From the Underground Railroad to the Water-Cure: David Ruggles

(This post originally appeared as a guest post on Linda Bennett Pennell’s blog, History Imagined.)

In researching my historical novels set in nineteenth-century America, I have come across a number of people, now obscure, who deserve to be remembered for their heroism. One is David Ruggles, a black abolitionist.

Born in Lyme, Connecticut, on March 15, 1810, Ruggles, the son of a blacksmith, took to the sea at age fifteen and ended up in New York City, where he became active in the abolitionist movement and ran a grocery store for a period of time. In 1834, he moved to Lispenard Street in lower Manhattan and opened a bookstore and circulating library specializing in abolitionist literature. Soon he began publishing his own pamphlets—a bold move in a city that was not particularly friendly to the anti-slavery movement. His store was set on fire in 1835. Unintimidated, Ruggles helped form the New York Committee of Vigilance, which helped escaped slaves and fought against the kidnapping of both free blacks and escapees. His house would soon become a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1838, Frederick Bailey, a fugitive from slavery, was directed to Ruggles’ house  and spent at least a week there. While there, Bailey summoned his fiancée from Baltimore to New York, and the couple married in Ruggles’ house. (Ruggles himself was a lifelong bachelor.) On Ruggles’ advice, Bailey changed his surname to Johnson, but soon would change it again, becoming known as Frederick Douglass. Douglass was one of hundreds whom Bailey helped to freedom.

Unfortunately, Ruggles’ eyesight began to deteriorate when he was still a young man, making it untenable for him to continue his publishing activities, which included a journal,  the Mirror of Liberty. Friends invited him to stay at the Northampton Association of Education and Industry,  a cooperative community just outside of Northampton, Massachusetts. He arrived there in 1842, but his general health was failing as well. Ruggles finally tried hydrotherapy, known as the “water cure,” under the supervision of Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft, who operated a popular water-cure in Brattleboro, Vermont, but advised Ruggles by letter. As Ruggles’ biographer, Graham Russell Gao Hodges, points out, Dr. Wesselhoeft was apparently unwilling to risk the social outrage that would result from having Ruggles bathing side by side with white clients.

From Joel Shew’s The Hydropathic Family Physician

Despite the treatments, Ruggles’ health and eyesight improved only marginally, but he was pleased enough with the results to begin treating patients himself. Among his patients was a reluctant Sojourner Truth, who grumbled, “I shall die if I continue in it, and I may as well die out of the water as in it.” After ten weeks, however, she admitted that she “had never enjoyed better health in her life.”

Ruggles soon opened his own water-cure establishment in the Northampton area. Another of his patients was abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who stayed there during the summer of 1848. Writing to Maria W. Chapman on July 19, 1848, Garrison stated: “The experience of the first day runs thus: — a half bath (which I should consider a whole one and a quarter) at 5 o’ clock, A.M.; rubbed down with a wet sheet thrown over the body at 11 o’clock; a sitz bath at 4, P.M.; a foot-bath at half past 8, P.M.; and at 5 this morning, a shallow bath which is to be followed at 11 by a spray baptism.” In a letter to his wife on July 23, 1848, Garrison bragged that he had withstood the rigors of being “packed in a wet sheet, or drenched from head to foot, or immersed all over” and had not “uttered a groan, or heaved a sigh, or shed a tear, or faltered for a moment.” He noted that there were 19 patients, mostly men, and added, “There does not seem to be any pro-slavery among the patients; if there really is, it has not been manifested by any word or sign, and I hope it will be washed out of them.” Upon his discharge, Garrison proclaimed, “My aversion to cold water has been fairly conquered. I am now its earnest advocate.” Other patients of Ruggles included Mary Brown, whose husband John would later be hanged for leading the raid on Harpers Ferry. Mary, who had had a number of children and had been ailing for some time, told her son-in-law that she believed that the water cure would be “her only salvation.” Later, she would use the water-cure to treat her own family’s ailments.

Unfortunately, Ruggles could not cure himself. Although he ran his water cure almost until the end, he died on December 16, 1849. He was not yet forty. Ruggles  was buried in his family plot in Norwich, Connecticut. Many would pay tribute to this man who had led a short, but full and heroic life. Frederick Douglass  later recalled him as that “whole-souled man, fully imbued with a love  of his afflicted and hunted people.”


Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).

Graham Russell Gao Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

The Liberator, July 27, 1849 (advertisement)

Walter M. Merrill, ed., No Union With Slave-Holders: The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, 1841-1849 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1973).

Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family and The Legacy of Radical Abolitionism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013).

Joel Shew, The Hydropathic Family Physician (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1854).

Margaret Washington, Sojourner Truth’s America (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

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