June 28, 1856, the Cecil Democrat reported a murder. “George Vansant of Head of Sassafras had his head nearly severed from his body … in the following manner: The citizens in that part of Maryland have established a secret police for the interception of runaway slaves, &c. On Monday night, Vansant and another man, George Clayton, were out upon that duty, in or near the village, when they saw a colored man approaching, Vansant hailed him, when the man fled, Vansant pursuing. On coming up with him the man suddenly turned upon Vansant, and with a knife at one stroke, cut his throat ear to ear, almost severing his head from his body. Vansant died immediately, and the murderer escaped, running around Kennedy’s mill pond [on the Cecil County side of the river].”
John Henry Hill, who had escaped enslavement in Virginia and safely reached Canada wrote Still a series of thirteen letters that Still published in his book on the Underground Railroad. It is the eleventh letter, dated August 15, 1856 that echoes the event the Democrat reported on a month and a half earlier. The 11th letter was not printed in its entirety. Above each letter, Still wrote a sentence or two about the contents. For this letter he wrote “Rejoices at the hearing of the success of the Underground Rail Road. Inquires in particular after the ‘fellow’ who ‘cut off’ the Patrol’s head in Maryland.”
Hill writes that “I am very glad to hear that the Underground Rail Road is doing such good business, but tell me in your next letter if you have seen the heroic fellow that cut off the head of the Patrol in Maryland. We wants that fellow here, as John Bull has a great deal of fighting to do, and as there is a colored Captain in this city, I would seek to have that fellow promoted, provided he became a soldier.”
In 1856, William Still had recorded at least nine escapes from the Sassafras River area, two from Sassafras Neck, one from Cecil Crossroads (Cecilton), and six from Georgetown Crossroads (Galena). Still also used more general geographic terms as well like Eastern Shore, or left the area blank, and not every freedom seeker from the area would have passed through Still’s office. How high the number of escapes from the area that year is of course be unknown. But the number of escapes and the presence of a well-organized Underground Railroad operating across the state line in the area of nearby Middletown, Delaware, was enough to cause slaveholders to form slave patrols.
A search of Still’s records for 1856 did not provide enough detail to point at one name on the list and accuse him of killing Vansant, if the name appeared on the list. Did Still know who he was? If Still wrote a response to the question in Hill's letter, it is unfortunate that letter is lost to history. History always provides more questions than answers.