How a Hotel Keeper’s Wife Helped one Woman Escape Slavery
In 1839, a West Chester housewife sent Rachel Harris out of captivity to Canada.
The Turk’s Head Hotel, not long before its demolition.
You could argue that responsible people seldom do great things. So, occasionally, someone has to be irresponsible.
Take, for example, Rachel Mattson Worthington, the wife of a West Chester hotel owner who was a sometime deputy sheriff. In 1839, Worthington had to decide in an instant whether or not to shelter her frantic laundress, runaway slave Rachel Harris, whose owner was literally on her heels. Worthington hid the woman in a garret until her husband, John—later lauded in his obituary for his “impartiality”—came home.
“He censured his wife for the part she had taken in the escape, assuring her that he would not or could not protect the fugitive,” reported the West Chester Local in 1886. “To this, the wife made no reply, but her wit was equal to the occasion.”
Rachel Worthington is almost invisible in historical records. She is identified in some genealogies as the daughter of Enoch and Ann Mattson, though the couple appears in none of the local county histories. Other Mattsons appear as farmers and millers in an 1884 history of Delaware County.
She may have been a descendant of Swedish immigrants Neals and Margaret Mattson, who purchased land in present-day Eddystone in 1670. In 1684, Margaret was accused of witchcraft for threatening her neighbors, bewitching and killing livestock, and appearing to witnesses in spectral form. In a trial famously overseen by William Penn, Mattson was acquitted of witchcraft but convicted of having a witch-like reputation. She was released contingent on her own good behavior.
Whatever her lineage, Rachel Mattson was likely married before 1828, when she gave birth to twins, Charlotte and Wilmer. Her husband, John Taylor Worthington, was part of a Quaker family that had arrived in Philadelphia in 1705. Worthington, though, was Episcopalian. His parents, Amos and Jane, were farmers near West Chester, but some relatives were prominent. A cousin, Wilmer, served for three years as physician at the Lazaretto in Tinicum and was a founder of the Chester County Medical Society.
Worthington ran a hotel, the Turk’s Head, at High and Market streets. He retired, according to his obituary, “with ample estate.” He also served the county as deputy register, deputy sheriff and an inspector of the Chester County Prison.
At West Chester’s Church of the Holy Trinity, where he was a member of the vestry, Worthington was recalled in the church minutes for his “judgment and integrity of purpose.”
“No man among us was more frequently called on to sit in those domestic tribunals known to our Pennsylvania jurisprudence as arbitrations,” wrote the vestry. “In every case submitted to his decision, the litigant parties felt sure that they would be patiently heard and their cause examined with care and decided with an earnest purpose to reach a correct conclusion.”
You get the idea. Worthington was a solid citizen, a man who made and followed rules, but not one to bend or break them.
Of his wife, by contrast, little was remembered at her passing. Rachel Mattson Worthington’s six-line obituary in the Local identified her as the widow of John Worthington and informed readers that her funeral would be Saturday, Nov. 6, with the procession leaving her house on West Market Street for Oaklands Cemetery at 3 p.m. Nothing more.
So, if you were Harris, whom would you prefer to encounter in a moment of desperate need: Mr. Follow the Rules or another woman? Perhaps someone who confided in you over the laundry tub?
Described by one writer as “tall, muscular, yet slender and sensitive,” Rachel Harris had been the property of a Maryland slave owner, Mort Cunningham, who was in the habit of renting her out. About 1833, Harris was rented to Henry Waters and his wife, according to Robert C. Smedley, author of an 1883 history of the Underground Railroad in Chester County. Waters was going to New Orleans for his health and needed an attendant. The change of climate didn’t help, so Waters decided to return to Maryland. He died on the way, leaving Harris alone with his widow.
The ship landed in a storm, during which a panicked cow bolted as it was being unloaded, dashing away into the crowd. “The captain of the ship looked at Rachel and then at the cow,” wrote historian Joseph Walton. “The young slave needed no further invitation; glancing around, she saw that her mistress was occupied. Rachel immediately followed the cow and was out of sight in a flash.”
Harris made it to Pennsylvania, where she lived for several years with Emmor Kimber, an abolitionist Quaker who ran a school in northern Chester County and for whom the village of Kimberton is named. According to Smedley, Harris cooked for the family and endeared herself with the Kimbers’ daughter, who loved her gift for “drama and mimicry.”
