Solomon Northup was born in Saratoga Springs in July 1808. His father, who had been a slave until his master had granted him his freedom in his will. Northup later recalled: "Though born a slave, and laboring under the disadvantages to which my unfortunate race is subjected, my father was a man respected for his industry and integrity, as many now living, who well remember him, are ready to testify. His whole life was passed in the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, never seeking employment in those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa. Besides giving us an education surpassing that ordinarily bestowed upon children in our condition, he acquired, by his diligence and economy, a sufficient property qualification to entitle him to the right of suffrage. He was accustomed to speak to us of his early life; and although at all times cherishing the warmest emotions of kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a bondsman, he nevertheless comprehended the system of Slavery, and dwelt with sorrow on the degradation of his race. He endeavored to imbue our minds with sentiments of morality, and to teach us to place our, trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures. How often since that time has the recollection of his paternal counsels occurred to me, while lying in a slave hut in the distant and sickly regions of Louisiana, smarting with the undeserved wounds which an inhuman master had inflicted, and longing only for the grave which had covered him, to shield me also from the lash of the oppressor. In the church yard at Sandy Hill, an humble stone marks the spot where he reposes, after having worthily performed the duties appertaining to the lowly sphere wherein God had appointed him to walk."
On 25th December 1829 Northup married Anne Hampton and worked as a labourer in Hartford. Over the next few years the couple had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. In 1834 the couple moved to Saratoga Springs where Northup, a talented violin player, worked as a musician in local hotels. However, Solomon was captured by James H. Burch, a slave trader, while visiting Washington in 1841: "The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square - the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened. An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The furniture of the room in which I was, consisted of the wooden bench on which I sat, an old-fashioned, dirty box stove, and besides these, in either cell, there was neither bed, nor blanket, nor any other thing whatever. The door, through which Burch and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself."
Burch went to see Northup: "Well, my boy, how do you feel now?" He went on to tell him that he was his slave - that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New Orleans. Northup replied: "I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman - a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. I complained bitterly of the strange treatment I had received, and threatened, upon my liberation, to have satisfaction for the wrong. He denied that I was free, and with an emphatic oath, declared that I came from Georgia. Again and again I asserted I was no man's slave, and insisted upon his taking off my chains at once. He endeavored to hush me, as if he feared my voice would be overheard. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains. Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive."
Northup was sent to a Slave Auction to be sold by Theophilus Freeman, of New Orleans. "In the first place we were required to wash thoroughly, and those with beards, to shave. We were then furnished with a new suit each, cheap, but clean. The men had hat, coat, shirt, pants and shoes; the women frocks of calico, and handkerchiefs to bind about their heads. We were now conducted into a large room in the front part of the building to which the yard was attached, in order to be properly trained, before the admission of customers. The men were arranged on one side of the room, the women on the other. The tallest was placed at the head of the row, then the next tallest, and so on in the order of their respective heights. Emily was at the foot of the line of women. Freeman charged us to remember our places; exhorted us to appear smart and lively... After being fed, in the afternoon, we were again paraded and made to dance."
Northup described the selling of Eliza's children, Emily and Randall: "By this time she had become haggard and hollow-eyed with sickness and with sorrow. It would be a relief if I could consistently pass over in silence the scene that now ensued. It recalls memories more mournful and affecting than any language can portray. I have seen mothers kissing for the last time the faces of their dead offspring; I have seen them looking down into the grave, as the earth fell with a dull sound upon their coffins, hiding them from their eyes forever; but never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured, and unbounded grief, as when Eliza was parted from her child. She broke from her place in the line of women, and rushing down where Emily was standing, caught her in her arms. The child, sensible of some impending danger, instinctively fastened her hands around her mother's neck, and nestled her little head upon her bosom. Freeman sternly ordered her to be quiet, but she did not heed him. He caught her by the arm and pulled her rudely, but she only clung the closer to the child.... She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her.... unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. Yes, he would take the nonsense out of her pretty quick - if he didn't, might he be dead. Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it."
Solomon Northup was sold to William Ford, a man who owned a farm in Rapides Parish in Louisiana. He later recalled: " In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness."
Solomon Northup worked on William Ford's looms. "At this time one John M. Tibeats, a capenter, came to the opening to do some work on master's house. I was directed to quit the looms and assist him. For two weeks I was in his company, planing and matching boards for ceiling, a plastered room being a rare thing in the parish of Avoyelles. John M. Tibeats was the opposite of Ford in all respects. He was a small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful man. He had no fixed residence that I ever heard of, but passed from one plantation to another, wherever he could find employment. He was without standing in the community, not esteemed by white men, nor even respected by slaves. He was ignorant, withal, and of a revengeful disposition. He left the parish long before I did, and I know not whether he is at present alive or dead. Certain it is, it was a most unlucky day for me that brought us together. During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days."
In 1842 Northup was sold to Tibeats: "At the time of my sale to Tibeats, the price agreed to be given for me being more than the debt, Ford took a chattel mortgage of four hundred dollars. I am indebted for my life, as will hereafter be seen, to that mortgage. I bade farewell to my good friends at the opening, and departed with my new master Tibeats. We went down to the plantation on Bayou Boeuf, distant twenty-seven miles from the Pine Woods, to complete the unfinished contract. Bayou Boeuf is a sluggish, winding stream - one of those stagnant bodies of water common in that region, setting back from Red River. It stretches from a point not far from Alexandra, in a south-easterly direction, and following its tortuous course, is more than fifty miles in length. Large cotton and sugar plantations line each shore, extending back to the borders of interminable swamps. It is alive with aligators, rendering it unsafe for swine, or unthinking slave children to stroll along its banks."
On his arrival at Bayou Boeuf, near Marksville, Louisiana, he met up with his old friend Eliza: "She had grown feeble and emaciated, and was still mourning for her children. She asked me if I had forgotten them, and a great many times inquired if I still remembered how handsome little Emily was - how much Randall loved her - and wondered if they were living still, and where the darlings could then be. She had sunk beneath the weight of an excessive grief. Her drooping form and hollow cheeks too plainly indicated that she had well nigh reached the end of her weary road."
On one occasion he got into an argument with Tibeats: "But he interrupted me with such a flood of curses that I was unable to finish the sentence. At length he ran towards the house, and going to the piazza, took down one of the overseer's whips. The whip had a short wooden stock, braided over with leather, and was loaded at the butt. The lash was three feet long, or thereabouts, and made of raw-hide strands. At first I was somewhat frightened, and my impulse was to run. There was no one about except Rachel, the cook, and Chapin's wife, and neither of them were to be seen. The rest were in the field. I knew he intended to whip me, and it was the first time any one had attempted it since my arrival at Avoyelles. I felt, moreover, that I had been faithful - that I was guilty of no wrong whatever, and deserved commendation rather than punishment. My fear changed to anger, and before he reached me I had made up my mind fully not to be whipped, let the result be life or death. Winding the lash around his hand, and taking hold of the small end of the stock, he walked up to me, and with a malignant look, ordered me to strip."
