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Dr. Thomas Bayne (1885)

Original Citation
William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), 254-259.


One of the more memorable stories of the Underground Railroad concern a black dentist named Sam Nixon who later became known as Dr. Thomas Bayne (c.1824-1888). Dr. Bayne began his life as a slave named Sam in North Carolina who escaped, but was eventually captured and purchased by local dentist in Norfolk, Virginia. The dentist, impressed by Sam’s intelligence, trained him in the profession. Sam Nixon, who was literate and obviously gifted, later told William Still that his owner had not only taught him about the practice of dentistry, but also allowed him to keep the firm’s books and make house-calls all over the town. This independence allowed Nixon (Bayne) to work covertly as an agent for the Underground Railroad, helping fugitives find schooner captains who would carry them to Philadelphia. Eventually, Nixon became fearful that his activities might be discovered so he fled northward himself. Arriving in New Jersey, he stayed with a Quaker woman named Abigail Goodwin who expressed her shock (and skepticism) about his self-described accomplishments in a letter to Still (excerpted below). Although she called Nixon a “smart young man,” Goodwin wrote that he appeared to be a “great brag” who claimed “he was a dentist for ten years” -a fact which she found astonishing. She concluded, “I don’t feel much confidence in him.” Nixon then settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts where he changed his name to Thomas Bayne and became a prominent local dentist. Bayne became so prominent that he was elected to the city council on the eve of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, he returned to Norfolk and became a leader in the state Republican Party. However, Bayne soon became a target of local white political rage and was eventually driven out of politics. Just before the end of his life, suffering either from exhaustion or senility, Bayne was admitted to the Central State Lunatic Asylum in Petersburg. Virginia historian John T. Kneebone has identified him as one of the most “intriguing” stories in Virginia history.


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But few could be found among the Underground Rail Road passengers who had a stronger repugnance to the unrequited labor system, or the recognized terms of “master and slave,” than Dr. Thomas Bayne. Nor were many to be found who were more fearless and independent in uttering their sentiments. His place of bondage was in the city of Norfolk, Va., where he was held to service by Dr. C. F. Martin, a dentist of some celebrity. While with Dr. Martin, “Sam” learned dentistry in all its branches, and was often required by his master, the doctor, to fulfil professional engagements, both at home and at a distance, when it did not suit his pleasure or convenience to appear in person. In the mechanical department, especially, “Sam” was called upon to execute the most difficult tasks. This was not the testimony of “Sam” alone; various individuals who were with him in Norfolk, but had moved to Philadelphia, and were living there at the time of his arrival, being invited to see this distinguished professional piece of property, gave evidence which fully corroborated his. The master’s profess-ional practice, according to “Sam’s” calculation, was worth $3,000 per annum. Full $1,000 of this amount in the opinion of “Sam” was the result of his own fettered hands. Not only was “Sam” serviceable to the doctor in the mechanical and practical branches of his profession, but as a sort of ready reckoner and an apt penman, he was obviously considered by the doctor, a valuable “article.” He would frequently have “Sam” at his books instead of a book-keeper. Of course, “Sam” had never received, from Dr. M., an hour’s schooling in his life, but having perceptive faculties naturally very large, combined with much self-esteem, he could hardly help learning readily. Had his master’s design to keep him in ignorance been ever so great, he would have found it a labor beyond his power. But is no reason to suppose that Dr. Martin was opposed to Sam’s learning to read and write. We are pleased to note that no charges of ill-treatment are found recorded against Dr. M. in the narrative of “Sam.”

