'Underground Railroad': How Slave Catchers Tracked Down Escapees

Barry Jenkins' highly anticipated new series The Underground Railroad premieres on Amazon Prime Video today, telling the story of an enslaved woman's bid for freedom.

South African actress Thuso Mbedu plays protagonist Cora Randall, who is pursued by villainous slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (played by Joel Edgerton).

Slave catchers were a real thing and, in the deep South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made catching escapees a lucrative endeavor.

According to information from the Law Enforcement Museum, slave patrols are described as an early form of American policing. They were established in South Carolina in 1704.

Historian Gary Potter explains the three main functions of slave patrols in his study "The History of Policing in the United States."

"(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law."

Often called patrollers, these individuals used violence as a means of controlling escapees.

Their duties included preventing any form of organized resistance, enforcing curfews and checking travelers for permission passes.

Underground Railroad
Joel Edgerton and Chase Dillon in "The Underground Railroad." Amazon

"The history of police work in the South grows out of this early fascination, by white patrollers, with what African American slaves were doing," historian Sally Hadden wrote in her book lave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas,

"Most law enforcement was, by definition, white patrolmen watching, catching, or beating black slaves."

Edgerton has said that playing this role made him question if he was comfortable playing such a reprehensible character.

"I've been for years, running around, going, 'I love playing villains, and I'd rather play villains,'" he told Uproxx. "But this one did make me take a step back and go, yeah, but be careful what you wished for. Is this really what you want? But, because of Barry, I was willing to."

He added: "Because of the nature of this wonderfully large, epic, heroic story, I realized that by playing the villain, I could participate in the heroic nature of the whole thing. So I was willing."

The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime follows Randall's desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South.

The synopsis reads: "After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and conductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil.

"Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter who is fixated on bringing her back to the plantation she escaped; especially since her mother Mabel is the only one he has never caught.

"As she travels from state to state, Cora contends with the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own struggles to realize a life she never thought was possible."

The Underground Railroad is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.