Solomon Northup refused: "I was about to say something further in justification, but with concentrated vengeance, he sprang upon me, seizing me by the throat with one hand, raising the whip with the other, in the act of striking. Before the blow descended, however, I had caught him by the collar of the coat, and drawn him closely to me. Reaching down, I seized him by the ankle, and pushing him back with the other hand, he fell over on the ground. Putting one arm around his leg, and holding it to my breast, so that his head and shoulders only touched the ground, I placed my foot upon his neck. He was completely in my power. My blood was up. It seemed to course through my veins like fire. In the frenzy of my madness I snatched the whip from his hand. He struggled with all his power; swore that I should not live to see another day; and that he would tear out my heart. But his struggles and his threats were alike in vain. I cannot tell how many times I struck him. Blow after blow fell fast and heavy upon his wriggling form. At length he screamed - cried murder - and at last the blasphemous tyrant called on God for mercy. But he who had never shown mercy did not receive it. The stiff stock of the whip warped round his cringing body until my right arm ached. Until this time I had been too busy to look about me. Desisting for a moment, I saw Mrs. Chapin looking from the window, and Rachel standing in the kitchen door. Their attitudes expressed the utmost excitement and alarm. His screams had been heard in the field. Chapin was coming as fast as he could ride. I struck him a blow or two more, then pushed him from me with such a well-directed kick that he went rolling over on the ground. Rising to his feet, and brushing the dirt from his hair, he stood looking at me, pale with rage. We gazed at each other in silence. Not a word was uttered until Chapin galloped up to us."
Chapin asked Northup what was going on: "Master Tibeats wants to whip me for using the nails you gave me." Chapin confirmed Northup's story: "I am overseer here... I told Platt to take them and use them, and if they were not of the proper size I would get others on returning from the field. It is not his fault. Besides, I shall furnish such nails as I please. I hope you will understand that, Mr. Tibeats." Northup later recalled: "Tibeats made no reply, but, grinding his teeth and shaking his fist, swore he would have satisfaction, and that it was not half over yet. Thereupon he walked away, followed by the overseer, and entered the house, the latter talking to him all the while in a suppressed tone, and with earnest gestures."
After Chapin left Tibeats returned with two of his friends, Cook and Ramsay, who were overseers from neighboring plantations. "One of his companions then stepped forward, swearing if I made the least resistance he would break my head - he would tear me limb from limb - he would cut my black throat - and giving wide scope to other similar expressions. Perceiving any importunity altogether vain, I crossed my hands, submitting humbly to whatever disposition they might please to make of me. Thereupon Tibeats tied my wrists, drawing the rope around them with his utmost strength. Then he bound my ankles in the same manner. In the meantime the other two had slipped a cord within my elbows, running it across my back, and tying it firmly. It was utterly impossible to move hand or foot. With a remaining piece of rope Tibeats made an awkward noose, and placed it about my neck." They then discussed hanging Northup. "One proposed such a limb, extending from the body of a peach tree, near the spot where we were standing. His comrade objected to it, alleging it would break, and proposed another. Finally they fixed upon the latter. During this conversation, and all the time they were binding me, I uttered not a word. Overseer Chapin, during the progress of the scene, was walking hastily back and forth on the piazza. Rachel was crying by the kitchen door, and Mrs. Chapin was still looking from the window. Hope died within my heart. Surely my time had come. I should never behold the light of another day - never behold the faces of my children - the sweet anticipation I had cherished with such fondness. I should that hour struggle through the fearful agonies of death! None would mourn for me - none revenge me. Soon my form would be mouldering in that distant soil, or, perhaps, be cast to the slimy reptiles that filled the stagnant waters of the bayou! Tears flowed down my cheeks, but they only afforded a subject of insulting comment for my executioners."
Chapin eventually arrived on the scene. "Gentlemen, I have a few words to say. You had better listen to them. Whoever moves that slave another foot from where he stands is a dead man. In the first place, he does not deserve this treatment. It is a shame to murder him in this manner. I never knew a more faithful boy than Platt (Northup). You, Tibeats, are in the fault yourself. You are pretty much of a scoundrel, and I know it, and you richly deserve the flogging you have received. In the next place, I have been overseer on this plantation seven years, and, in the absence of William Ford, am master here. My duty is to protect his interests, and that duty I shall perform. You are not responsible - you are a worthless fellow. Ford holds a mortgage on Platt of four hundred dollars. If you hang him he loses his debt. Until that is canceled you have no right to take his life. You have no right to take it any way. There is a law for the slave as well as for the white man. You are no better than a murderer. As for you (addressing Cook and Ramsay) - begone! If you have any regard for your own safety, I say, begone."
Tibeats continued to treat Northup badly and eventually decided to runaway back to his former owner, William Ford: "Presently, looking up the bayou, I saw Tibeats and two others on horse-back, coming at a fast gait, followed by a troop of dogs. There were as many as eight or ten. Distant as I was, I knew them. They belonged on the adjoining plantation. The dogs used on Bayou Boeuf for hunting slaves are a kind of blood-hound, but a far more savage breed than is found in the Northern States. They will attack a negro, at their master's bidding, and cling to him as the common bull-dog will cling to a four footed animal. Frequently their loud bay is heard in the swamps, and then there is speculation as to what point the runaway will be overhauled - the same as a New York hunter stops to listen to the hounds coursing along the hillsides, and suggests to his companion that the fox will be taken at such a place. I never knew a slave escaping with his life from Bayou Bouef. One reason is, they are not allowed to learn the art of swimming, and are incapable of crossing the most inconsiderable stream. In their flight they can go in no direction but a little way without coming to a bayou, when the inevitable alternative is presented, of being drowned or overtaken by the dogs. In youth I had practiced in the clear streams that flow through my native district, until I had become an expert swimmer, and felt at home in the watery element."
Solomon Northup was eventually sold to Edwin Epps: "Master Epps was a large, portly, heavybodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions. He has blue eyes, a fair complexion, and is a full six feet high. He has the sharp, inquisitive expression of a jockey. His manners are repulsive and coarse, and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education. He has the faculty of saying most provoking things, in that respect even excelling old Peter Tanner. At the time I came into his possession, Edwin Epps was fond of the bottle, his 'sprees' sometimes extending over the space of two whole weeks... He had been a driver and overseer in his younger years, but at this time was in possession of a plantation on Bayou Huff Power, two and a half miles from Holmesville, eighteen from Marksville, and twelve from Cheneyville. It belonged to Joseph B. Roberts, his wife's uncle, and was leased by Epps. His principal business was raising cotton."
Northup worked for Edwin Epps on his cotton plantation: "In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. At this time each slave is presented with a sack. A strap is fastened to it, which goes over the neck, holding the mouth of the sack breast high, while the bottom reaches nearly to the ground. Each one is also presented with a large basket that will hold about two barrels. This is to put the cotton in when the sack is filled. The baskets are carried to the field and placed at the beginning of the rows. When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty. An ordinary day's work is two hundred pounds. A slave who is accustomed to picking, is punished, if he or she brings in a less quantity than that."
Solomon Northup eventually met a carpenter named Samuel Bass. He had previously lived in Canada and was a strong opponent of slavery and promised Northup he would help him to obtain freedom. In 1840 the Governor of New York, Washington Hunt had passed a law to provide legal and financial assistance in order to recover any African-American residents who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. The message eventually reached the lawyer Henry B. Northup, who was part of the family from which Solomon took his name. He now travelled to Louisiana and managed to get him released in early 1853.
Solomon Northup published an account of his time as a slave, Twelve Years a Slave in 1853. He became very involved in the campaign against slavery and gave a large number of lectures about his experiences as a slave. He also worked with the Underground Railroad in helping those fleeing slavery to reach Canada. He later disappeared from public life and is thought to have died around 1863.
In 2012 Steve McQueen made a film, 12 Years a Slave, based on the book written by Solomon Northup. Written by John Ridley and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Paul Dano (John Tibeats), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Brad Pitt (Samuel Bass), Paul Giamatti (Theophilus Freeman), Sarah Paulson (Mary Epps) and Quvenzhané Wallis (Margaret Northup). The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on 30th August, 2013. The film began its release in the US on 18th October, 2013, and the UK on 10th January, 2014.