True, it appears that he had been sold several times in his younger days, and had consequently been made to feel keenly, the smarts of Slavery, but nothing of this kind was charged against Dr. M., so that he may be set down as a pretty fair man, for aught that is known to the contrary, with the exception of depriving “Sam” of the just reward of his labor, which, ac-cording to St. James, is pronounced a “fraud.” The doctor did not keep “Sam” so closely confined to dentistry and book-keeping that he had no time to attend occasionally to outside duties. It appears that he was quite active and successful as an Underground Rail Road agent, and rendered important aid in various directions. Indeed, Sam had good reason to suspect that the slave-holders were watching him, and that if he remained, he would most likely find himself in “hot water up to his eyes.” Wisdom, dictated that he should “pull up stakes” and depart while the way was open. He knew the captains who were then in the habit of taking similar passengers, but he had some fears that they might not be able to pursue the business much longer. In contemplating the change which he was about to make, “Sam” felt it necessary to keep his movements strictly private. Not even was he at liberty to break his mind to his wife and child, fearing that it would do them no good, and might prove his utter failure. His wife’s name was Edna and his daughter was called Elizabeth; both were slaves and owned by E. P. Tabb, Esq., a hardware merchant of Norfolk.

No mention is made on the books, of ill-treatment, in connection with his wife’s servitude; it may therefore be inferred, that her situation was not remarkably hard. It must not be supposed that “Sam” was not truly attached to his wife. He gave abundant proof of true matrimonial devotion, notwithstanding the secrecy of his arrangements for flight. Being naturally hopeful, he concluded that he could better succeed in securing his wife after obtaining freedom himself, than in undertaking the beforehand.

The captain had two or three other Underground Rail Road male passengers to bring with him, besides “Sam,” for whom, arrangements had been previously made-no more could be brought that trip. At the appointed time, the passengers were at the disposal of the captain of the schooner which was to bring them oat of Slavery into freedom. Fully aware of the dangerous consequences should he be detected, the captain, faithful to his promise, secreted them in the usual manner, and set sail northward. Instead of landing his passengers in Philadelphia, as was his intention, for some reason or other (the schooner may have been disabled), he landed them on the New Jersey coast, not a great distance from Cape Island. He directed them how to reach Philadelphia. Sam knew of friends in the city, and straightway used his ready pen to make known the distress of himself and partners in tribulation. In making their way in the direction of their des-tined haven, they reached Salem, New Jersey, where they were discovered to be strangers and fugitives, and were directed to Abigail Goodwin, a Quaker lady, an abolitionist, long noted for her devotion to the cause of freedom, and one of the most liberal and faithful friends of the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia.

This friend’s opportunities of witnessing fresh arrivals had been rare, and perhaps she had never before come in contact with a “chattel” so smart as “Sam.” Consequently she was much embarrassed when she heard his story, especially when he talked of his experience as a “Dentist.” She was inclined to suspect that he was a “shrewd impostor” that needed “watching” instead of aiding. But her humanity forbade a hasty decision on this point. She was soon persuaded to render him some assistance, notwithstanding her apprehensions. While tarrying a day or two in Salem, “Sam’s” letter was received in Philadelphia. Friend Goodwin was written to in the meantime, by a member of the Committee, directly with a view of making inquires concerning the stray fugitives, and at the same time to inform her as to how they happened to be coming in the direction found by her. While the mind of the friend was much relieved by the letter she received, she was still in some doubt, as will be seen by the appended extract from a letter on the subject:


SALEM, 3 mo., 25, ‘55.

DEAR FRIEND:-Thine of the 22d came to hand yesterday noon.

*   *    *    *   *   *    *    *   *   *    *    *   *   *    *    *   *   

I do not believe that any of them are the ones thee wrote about, who wanted Dr. Lundy to come for them, and promised they would pay his expense’s. They had no money, the minister said, but were pretty well off for clothes. I gave him all I had and more, but it seemed very little for four travelers-only a dollar for each-but they will meet with friends and helpers on the way. He said they expected to go away to-morrow. I am afraid, it’s so cold, and one of them had a sore foot, they will not get away-it’s dangerous staying here. There has been a slave-hunter here lately, I was told yesterday, in search of a woman; he tracked her to our Alms-house-she had lately been confined and was not able to go-he will come back for her and his infant-and will not wait long I expect. I want much to get her away first-and if one had a C. C. Torney here no doubt it would be done; but she will be well guarded. How much I wish the poor thing could be secreted in some safe place till she is able to travel Northward; but where that could be it’s not easy to see. I presume the Carolina freed people have arrived ere now. I hope they will meet many friends, and be well provided for. Mary Davis will be then paid- her cousins have sent her twenty-four dollars, as it was not wanted for the purchase money -it was to be kept for them when they arrive. I am glad thee did keep the ten for the fugitives.