In the early years, the woman known in Maryland as “Cunningham’s Rache” used the name of her master’s dead client, calling herself Henrietta Waters.
After marrying Isaac Harris, another Maryland runaway, she became Rachel Harris. Isaac—whose real name was actually Joseph Lusley—was much older than Rachel and worked in a brickyard. The couple lived in a small house on Miner Street in West Chester.
Then someone blabbed.
A reward had been offered, and an unknown West Chester man—“who loved money more than a woman’s liberty,” according to Walton—revealed her location. Cunningham arrived in West Chester, found a constable, then went to the Harris home.
“[Rachel] was upstairs sick, or feigned to be so, and would not come down until she was repeatedly called by the constable, who did not tell her what he wanted,” reported the newspaper. “The master (Cunningham) took her by the hand and pointed to a mutilated finger to prove his property.”
Harris was then marched down the street to Judge Thomas S. Bell’s house at Church and Miner for an order that would allow Cunningham to take her back to Maryland. “Rachel quickly realized that she was to be taken back into slavery, and that she would be separated from her husband,” wrote Walton. Thinking fast, she asked to use the outhouse. Her wish was granted, and the constable followed along to keep an eye on her.
In the Local’s version of the story, Judge Bell’s wife was standing at the door as Harris passed, and she whispered, “Now, clear yourself!”
Give Rachel Harris this: She was quick.
“Rachel bounded off like a deer, with the constable after her,” reported the Local. “But it was a race for liberty on one side and for slavery on the other.”
The Bells’ fence was 7 feet high, but she got over it and kept going. The constable was in no shape to follow. “Her pursuer was an old man, slow in his movements, and it was believed by some that he had no great wish to secure her, notwithstanding the fuss he made later,” the Local reported.
Harris ran down alleys and across streets. At one property, she ran into the rear garden then into the house, where she attempted to go upstairs. Coming down, she met a girl who wanted to know why she was there. Harris had no time to explain, so she ran out the front door and down a private alley to Samuel Auge’s hatter shop. In Walton’s version, she leaped over a vat of boiling liquid and, when the men working there tried to block the door, went out the window. Across the adjacent alley, she entered the Worthingtons’ garden, then the house, where Harris encountered Rachel Worthington.
According to Walton, “She rushed into the kitchen and threw her arms around Mrs. Worthington, crying, ‘For God’s sake, save me. Take me in. My master is after me.’”
In an 1881 county history, Worthington replied, “Oh, I guess not,” and tried to soothe the frantic woman.
“He is! He is!” exploded the hysterical Harris. “They had me, but I got away from them. Oh, hide me somewhere quickly, do!”
What would you do? Tick, tick, tick.
“Rachel had washed for Mrs. Worthington for many years and was beloved by her as a faithful, honest woman, and now in her distress, she could return the measure of faithfulness,” Walton wrote. “The colored woman had frequently said she would rather be cut to pieces than be returned to slavery.”
“Her emotions and piteous appeal convinced Mrs. Worthington that she was actually pursued,” according to the county history, “and immediately she took her up to the garret, hid her in a cubby-hole, fastened the door and returned [to the kitchen].”
Outside, a thorough search had begun. The pursuers, seeing John Worthington walking home for lunch, asked if he had seen or heard anything of Harris. The hotelkeeper replied that he had not—an honest response, since he had not yet reached his house. He soon learned the truth, and the Worthington spouses had an intense conversation.
How much Rachel Worthington confessed is not known. Her husband had his midday meal, then went back to work, possibly without knowing that Harris was still squirreled away in his very own house. During the afternoon, however, “it was noised abroad where she was, and threats were made to procure a search warrant to see if the report was true,” according to the Local.
The Worthingtons lived in a duplex. Henry Fleming next door, a justice of the peace—therefore, a responsible man—was out. “Under the eves of both their houses were small cupboards without a partition between them,” the Local reported. “Rachel W. watched for her opportunity and, as quickly as possible, transferred Rachel Harris through this opening into the custody of the females of the next house, who were strong abolitionists.”
That evening, Isaac and Rachel Harris, both dressed as men, were smuggled out of town, across Montgomery and Bucks counties, to a farm in Solebury Township. From there, the two of them were sent along to Canada.
Eventually, Rachel Worthington’s role became known to her friends, who teased her for being “the little abolitionist.” The thoughts of responsible John Worthington are unknown, but can be imagined.