Though born a slave, and laboring under the disadvantages to which my unfortunate race is subjected, my father was a man respected for his industry and integrity, as many now living, who well remember him, are ready to testify. He was accustomed to speak to us of his early life; and although at all times cherishing the warmest emotions of kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a bondsman, he nevertheless comprehended the system of Slavery, and dwelt with sorrow on the degradation of his race.
He endeavored to imbue our minds with sentiments of morality, and to teach us to place our, trust and confidence in Him who regards the humblest as well as the highest of his creatures. In the church yard at Sandy Hill, an humble stone marks the spot where he reposes, after having worthily performed the duties appertaining to the lowly sphere wherein God had appointed him to walk.
His name was James H. Burch, as I learned afterwards - a well-known slave-dealer in Washington; and then, or lately connected in business, as a partner, with Theophilus Freeman, of New Orleans. The person who accompanied him was a simple lackey, named Ebenezer Radburn, who acted merely in the capacity of turnkey. Both of these men still live in Washington, or did, at the time of my return through that city from slavery in January last.
The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.
An iron-bound door led into an adjoining cell, or vault, wholly destitute of windows, or any means of admitting light. The door, through which Burch and Radburn entered, led through a small passage, up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high, immediately in rear of a building of the same width as itself. The yard extended rearward from the house about thirty feet. In one part of the wall there was a strongly ironed door, opening into a narrow, covered passage, leading along one side of the house into the street. The doom of the colored man, upon whom the door leading out of that narrow passage closed, was sealed. The top of the wall supported one end of a roof, which ascended inwards, forming a kind of open shed. Underneath the roof there was a crazy loft all round, where slaves, if so disposed, might sleep at night, or in inclement weather seek shelter from the storm. It was like a farmer's barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.
The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol.
Such is a correct description as it was in 1841, of Williams' slave pen in Washington, in one of the cellars of which I found myself so unaccountably confined.
"Well, my boy, how do you feel now?" said Burch, as he entered through the open door. I replied that I was sick, and inquired the cause of my imprisonment. He answered that I was his slave - that he had bought me, and that he was about to send me to New Orleans. I asserted, aloud and boldly, that I was a freeman - a resident of Saratoga, where I had a wife and children, who were also free, and that my name was Northup. But I would not be silent, and denounced the authors of my imprisonment, whoever they might be, as unmitigated villains.
Finding he could not quiet me, he flew into a towering passion. With blasphemous oaths, he called me a black liar, a runaway from Georgia, and every other profane and vulgar epithet that the most indecent fancy could conceive.
In the first place we were required to wash thoroughly, and those with beards, to shave. Freeman charged us to remember our places; exhorted us to appear smart and lively, - sometimes threatening, and again, holding out various inducements. During the day he exercised us in the art of "looking smart," and of moving to our places with exact precision.
After being fed, in the afternoon, we were again paraded and made to dance. Bob, a colored boy, who had some time belonged to Freeman, played on the violin. Standing near him, I made bold to inquire if he could play the "Virginia Reel." He answered he could not, and asked me if I could play. Replying in the affirmative, he handed me the violin. I struck up a tune, and finished it. Freeman ordered me to continue playing, and seemed well pleased, telling Bob that I far excelled him - a remark that seemed to grieve my musical companion very much.
Next day many customers called to examine Freeman's "new lot." The latter gentleman was very loquacious, dwelling at much length upon our several good points and qualities. He would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase. Sometimes a man or woman was taken back to the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely. Scars upon a slave's back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale.
One old gentleman, who said he wanted a coachman, appeared to take a fancy to me. From his conversation with Burch, I learned he was a resident in the city. I very much desired that he would buy me, because I conceived it would not be difficult to make my escape from New Orleans on some northern vessel. Freeman asked him fifteen hundred dollars for me. The old gentleman insisted it was too much, as times were very hard. Freeman, however, declared that I was sound and healthy, of a good constitution, and intelligent. He made it a point to enlarge upon my musical attainments. The old gentleman argued quite adroitly that there was nothing extraordinary about the ******, and finally, to my regret, went out, saying he would call again. During the day, however, a number of sales were made. David and Caroline were purchased together by a Natchez planter. They left us, grinning broadly, and in the most happy state of mind, caused by the fact of their not being separated. Lethe was sold to a planter of Baton Rouge, her eyes flashing with anger as she was led away.
The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor, and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her. He would not have such work - such snivelling; and unless she ceased that minute, he would take her to the yard and give her a hundred lashes. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her - all the while her tears falling in the boy's face like rain.
If it had not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It was my companion - the friend of my bosom - triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft melodious consolations when I was sad...
On one occasion I was present at a dance, when a roving herd from Texas had encamped in their village. The entire carcass of a deer was roasting before a large fire, which threw its light a long distance among the trees under which they were assembled. When they had formed in a ring, men and squaws alternately, a sort of Indian fiddle set up an indescribable tune. It was a continuous, melancholy kind of wavy sound, with the slightest possible variation. At the first note, if indeed there was more than one note in the whole tune, they circled around, trotting after each other, and giving utterance to a guttural, sing-song noise, equally as nondescript as the music of the fiddle. At the end of the third circuit, they would stop suddenly, whoop as if their lungs would crack, then break from the ring, forming in couples, man and squaw, each jumping backwards as far as possible from the other, then forwards - which graceful feat having been twice or thrice accomplished, they would form in a ring, and go trotting round again. The best dancer appeared to be considered the one who could whoop the loudest, jump the farthest, and utter the most excruciating noise. At intervals, one or more would leave the dancing circle, and going to the fire, cut from the roasting carcass a slice of venison.
Our master's name was William Ford. He resided then in the "Great Pine Woods," in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana.... Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.
As the day began to open, Tibeats came out of the house to where I was, hard at work. He seemed to be that morning even more morose and disagreeable than usual. He was my master, entitled by law to my flesh and blood, and to exercise over me such tyrannical control as his mean nature prompted; but there was no law that could prevent my looking upon him with intense contempt. I despised both his disposition and his intellect. I had just come round to the keg for a further supply of nails, as he reached the weaving-house.
"I thought I told you to commence putting on weather-boards this morning," he remarked.
"Yes, master, and I am about it," I replied.
"Where?" he demanded.
"On the other side," was my answer.
He walked round to the other side, examined my work for a while, muttering to himself in a fault-finding tone.
"Didn't I tell you last night to get a keg of nails of Chapin?" he broke forth again.
"Yes, master, and so I did; and overseer said he would get another size for you, if you wanted them, when he came back from the field."
Tibeats walked to the keg, looked a moment at the contents, then kicked it violently. Coming towards me in a great passion, he exclaimed,
"G-d d--n you! I thought you knowed something."
I made answer: "I tried to do as you told me, master. I didn't mean anything wrong. Overseer said - " But he interrupted me with such a flood of curses that I was unable to finish the sentence. The lash was three feet long, or thereabouts, and made of raw-hide strands.
At first I was somewhat frightened, and my impulse was to run. My fear changed to anger, and before he reached me I had made up my mind fully not to be whipped, let the result be life or death.
Winding the lash around his hand, and taking hold of the small end of the stock, he walked up to me, and with a malignant look, ordered me to strip.
"Master Tibeats, said I, looking him boldly in the face, "I will not." I was about to say something further in justification, but with concentrated vengeance, he sprang upon me, seizing me by the throat with one hand, raising the whip with the other, in the act of striking. The stiff stock of the whip warped round his cringing body until my right arm ached.
