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Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

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When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation’s capital. In setting up his household he brought along nine slaves, including Ona Judge. As the President grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn’t abide: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire.

Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, she was denied freedom. So, when the opportunity presented itself one clear and pleasant spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs. At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property.

“A crisp and compulsively readable feat of research and storytelling” ( ), historian and National Book Award finalist Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked everything to gain freedom from the famous founding father and most powerful man in the United States at the time.

273 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 7, 2017

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About the author

Erica Armstrong Dunbar

8 books123 followers
Erica Armstrong Dunbar is the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University. She also served as director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Dunbar attended college at the University of Pennsylvania, then earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,351 reviews
Profile Image for Kim.
502 reviews29 followers
February 6, 2017
I'm so glad Ona Judge's story is abroad in the world. She's clearly a woman of grit, determination, resourcefulness, and strength of belief, and there are far too few women from her time period and experiences known to history. ...But I did not really enjoy this portrayal of her story.

Part of the reason for that is that, while the title, subtitle, and summary promise an exciting pursuit of a daring runaway slave, half the book is actually just historical description of the Washingtons' movements around the country, accompanied by X slaves and living in Y houses and hosting thus and such parties and struggling with this and that health issues. Why on earth should I care what the Washingtons' house in Philadelphia looked like? I'm here for Ona Judge!

In addition to delving into what feels like irrelevant historical details, Dunbar tends to repeat herself. I can't tell you how many times I had to read that domestic servants' lives in the late eighteenth century were backbreaking and onerous. I can say that reading it once would've been sufficient.

And then there's the attribution of emotions and motives to the various people populating Ona's story. To be fair, the history I read tends to be either juvenile/YA or about objects (salt, paper, etc.), so I'm accustomed to a very pared-down just-the-facts-ma'am approach to historical writing. Lots of footnotes, lots of "proof" of whatever is being asserted.

Dunbar's tendency, then, to impute feelings or motives to historical figures without any basis in primary sources may be typical of historical biographies—I don't know. But I found it incredibly uncomfortable to read. How does she know that? I kept thinking. Maybe Ona wasn't sad to see that fellow slave go back to Virginia; maybe she and he never got along and she was glad he was going away!

The fact that so many of the emotional beats of the narrative seemed unattached to primary sources left me second-guessing every human-related conclusion Dunbar tried to draw. And since...eventually...the book got around to addressing the very human topics of slavery and freedom worth fighting for, my lack of confidence in Dunbar's depiction stole almost all the poignancy and power from Ona's story.

I'm still very glad it's out there, but I would honestly have much preferred to read Ona's story from her own words and interviews than to have encountered it in Never Caught.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
692 reviews3,241 followers
March 1, 2018
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Never Caught is an informative, well-researched, swift read about Ona Judge George and Martha Washington.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,396 followers
June 5, 2017
The story of Ona Maria Judge, slave to President George Washington who escaped his presidential residence in Philadelphia and fled by sea to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in May 1796, may be one of the most intriguing escape narratives ever told. I’d first heard of Oney Judge and Washington’s pursuit of her from a mind-expanding history of black freed men and slaves in New Hampshire called Black Portsmouth, written by Valerie Cunningham and Mark J. Sammons.

In this work, historian E.A. Dunbar examines and interprets details of George Washington’s household in New York, Mount Vernon, and Philadelphia. There are many intriguing holes in the narrative, but Dunbar hews closely to the facts she uncovered and adds her understanding of how a black slave in this period would have viewed their environment and opportunities. Dunbar describes the calculation a nubile slave would make when contemplating being passed to an owner with a history of sexual interest in colored women. The startling insight of the observation was clear the instant it was articulated and certainly was not found in original documents.

The slaves in George Washington’s household came to him through his wife, Martha, widow of Daniel Parke Custis, a rich farmer. Ona Maria Judge was a teen when George Washington became president in 1789, and she was a valued house servant and seamstress. Mrs. Washington made clear that she would gift Judge to her granddaughter Eliza Custis Law, who married Thomas Law in 1796, a British subject who had made his fortune in India. Judge later told a newspaper interviewer that she “was determined never to become her slave.” (Italics preserved from the original.)

Dunbar’s research succeeds in that it does what good nonfiction ought to do—it makes one interested to know more. In this case, Dunbar introduces us to an exceedingly interesting family dynamic—granddaughter Eliza Law ended up separating from Thomas Law eight years later, finally divorcing (!) in 1811—and advances a theory about why Thomas Law later freed Ona’s sister, who took Ona’s place as servant slave in Eliza’s household. I formed a different theory based on the information Dunbar gives us in this book, but mine would require more research before I could field it confidently.

Ona’s sister, Philadelphia, appeared to have had a much easier life than did Ona. Philadelphia married a free man, William Costin in Federal City, as the Washington D.C. area was then known. Costin, a mulatto, was illegitimate cousin to Philadelphia's mistress, and a free man. Ona had escaped to her freedom and struggled ever after with trying to balance making a living with preserving her anonymity. She lived as a fugitive eight miles outside of Portsmouth, in Greenland, which at that time must have seemed very remote indeed. The contrast between the lives of the two sisters is exceedingly tragic. I suspect they never knew the fate of the other, or we would have learned of it.

Washington asked friends in New Hampshire several times for help in locating “the girl, who was brought up & treated more like a child than a Servant.” The friends did find Judge but she refused to be returned to the Washingtons, saying that she “would rather suffer death” than return to slavery. She’d “never received the least mental or moral instruction of any kind, while she remained in the Washington family,” a most damning indictment of the Washingtons as slave owners. Judge is described in the newspaper ad to recover her as light Mulatto, freckled, and delicately made, “with many changes of very good clothes.”

