There is no doubt that John Rankin and his family moved to the top of the hill overlooking the town of Ripley approximately six years after their arrival. However, the reason for Rankin's relocation to the outskirts of town were not based on his anti-slavery position or the family's participation in the Underground Railroad. Rankin stated in his autobiography, "I..felt that town was not the best place to raise my boys."1 By Rankin's own admission, he did not want his family to remain on Front Street for there was an element of intemperance and rowdiness which exposed his sons to a variety of percieved sins.
The house was approximately six hundred and fifty feet about the Ohio River. High above the Ohio River, the Rankin house eventually became a guiding light for runaway slaves. Rankin’s abolitionist cohort, John Parker
described the house as a “real fortress and home to the fugitives.”2 Due to the location of Rankin's new home, he used a lighted lantern as a marker for runaway slaves crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky.
There is conjecture as to where the lantern was located. Author Ann Hagedorn in her book, Beyond the River, stated "the Rankins placed a lantern in a front window every night."3 While the latern in the window adds intrigue to the Rankin legend, facts do not support the statement. According to Arnold Gragston in his slave narrative, "He [Rankin] had a big lighthouse in his yard, about thirty feet high and he kept it burnin’ all night. It always meant freedom for [a] slave if he could get to this light."4 Even in John Parker noted "A lighted candle stood as beacon which could be seen from across the river, and like the north star was the guide to the fleeing slave." 5 Additionally, no where in Rankin's autobiography does he mention a lantern in the window.
1. Reverend John Rankin, Abolitionist: The Life of John Rankin (Huntinton, West Virginia:Appalachian Press, Inc: 1978), 41.
2. Stuart Seely Sprague, ed., His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 86.
3. Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 57.
4. Narrative of Arnold Gragston, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. WPA Slave
Narrative Project (Vol. 3: Florida Narratives), Federal Writers’ Project, U.S. Work Projects Administration (USWPA).
5. Stuart Seely Sprague, ed., His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 86.
Below you will find pictures of Rankin's home ranging from 1898 to the present day reconstruction of the house. Look closely at the architecture of the front porch. Was it possible, given the overhang to see a lantern in the window from midway to the shoreline of the Ohio River near Ripley's banks? Or is it more plausible to suggest that a pole or even tree was used to hang the lantern? Obivously the townspeople of Ripley believed it was a pole, for in the early 1900s, a picture showed the pole and re-enactment of the lantern being hoisted is available to view.
Borderlander of Light
By: Donna B. Jacobson, University of Connecticut
All rights reserved.