Until this time I had been too busy to look about me. I struck him a blow or two more, then pushed him from me with such a well-directed kick that he went rolling over on the ground.
Rising to his feet, and brushing the dirt from his hair, he stood looking at me, pale with rage. Not a word was uttered until Chapin galloped up to us.
"What is the matter?" he cried out.
"Master Tibeats wants to whip me for using the nails you gave me", I replied.
"What is the matter with the nails?" he inquired, turning to Tibeats.
Tibeats answered to the effect that they were too large, paying little heed, however, to Chapin's question, but still keeping his snakish eyes fastened maliciously on me.
"I am overseer here", Chapin began. "I told Platt to take them and use them, and if they were not of the proper size I would get others on returning from the field. Tibeats."
Tibeats made no reply, but, grinding his teeth and shaking his fist, swore he would have satisfaction, and that it was not half over yet. Thereupon he walked away, followed by the overseer, and entered the house, the latter talking to him all the while in a suppressed tone, and with earnest gestures.
I remained where I was, doubting whether it was better to fly or abide the result, whatever it might be. Presently Tibeats came out of the house, and, saddling his horse, the only property he possessed besides myself, departed on the road to Chenyville....
Chapin then went to the kitchen, and calling Rachel out, conversed with her some time. Coming back, he again charged me with great earnestness not to run, saying my master was a rascal; that he had left on no good errand, and that there might be trouble before night. But at all events, he insisted upon it, I must not stir.
As I stood there, feelings of unutterable agony overwhelmed me. I was conscious that I had subjected myself to unimaginable punishment. The reaction that followed my extreme ebullition of anger produced the most painful sensations of regret. An unfriended, helpless slave - what could I do, what could I say, to justify, in the remotest manner, the heinous act I had committed, of resenting a white man's contumely and abuse. I tried to pray - I tried to beseech my Heavenly Father to sustain me in my sore extremity, but emotion choked my utterance, and I could only bow my head upon my hands and weep. For at least an hour I remained in this situation, finding relief only in tears, when, looking up, I beheld Tibeats, accompanied by two horsemen, coming down the bayou. They rode into the yard, jumped from their horses, and approached me with large whips, one of them also carrying a coil of rope.
"Cross your hands", commanded Tibeats, with the addition of such a shuddering expression of blasphemy as is not decorous to repeat.
"You need not bind me, Master Tibeats, I am ready to go with you anywhere", said I.
One of his companions then stepped forward, swearing if I made the least resistance he would break my head—he would tear me limb from limb - he would cut my black throat - and giving wide scope to other similar expressions. With a remaining piece of rope Tibeats made an awkward noose, and placed it about my neck.
"Now, then," inquired one of Tibeats' companions, "where shall we hang the ******?"
One proposed such a limb, extending from the body of a peach tree, near the spot where we were standing. Finally they fixed upon the latter.
During this conversation, and all the time they were binding me, I uttered not a word. I should that hour struggle through the fearful agonies of death! None would mourn for me—none revenge me. Soon my form would be mouldering in that distant soil, or, perhaps, be cast to the slimy reptiles that filled the stagnant waters of the bayou! Tears flowed down my cheeks, but they only afforded a subject of insulting comment for my executioners.
At length, as they were dragging me towards the tree, Chapin, who had momentarily disappeared from the piazza, came out of the house and walked towards us. He had a pistol in each hand, and as near as I can now recall to mind, spoke in a firm, determined manner, as follows:
"Gentlemen, I have a few words to say. I never knew a more faithful boy than Platt. You are no better than a murderer.
"As for you," addressing Cook and Ramsay, a couple of overseers from neighboring plantations, "as for you - begone! If you have any regard for your own safety, I say, begone."
Cook and Ramsay, without a further word, mounted their horses and rode away. Tibeats, in a few minutes, evidently in fear, and overawed by the decided tone of Chapin, sneaked off like a coward, as he was, and mounting his horse, followed his companions.
I remained standing where I was, still bound, with the rope around my neck. As soon as they were gone, Chapin called Rachel, ordering her to run to the field, and tell Lawson to hurry to the house without delay, and bring the brown mule with him, an animal much prized for its unusual fleetness. Presently the boy appeared.
"Lawson," said Chapin, "you must go to the Pine Woods. Tell your master Ford to come here at once - that he must not delay a single moment. Tell him they are trying to murder Platt. Now hurry, boy. Be at the Pine Woods by noon if you kill the mule."
Chapin stepped into the house and wrote a pass. When he returned, Lawson was at the door, mounted on his mule. Receiving the pass, he plied the whip right smartly to the beast, dashed out of the yard, and turning up the bayou on a hard gallop, in less time than it has taken me to describe the scene, was out of sight.
The stocks are formed of two planks, the lower one made fast at the ends to two short posts, driven firmly into the ground. At regular distances half circles are cut in the upper edge. The other plank is fastened to one of the posts by a hinge, so that it can be opened or shut down, in the same manner as the blade of a pocket-knife is shut or opened. In the lower edge of the upper plank corresponding half circles are also cut, so that when they close, a row of holes is formed large enough to admit a negro's leg above the ankle, but not large enough to enable him to draw out his foot. The other end of the upper plank, opposite the hinge, is fastened to its post by lock and key. The slave is made to sit upon the ground, when the uppermost prank is elevated, his legs, just above the ankles, placed in the sub-half circles, and shutting it down again, and locking it, he is held secure and fast. Very often the neck instead of the ankle is enclosed. In this manner they are held during the operation of whipping.
Warner, Will and Major, according to Tanner's account of them, were melon-stealing, Sabbath breaking ******s, and not approving of such wickedness, he felt it his duty to put them in the stocks. Handing me the key, himself, Myers, Mistress Tanner and the children entered the carriage and drove away to church at Cheneyville. When they were gone, the boys begged me to let them out. I felt sorry to see them sitting on the hot ground, and remembered my own sufferings in the sun. Upon their promise to return to the stocks at any moment they were required to do so, I consented to release them. Grateful for the lenity shown them, and in order in some measure to repay it, they could do no less, of course, than pilot me to the melon-patch. Shortly before Tanner's return, they were in the stocks again.
In about three-fourths of an hour several of the slaves shouted and made signs for me to run. Presently, looking up the bayou, I saw Tibeats and two others on horse-back, coming at a fast gait, followed by a troop of dogs. In youth I had practiced in the clear streams that flow through my native district, until I had become an expert swimmer, and felt at home in the watery element.
I stood upon the fence until the dogs had reached the cotton press. In an instant more, their long, savage yells announced they were on my track. Leaping down from my position, I ran towards the swamp. Fear gave me strength, and I exerted it to the utmost. Every few moments I could hear the yelpings of the dogs. They were gaining upon me. Every howl was nearer and nearer. Each moment I expected they would spring upon my back—expected to feel their long teeth sinking into my flesh. There were so many of them, I knew they would tear me to pieces, that they would worry me, at once, to death. I gasped for breath - gasped forth a half-uttered, choking prayer to the Almighty to save me - to give me strength to reach some wide, deep bayou where I could throw them off the track, or sink into its waters. Presently I reached a thick palmetto bottom. As I fled through them they made a loud rustling noise, not loud enough, however, to drown the voices of the dogs.
