One hundred steps led from Ripley to the house on the hill; these steps are accessible today. Rankin said: "My house has been the door of freedom to many human beings, but while there was a hazard of life and property, there was much happiness in giving safety to the trembling fugitives. They were all children of God by creation and some of them I believe were redeemed by the blood of the Lamb." Rankin's first home was located at 220 Front Street.
Rev. John Rankin was born in Tennessee in 1793. In 1822, after preaching for several years in Kentucky, Rankin and his wife Jean moved his growing family across the Ohio River to Ripley in the free state of Ohio. In 1822, he began his 44 year ministry of Ripley's Presbyterian church. In 1825, he built the house on Liberty Hill overlooking the river.
With its proximity to the river and its owner's fierce opposition to slavery, the Rankin home was a perfect choice to become a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. The Rankin family (which included 13 children) was proud of never having lost a "passenger". Most of the 2,000 escaped slaves who traveled through Ripley stayed with the Rankins.
Upon learning one of his brothers in Virginia had acquired a slave, Rankin wrote a series of letters denouncing slavery to the editor of the local paper, later published as the book Letters on American Slavery in 1826. Rankin also helped organize the Ripley Anti-Slavery Society, Rankin taught, preached, wrote and traveled to inform many people of the evils of and the need to abolish slavery.
The Rankins' work inspired others to rally to the cause. Well-known abolitionist Wm. Lloyd Garrison called himself a Rankin disciple. Harriet Beecher Stowe heard Rankin's account of a slave who carried her child across the thawing ice of the Ohio River and was saved from the bounty hunters that chased her when the ice broke up. Stowe later included the story in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Six of Rankin's sons and one grandson fought in the Civil War, all survived.
John's wife Jean died in 1878, and John Rankin died in 1886 at the age of 93, both buried in Ripley's Maplewood Cemetery.
The town of Ripley, located on the Ohio River between the slave state of Kentucky and the free state of Ohio, was the site of clashes between abolitionists and slave hunters long before the start of the Civil War. Hagedorn brings to life lesser-known activists in the abolitionist movement who led double lives in a small town torn up over the issue of slavery. She focuses on the Reverend John Rankin, spurred by religious fervor to become a leading abolitionist, helping escaped slaves travel on to Canada during the early 1820s. Using historical documents, newspapers, and letters, Hagedorn captures a fervent era, when the Missouri Compromise, the invention of the cotton gin, and growing slave revolts all set the stage for roiling debate on slavery. Rankin and his family were part of a network of abolitionists that included Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Parker, a free black man who ventured south to guide slaves to freedom. Readers interested in the history of the abolitionist movement in the U.S. will appreciate this look at unsung heroes of the era. Vanessa Bush