Oney Judge Staines gave two published newspaper interviews fifty years or so after her escape. The first time she told her story was to abolitionist Thomas H. Archibald of the Granite Freeman in May 1845, 49 years after her disappearance from Washington’s household. A facsimile of a portion of the interview is reprinted at a chapter head, but is frustratingly short and without sufficient detail. No explanation is given why the rest of the interview is not published in full. We know there is more because Dunbar mentions
"In her 1845 interview, Judge told of her journey to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a vessel that was commanded by Captain John Bowles. Judge remained secretive about her escape almost her whole life, only announcing the name of the captain more than a decade after his death in July of 1937: ‘I never told his name till after he died, and a few years since, lest they should punish him for bringing me away.’"
The second interview was published New Year’s Day 1847 in an important abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The lack of opportunity to see these original documents makes it difficult to consider this history a full-blown success. One critic made the point that this might be considered a “young adult” history. This can be to the good: Dunbar writes clearly and simply, though she may allow some interpretation and stock historical detail to take the place of facts that might be relevant to the case she was seeking to advance.

For instance, it seems strange that we did not learn more about the mysterious “French gentleman” whom George Washington assumed had abducted Ona and had gotten her pregnant. Washington was under this misapprehension for years, understanding what happened only in 1799 when Portsmouth’s head of Maritime Customs reported to back to Washington that Ona had married a free black seaman, Jack Staines, in Portsmouth in 1797 and bore his child in 1798.

The story of Ona Maria Judge is immediately interesting to anyone who hears of it, both at the time and now. We may assume Judge wanted us to know what happened because she granted the newspaper interviews. This history is a good beginning to uncovering a ravishing story which touches on our interpretation of the earliest days of our nation and our first president. 3-1/2 stars.
Profile Image for Rebecca Wilson.
139 reviews10 followers
October 16, 2017
This book is a pop history in the vein of Erik Larson. Not a compliment.

Oh how I wanted to love this book—what a subject! What a courageous person.

Pros: Ona Judge was a complete badass. This book is a quick, easy read and accessible to teenagers. That's important. And it really does seem to be well-researched, with extensive endnotes.

Cons: This book reads like a really strong first draft of a much better book. The paragraphs and pages seem cobbled together, with a lot of repetitive phrasing and odd word choices. It's like notecards were transferred verbatim and never given a thorough edit.

And then, the Larsonishness. SO MUCH floofy speculation and conditional perfect!! To me, there is nothing more irritating. It reads so wishy-washy and unconfident: "She would have done such and such"; "She might have done something else." Though the details of Ona's life are scarce, there are ways to speak definitively about evidence that IS available and avoid the conditional. And speculation about what a person was thinking—gah! We have no way of knowing!

The biggest miss here is the lack of source documents. Ona Judge gave a few interviews late in life, which were widely printed. Why not include those here? George Washington was, bizarrely, convinced that Ona had been seduced by a mysterious Frenchman, but we don't get to read any of the letters that he wrote explaining this. This would have provided interesting and eccentric insight into the character of the first president. Martha W and her granddaughter Eliza are said to be mercurial and challenging, but it's never really shown even though numerous letters and secondhand accounts surely exist.

Anyway, it's an easy first introduction to 18th century American slavery, fugitives, and proof that the North-South divide has always existed in the US.
Profile Image for Erin .
1,202 reviews1,106 followers
May 7, 2017
Never Caught is a thoroughly researched and moving account of a woman who refused to be property. I wouldn't recommend this book to the casual reader because it can be very dry at times, so I only recommend it to those who are very interested in history. I learned a lot about George and Martha Washington as well as what life was like at the beginning of this country.

Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge: Book Involving Travel
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,056 reviews681 followers
August 20, 2018
This history is a blemish on the facade of freedom upon which the United States claims to be founded. It turns out that George Washington wasn't so generous with slaves who decided they preferred freedom over involuntary servitude.

Ona Maria Judge (a.k.a. Oney) was the personal slave attendant to Martha Washington. During the first seven years of George Washington's presidential term she attended to all Martha's personal needs. She was usually in attendance at social engagements as well, and thus was seen by many important people in Washington's social circles. Consequently, her face was widely recognizable which later made it difficult for her to remain anonymous as a fugitive slave.

This book expands on the details of the Washington household slaves. Select members of this entourage traveled with the First Family to New York City and Philadelphia which served as temporary capitol cities during the eight years of George Washington's presidential term. G.W. soon learned that maintaining a staff of slaves in Pennsylvania required some well timed logistics to avoid running afoul of State law. Pennsylvania had a law that said if a slave stayed in that State on a continuous basis for over six months they had a legal right to make a claim for their freedom.

Consequently he made sure that his slaves never stayed in Pennsylvania for more that six months at a time. He also made sure that he himself didn't stay longer than six continuous months in order to avoid becoming a legal resident subject to their laws. They tried to keep the reason for this shuffling back-and-forth of slaves a secret. However, there is documented accounts of conversations with G.W.'s chef Hercules which indicate that the slaves understood the reason from the very beginning. (Hercules also escaped several months after Oney.)