Continuing my course due south, as nearly as I can judge, I came at length to water just over shoe. The hounds at that moment could not have been five rods behind me. I could hear them crashing and plunging through the palmettoes, their loud, eager yells making the whole swamp clamorous with the sound. Hope revived a little as I reached the water. If it were only deeper, they might loose the scent, and thus disconcerted, afford me the opportunity of evading them. Luckily, it grew deeper the farther I proceeded - now over my ankles - now half-way to my knees - now sinking a moment to my waist, and then emerging presently into more shallow places. The dogs had not gained upon me since I struck the water. Evidently they were confused. Now their savage intonations grew more and more distant, assuring me that I was leaving them. Finally I stopped to listen, but the long howl came booming on the air again, telling me I was not yet safe. From bog to bog, where I had stepped, they could still keep upon the track, though impeded by the water. At length, to my great joy, I came to a wide bayou, and plunging in, had soon stemmed its sluggish current to the other side. There, certainly, the dogs would be confounded - the current carrying down the stream all traces of that slight, mysterious scent, which enables the quick-smelling hound to follow in the track of the fugitive.
After crossing this bayou the water became so deep I could not run. I was now in what I afterwards learned was the "Great Pacoudrie Swamp." It was filled with immense trees - the sycamore, the gum, the cotton wood and cypress, and extends, I am informed, to the shore of the Calcasieu river. For thirty or forty miles it is without inhabitants, save wild beasts - the bear, the wild-cat, the tiger, and great slimy reptiles, that are crawling through it everywhere. Long before I reached the bayou, in fact, from the time I struck the water until I emerged from the swamp on my return, these reptiles surrounded me. I saw hundreds of moccasin snakes. Every log and bog - every trunk of a fallen tree, over which I was compelled to step or climb, was alive with them. They crawled away at my approach, but sometimes in my haste, I almost placed my hand or foot upon them. They are poisonous serpents - their bite more fatal than the rattlesnake's. Besides, I had lost one shoe, the sole having come entirely off, leaving the upper only dangling to my ankle.
I saw also many alligators, great and small, lying in the water, or on pieces of floodwood. The noise I made usually startled them, when they moved off and plunged into the deepest places. Sometimes, however, I would come directly upon a monster before observing it. In such cases, I would start back, run a short way round, and in that manner shun them. Straight forward, they will run a short distance rapidly, but do not possess the power of turning. In a crooked race, there is no difficulty in evading them.
About two o'clock in the afternoon, I heard the last of the hounds. Probably they did not cross the bayou. Wet and weary, but relieved from the sense of instant peril, I continued on, more cautious and afraid, however, of the snakes and alligators than I had been in the earlier portion of my flight. Now, before stepping into a muddy pool, I would strike the water with a stick. If the waters moved, I would go around it, if not, would venture through.
At length the sun went down, and gradually night's trailing mantle shrouded the great swamp in darkness. Still I staggered on, fearing every instant I should feel the dreadful sting of the moccasin, or be crushed within the jaws of some disturbed alligator. The dread of them now almost equaled the fear of the pursuing hounds. The moon arose after a time, its mild light creeping through the overspreading branches, loaded with long, pendent moss. I kept traveling forwards until after midnight, hoping all the while that I would soon emerge into some less desolate and dangerous region. But the water grew deeper and the walking more difficult than ever. I perceived it would be impossible to proceed much farther, and knew not, moreover, what hands I might fall into, should I succeed in reaching a human habitation. Not provided with a pass, any white man would be at liberty to arrest me, and place me in prison until such time as my master should "prove property, pay charges, and take me away." I was an estray, and if so unfortunate as to meet a law-abiding citizen of Louisiana, he would deem it his duty to his neighbor, perhaps, to put me forthwith in the pound. Really, it was difficult to determine which I had most reason to fear - dogs, alligators or men!
After midnight, however, I came to a halt. Imagination cannot picture the dreariness of the scene. The swamp was resonant with the quacking of innumerable ducks! Since the foundation of the earth, in all probability, a human footstep had never before so far penetrated the recesses of the swamp. It was not silent now - silent to a degree that rendered it oppressive, - as it was when the sun was shining in the heavens. My midnight intrusion had awakened the feathered tribes, which seemed to throng the morass in hundreds of thousands, and their garrulous throats poured forth such multitudinous sounds - there was such a fluttering of wings - such sullen plunges in the water all around me—that I was affrighted and appalled. All the fowls of the air, and all the creeping things of the earth appeared to have assembled together in that particular place, for the purpose of filling it with clamor and confusion. Not by human dwellings - not in crowded cities alone, are the sights and sounds of life. The wildest places of the earth are full of them. Even in the heart of that dismal swamp, God had provided a refuge and a dwelling place for millions of living things.
The moon had now risen above the trees, when I resolved upon a new project. Thus far I had endeavored to travel as nearly south as possible. Turning about I proceeded in a north-west direction, my object being to strike the Pine Woods in the vicinity of Master Ford's. Once within the shadow of his protection, I felt I would be comparatively safe.
My clothes were in tatters, my hands, face, and body covered with scratches, received from the sharp knots of fallen trees, and in climbing over piles of brush and floodwood. My bare foot was full of thorns. I was besmeared with muck and mud, and the green slime that had collected on the surface of the dead water, in which I had been immersed to the neck many times during the day and night. Hour after hour, and tiresome indeed had they become, I continued to plod along on my north-west course. The water began to grow less deep, and the ground more firm under my feet. At last I reached the Pacoudrie, the same wide bayou I had swam while "outward bound." I swam it again, and shortly after thought I heard a cock crow, but the sound was faint, and it might have been a mockery of the ear. The water receded from my advancing footsteps - now I had left the bogs behind me - now - now I was on dry land that gradually ascended to the plain, and I knew I was somewhere in the "Great Pine Woods."
Edwin Epps had been a driver and overseer in his younger years, but at this time was in possession of a plantation on Bayou Huff Power, two and a half miles from Holmesville, eighteen from Marksville, and twelve from Cheneyville. His principal business was raising cotton, and inasmuch as some may read this book who have never seen a cotton field, a description of the manner of its culture may not be out of place.
The ground is prepared by throwing up beds or ridges, with the plough - back-furrowing, it is called. Oxen and mules, the latter almost exclusively, are used in ploughing. The women as frequently as the men perform this labor, feeding, currying, and taking care of their teams, and in all respects doing the field and stable work, precisely as do the ploughboys of the North.
The beds, or ridges, are six feet wide, that is, from water furrow to water furrow. A plough drawn by one mule is then run along the top of the ridge or center of the bed, making the drill, into which a girl usually drops the seed, which she carries in a bag hung round her neck. Behind her comes a mule and harrow, covering up the seed, so that two mules three slaves, a plough and harrow, are employed in planting a row of cotton. This is done in the months of March and April. Corn is planted in February. When there are no cold rains, the cotton usually makes its appearance in a week. In the course of eight or ten days afterwards the first hoeing is commenced. This is performed in part, also, by the aid of the plough and mule. The plough passes as near as possible to the cotton on both sides, throwing the furrow from it. Slaves follow with their hoes, cutting up the grass and cotton, leaving hills two feet and a half apart. This is called scraping cotton. In two weeks more commences the second hoeing. This time the furrow is thrown towards the cotton. Only one stalk, the largest, is now left standing in each hill. In another fortnight it is hoed the third time, throwing the furrow towards the cotton in the same manner as before, and killing all the grass between the rows. About the first of July, when it is a foot high or thereabouts, it is hoed the fourth and last time. Now the whole space between the rows is ploughed, leaving a deep water furrow in the center. During all these hoeings the overseer or driver follows the slaves on horseback with a whip, such as has been described. The fastest hoer takes the lead row. He is usually about a rod in advance of his companions. If one of them passes him, he is whipped. If one falls behind or is a moment idle, he is whipped. In fact, the lash is flying from morning until night, the whole day long. The hoeing season thus continues from April until July, a field having no sooner been finished once, than it is commenced again.
