Excerpt from Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time (1855)


In Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time, published in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1855, William Grimes updates his earlier narrative about his enslaved life in Virginia and his escape to freedom. Historians considered the 1825 publication to be the first fugitive slave narrative in American history. This later book duplicated the earlier with the addition of a short conclusion, included here.



IT is now more than thirty years since the foregoing true and eventful Life was written and published. Although a large edition was printed, a very few copies are now in existence; and it was only when I advertised in the public papers, that I was myself enabled to procure a perfect one. By the kindness of a gentleman, who will long be held in grateful remembrance, a copy was put in my hands. A large number of my intimate friends have urgently requested me to print another edition of my Life, with such additions as I can find time to add in this my old age. I am greatly indebted to many distinguished men of New Haven, and the obligations I owe them, I hope in a measure to repay, by presenting to them this second edition of the Life of one who has often been called one of the most remarkable personages of modern times. I comply with the request, for the purpose, in the first place, of raising, if possible, a small amount of money, for I believe almost everybody will purchase a copy of my Life; and in the second place, to gratify the laudable curiosity which so many of my friends have exhibited to procure a true and perfect Life of “Old Grimes.”

In presenting this account to my fellow citizens of New Haven, “and the rest of mankind,” I do not think it necessary to enter into all the particulars of my life since I have lived in New Haven, as, after a residence here of nearly thirty years, I have become, as the newspapers say, “a fixed institution,” and have also become pretty generally known. I shall therefore add but little to the preceding account of one who has tasted the bitter dregs of slavery—having been the slave of ten masters—but who has yet been permitted, through a kind Providence, to drink at the fountain of Liberty, although many of his best years were spent in degradation and misery.

I am now an old man—”Old Grimes”—being more than seventy years of age, and the father of eighteen lovely and beautiful children, of whom only twelve, I believe, are living. The youngest child, now eight years old, a smart and active lad, is the only one now with me. The other children that are living are scattered all over the world, one son being now in Australia, digging for gold.

My wife, who at the time we were married, was called in the papers, “the lovely and all-accomplished Miss Clarissa Cæsar,” has also grown old, since introduced her to the reader, as may well be supposed; but she is yet very smart, for so fruitful a vine, and I don’t think there are many to be compared to her. Like her noble son, she too is seeking for gold, having been for some time in California.

But I must now give my readers a short account of myself from the time I left them in the first part of my book. I then lived in Litchfield, but since that time have lived in a great many places, some of which I will mention. When I left Litchfield, I went with my family to Bridgeport, and set up a barber shop. I was called a good barber, and had a great many customers. I made money quite fast, and ought to gave been satisfied; but somehow I was not, and had to be on the move. So I pulled us stakes, packed up my things, and off we started for Stratford.

But here I should tell what a narrow escape I had from drowning, while I lived in Bridgeport. There was a camp meeting at Saugatuck, and being a good Methodist, I thought I would attend. About five hundred persons got on board the steamboat Lafayette, at Bridgeport, but before we arrived at the camp ground there came up a most dreadful storm of rain, and the wind blew like a hurricane. All the people were almost frightened to death, and expected that the steamboat would sink, and all go to the bottom of the Sound. I never was so scared before, and never expected to feel so awful as I did then; but I came very near being drowned after that time, when I lived in New Haven, which I will tell all about soon. Although all expected to be lost, we were spared, and at last arrived safe at the camp meeting, and had a good time.

I lived in Stratford some time, but didn’t make much by the operation of moving, and so went back to Bridgeport, where I stayed a little while and then went to Norwalk. Here I carried on my old business of a barber, and cleaning old clothes, and made out to live very comfortable. But as at this time I happened to get into trouble, I didn’t stay in Norwalk. The trouble I got into was, that a large butcher one day insulted me and I knocked him down. I was then younger than I am now, and if anybody meddled with Grimes, he was sure to be punished, if he wasn’t stronger and a better man than I was. I did no more than any one would do when abused, but I being a negro, as they called me, and the butcher a white man, although his skin was a great deal blacker than mine, I was put under $500 bonds. No one would go bail for poor Grimes, so he had to go to jail. I didn’t mind that much, as I had before been in such places; but at last I found a friend in Lawyer Fitch Wheeler, of Monroe, and after I had been in jail about a week, he gave bonds for me, and once more I was enjoying my liberty. When the trial came on, the butcher paid the cost of court, and I was discharged. Afterwards I sued the butcher before a Justice in Bridgeport, got my case, and the butcher had to pay one dollar and the costs of court.