This time spent in northern cities exposed Oney to a world with numerous freedmen and abolitionist. As the end of G.W.'s presidential term approached the return to Virginia probably didn't appear to be such a pleasant prospect for her. Then she learned that Martha planned to give Oney as a wedding present to GW's step granddaughter. Oney realized that if she was going to get her freedom she needed to act before the next return to Virginia.

Thus one evening in 1796 while the Washingtons were dining she disappeared into the night, and with the secret help of the Philadelphia's freedmen and abolitionist community she traveled by ship to New Hampshire where she began her new life. But legally she remained a fugitive, and the Fugitive Slave Act required northern States to facilitate the return to their owners.

Soon after her escape an advertisement was placed in The Philadelphia Gazette that began as follows:
Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy hair. She is of middle stature, slender, and delicately formed, about 20 years of age. . . . . (The rest of the ad can be found within the text of the article at this link.)
Because Oney's face was familiar with people who had been part of Washington's social circle, she was soon recognized while walking the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Thus George and Martha soon learned where she was. Legally, in order to claim a fugitive slave the owner needed to establish their identity in State court. G.W. knew that would create bad publicity, so he instead wrote to a Federal employee in Portsmouth and ask him to quietly get her back. (In other words, circumvent the law.) This Federal employee then placed an advertisement in the local newspaper's help wanted column where he indicated his need to hire a household servant, which fit Oney's experience exactly.

Oney interviewed for the job, but it didn't take her long to figure out that she had been lured into a trap. She was as nice and agreeable as she could be, and she proceeded to assure him that she would board a certain ship on a certain date so that she could be returned to Virginia. Of course, on that date she failed to keep her appointment, and subsequently couldn't be found. She had secretly moved outside of town to stay with friends.

A couple years later when he was no longer President, George Washington sent a representative to claim Oney. The representative knocked on her door and she answered while holding her baby in her arms (who was also be a fugitive under slave law). Her husband was a sailor at sea at the time so she was quite vulnerable. Once again Oney sweet talked G.W.'s representative into meeting at a later more convenient time. Once again she disappeared. Later they forcibly broke down the door to find an empty house. (This is as described in this book which I notice differs from some other sources.)

One of the reasons we know as much as we do about Oney's life is that fifty years after her escape she gave two interviews in 1845 and 1847 which were published in abolitionist newspapers. Copies of these two articles are at this link . Even those many years later she had to be careful about naming names. Anybody who helped her escape was guilty of violating Federal law. She did give the name of the ship captain who help her sail away from Philadelphia because she knew he was no longer living. Even at that late date she was still a fugitive, however her age made it unlikely anybody would try to apprehend her. Also her three children were no longer living, so their status didn't need to be worried about. Her husband had died seven years after their marriage.

As it turned out, Oney's sister took her place as a wedding present to GW's step granddaughter. Eventually, her sister gained her freedom and became a leading member of the free African/American community in Washington DC. (See this link about her sister's husband that explains how he was able to purchase the freedom of seven of Oney's relatives including her sister.) It could be argued that Oney may have ended up in the same position had she returned to Virginia. However, that is not a sure thing. Oney indicated in her interviews fifty years later that she had no regrets, and that she'd rather die than be a slave.

Americans are generally taught in school that the nation's founding fathers were good and nobel people. Of course George Washington was the noblest of all. When mention is made of their slave ownership we are reminded that George Washington freed his slaves, albeit by last will and testament to be effective after the death of both he and his wife. Martha freed them sooner for obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, most of the slaves living at Mount Vernon were NOT freed upon his or her death because most of them were "dower share" slaves that belonged to the Daniel Parke Custis estate (Martha's deceased first husband) and neither George or Martha had the legal power to free them. After their death the dower slaves were divided among Martha's descendants. Ona was one of the dower slaves. 124 Slaves belonged to GW and 153 were dower slaves. Even the one slave owned in Martha's name, that she could have freed, was not freed upon her death.
Profile Image for Emily.
353 reviews
April 16, 2017
2.5 stars I think...
or maybe I should say "Emily would have been inclined to give the book 2.5 stars if there would have been such an option available to her in the rating system of her day"

ugh. First, the positive. Without such a book, I would not have known anything at all of Ona Judge. I do know some history, took some visits to Mount Vernon, but the history of the moves of the president and therefore his slaves from Mount Vernon to NY, then Philadelphia was interesting.

But, since there seems to be very little original source material to draw from, the author does an awful lot of speculation, and then it shows in her use of language. It bothered me especially when she speculated about Ona's life after escape, as a mother, when the slave catcher came to the door and the author describes what the toddler would have/must have been doing and what Ona must have been thinking.

It was already a short book, if it was going to be too short without all this imagining, well, keep it short and factual. Or, write some historical fiction, get some dialogue in there and make it truly interesting.
Profile Image for Heidi The Reader.
1,366 reviews1,413 followers
February 9, 2019
An interesting, non-fiction book about Ona Judge, a woman who was one of Martha Washington's personal slaves until she ran away. Ona remained a fugitive for the rest of her life. This book dissects early emancipation laws in the United States and Ona's life, as well as revealing struggles in the private lives of George and Martha Washington.

Ona was born to a black slave and a white, indentured servant. Ona and her mother were abandoned by Ona's father after only a few years.

"Ona Judge learned valuable lessons from both of her parents. From her mother she would learn the power of perseverance. From her father, Judge would learn that the decision to free oneself trumped everything, no matter who was left behind." pg 14

Author Erica Dunbar does a fairly good job bringing Ona Judge to life on the few details that were available. It must have been tricky to fill in the blanks on a life that wasn't as well-documented as her famous, former owners.

