Humanitarian work shaped the lives of the Goodwin sisters, Elizabeth (1789-1860) and Abigail (1793-1867). Daughters of a Quaker farmer who had freed, or manumitted, all his slaves during the American Revolution (1), both sisters were founding members of the Female Benevolent Society of Salem, NJ, an organization dedicated to aiding the poor, infirm and elderly (2).
In the 1830s, Abigail emerged as an active figure in the Underground Railroad movement. The sisters, now fervent abolitionists, came into contact with leading anti-slavery figures, including William Still, Lucretia Mott, and orator James Miller McKim, who came to Salem to lecture as their guest. His program, however, attracted a mob of anti-abolitionists who pelted the Goodwin house with sticks and rocks (3).
If anything, the attack deepened the sisters’ commitment. From then on their home became a prominent beacon for freedom seekers, providing shelter, clothing, food, and funds as they were able. When Amy Reckless (see: “How one woman set herself free”) returned to Salem, she partnered with the Goodwin sisters in collecting goods and financial contributions.
Because of her frank and eloquent writings, Abigail is better known than Elizabeth. Many of Abigail’s letters and a portrait were published in William Still’s pioneering work, The Underground Rail Road, in 1872 (4). Only Abigail lived to see slavery abolished as they had both desired. The sisters rest in the historic Salem Friends Burial Ground, not far from the Black poet Hetty Saunders’ grave (see: “Poet Hetty Saunders describes her escape”).
In 2008, the Goodwin Sisters House on Market Street in Salem was designated the as the first site in New Jersey accepted into the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The house is also a site on the New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail (5).
(1) Joan N. Burstyn, ed., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women, Metuchen, NJ: NJ Women’s History Project, 1996, 65.
(2) Minutes of the Salem Female Benevolent Society, Salem, NJ, 1817 – 1947, ms, Salem County Historical Society, Salem, NJ
(3) The Freeman’s Banner, Salem, NJ, Vol. 4, No.1, June 28, 1837.
(4) Still stated that Abigail Goodwin was “one of the rare, true friends to the Underground Rail Road” who “worked for the slave as a mother would work for her children” (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872, 620-621).
(5) Deborah Marquis Kelly and Ellen Freedman Schultz, New Jersey Women’s Heritage Trail, Trenton, NJ: NJ Department of Environmental Protection, n.d., 63.