In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. The baskets are carried to the field and placed at the beginning of the rows.
When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.
An ordinary day's work is two hundred pounds. A slave who is accustomed to picking, is punished, if he or she brings in a less quantity than that. There is a great difference among them as regards this kind of labor. Some of them seem to have a natural knack, or quickness, which enables them to pick with great celerity, and with both hands, while others, with whatever practice or industry, are utterly unable to come up to the ordinary standard. Such hands are taken from the cotton field and employed in other business. Patsey, of whom I shall have more to say, was known as the most remarkable cotton picker on Bayou Boeuf. She picked with both hands and with such surprising rapidity, that five hundred pounds a day was not unusual for her.
Each one is tasked, therefore, according to his picking abilities, none, however, to come short of two hundred weight. I, being unskillful always in that business, would have satisfied my master by bringing in the latter quantity, while on the other hand, Patsey would surely have been beaten if she failed to produce twice as much.
The cotton grows from five to seven feet high, each stalk having a great many branches, shooting out in all directions, and lapping each other above the water furrow.
There are few sights more pleasant to the eye, than a wide cotton field when it is in the bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow.
Sometimes the slave picks down one side of a row, and back upon the other, but more usually, there is one on either side, gathering all that has blossomed, leaving the unopened boils for a succeeding picking. When the sack is filled, it is emptied into the basket and trodden down. It is necessary to be extremely careful the first time going through the field, in order not to break the branches off the stalks. The cotton will not bloom upon a broken branch. Epps never failed to inflict the severest chastisement on the unlucky servant who, either carelessly or unavoidably, was guilty in the least degree in this respect.
The Story Of Solomon Northup
SARATOGA SPRINGS NY - The author of the autobiography (and later the subject of the Oscar winning movie of the same name), Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup was born in Minerva in 1808 and later lived in Saratoga as a free black man with his wife and family. He worked at various Saratoga hotels, including the Grand Union Hotel, as a performer and a violinist.
In 1841, Northup was walking the streets of Saratoga one day looking for work when two white men approached him, offering him an opportunity to play his violin in NYC. He accepted, not suspecting that these men had evil intentions. After the trip to New York, Northup agreed to continue to travel with them to Washington D.C. In the capital, slavery was still legal at the time, meaning that Northup's freedom could easily come under question.
In Northup's autobiography, he describes how the men he'd originally trusted drugged him, kidnapped him, and held in a slave pen in Washington D.C. Without his free papers, Northup was considered an escaped slave. He was beaten and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he would remain for 12 long years before being rescued.
Through a collaborative effort lead by a Canadian man and Northup's wife (garnering support from residents of Saratoga, neighboring communities and Louisiana), Northup's freedom was eventually won in court, and he returned home. Northup tried to bring his captors to trial, but they were never prosecuted, partly because the law at the time stipulated that as a black man, Northup could not testify against a white man in court.
His memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, was published in 1853 and is still in print and widely popular. The book was recently adapted to the Oscar winning film of the same name and starred some of the decade's best actors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, and Lupita Nyong'o, who won an Oscar for her role as a young slave and friend of Solomon, Patsey.
The fateful conversation between Northup and the two men is said to have happened on the corner of Broadway and Congress Street right here in Saratoga Springs on a winter day back in 1841. Today, there is an historical sign commemorating Northup at the very place he was abducted. It reads: SOLOMON NORTHUP: Born 1808 a free man, lured from Saratoga, kidnapped and sold into slavery, 1841 Rescued, 1853. Author, "Twelve Years A Slave."
Saratoga Springs also celebrates Solomon Northup Day. Founded by Saratoga native Renee Moore in 1999, "Solomon Northup Day -- A Celebration of Freedom" is now celebrated annually every third Saturday in July (Northup's birth month). The day commemorates the triumph of the human spirit and is host to events at Skidmore College and throughout Saratoga.
Solomon Northup was a free Black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. I will allow him to tell parts of the story from his memoir that was published in 1853. Though the language – his or the editor’s – is stilted, it was the writing style of the times. Please excuse my cobbling together quotes that aren’t necessarily in succession, because I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the story.
Solomon was born in 1808 in Minerva, New York. His father had been a slave, but had been freed upon the death of his master. As a boy, Solomon worked on his father’s farm, and spent his free time reading and learning to play the violin.
In 1829, he married Anne Hampton. Solomon worked as a carpenter, and played the violin at dances and parties. His wife was often employed as a cook, and they made a good life together.
In the spring of 1832, they decided to take a piece of property and farm it. They started this project with one yoke of oxen, one hog, and one cow. “That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field.”
Anne “had become somewhat famous as a cook. During court weeks, and on public occasions, she was employed at high wages in the kitchen at Sherrill’s Coffee House. We always returned home with money in our pockets so that, with fiddling, cooking and farming, we soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance.”
In March 1834, they moved to Saratoga Springs, where Solomon drove a hack for two years.
After this time, I was generally employed through the visiting season, as also was Anne, in the United States Hotel. In winter seasons, I relied on my violin.
I continued to reside at Saratoga until the spring of 1841. The flattering anticipations which, seven years before, had seduced us from the quiet farm house on the east side of the Hudson, had not been realized. Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered.
At this time we were the parents of three children – Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. They filled our house with gladness. Their young voices were music in our ears. Their presence was my delight, and I clasped them to my bosom with as warm and tender love as if their clouded skins had been as white as snow.
Solomon’s story touched my heart, but I can’t believe a father would refer to his children in this way, as having “clouded skins,” and that he loved them as if they were white. This disturbs me, but again, maybe it is a sign of the times. Was poor Solomon so brainwashed that he actually formed these thoughts of his own accord?
Or did the editor write those words? The editor’s name was David Wilson. I couldn’t discover any information about this man, but in the Editor’s Preface of the book about Solomon’s life, Twelve Years a Slave, the editor states:
Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips. In the accomplishment of that object, he trusts he has succeeded, notwithstanding the numerous faults of style and of expression it may be found to contain.
The last paragraph of the first chapter of the book says: “Thus far the history of my life presents nothing whatever unusual – nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world.”
In March 1841, Solomon was
walking about the village of Saratoga Springs, thinking to myself where I might obtain some present employment, until the busy season should arrive. Anne, as was her usual custom, had gone over to Sandy Hill, a distance of some twenty miles, to take charge of the culinary department at Sherrill’s Coffee House, during the session of the court. Elizabeth [his daughter], I think, had accompanied her. Margaret and Alonzo [their other two children] were with their aunt in Saratoga.
Solomon met two white men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who claimed they worked for a traveling circus and were on their way to rejoin it in Washington, DC. As they traveled, they were staging exhibitions to draw crowds to the circus.
When they learned that Solomon played the violin,
they remarked that they had found much difficulty in procuring music for their entertainments, and that if I would accompany them as far as New York, they would give me one dollar for each day’s services, and three dollars in addition for every night I played at their performances, besides sufficient to pay the expenses of my return from New York to Saratoga.
Needing the money for his family, Solomon accepted immediately. Believing he would only be gone a day or two, he did not tell his family that he was leaving.
When they reached New York,
I supposed my journey was at an end and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga. Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington. They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north. They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them… I finally concluded to accept the offer.
Though Solomon was a free black man in New York state, slavery was still legal in the District of Columbia. Free blacks traveling through slave states had to carry papers to prove that they were free or face the possibility of being accused of being a runaway slave. His companions convinced Solomon to go to the court and get papers certifying his free status. They arrived in Washington just after President William Henry Harrison died. Brown and Hamilton wanted to pay their respects by attending the funeral procession the following day, so Solomon went along. The three men spent the rest of the afternoon in a saloon.