"Those of us who research and write about early black women's history understand how very difficult it is to find our subjects in the archives. Enslavement, racism, and sexism often discarded these women from the historical record, and as historians we are frequently left unsatisfied with scant evidence." from the Author's Note.

Because she gave two interviews to journalists towards the end of her life, Ona may well be one of the only female, fugitive slaves from Virginia to have a personal narrative that survived to exist in the historical record.

"The interviewer wrote, 'When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is 'No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.'" pg 187

What I liked most about this book, beyond Ona's own life story, was the way Dunbar made George and Martha Washington into people, not just icons, in my mind. They made mistakes and would act in their own best interest. It was interesting to discover that one of the founding fathers and his spouse were just as human as the next person.

But also sad in the way they held and treated "human property." I suppose everyone is a product of his or her own time.

(Martha Washington) had no interest in releasing the slaves at Mount Vernon, who numbered in the hundreds. Instead, she would move quickly to join her husband in New York, shielding her slaves from the contagion of liberty." pg 31

They simply couldn't understand why someone would want their freedom — at any cost. It seems like a no-brainer now. But, once the Washingtons discovered where Ona was hiding, they sent agents to talk to her and try to convince her to return to slavery.

"She told Whipple that under no circumstances would she return to slavery, where she could be "sold or given to any person." She would rather die than return." pg 144

Recommended for readers who love history, especially American history, and want to learn about another facet of the American experience.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,450 reviews2,319 followers
November 29, 2020
Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a very informative and interesting read. It tells about a very determined Ona Judge and very sneaky Washingtons. I knew the Washingtons had slaves but I just didn't know how sneaky they were to work around their 'human property'. Wow, they were really terrible. My grandmother's name was Ona and I didn't get to know her, I was only 6 months when she died but the way she is described she would be proud to have this name!
Profile Image for Liz.
1,405 reviews33 followers
February 20, 2017
If you're listening to this book, you should probably listen to a neutral palate cleanser before listening to Hamilton. Going from actual Washington to Chris Jackson is jarring.
Anyway, it's a wonderful short-but-not-little work of history that uses the Washingtons and Judge to reconstruct the complexity (and hypocrisy) of slavery in the 18th century. The book itself is cautious, indicating clearly the difference between what we can know and what we can only speculate. It's a stark reminder how little information we have even about figures like Judge who actually spoke out about their lives. And how much of that information comes from those in power who care little about the lives experiences of the powerless. Reconstructing what Judge's life would have been like is well done and I applaud the choice to emphasize the lack of information while still providing Judge with her real and complex emotional life.
Profile Image for Chris Eells.
116 reviews4 followers
March 8, 2017
I received Never Caught in return for an unbiased review.

Who was Ona Judge? I don't know and apparently neither does anyone else. This story, while apparently heavily annotated, seems heavily opinionated and filled with trivial facts. In truth, I imagine it was probably quite difficult to dig up very much information on a slave that couldn't read or write until late in life and didn't leave hardly any opinions of her own.

I think the story is amazing and I would have loved to have learned more about Judge, the hardships she faced, and how she overcame or accepted them. But Dunbar didn't provide me with those answers. I feel like I know little more than when I read the blurb on the back of the book.
Profile Image for Barb.
1,156 reviews126 followers
May 4, 2017
This was so disappointing. I was looking forward to hearing about Ona Judge, sadly 90-95% of this book is dedicated to the Washingtons. Much of the information shared was supposition about Ona's life. Phrases like Ona might have, could have, would have, were frequent. Sentences that began with, Ona did, were very few.

The title for the book is very misleading. There is very little about Ona Judge included. I think a more accurate title would have been 'The Washington's Slaves'.

I wish the interview with Ona had been included. Very disappointing, I wouldn't recommend this.
Profile Image for Bryn Greenwood.
Author 6 books3,857 followers
May 6, 2018
Not only is this a very thoroughly researched book, but it’s full of thoughtfully imagined characterization of the enslaved people who so frequently invisibly inhabit stories of important historical figures. Honestly, I think this would be a great text for high school students studying early American history. So frequently schools let white students gloss over what it meant for this nation that its founding fathers were slave owners & this doesn’t shy away from the ugly realities of that.
Profile Image for Megan.
1,078 reviews63 followers
July 19, 2018
Despite the limitations of historical record that Dunbar was working with, this book is very easy to recommend, especially for readers who are interested in this period or aspect of history but don't necessarily have extensive background knowledge. The writing itself is very accessible. Particularly, I was impressed by how Dunbar highlighted the inescapable emotional labor that's part of an enslaved person's work, and the way she clearly explained (without excusing) the mindsets of slaveowners. I'm glad that Ona Judge's story has survived as much as it has.
Profile Image for Aaron Million.
484 reviews488 followers
November 13, 2022
Despite countless books being written about George Washington, and at least some of those countless books attempting to address his role as an owner of enslaved persons, there is almost nothing written about the perspective of those persons who lived on his plantation, prisoners to a degrading system that refused to recognize them as human beings. Erica Armstrong Dunbar attempts to counter that by writing about one such courageous person, Ona (Oney) Judge, and her successful escape from the President's House in Philadelphia.

