When Harriet Jacob's mistress, Margaret Horniblow died, her will left her slaves to her mother. A codicil was found, witnessed by Dr. James Norcom, her brother-in-law, and Henry Flury leaving Harriet and a number of personql items to her five-year-old niece, Mary Mathilda. Since Margaret Horniblow never signed the codicil, it wasn't valid, but this was ignored and Dr. Norcom became the de facto master of Harriet Jacobs, and soon began harassing her to become his mistress. When the situation became intolerable, Harriet went into hiding, had friends mail letters from false addresses in the north, and finally escaped.
The Norcoms continued to search for her, and sent her letters urging her to return. Mary Mathilda Norcom married Daniel Messmore over her father's vehement objections. Needing money, she reminded Harriet that she (Mary) was her de jure owner, and asked her to return or buy herself. Daniel Messmore
arrived in Boston seeking Harriet. Her friend/employer Cornelia Willis helped her hide, and then urged her to flee. Over Harriet's objections, Cornelia arranged to pay Messmore $300 to give up all claims to Harriet and her children.