinguish some of their words. It was a dark and moonless evening, the sky was only lighted by the glimmer of a few stars partly obscured by the clouds, and the thick foliage of the forest increased the gloom, and served to render the darkness nearly complete. I now came down from the tree and felt my way to the place where I had tied my horse, but as good or ill luck would have it, he had loosed himself and gone, leaving me to my fate. I then groped my way amid the dark shades of the forest to a small stream of warm, muddy water, and, stooping down, partly quenched my thirst. I then made my way to the highway and commenced my journey on foot, carefully watching on either hand lest I should be surprised and taken.
I was an entire stranger to the country — having no guide but the polar star. My road lay nearly northward, and upwards of a hundred miles of a wild country, peopled only by enemies, still lay between me and a State where the principles of freedom yet prevailed in a sufficient degree to insure my safety. If I could make my way through this wilderness of enemies, on foot, after the weakness and debility caused by eight months’ confinement, and after the fatigues of my evening’s race, and neither inquire the way nor make my appearance at any house for entertainment and refreshment, then I should still have the great Mississippi River to ferry over, and be liable to be discovered and retaken in the act, while in sight of liberty. The thoughts of these dangers, the anxious inquiries of my mind as to what had become of my fellow prisoners and friends, which I had no means of satisfying, and the hopes and expectations of soon meeting my family and friends in a land of liberty, alternately occupied my mind as I slowly pursued my solitary way during that dark and, to me, eventful night.
1 Parley fulfilled this personal covenant, spending the vast majority of his days (nearly eighteen more years) in full-time service in the kingdom as a missionary and apostle.