Judge, a light-skinned black woman in her early 20s, was a "dower" slave, which meant that - legally - she belonged to the estate of Martha Washington's deceased first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. While George Washington inherited control of Judge's family up on his marriage to Martha, and thus control of Judge later when she was born, she was not actually his slave, technically. It might appear to be a small distinction, but in reality it was not. For, had Washington wished to free her upon his death, he would have been legally unable to do so. And while Dunbar does not address this, since it was a moot point due to Judge's escape, I am not entirely clear that Martha could have freed her either, as she only inherited 1/3 of Custis's estate. Regardless, being enslaved was exactly that: not free, irrespective of whose "property" that person was actually considered to be.

Judge was a "body servant" to Martha. Basically that meant she brushed her hair, helped her dress, did sewing for her, and assisted with watching her young grandchildren. For seven of the eight years that Washington was President, Philadelphia was the capital city. Pennsylvania had a law (Washington later found out) that allowed any enslaved person who was not a minor to petition for freedom once they had been in residency in the state for six months. In short, as soon as the Washingtons found out about this law, they freaked out. Thus began a series of lies and subterfuges by then to rotate their slaves in and out of Pennsylvania. They would either go back to Washington's home of Mount Vernon in Virginia or Martha would whisk them across the Delaware River to New Jersey for a short period of time.

In the spring of 1796, Washington had just begun the final year of his presidency, and had announced that he would not be standing for a third term. Thus Judge knew that, if she had any hope of escaping and trying to live her own life, she would need to do it before Washington's presidency ended. Dunbar was unable to determine just how she managed to escape (who helped her, was she worried about being stopped on the way out of the mansion, did anyone see her slipping out) Washington's home, but in late May Judge managed to get passage on a ship bound for Portsmouth, NH, which had very few slaves and was in a state that was moving decidedly into the anti-slavery camp. Judge apparently disappeared while the Washingtons were eating dinner.

The rest of this relatively short book consists of what Dunbar was able to piece together about Judge's subsequent life in NH, and the Washingtons' desperate attempts to bring her back. Dunbar uses the word "relentless" in the title, and I think that is apt as Washington was still trying to apprehend her when he died in 1799. Shocking as it is to us now (and quite frankly, it shouldn't have taken too much intelligence back then either), the Washingtons just could not understand why Judge would ever want to flee, feeling that they treated her extremely well. And, by the standards of field hands on some South Carolina rice plantation, she probably was treated well. But, that's all relative at best when Judge had no control over her life, and knew that she was destined to be given to Martha's unruly and difficult granddaughter.

Unfortunately, Dunbar is seriously hampered by the lack of documentation available on enslaved persons back then. Quite simply, nobody cared. Most were illiterate, so they weren't really capable of writing letters. Much of what Dunbar has to work with comes from two sources: Washington's letters concerning his slaves, and specifically the efforts to bring Judge back, and two interviews that Judge (by this time she was widowed, so her last name was Staines) gave to abolitionist newspapers. That had to be difficult to construct enough of a story from in order to make a book out of it.

Because of that, Dunbar wisely chooses to focus as much if not more on the times that Judge lived in, the fears that escaped slaves like herself lived with on a daily basis, and how slavery was coming to be viewed in the North. The book is littered with "he may have" or "she might have" or "perhaps she" because, ultimately, there is a lot that we just are never going to know. It isn't a knock on Dunbar. I went to hear her give a lecture on this book, and she clearly knows her stuff. But even the best historian is going to be hampered by a lack of primary sources. I think that this resulted in Dunbar padding the story somewhat in an effort to make this a book-length story. And even then, it does not quite make it to 200 pages (not counting the footnotes). I would have preferred if Dunbar had just stuck to what she could document, and not include what is really just speculation.

What Dunbar is able to determine is that, despite escaping, Judge lived a difficult life. I think it is fair to say that - purely from economic and physical labor standpoints - she was much worse off for having escaped. Instead, of waiting on Martha Washington in the finest homes, she had to do back-breaking physical work as a hired house servant for families, toiling all day doing things such as laundry and ironing. And that grueling work only served to keep her from starving, as she never did get out of poverty, and relied on other people to help her get by despite working hard. So, her life was not easy. BUT, it was still preferable for her because it was HER life, not anyone else's. She was no longer subject to the whims of Martha or any other Washington. Nor did she have to worry about being raped by one of Washington's male relatives (there is no evidence that she was, nor any evidence that Washington himself ever physically assaulted her).

Yet Dunbar shows a lack of curiosity here in not asking what I think is a legitimate question: overall, in this particular case, was she better off? I am not saying that she wasn't. And, of course, at the time that she escaped, she did not know what the future had in store for her. When asked in the interviews near the end of her life if she regretted escaping, she firmly said no. On the final page of the book, Dunbar writes that Judge "never looked back." I do question how accurate that statement is. How do we know that she "never" looked back? She did leave her family when she escaped. It seems that she certainly wasn't sorry that she escaped; I just question how we can definitively know that she never thought about what her life would have been had she stayed. But, ultimately, how could anyone alive today have any idea how she really felt, when she was born into a disgusting situation that nobody today - thankfully - even has to contemplate. This was an incredibly courageous and brave woman, who literally risked her life to escape slavery. I don't think we can be impressed enough with someone who had the fortitude to do that, then add in that she did it against the most powerful couple in the country. Talk about daunting.