From Norwalk I went to Fairfield. Here I did a good business, shaving and powdering my friends Judge Daggett and Lawyer Nathan Smith, when they came there to attend court. Sometimes I made more than three dollars a day. I had a great run of custom—all the first men of Fairfield came to Grimes to have their hair trimmed and to be shaved. I ought to have been contented, but I wasn’t, and again was on the move.

When I say I shaved my friends, I want my readers to understand what I mean, for I wasn’t then in the brokerage business, which I afterwards followed very successfully, and of which I shall speak soon. Being a barber and being a broker, is quite different, and I hope no one will confound the one with the other.

From Fairfield I went on to Stratford Point. I made out tolerable well there, but after I had been in the place about a year, we packed up all our things, put them on board a sloop, and started for New Haven.

When I got to New Haven, I set up a barber shop and clothes cleaning establishment, in Chapel street. I hired my shop of Esquire Daggett, who was always a good friend to Grimes. Chapel street then wasn’t much like what it is now. One could then hire a store cheap, now it takes a great deal of money, and if Grimes could hire a shop anywhere, he would have to go to some old place where the gentlemen wouldn’t come. When I got to New Haven, I thought I would let my old friends know what I intended to do, so I put an advertisement in the paper, headed with these lines:

Old Grimes is not dead,

But you may see him more,

Cleaning coats and shaving heads,

Just as before.


Though long old Grimes has slept,

He only sleeps to wake;

And those who thought him dead and gone,

Now laugh at their mistake.


Here I did a good business, shaving for only three cents, and trimming heads cheap. I also cleaned clothes and did almost everything to get an honest living. I have worked at the Colleges, and have always been an industrious man, and have endeavored to get an honest living, and if I could not do it one way I have tried another. That my readers may see what a variety of callings I have been engaged in, I here copy the truthful and interesting lines, written by a gentleman of New Haven, who has long been acquainted with me, and whom I have always considered one of my best friends. I don’t know whether I ought to give the name of the author of this poem, and therefore I omit to do so; but any one whose curiosity is excited, can learn my friend’s name by calling on me.



Old Grimes’ boy lives in our town,

A clever lad is he,—

He’s long enough, if cut in half,

To make two men like me.


He has a sort of waggish look,

And cracks a harmless jest;

His clothes are rather worse for wear,

Except his Sunday’s best.


He is a man of many parts,

As all who know can tell;

He sometimes reads the list of goods,

And rings the auction bell.


He’s kind and lib’ral to the poor,

That is, to number one;

He sometimes saws a load of wood,

And piles it when he’s done.


He’s always ready for a job—

(When paid)—whate’er you choose;

He’s often at the Colleges,

And brushes boots and shoes.


Like honest men, he pays his debts,

No fears has he of duns;

At leisure he prefers to walk,

And when in haste, he runs.


In all his intercourse with folks,

His object is to please;

His pantaloons curve out before,

Just where he bends his knees.


His life was written sometime since,

And many read it through;

He makes a racket when he snores,

As other people do.


When once oppressed he prov’d his blood

Not covered with the yoke;

But now he sports a freeman’s cap,

And when it rains, a cloak!


He’s drooped beneath the southern skies,

And tread on northern snows;

He’s taller by a foot or more,

When standing on his toes.


In Church he credits all that’s said,

Whatever preacher rise;

They say he has been seen in tears,

When dust got in his eyes.


A man remarkable as this,

Must sure immortal be,

And more than all, because he is,

Old Grimes’ posterity!


After I had been in New Haven several years—I don’t know how many, for I can’t keep the run of dates—I went into the brokerage business, and have continued it more or less to the present time. I wasn’t exactly at the head of the concern, but still I was considered an indispensable part of the establishment, and although I didn’t get rich by becoming a broker, others made a great deal of money by my exertions. I would often have dreams, and of course I told my friends of them, and then they would greedily seize the lucky numbers, and be almost sure to get a prize.

Some people used to say it wasn’t right to sell lottery tickets, but as a great many better people than myself sold tickets, I din’t think I was doing wrong.

About this time I joined the Methodist Church, in this city. After I became a broker, some of my brethren thought I wasn’t doing right by selling lottery tickets, and they brought me up before the Church, and turned me out. Thus Grimes got into trouble again; but not despairing, I applied to Dr. Croswell, and was confirmed by the Bishop, and I am now a member in full communion in Dr. Croswell’s Church. There were a great many confirmed when I was. While the Bishop put only one hand on the heads of the others, I being the last, he put both hands on mine—thus doubly blessing me.

