Elizabeth Riley was a prominent Bostonian who was deeply involved in the Massachusetts antislavery movement and noted for harboring the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins in her attic. Riley was born Elizabeth Cook in 1791 in Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up in Boston and was twice married, first to a man named Jackson, and then to William Riley, the proprietor of a clothing store located at 22 Brattle Street. Riley had two children from her first marriage, Ann Jennette Jackson and Sarah Rebecca Jackson. With her second husband she had three additional children, William Riley Jr., George Putnam Riley, and Eliza Dianna Riley. The senior William Riley died in July 1849, and Elizabeth lived with her children at 70 Southac Street until her death in 1855.
Riley played an important role in the escape of the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins. For several years following Minkins’ escape, his precise route after his release from the Boston federal courthouse was not publicly known. But several years later, a document explained that Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris “[s]afely lodged [Minkins] in the attic of a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Riley, one of our race, whose fidelity and humanity we all fully confided in.” The choice of Riley’s attic may have posed some risk, as newspaper accounts document a structural collapse of part of the building shortly after his time there.
Elizabeth Riley’s hiding of Minkins evolved from her beliefs and actions. She was involved with a number of progressive political organizations. Riley was a member of the Boston Female Antislavery Society in the 1830s. She was also a member of the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society. Riley helped raise money for the creation of the first major abolitionist newspaper in the nation, The Liberator. founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831. Riley was also a member of the Colored Citizens of Boston, another organization which called for the abolition of slavery. The group also supported the work of William Lloyd Garrison. Despite her involvement with politics, neither Riley nor her husband could read or write. Later in her life, Riley also worked as a nurse.
Elizabeth Riley died on January 23, 1855 in Boston from liver disease. She was 64 years old.