One final comment. The Washingtons come across here as relics of their time and place, incapable of thinking that any black person would want to live their own life, make their own decisions, and actually manage to get by in society on their own. The anger they express about Judge escaping is disgusting. I have had this feeling before when reading other books about the Virginia Founding Fathers, but it was really exacerbated here: how could they possibly think that owning another human being, for any reason, was alright? You have something seriously wrong with you if you think that is fine. And the "context of their times" argument doesn't go too far with me either, because we can look right to John Adams and see someone who did not own other people, and found the practice deplorable. Washington did a lot of great things in his life, but owning slaves was not one of them. To me, the best one can do today is view him as a deeply flawed person who, to a limited extent, was a product of his time period, but who still should have known better. And I think he - sort of - knew that at the end when he freed his own slaves. As for Martha, she looks even worse to me. Unlike George, who at least expressed some qualms about slavery, especially as he got older, and then did free the people that "belonged" to him upon his death, she did no such thing and made no written comments deploring the practice. Martha Washington, unrelenting slaveowner. It's hard to think of a more damning epitaph.

Grade: B-
Profile Image for Jerrie.
978 reviews123 followers
November 2, 2017
It seems that there really isn’t that much known about Ona Judge, which leads to a lot of “she would have” done or felt a certain way. Also, the few letters written over a few years and a couple of visits to negotiate with her to return hardly seemed like a “relentless pursuit”. On the up side, this book gives a lot of great historical information on how enslaved people navigated the laws and their lives in the early days of the country.
Profile Image for Alicen.
592 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2017
As someone who has visited Mount Vernon dozens of times, I found this book to be very eye-opening and a reminder of the full picture of who George Washington and his wife were in real life. They upheld and benefited from the institution of slavery, and I feel this is a fact we need to confront and consider.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,095 reviews1,131 followers
April 13, 2021
I don’t have a great explanation for my decision to read this book. Many reviews make clear that it is basic, repetitive, full of speculation about thoughts and feelings, and might have better suited a magazine article. They were right.

Even though the text is only 197 pages long, Never Caught feels extremely padded. Here’s the summary: George and Martha Washington owned a lot of slaves, some his and some inherited through her first husband’s estate and therefore required to pass to their descendants. One of these, a young woman named Ona Judge, traveled north with the Washingtons as Martha’s personal maid when George took the presidency. Because the North was becoming less friendly to slavery, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia became the temporary capital during Washington’s presidency, after New York) allowed slaves to move toward freedom after six months’ residency in the state, so the Washingtons made sure to take the half-dozen or so slaves they’d brought with them out of state every six months.

However, as the Washingtons prepared to finally return home to Mount Vernon, and Judge learned that she was meant to be given as a wedding present to Martha’s volatile teenage granddaughter (who sounds like an interesting person, though you wouldn’t want to be at her mercy), she slipped away from the house during dinner and boarded a ship for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She lived there for the rest of her life. The Washingtons ran a runaway-slave advertisement, soon heard from a friend that Judge was there, and tried to get a customs officer to send her back. He attempted negotiations, and suggested to Washington that Judge would return if guaranteed freedom upon the couple’s deaths. It’s unclear if Judge in fact acceded to this plan, because Washington vetoed it, recognizing that treating slaves who’d run away better than the rest is probably not conducive to running a plantation based on slave labor. Washington then let things lie for a few years, during which Judge married and had the first of her three kids. Then he sent a nephew to fetch her, and when persuasion failed the nephew returned to her home in hopes of kidnapping her, but Judge was hiding out at a friend’s and so the nephew gave up and left. Preferring to avoid scandal and controversy, the Washingtons made no further attempts, although the law was on their side and so they could have simply initiated a court case. Judge spent the rest of her life in poverty and outlived her husband and children.

I include all this because now you’ve as good as read the book! It has the bones of a story worthy of a book (though I’d hardly call this a “relentless pursuit”), but the book is quite surface-level. There seems to be very little personal information available about Judge, for which the author compensates by constantly inventing thoughts and feelings to attribute to her, sometimes in rather absurd but highly opinionated language (“Her resolve was as solid as the granite found throughout the earth in her new state”).

Problem is, we don’t have enough information about her to make educated guesses, and I was often skeptical of the feelings the author attributed. For instance, Dunbar assumes Judge felt “terror” upon the first temporary move north. But Judge was 16, the kind of person ultimately willing to take a leap into the unknown, and was traveling with people she knew, including her own older brother. It seems equally plausible that she was thrilled and exhilarated to be seeing more of the world for the first time. Dunbar also attributes anger to Judge with such striking frequency that I suspect either 1) she wanted to make a point about black female anger (in which case why not just make the point directly? this is nonfiction after all) or 2) she was projecting her own anger at the way people like her were treated onto Judge, who might have felt any manner of other emotions on occasions when things went wrong.

Here’s an example of an entirely unsourced passage so you can judge for yourself:

“During the spring months of 1796, Ona Judge’s mind was filled with dreams, nightmares, plans, and challenges. Focusing on her normal tasks would have been difficult but still a requirement. As she brushed Martha Washington’s hair before bedtime, she was careful not to tug too hard on the aging first lady’s scalp. Women in their midsixties lamented hair loss, so Judge was gentle with each stroke of the brush. But her mind wandered. Judge’s concerns about returning to Virginia and becoming the property of Eliza Law were all consuming, and at the very least, distracting. As the household slaves and servants began to prepare for the trip back to Mount Vernon, Judge continued to be deferential and obedient on the outside while on the inside she grew more anxious. Each night, as Judge removed the stains from Mrs. Washington’s dresses and scraped the mud and dirt off the first lady’s shoes, she contemplated the forbidden and thought seriously about reaching out for help. Yet she was frightened, and the mere mention of the words ‘fugitive’ or ‘runaway’ disrupted the rhythm of Judge’s heartbeat.”

