Home Sweet Home
By Cate Price
The Deadly Notions mysteries are set in the fictional nineteenth-century village of Millbury in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In LIE OF THE NEEDLE, my heroine, Daisy Buchanan, owner of the vintage sewing notions store, is conducting research for the Historical Society on the village’s connection with the Underground Railroad.
It wasn’t a real railroad, of course, but a series of safe houses or “stations.” Pennsylvania was a destination for many fugitives because it had a reputation for being anti-slavery. They came from the nearby slave states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and crossed the Mason-Dixon Line at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. A good number stayed in Chester and Lancaster counties, where there was a large free African-American population, but for some, the goal was always Canada, as it was simply safer.
The underground line through Bucks County was less used than the main routes further west with more direct access to the north, but some slaves did come to the area by way of Norristown or Philadelphia. The towns of Solebury, Quakertown, Doylestown, Yardley, Newtown and Buckingham were all stops on the line, and they were hidden in churches, barns, spring houses, fields and caves. The last important stop was Quakertown where the rail lines converged before upstate New York and the Lehigh Valley.
It’s something of a myth that the Underground Railroad was a highly organized network. Runaways had to take a huge leap of faith when they first set out, hoping they would find sympathetic and brave souls to provide food, clothing, and shelter along the journey, often from the Quaker settlements. In LIE OF THE NEEDLE I mention the old song “The Drinking Gourd,” which was actually a hidden map, with its reference to the North Star to guide their way. Many of the other spiritual songs also had coded messages in them for people who could not read or write to be able to learn how to escape.
It’s hard to find much information as many of the station masters insisted on absolute secrecy, for obvious reasons. A few records were kept to help their passengers find family and friends, but most were destroyed, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it a federal crime to harbor or give aid to runaways. While doing research for this book, I watched the HBO documentary film “Unchained Memories” which is a series of slave narratives voiced by top African American actors. It had such a powerful effect on me to see how families were ripped apart, the inhumane way people were treated, and the terrible pain they must have endured.
Although I didn’t set out to write to a theme, after I finished LIE OF THE NEEDLE, I realized that one of the recurring ideas was the importance of home. From the character that goes missing early on in the book and everyone prays will safely reappear, to the fight with the builder who would destroy the character of their quaint neighborhood, to the stories of the slaves who passed through Bucks County on their way to freedom and a place to call home. After all, isn’t that what we all want? A place that’s safe and free, with the people you love. Some things are truly timeless and universal.
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