Samuel Nixon is now here, just come-a smart young man-they will be after him soon. I advise him to hurry on to Canada; he will leave here to-morrow, but don’t say that he will go straight to the city. I would send this by him if he did. I am afraid he will loiter about and be taken-do make them go on fast-he has left. I could not hear much he said-some who did don’t like him at all-think him an impostor-a great brag-said he was a dentist ten years. He was asked where he came from, but would not tell till he looked at the letter that lay on the table and that he had just brought back. I don’t feel much confidence in him-don’t believe he is the one thee alluded to. He was asked his name-he looked at the letter to find it out. Says nobody can make a better set of teeth than he can. He said they will go on to-morrow in the stage-he took down the number and street of the Anti-slavery office-you will be on your guard against imposition-he kept the letter thee sent from Norfolk. I had then no doubt of him, and had no objection to it. I now rather regret it. I would send it to thee if I had it, but perhaps it is of no importance.

He wanted the names taken down of nine more who expected to get off soon and might come here. He told us to send them to him, but did not seem to know where he was going to. He was well dressed in fine broad-cloth coat and overcoat, and has a very active tongue in his head.

But I have said enough-don’t want to prejudice thee against him, but only be on thy guard, and do not let him deceive thee, as I fear he has some of us here.

With kind regards,                              A. GOODWIN.

In due time Samuel and his companions reached Philadelphia, where a cordial welcome awaited them. The confusion and difficulties into which they had fallen, by having to travel an indirect route, were folly explained, and to the hearty merriment of the Committee and strangers, the dilemma of their good Quaker friend Goodwin at Salem was alluded to. After a sojourn of a day or two in Philadelphia, Samuel and his companions left for New Bedford. Canada was named to them as the safest place for all Refugees; but it was in vain to attempt to convince “Sam” that Canada or any other place on this Continent, was quite equal to New Bedford. His heart was there, and there he was resolved to go-and there he did go too, bearing with him his ispatch mind, determined, if possible, to work his way up to an honorable position at his old trade, Dentistry, and that too for his own benefit. Aided by the Committee, the journey was made safely to the desired haven, where many old friends from Norfolk were found. Here our hero was known by the name of Dr. Thomas Bayne-he was no longer “Sam.” In a short time the Dr. commenced his profession in an humble way, while, at the same time, he deeply interested himself in his own improvement, as well as the improvement of others, especially those who had escaped from Slavery as he himself had. Then, too, as colored men were voters and, there-fore, eligible to office in New Bedford, the Doctor’s naturally ambitious and intelligent turn of mind led him to take an interest in politics, and be-fore he was a citizen of New Bedford four years, he was duly elected a member of the City Council. He was also an outspoken advocate of the cause of temperance, and was likewise a ready speaker at Anti-slavery meetings held by his race. Some idea of his abilities, and the interest he took in the Underground Rail Road, education, etc., may be gathered from the appended letters:

NEW BEDFORD, June 23d, 1855.