I’m sorry, when I pick up a nonfiction book, I’m looking for verifiable facts, not a half-baked novel.

You can write a good book about a slice of history about which little is known, but that depends on doing deep research into the society itself and bringing surprising facts to the surface, which Dunbar doesn’t do. Nothing here will be new to anyone with a basic grasp of American history—unless you actually didn’t know, for instance, that female slaves were vulnerable to sexual predation. Dunbar apparently thinks you didn’t, because she informs us of this at least half a dozen times even though it has little to do with Judge’s story.

The one thing I can give the book credit for (aside from the fact that the author is in fact a professor who appears to have done real research—for what that’s worth when half the book is nevertheless imagination) is that it draws attention to George Washington’s role as a slaveowner, when most Americans lionize him while knowing little about that part. However, you can actually get a more comprehensive treatment of this part of his life in Alexis Coe’s biography, You Never Forget Your First, which also covers the Ona Judge episode while sticking to the facts (and as an extra bonus, is funny). So I can’t recommend this one to anyone.
Profile Image for Carlos.
586 reviews284 followers
December 2, 2017
Not a very in-depth view of slavery at the dawn of the American nation. Some good reference points regarding the first president and his ties with the slavery industry ( doesn’t make him look good), but the slave itself doesn’t get much attention , basically she escaped and was never caught (as the title of the book let’s you know...spoilers...I know) . It’s mostly about the different meetings the first president had and so all the places the slave (onea Judge) visited , the book is mostly a look into slavery in 18th century America .
Profile Image for Stacie C.
332 reviews63 followers
September 14, 2019
Not too long ago I sat in a kindergarten classroom while the history of George Washington was taught. The same old repeated stories were told to this classroom of young children that I heard as a child: he had wooden teeth, he cut down an apple tree, he was the father of our country. My son once sat in that same classroom and heard those same stories A year later he would take a field trip to Mount Vernon and see the home of the famous George Washington. Now, my son was taught about slavery but not in connection with the first president. So, as he learned more about those who had been enslaved like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, I made sure to also inform him that when he went to Mount Vernon, he was also visiting a slave plantation that housed hundreds of enslaved people within its acreage. He was shocked, mortified and sad. They hadn’t showed him at the tender of age of six, the slave dwellings on the land. They hadn’t told him the history of the enslaved people of the first president and his wife. But I saw no sense in hiding the truth. Which is also why he and I are reading this book together. Ever since finding out there was a young readers edition for this book, I knew it was one I would want us to read together, that way I would be able to discuss any questions he may have and talk him through the feelings he may have about the history of the First family and their history with slavery.

Dunbar did a really great job of using the research available to describe not only Ona’s life and escape from the Washington family, but of relaying what life would be like for a enslaved woman at that time. This is the history of Ona Judge, both her life while enslaved and as a free woman, but it is also in many ways a history of both George and Martha Washington because Ona’s situations were determined by her owners. When George was informed that his slaves could emancipate themselves if they lived in Philadelphia for six months, he began to rotate them out of Philadelphia so they couldn’t claim their own freedom. Which meant that Ona was forced to move when she close to receiving her freedom back to Mount Vernon until it was deemed “safe” for her to return. Every decision they made affected her life until she made her escape.

Dunbar’s concise and detailed writing made this an extremely easy to read historical account of Ona Judge’s life. Readers are able to see Ona’s situation clearly and why the risk would be worth the reward of running. It also sheds a light on the first president and his practices as a slave owner that many prefer to ignore. I’m giving this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Now my son, who turned eleven while reading this novel, had many questions. Most were centered around why so much of what he was reading now conflicted with the things he had been taught at school. There were moment's that left him "dumbstruck" but he liked the way Dunbar wrote the story. This led to more very honest discussions about where we live and the history of this country as a whole. He definitely recommends the young readers edition and wants other kids his age to read it. As he goes into this sixth-grade learning more about US History he seems more prepared for confronting a harsher reality. This book gave him the opportunity to learn more about the history of slavery, the Washington’s and the plight of Ona Judge.
Profile Image for Lois .
1,644 reviews448 followers
January 18, 2018
I thoroughly enjoyed this well researched and thoughtful biography. I found this extremely readable and nicely paced. The author uses white sources, The Washington's, to track Judge's early years acknowledges that and still manages to leave The First Family in the background. Skillfully done. Ona has her own voice and tells her own story.
George and Martha Washington are truly despicable people. I hope they died in abject pain, George for one did.
Profile Image for SmartBitches.
491 reviews624 followers
April 11, 2017
Full review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge is a nonfiction book about the efforts of one of George and Martha Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge, to secure her freedom. In the process, the book describes the struggle the new nation had with slavery and how different states and different individuals dealt with the matter.

This book shines in revealing Martha, George, and Ona as people, with flaws and moods and family problems. Martha worries about Eliza, which is why she wants to give Eliza one of her most skilled slaves (her attitude is not that different from if someone gifted a new family with a top-of-the-line Kitchen Aid Mixer and a Roomba). George worries about the country, his finances, and his teeth, and Ona is stuck with managing these people’s moods. The book stresses repeatedly that one of the most important jobs of a house slave was to manage the moods of their owners. A depressed or worried or angry owner could mean trouble for slaves.

