Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Parker SistersThe Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping
by Lucy Maddox
Temple University Press, 256 pp., cloth $28.50

The border where Chester County, Pennsylvania, adjoined Cecil County, Maryland, was contested territory in the conflict between “free” and “slave” states in the decades before the Civil War. Lucy Maddox provides a thoroughly researched account of one notable incident in this history, the abduction of the sisters Elizabeth and Rachel Parker from Nottingham Township, Chester County, by Elkton, Maryland, slave catcher Thomas McCreary in two separate incidents in December 1851. The liberation of the sisters through the efforts of their Chester County neighbors, with the assistance of Thomas Corkran and others, many of them Quakers, at Baltimore, took more than a year.

Maddox observes that the nature of the events and the language used to describe them was markedly different on the two sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. On the Maryland side, McCreary was viewed as having legitimately recovered fugitive slaves. On the Pennsylvania side, he was regarded as a kidnapper who should have been tried for his crimes. Maddox places the incident within the context of both the sectional conflict, particularly with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the experiences of the Parker family over several generations. The level of animosity is graphically demonstrated in the death of Elizabeth Parker’s employer, Joseph Miller, who was found hanging near the railroad line running north from Baltimore after a failed attempt by Miller and others to secure the release of Elizabeth. Maryland authorities ruled Miller’s death a suicide, while in Pennsylvania it was considered a murder, perhaps in retaliation for the death of Maryland slave owner Edward Gorsuch during the Christiana Resistance earlier in 1851.

The author is sensitive to the nuances of race relations and antislavery sentiment in the North. She demonstrates that although many of those involved from Chester County were committed to retrieving the Parker sisters from enslavement, expending both time and money to do so, they also distanced themselves from the label “abolitionists.” In all, the book is a masterful recreation of events, based on extensive use of primary sources. The kidnapping of the Parker sisters is a story worthy of this effort. Another recent work, Stealing Freedom along the Mason-Dixon Line: Thomas McCreary, the Notorious Slave Catcher from Maryland by Milt Diggins (Maryland Historical Society), is equally as well researched and presented, covering much of the same territory, although Diggins focuses on McCreary rather than the Parker sisters. Both authors provide insight into the considerable sectional strife over slavery. Their ability to see the conflict through the perspectives of slave catchers, victims and rescuers alike is a model for research.


Christopher Densmore is curator at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.