W. STILL:-Sir-I write you this to inform you that I has received my things and that you need not say any thing to Bagnul about them-I see by the Paper that the under ground Rail Road is in operation. Since 2 weeks a go when Saless Party was betrayed by that Capt whom we in mass are so anxious to Learn his name-There was others started last Saturday night-They are all my old friends and we are waiting their arrival, we hope you will look out for them they may come by way of Salem, N. J. if they be not overtaken. They are from Norfolk-Times are very hard in Canada 2 of our old friends has left Canada and come to Bedford for a living. Every thing are so high and wages so low They cannot make a living (owing to the War) others are Expected shortly-let me hear from Sales and his Party. Get the Name of the Capt. That betrayed him let me know if Mrs. Goodwin of Salem are at the same place yet-John Austin are with us. C. Lightfoot is well and remembers you and family. My business increases more since I has got an office. Send me a Norfolk Paper or any other to read when convenient.

Let me hear from those People as soon as possible. They consist of woman and child 2 or 3 men belonging to Marsh Bottimore, L. Slosser and Herman & Co-and Turner-all of Norfolk, Va. Truly yours, THOS BAYNE.

Direct to Box No. 516, New Bedford, Mass. Don’t direct my letters to my office. Di-rect them to my Box 516. My office is 66 1/2 William St. The same street the Post office is near the city market.

The Doctor, feeling his educational deficiency in the enlightened city of New Bedford, did just what every uncultivated man should, devoted himself assiduously to study, and even applied himself to abstruse and hard subjects, medicine, etc., as the following letters will show;

NEW BEDFORD, Jan., 1860. No. 22, Cheapside, opposite City Hall.

MY DEAR FRIEND:-Yours of the 3d inst, reached me safely in the midst of my misfortune. I suppose you have learned that my office and other buildings burned down during the recent fire. My loss is $550, insured $350.

I would have written you before, but I have been to R. I. for some time and soon after I returned before I examined the books, the fire took place, and this accounts for my de- lay. In regard to the books I am under many obligations to you and all others for so great a piece of kindness, and shall ever feel indebted to you for the same. I shall esteem them very highly for two reasons, first, The way in which they come, that is through and by your Vigilance as a colored man helping a colored man to get such knowledge as will give the lie to our enemies. Secondly-their contents being just the thing I needed at this time. My indebtedness to you and all concerned for me in this direction is inexpressible. There are some books the Doctor says I must have, such as the Medical Dictionary, Physician’s Dictionary, and a work on Anatomy. These I will have to get, but any work that may be of use to a student of anatomy or medicine will be thankfully received. You shall hear from me again soon. Truly Yours, THOS. BAYNE.

NEW BEDFORD, March 18th, 1861. MR. WM. STILL:

--Dear Sir-Dr. Powell called to see me and informed me that you had a medical lexicon (Dictionary) for me. If you have such a book for me, it will be very thankfully received, and any other book that pertains to the medical or dental profession. I am quite limited in means as yet and in want of books to prosecute my studies. The books I need most at present is such as treat on midwifery, anatomy, &c. But any book or books in either of the above mentioned cases will be of use to me. You can send them by Express, or by any friend that may chance to come this way, but by Express will be the safest way to send them. Times are quite dull. This leaves me well and hope it may find you and family the same. My regards to your wife and all others.

Yours, &c., THOMAS BAYNE,
22 Cheapside, opposite City Hall.

Thus the doctor continued to labor and improve his mind until the war removed the hideous institution of Slavery from the nation; but as soon as the way opened for his return to his old home, New Bedford no longer had sufficient attractions to retain him. With all her faults he conceived that “Old Virginia” offered decided inducements for his return. Accordingly he went directly to Norfolk, whence he escaped. Of course every thing was in the utmost confusion and disorder when he returned, save where the military held sway. So as soon as the time drew near for reorganizing, elections, &c., the doctor was found to be an aspirant for a seat in Congress, and in “running” for it, was found to be a very difficult candidate to beat. Indeed in the first reports of the election his name was amongst the elected; but subsequent counts proved him to be among the defeated by only a very slight majority.

At the time of the doctor’s escape, in 1855, he was thirty-one years of age, a man of medium size, and about as purely colored, as could readily be found, with a full share of self-esteem and pluck.


Citation for this page

"Dr. Thomas Bayne (1885)," Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,


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