Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home – Richard Bell

About the Book

Philadelphia, 1825: five young, free black boys fall into the clutches of the most fearsome gang of kidnappers and slavers in the United States. Lured onto a small ship with the promise of food and pay, they are instead met with blindfolds, ropes, and knives. Over four long months, their kidnappers drive them overland into the Cotton Kingdom to be sold as slaves. Determined to resist, the boys form a tight brotherhood as they struggle to free themselves and find their way home.

Their ordeal—an odyssey that takes them from the Philadelphia waterfront to the marshes of Mississippi and then onward still—shines a glaring spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of legally free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery’s rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War.

Impeccably researched and breathlessly paced, Stolen tells the incredible story of five boys whose courage forever changed the fight against slavery in America. 

336 Hardcover
Published on October 15, 2019
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I listened to the audiobook.

I’ve been pretty interested in US history recently. I spent a lot of last year reading biographies of presidents, which is something a lot of people do, but like, I never thought I’d read a book about James A. Garfield and get excited about it, if you know what I mean. This year, with all the stuff going on, and for research for a book I’m getting ready to write, I’ve been focusing on some more specific points of history, rather than people. The way I came across this book was pretty random. I’ve been doing research into the American prison system, and for whatever reason, this book just flitted across one of my Google searches. I said, “Well, that looks cool” and immediately downloaded the audiobook from my library’s website. 

Stolen tells the harrowing story of five kidnapped boys between the ages of 8 and 16, and their journey from the free north, into the slave-rich deep south. The story of how these boys were caught was roughly the same for each of them, with a few deviations here or there. These boys were all vulnerable for one reason or another. Alone and desperate/hungry, they were lured by another black man, whom they considered one of their own, for a job, or food, or in a few cases, abducted outright. Led away from what they knew, they were either taken into a ship off the coast, and then beaten and chained and kept there, before their southern journey began. 

Their journey south took about four months, and a lot of it was spent walking barefoot across rugged terrain while chained in a line, before being sold into slavery once they got to their destination. In the early 1800’s, it was nearly unheard of for white men to fight for black, and truly, that’s what it took to get four of the five boys in this book back: a fight. The mayor of Philadelphia (where they were all taken from) working in conjunction with four white men in the south. Unfortunately, one of the boys taken was never returned, and he remained a slave for the rest of his life. Three of the boys who were returned were allowed to testify on their own behalf against their captors, which was absolutely unheard of at the time (as black people were refused the right to testify on their own behalf.)

A lot of research went into this book, though at the very start the author makes it clear that a whole lot of what he learned, and a whole lot of what happens hinges on two letters and a newspaper article that pulled all these loose facts together into one cohesive, meaningful narrative. That being said, the work he must have done to parse out the lives and stories of these boys, including the bits that he infers due to the information he had and likely practices in the areas at the times things took place, was painstaking and incredibly well done.

We know a lot about the Underground Railroad, and those people who risked so much to bring slaves from the South, up North. We know next to nothing about the Reverse Underground Railroad, and that’s truly what this book is about, that dark operation, where people worked in the other direction, bringing free black men and women, often through kidnapping and coercion, from free states in the North, to be sold into (most often) a lifetime of slavery in the deep South. This book truly is focusing on an aspect of the slave trade in the United States I knew absolutely nothing about before now, told through the harrowing saga, and often painful journey of five boys who were victims of the Reverse Underground Railroad. 

The Reverse Underground Railroad was a criminal operation, and so not much is known about it, nor are there many records left from the people who trafficked in this way, which makes the telling of this aspect of history, and the learning of it hard for both people like me, who are curious, and a challenge for authors like Richard Bell, who are working to shine a light on this particular aspect of American history. Bell is quite clear from the outset that there were numerous remarkable aspects of the story he’s telling in this book, which make it easier for him to tell it, not the least of which is that four of the five boys were brought back, and three were given a voice at a time where that was nearly unheard of. This makes their stories a bit easier to tell than so many others who were likely trafficked, and lost to history.

The fact remains, the Reverse Underground Railroad was absolutely a thriving operation where men working on behalf of slavers in the south often waited in cities like Philadelphia for young black men and women who looked like they had a lot of working life left in them, and few attachments. These men and women would be taken, secreted to slavers to the south, resulting in a life of servitude. The people who worked on the Reverse Underground Railroad are not celebrated. Their names, often as not, are not remembered. There are no Harriet Tubmans on the Reverse Underground Railroad. This thriving operation worked right under the noses of so many Americans at the time, who either did not see what was happening, or chose not to, or some mixture of both, and yet, countless lives were destroyed, unalterably in most cases. 

It did take me some time to get into this book, but soon the stories of these boys took off, and I was swept along. The narrator, Leon Nixon, does a fantastic job reading this book. He’s easy to listen to, and something about the cadence of his voice was almost hypnotizing to me. Between that, and the story itself, I had a very, very hard time turning this book off when I needed to focus on other things. 

The book itself isn’t terribly long. The narration of it took a touch over seven hours, which is much shorter than my usual listens, however, a lot is covered in these pages, and after the initial setup of the details, the North vs. South culture at the time this took place, and the struggles so many young freed black men and women face in towns like Philadelphia, as well as outlining the basis for the Reverse Underground Railroad and how it functioned, the story really took off. The author lays out his research flawlessly, and is clear about when he is inferring something based on the information he has at hand and/or circumstantial evidence. 

Stolen tells the story of five boys taken on the Reverse Underground Railroad, and the ordeal to find them, and get them back. At the end of the day, I was glad I read this book, but I was ultimately left feeling really cold. Cold, because I wonder how many lives were ruined due to the Reverse Underground Railroad. Cold, because I wonder how many stories aren’t told. Cold, because this is a dark piece of American history, and I think more people should know about it. 

4/5 stars


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