I now sometimes attend Dr. Stiles’ Church, because the Doctor is an old friend of mine. When the Doctor was a student I used to work for him—make his fires and sometimes shave him and dress his hair; and when he went to Litchfield to study law, I also was there, and waited on him.

And now I ought to tell about the other narrow escape from drowning. I don’t know what year it was, but it was the same year that the steamer Lexington was burnt in the Sound, and so many lives lost. That was a dreadful accident; but the danger I was in, was almost equal to those unfortunate beings on board of the Lexington.

At this time I lived over on what is called the Dyke, and there came on a most powerful rain storm, and the water rose so fast that before we were aware of it, my house was all surrounded with water, and we found it impossible to escape. The water came into the first story and we went to the second, and from the second to the third, and then it was that we all expected to be drowned. This was in the night. At last I got my head out of the garret window, and with a speaking trumpet, cried out most all night, “Oh for a cannon to wake those sleepy men.” Finally I waked up a man, and he went and got Rev. Mr. Jewett’s horse out of the water, and saved his life. He too had a narrow escape, his head being only out of the water. After they had got the horse out, the water began to lower, and in a little time we were all left safe from harm.

Now I might as well tell about that witch that I mentioned in the book, riding me. Some persons think it isn’t true, but it is, every word of it, and I might tell a great deal more about it. To convince my readers that it is true I must say that I have heard from my old master, and he says that Frankee is dead. He also says that when he thought Frankee was agoing to die he told her that she had been a good slave, and asked her what he could do for her. He asked her what he should do with her things after she was dead; if she wanted any of them given to any of her fellow slaves. No, massa, said she, I don’t care about any body. Bury them all with me. And when she died my old massa dug a trench beside of her grave, and put in everything—bed and bed-clothes, tables, chairs, frying-pan, dishes, &c. &c., and buried them all up with her.

I must mention one thing more. Many years ago I bought a burying ground lot, among the rich folks’ lot, and had some of my children buried in it, and now they want to get it away, saying they can’t find my land. My land was recorded, but yet the new surveyor says he can’t find it, and says that there is not any left after others have got their share. I am a poor man, and perhaps because I am I shall not have a place to put my old worn out body, but I know I bought and paid for a lot in the burying ground.

I have now been in New Haven more than thirty years, and have always meant to be an honest man and deal justly with all. I have always tried to pay my debts and keep out of jail; but I have been in jail twice in New Haven—once because I didn’t pay Mr. Bradley for breaking his carriage—amounting to twenty dollars, and once because I hadn’t the money to pay two or three dollars for rent. My friends, however, raised the money, and I was again free, and hope to remain so.

I said in the former part of my book, that the poor and friendless are not entirely free from apprehension, even in this land of liberty, and that this could be illustrated if I should give all the particulars of my life since I have been in Connecticut, and that I might do so in a future edition. But on reflection I have concluded not to rake up old affairs, and as all the wrongs which I have met with in my eventful life have no doubt been ordered wisely, I have forgiven all, and hope, if possible, to forget them. But when they are called to mind, I think those persons who have oppressed poor Grimes, should recollect that although his skin is perhaps a little darker than theirs, he yet has the feelings of a man, and knows when he is abused.

And now, as I have brought my narrative to a close, I wish only to add a few lines, to say that I hope all my friends and acquaintances will purchase a copy of my book, and thus help “Old Grimes” to pay the printer, and have a small amount left to carry him safely through the coming year. As before remarked, I am now an old man, and am almost wholly dependent on my acquaintances for the means of support; and while the purchasers of my book benefit me by so doing, I hope and believe they will find themselves abundantly repaid by the perusal of it. The book, as will be seen, is illustrated by a likeness of “Old Grimes,” engraved by Sanford from a Photograph by Wells, Daguerreian Artist, Nos. 10 and 11, Mitchell’s Building. I am indebted to the generosity of Mr. Wells for this likeness of myself, and I here return him my thanks, and would recommend all my readers to visit his rooms, examine his specimens of Photograph and Daguerreotype likenesses, and then have their own taken.

Here I part with my readers. It is not likely that I shall ever again appear before the public as an author. I hope, however, long to enjoy the kind regards of the good people of New Haven, and when this old, weary, worn out body is lain in that place prepared for all living, the silent tear may be dropped for “poor Old Grimes,” and his frailties, whatever they be, forgotten. To all I now bid FAREWELL!

APA Citation:
Grimes, William. Excerpt from Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time (1855). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Grimes, William. "Excerpt from Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, Brought Down to the Present Time (1855)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 14 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2022, July 28
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