They would pour out a glass and hand it to me. Toward evening, I began to experience most unpleasant sensations. I felt extremely ill. Brown and Hamilton advised me to retire. In a short time I became thirsty. My lips were parched. I found the way at last to a kitchen in the basement, where I drank two glasses of water… but by the time I reached my room again, the same burning desire of drink had returned.
In the course of an hour or more, I was conscious of someone entering my room. Whether Brown and Hamilton were among them, is a mere matter of conjecture. I only remember that I was told that it was necessary to go to a physician and procure medicine. From that moment I was insensible.
When Solomon finally awoke, he found himself alone in the darkness.
I was hand cuffed. Around my ankles also were a pair of heavy fetters. One end of a chain was fastened to a large ring in the floor. Where was I? Where were Brown and Hamilton? I had not only been robbed of liberty, but my money and free papers were also gone! Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible.
Outside the cell where Solomon was being held was
a small passage that led up a flight of steps into a yard, surrounded by a brick wall ten or twelve feet high. It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.
The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. Within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol.
Solomon soon learned that he was being held in a slave pen owned by a man named James Burch, who informed Solomon that he was to assume the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia. When Solomon insisted again and again that he was free, Burch ordered the paddle and cat-o-nine-tails to be brought in. The paddle was a piece of hardwood board, 18″ or 19″ long. The cat was a large rope of many strands—the strands unraveled, and a knot tied at the extremity of each.
roughly divested of my clothing. My feet were still fastened to the floor. Drawing me over a bench, face downwards, Burch’s assistant placed his heavy foot upon the fetters between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me.
He stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed. When he was tired, he would stop and repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. At length, the paddle broke. He seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other.
At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. At length, his assistant said that it was useless to whip me anymore—that I would be sore enough. Thereupon Burch desisted, saying that if I ever dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. I was left in the darkness as before.
Solomon was then shipped south by steamer to New Orleans, to another slave pen operated by Burch’s partner, Theophilius Freeman. Solomon was sold for $1000 to a devout Baptist by the name of William Ford, who brought Solomon to the Marksville area of Louisiana.
Ford was kind to his slaves. Solomon worked hard as a carpenter out of the respect for his owner, but he was too afraid to reveal his true identity to Ford. In the winter of 1842, Solomon was sold to John Tibeats, who was an evil master. Solomon fought against Tibeats while he was trying to whip him: a slave crime that was punishable by death. Ford interceded and forced Tibeats to sell Solomon to another owner.
Eventually Solomon became the property of Edwin Epps, who owned a cotton plantation, where slaves worked over 360 days a year and could be whipped for stopping to rest.
In the latter part of August begins the cotton picking season. Each slave is presented with a sack. A strap is fastened to it, which goes over the neck, holding the mouth of the sack breast high, while the bottom nearly reaches the ground. Each one is also presented with a large basket that will hold about two barrels. This is to put the cotton in when the sack is filled.
The slave picks down one side of a row and back upon the other, gathering all that has blossomed, leaving the unopened bolls for a succeeding picking. When the sack is filled, it is emptied into the basket and trodden down. An ordinary day’s work is two hundred pounds. A slave who is accustomed to picking is punished if he or she brings in a less quantity than that.
The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night.
In 1845, the caterpillars almost totally destroyed the cotton crop throughout that region. There was little to be done, so the slaves were necessarily idle half the time. There came a rumor that wages were high, and laborers in great demand on the sugar plantations in St. Mary’s parish.
The planters, on the receipt of this intelligence, made up a drove of slaves to be sent down to St. Mary’s to work in the cane fields. In the month of September, there were one hundred and forty-seven collected, myself among the number. Of these about one-half were women.
It is the custom in Louisiana, as I presume it is in other slave States, to allow the slave to retain whatever compensation he may obtain for services performed on Sundays. In this way, only, are they able to provide themselves with any luxury or convenience whatever. I remained in St. Mary’s until the first of January, during which time my Sunday money amounted to ten dollars.
I met with other good fortune, for which I was indebted to my violin, my constant companion. There was a grand party of whites assembled, and I was employed to play for them, and so well pleased were the merry-makers with my performance, that a contribution was taken for my benefit, which amounted to seventeen dollars. With this sum in possession, I was looked upon by my fellows as a millionaire.
During these travels in sugar cane country, Solomon “was bold enough one day to present myself before the captain of a steamer, and beg permission to hide myself among the freight,” after he had overheard that the captain was “a native of the North. I did not relate to him the particulars of my history, but only expressed an ardent desire to escape from slavery to a free State. He pitied me, but said it would be impossible.”
Finally, early in 1852, his eleventh year of slavery, Solomon had a stroke of luck. Master Epps hired a carpenter to build him a new mansion. The carpenter’s name was Bass, and at that time he lived in Marksville, a nearby town. He was originally from Canada, and was not hesitant in stating his hatred for slavery.
He [Bass] was a large man, between forty and fifty years old, of light complexion and light hair. He was a bachelor, having no kindred living, as he knew of, in the world. He had lived in Marksville three or four years, and in the prosecution of his business as a carpenter, was quite extensively known. He was liberal to a fault and his many acts of kindness and transparent goodness of heart rendered him popular in the community.
The more I [Solomon] saw of him, the more I became convinced he was a man in whom I could confide. Nevertheless, my previous ill-fortune had taught me to be extremely cautious. It was not my place to speak to a white man except when spoken to.
In the early part of August he [Bass] and myself were at work alone in the house, the other carpenters having left, and Epps being absent in the field. Now was the time, if ever, to broach the subject and I resolved to do it, and submit to whatever consequences might ensue.
He [Bass] assured me earnestly he would keep every word I might speak to him a profound secret. It was a long story, I told him, but if he would see me that night after all were asleep, I would repeat it to him. About midnight, when all was still and quiet, I crept cautiously from my cabin, and silently entering the unfinished building, found him awaiting me.
Having told him my story I besought him to write to some of my friends at the North, acquainting them with my situation, and begging them to forward free papers, or take such steps as they might consider proper to secure my release. He promised to do so, but dwelt upon the danger of such an act in case of detection, and now impressed upon me the great necessity of strict silence and secrecy.
When Bass next went to Marksville, he wrote letters to the people whose names Solomon had provided. One he directed to the Collector of Customs at New York, thinking that there must be a record of the free papers that Solomon had obtained while on the trip with Brown and Hamilton.
After this time we seldom spoke to, or recognized each other. The remotest suspicion that there was any secret understanding between us – never once entered the mind of Epps, or any other person, white or black, on the plantation.
At the end of four weeks, he (Bass) was again at Marksville, but no answer had arrived. I was sorely disappointed, but still reconciled myself with the reflection that sufficient length of time had not yet elapsed. Six, seven, eight, and ten weeks passed by, however, and nothing came.
Finally my master’s house was finished, and the time came when Bass must leave me. The night before his departure I was wholly given up to despair. I had clung to him as a drowning man clings to the floating spar. The generous heart of my friend and benefactor was touched with pity at the sight of my distress. He endeavored to cheer me up, promising to return the day before Christmas. He exhorted me to keep up my spirits.
Faithful to his word, the day before Christmas, just at night-fall, Bass came riding into the yard.
“How are you,” said Epps, shaking him by the hand, “glad to see you.”
“Quite well, quite well,” answered Bass.
They passed into the house together not, however, until Bass had looked at me significantly.
It wasn’t until early the next morning that Bass entered Solomon’s cabin to inform him that no letter had come.