The book also strips away any illusions the reader may have about the Washington family and slavery. They were well aware that their slaves were not happy living in slavery. Ona was not only one of their slaves to escape or to try to escape. They actively prevented their slaves from being manumitted in Philadelphia. They chased Ona for years trying to recapture her. The Washingtons justified their actions to themselves by assuming that the slaves needed to be taken care of. In the case of Ona, they were initially convinced that she had been tricked into escaping and later furious at her “ingratitude” after being “treated like one of the family.”

The book covers some pretty elementary history. If you are already a history buff, you’ll probably be familiar with a lot of the information in the book. It’s still a worthwhile read, because it does such a good job of making history personal from a point of view we haven’t seen as often. Whether all the rich people in Virginia had slaves did not matter to Ona – SHE was a slave. She could not give a single shit whether the Washingtons were horrible humans or “products of their time.” It was not an abstract issue for her. She wanted freedom, and she was willing to give up her family and accept a life of much more difficult work than she had under slavery in order to count herself as a free person. By focusing on the story of a single person surrounded by people we thought we knew, this book brings the reader a view of slavery that is abhorrent, personal, and unrelenting. The focus on Ona also gives us a portrait of an unsung kickass woman who lived a difficult life, but who lived it on her own terms.

- Carrie S.
Profile Image for Leah.
1,052 reviews59 followers
January 21, 2018
My third Tackling the TBR! I truly didn’t want this one to end and tried my best to savor each page, a hard task with such a short book. Still, I’m immensely happy I finally set aside the time to dive into this one! Never Caught is a highly readable, engaging read perfect for fans of historical fiction (the narrative flows just like a fiction novel, making it a great book for those put off by dry, academic works) and nonfiction alike.

For the full review and more, head over to The Pretty Good Gatsby!
408 reviews
March 20, 2017
The subject of this book is fascinating, and reminds us that the Founding Fathers were human and far less than perfect. Ona Judge was a house slave for the Washingtons during his Presidency (technically, she belonged to Martha Washington) who escaped while the "White House" was in Philadelphia. She relocated to New Hampshire, but had to endure a rigorous pursuit by George Washington and his allies. She managed to remain free, and lived to tell her story many years later. The book points out how awful life was as a slave, even for those fortunate enough to be a "house" slave for the President of the United States. Her life was not her own. She could be separated from family at the whim of her owner. Despite being highly respected by Martha Washington, she is given to Martha's granddaughter, a woman whom the slaves knew to be very difficult. She decides that life is far better in freedom, even if it means living in poverty and never seeing her family again. With help, she escapes and moves away quickly. While living in New Hampshire for many years, she is always a fugitive, and her children are born slaves and fugitives also. She is able to remain free in part because Washington is concerned about the bad publicity he would receive in a section of the country that was beginning to reject slavery, if he forced her to return. It was interesting to learn that Philadelphia was the US city that led the abolitionist movement, due to the Quakers. In the first year of the Presidency, Washington lived in New York, where slavery was still widespread and accepted. When the capital moved to Philadelphia, Ona and the other slaves could see many more free blacks, and laws had been enacted to provide for emancipation after a period of time. Washington worked to circumvent those laws. I came away with far less respect for Washington than I had previously. One could argue that it was the times, but many other men were more receptive to abolition. The book brings home the horrors of slavery, and argues against the Southern myth that the slaves had it better as slaves than as poverty stricken free persons. Given a choice, most would choose freedom. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it an easy read and very informational.
Profile Image for Andre.
500 reviews132 followers
May 23, 2017
Nice bit of history here uncovered. The book has a YA feel, which makes for fast reading but detracts from the scholarliness. Clearly the author has gone to great lengths to bring us this story of Ona Judge, and what I find most interesting is the President of the US, George Washington remained extremely interested in perusing his "property" while serving as the leader of the new nation and beyond, right up to his death. Apparently, Ona Judge gave two interviews later on in her life, and much to my dismay those were not included in their entirety in the book. I think the inclusion would have allowed for the reader to hear Ona's voice clearly without the author imagining what she must have felt at different times during her enslavement.

The story is mostly constructed from these interviews along with some other sources making it difficult to go beyond the surface. Reading passages like this one, "Inevitably, Judge was confused and excited by the examples of freedom she witnessed , for it was unlike anything she had ever seen." That's a great deal of liberty the author takes here while describing Judge's initial encounter in a northern city, Philadelphia, PA. I understand the necessity for this type of speculation to keep the story flowing and to maintain the interest of the reader, but it seems to be a frequently employed device throughout the book.

Another minor quibble I had is with the title, Never Caught. Technically it isn't that she was never caught, it is more that she was never forcibly returned to slavery. She was found in New Hampshire and the President enlisted friends of his to try and coax her to return to his household, so in a sense she was discovered, i.e. caught. To save his reputation, George Washington didn't employ violent means to return her to the Washington stead. This doesn't diminish the history of Ona Judge in any way, and her story is just one in the long line of enslaved persons who risked everything on their way to freedom. So, she definitely is deserving of the light that has been shone on her.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
57 reviews19 followers
March 13, 2018
This is a hard story to even attempt to write, and I really admire that someone made the effort. I’m also impressed with the fact that it manages to be both well sourced and very accessible in terms of writing style. However, with that said, this did end up being a little hit and miss for me, in particular when it came to trying to introduce possible thoughts and feelings Ona may have had throughout her life. I think it’s a worthy goal to try to construct the internal life of someone who by necessity revealed very little about herself that we can access today, but a number of the attempts to do that here fell flat. Basically, I wish this could have been tightened up a little bit and more focused on the two interviews Ona gave at the end of her life as opposed to the more speculative parts, but I’m still glad it exists.
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