Indie Weekend: Murder on the Underground Railroad by Craig Pennington #Guest Post and #BookReview #IndieAuthors #enslavement

Indie Weekend is my effort to support Indie and Self-Published authors, who have a lot on their plate. You can support them too by sharing this post with your social media followers. This is also a book I read for the November issue of Historical Novels Review, the magazine of The Historical Novel Society. It is a murder mystery set in 1826 Pennsylvania with flashbacks to 1793.


During a blizzard in the cold winter of 1826, the quiet Western Pennsylvania town of Indiana is shocked by the gruesome murders of two runaway slaves. When the county sheriff shows no interest in the dead men, newspaperman James Moorhead and his friend, Dr. Robert Mitchell, vow to investigate.

In the summer of 1793, a yellow fever epidemic decimates Philadelphia, the nation’s capital. Thousands die while those who can flee to the country. A nine-year-old orphan struggling to survive on his own in the deserted city descends into a world of deprivation and inhumanity when he is locked away in Philadelphia’s infamous poorhouse.
The bloodshed triggered by these seemingly unrelated events threatens the lives of James Moorhead and Dr. Mitchell as they fight to expose the twisted link between the murders and an insane act of revenge reaching back thirty years.

The formation of the Underground Railroad, the horrors of the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic, and the life of the author’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, one of Pennsylvania’s most famous abolitionists, are woven into a thrilling story of ambition and revenge.


Indiana, Pennsylvania, 1826. When two escaped, formerly enslaved men are found brutally murdered in a barn, the county sheriff shows no interest in investigating. Newspaperman James Moorhead and his friend, Dr. Robert Mitchell, both abolitionists who support the Underground Railroad, are outraged and begin an investigation of their own. In the summer of 1793, a yellow fever epidemic decimates Philadelphia. A nine-year-old boy who is left orphaned during this tragedy is abandoned in the city’s poorhouse. These events begin a chilling link between the 1826 murders and an act of revenge that reaches back thirty years.

Craig Pennington’s saga of the Moorhead family continues, this time focusing on the author’s great-great-great-great grandfather, James Moorhead, and adding a murder mystery. The mystery is fascinating, as the reader is given the killer’s identity early, and then follows James and Robert as they try to figure out who is committing these gruesome and bloody crimes. Pennington expertly weaves fiction and history together to portray events during this terrible time in U.S. history. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 meant that “slave catchers” could enter northern states and retrieve the escaped freedom seekers. For James, this meant that his actions to support the Underground Railroad were constantly resisted by pro-slavery persons and organizations.

In addition to providing a compelling mystery, this book answers the question: was the northern U.S. really free at that time? Not completely. An epilogue includes the real-life case of 12-year-old Anthony Hollingsworth, who was recaptured in 1845 and then freed by a Pennsylvania judge. James Moorhead was involved in this case.

This is so much more than a mystery. It is a look back at a struggle between good and evil in the United States. The author does not back away from horrifying moments in history, and rightly so.

I received a free copy of this book via The Historical Novel Society. My review is voluntary and the opinions expressed are my own.

I am so pleased to have the review of my latest book included on Bonnie Reads and Writes. In 1901, my great-great Grandfather AT Moorhead wrote a small book about the Moorhead Family, and I have relied on it for all three of the Moorhead novels. However, information about other people involved in the Underground Railroad and the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic is the result of a great deal of research. Below is more information about this mystery thriller’s real-life characters.

My 4X Great Grandfather, James Moorhead (1780 – 1857), was publishing editor of one of the first newspapers in Indiana, PA. Originally he adhered to his conservative Scots-Irish upbringing, believing that you should change the laws, not break them. Eventually, however, he became one of Pennsylvania’s most outspoken abolitionists, Underground Railroad conductors, and Anti-Mason crusaders. (The Masons in that area were pro-slavery, although that varied with Mason groups throughout the country. ) Although fictitious, the events in this novel attempt to explain how and why James Moorhead’s transformation occurred. In 1843, he published The Clarion of Freedom and The Independent, another paper dedicated to eradicating slavery. His son, grandson, and great-grandson were all newspapermen.

Moorhead’s best friend, Dr. Robert Mitchell (1786 – 1863), was the second physician to settle in Indiana, PA, and one of the first conductors and station masters of the fledgling Underground Railroad. He was instrumental in defending Anthony Hollingsworth and eventually paid a large fine for hiding other freedom seekers. In later years, Mitchell became a State Representative and Associate Judge.

Bishop Richard Allen (1760 – 1831), was a formerly  enslaved man who helped mobilize the free black citizens during the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic. These brave people cared for the sick and buried the dead while most of the wealthy citizens abandoned the city. In 1794, he and Absalom Jones founded the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia, the first Black denomination in America. Later, Allen and his wife, Sarah Bass, were active participants in the Underground Railroad.

Debated as either saint or devil for his medical practices, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745 – 1813) was one of the country’s most highly regarded physicians and social reformers. He was a signer of the Declaration, opposed slavery, advocated free public schools, and sought educational opportunities for women. Although he is acknowledged as the Father of American Psychiatry, his obsession with bleeding and purging undoubtedly led to many unnecessary deaths. Ironically, Rush died from a series of bleedings attempting to cure his case of typhus.

The court case of the 14-year-old freedom seeker Anthony Hollingsworth is well documented. When he was captured and held in the Indiana Hotel, a mob threatened to burn the hotel down to free him. The case came before a judge who just happened to be a member of the Underground Railroad Committee. While Garrett Van Metre, the man claiming to own Anthony, argued that the law gave him the right to take Anthony out of Pennsylvania (which it did), the judge demanded that Van Metre prove that slavery was legal in Virginia. He gave Van Metre until one o’clock that afternoon to produce a copy of the Virginia Constitution. When Van Metre failed to present the document, Anthony was set free.  Van Metre was literally railroaded by the court.

What I find most exciting about historical fiction is placing real people in real events while presenting interesting and informative historical details in a fictional work. My previous novel about the Moorheads, The Heart of the Run, won the Gold Medal for Best Historical Fiction in the Florida Writer’s Association 2022 Royal Palm Literary Competition. My books are all available at Amazon on Kindle and in Paperback.




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7 thoughts on “Indie Weekend: Murder on the Underground Railroad by Craig Pennington #Guest Post and #BookReview #IndieAuthors #enslavement”

  1. This is a great review and thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I enjoy both mysteries and insights into the underground railroad and slavery. That it’s based on truth and real people makes it more intriguing.
    Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds very interesting, Bonnie. I love reading historical fiction about different times and about events and people that are not well known. Great guest post as well. I am adding this book to my TBR shelf and checking out the rest of the series. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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