Needles in a Haystack

Cabinetmaker by trade, abolitionist by a higher calling.

Cabinetmaker by trade, abolitionist by a higher calling. (Depicted in William Still’s “The Underground Railroad)

Unlike many people in the abolition movement, John Needles left a significant  written record including an autobiography, meeting records, and charter documents of an abolitionist association.  Most of what others wrote about him later, however, was about his superb cabinetmaking.  Thus, while there are definite links between Needles and other more prominent names in abolition, detailed writings about his abolition activities are scant, and most secondary sources lean on a precious few primary sources.


Wright, Edward Needles.  “John Needles (1786-1878): An Autobiography” published in  Quaker History, Volume 58, Number 1, Spring 1969, pp. 3-21, Friends Historical Association. 

Though published by his great-grandson, this autobiography was written by John Needles in 1872.  Though born and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Needles spent his adult life in Baltimore.    He learned both cabinetmaking and advocacy from his elders.  Concomitant with his Quaker convictions and commitment to simplicity, combined with the perspective provided by the passage of time,  the autobiography is not terribly loaded with details, self-importance, or name dropping.  In the total of 18 pages, Needles does mention witnessing the arrest of Charles Torrey and his acquaintance with William Lloyd Garrison (apparently, he and Garrison did not get along and any sort of partnership did not materialize).   He also briefly mentions  founding the “Anteslavery Society of Maryland” and traveling to Philadelphia  to advocate for abolition. We are left with an impression of a diligent man who felt his greatest responsibility was to others and had a strong desire to do right.

Garrison, William Lloyd.  The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume IV: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850-1860. Edited by Louis Ruchames. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975. 

This volume contains two letters written by Garrison to Needles,  the second one after having received a letter from Needles in response to the first.  In the first letter, Garrison heaps praise upon praise on Needles due to his work to relieve human suffering.  In the second letter, after Needles has done a favor for him, Garrison sends a portrait of himself as a gesture of thanks.   Admittedly, it’s not much, but we are left with at least with a testimony to Needles’ abolitionist work and an idea of why his Quaker sensibilities were not conducive to having a sustained relationship with Garrison.

Mott, Lucretia Coffin.  Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott. Edited by Beverly Wilson Palmer.  Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

This compilation contains a reference to a dinner at John Needles house and mentions the wariness of “too much abolition.” (278)  Mott and her party are on their way to Philadelphia thus strengthening the Quaker abolitionist connection to Philadelphia.
Centennial Anniversary of the Pennsylvania Society, for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and for Improving the Condition of the African Race Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of SlaveryGrant, Faires & Rodgers, printers, 1876 (Google ebooks edition).

A retrospective and celebratory account of the society whose name is found in the title.  John Needles’ uncle after whom he was named is shown as an officer for the society in 1789 as further proof of abolition being a family cause.  Also, John Needles, our subject, is mentioned as having sent letters expressing regret at not being able to attend the celebration.  He would have been 90 years old at the time, to that’s not altogether surprising.


Carey, Brycchan and Plank, Geoffrey. Quakers and Abolition. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. .

An essay in this collection connects Needles to J.E. Snodgrass of the famous “Mitchell Kidnapping” and the wider Underground Railroad movement.

Byrd, Dana E.  The Paradox of Good Intentions: John Needles, Cabinetmaker in Antebellum Baltimore. Ann Arbor, MI: Proquest Information and Learning Company, 2005

Building on Needles’ autobiography, this Master’s Thesis provides much-needed context and analysis of what it meant to be in the unenviable position of advocating for the abolition of slavery in a state devoted the institution.  Byrd points out numerous paradoxes such as Needles setting up his business only a few blocks from that of Austin Woolfolk (of “CASH FOR NEGROES” fame).    Due to this context, we can understand just what a strong statement Needles was making by using anti-slavery literature to wrap and stuff in the drawers of furniture he shipped to clients in the South.  We learn a bit more about Needles’ connection to Philadelphia — again professional as well as political —  from which he sourced some materials for his craft and engaged in abolition activities with reputed names such as Soujourner Truth.   Several images, including photographs of Needles with members of his family, along with advertisements for Needles’ various businesses and a catalog of furniture stamped by Needles as made by him show that despite leaving a no-frills autobiography,  he was a master of his craft in addition to being a tireless advocate for freedom.

While there are additional sources such as birth, marriage and death records, deeds of property, classified and promotional ads and the like, they generally add only encyclopedic details that do not further our understanding of John Needles as an abolitionist.


Adapted from Needles in a Haystack by David B.

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