“Oh, do write again, Master Bass,” I cried.
“No use,” Bass replied. I fear the Marksville post-master will mistrust something, I have inquired so often at his office. Too uncertain—too dangerous.”
“Then it is all over,” I exclaimed. “Oh, my God, how can I end my days here!”
“You’re not going to end them here,” Bass said. “I have a job or two on hand which can be completed by March or April. By that time I shall have a considerable sum of money, and then, I am going to Saratoga myself.”
Solomon was overjoyed and thankful to his friend for undertaking such a journey on his behalf. But, as it turned out, it would not be necessary.
Monday morning, the third of January, 1853, we were in the field. It was a raw, cold morning, such as is unusual in that region. Our conversation was interrupted by a carriage passing rapidly towards the house. Looking up, we saw two men approaching us through the cotton-field.
Bass’s letters had reached New York the previous September. One of the letters was forwarded to Solomon’s wife, Anne, who had asked the advice of a lawyer by the name of Henry Northup, who was a member of the family that once owned Solomon’s father. Henry discovered that a New York State Law passed in 1840 declared that if a free black resident was unlawfully enslaved they could be recovered.
Upon hearing this, the Governor of New York had appointed Henry Northup to go to Louisiana and bring Solomon home. The two men who approached Solomon in the cotton field that morning were Henry Northup and the local sheriff, in case Epps should try to prevent them from taking Solomon. He did, but it did him no good. Solomon was soon on his way home to his family and freedom.
Solomon’s history past that point is sketchy. It was reported that he became involved in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery in the northeastern United States. No known records about him exist after 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, and nothing is known about his death.
Researchers report that he disappeared in 1863 while in Boston giving lectures. Some say he may have been kidnapped or killed by persons unknown. Others feel that the sudden disappearance of such a well-known person would have been noticed. Maybe he died of natural causes, but he was only 55 years old.
His memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, simply states:
My narrative is at an end. I have no comments to make about the subject of slavery. Those who read this book may form their own opinions. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.
I’m sure there will be comments about my writing a post about a man, and I apologize for the lengthy article, but Solomon’s story touched my heart. And there is a very strong woman at the core of this tale, his wife Anne, who worked hard, raised their children, and carried on with life as best she could in Solomon’s absence—for many of those years not knowing what had happened to him.
Captivity &ndash The Early Years
While Brown and Merrill claimed that Solomon was a fugitive slave, it is unlikely that Birch cared one way or another he may well have known that Solomon was the victim of abduction. In any case, along with Solomon&rsquos jailer, Ebenezer Radburn, Birch beat the unfortunate slave to prevent him from saying he was a free man. Birch then claimed that Solomon was a slave from Georgia and kept him as property.
Solomon was forced to embark on a torturous journey by sea to New Orleans where a slave named Robert died of smallpox. Solomon and a number of other slaves also caught the disease. Solomon persuaded an English sailor named John Manning to send a message to a lawyer named Henry Northup, the son of the man who had released Mintus from slavery he was also Solomon&rsquos childhood friend. In 1840, the New York State Legislature passed a law that provided financial assistance for the recovery of free people who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. While Henry wanted to help, he had no idea where Solomon was.
Birch&rsquos partner, Theophilus Freeman, sold Solomon at the New Orleans slave market. Now, Solomon was owned by a man named William Prince Ford who was apparently a kind and caring man who treated his slaves with consideration. Solomon wrote that the influences around Ford &ldquoblinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery.&rdquo
Solomon helped Ford with his dilemma of moving timber from the farm onto the market by using his carpentry skills to build looms. However, Ford was in severe financial difficulties and had to sell 18 of his slaves. While 17 were sold to a man named Compton, Northup could not pick cotton, so he was sold to a tradesman named John M. Tibaut. As hard as it was to be transplanted from his life of freedom into slavery, things were about to get a lot worse for Solomon.
The Cultural Significance of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave
Drugged and beaten, Solomon Northup was illegally kidnapped from his hometown in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and taken to Washington, D.C. in 1841. He woke up in the slave pen where he was sadistically remade from a black free man in the North into a slave in the South. Questioning his fate, Northup asked, “could it be possible that I was thousands of miles from home—that I had been chained and beaten without mercy—that I was even herded with a drove of slaves, a slave myself? 1 Detailing his transformation into “chattel” property, Northup recollected that the slave trader, “would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase.” 2 Forced to accept his new-found status as a captured slave, Solomon Northup was sold “down river” to Louisiana and labored for twelve years, toiling on cotton and sugar plantations in the South.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Like in the movie, the real Solomon Northup was tricked and sold into slavery in 1841 and did not regain his freedom until January 3, 1853.
Was Solomon Northup married with two children?
In researching the 12 Years a Slave true story, we discovered that Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton on Christmas Day, 1828. Unlike the movie, they had three children together, not two. Their daughter Margaret and son Alonzo are portrayed in the movie, while their other child, Elizabeth, was omitted. At the time of the kidnapping, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo were 10, 8 and 5, respectively.
Left: From back to front, actors Kelsey Scott, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler portray the Northup family in the movie. Right: Solomon Northup is reunited with his wife and children at the end of his 1853 memoir.
While enslaved, did Solomon Northup pleasure a woman he discovered was in bed with him?
No, the flash-forward scene that unfolds early in the 12 Years a Slave movie is entirely fictitious and was created by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley. "I just wanted a bit of tenderness&mdashthe idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she's climaxed, she's back where she was. She's back in hell, and that's when she turns and cries."
Did Solomon Northup really play the violin?
Yes. During our investigation into the 12 Years a Slave true story, we learned that Solomon began playing the violin during the leisure hours of his youth, after he finished his main duty of helping his father on the farm. In his memoir, he calls the violin "the ruling passion of my youth," going on to say, "It has also been the source of consolation since, affording pleasure to the simple beings with whom my lot was cast, and beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate."
Did two men really trick Solomon into going to Washington, D.C. with them?
Yes. Solomon met the two men in the village of Saratoga Springs, New York. The men had heard that Solomon was an "expert player of the violin". They identified themselves using fake names and told him that they were part of a circus company that was looking for someone with his precise musical talent. The two men, later identified as Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill, asked Solomon to accompany them on a short journey to New York City and to participate with them in performances along the way. They only delivered one performance to a sparse crowd, and it consisted of Russell and Merrill performing somewhat elementary feats like tossing balls, frying pancakes in a hat, ventriloquism and causing invisible pigs to squeal.
Once in New York City, Russell and Merrill encouraged Solomon to go to Washington, D.C. with them, reasoning that the circus would pay him high wages, and since it was the summer season, the troupe would be traveling back north anyway.
Did Solomon's kidnappers really drug him?
As he indicated in his autobiography, the real Solomon Northup is not positive that he was in fact drugged, however, he remembers various clues that led him to that conclusion. He had spent the day with Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell making stops at a number of saloons in Washington, D.C. They were observing the festivities that were part of the great funeral procession of General Harrison. At the saloons, the two men would serve themselves, and they would then pour a glass and hand it to Solomon. As he states in his memoir, he did not become intoxicated.
By late afternoon, he fell ill with a severe headache and nausea. His sickness progressed until he was insensible by evening. He was unable to sleep and was stricken with severe thirst. He recalls several people entering the room where he had been staying. They told him that he needed to come with them to see a physician. Shortly after leaving his room and heading into the streets, his memory escapes him and the next thing he remembers is waking up handcuffed and chained to the floor of the Williams Slave Pen in Washington, D.C.
Left: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up handcuffed and chained to the floor of a Washington, D.C. slave pen in the movie. Right: An 1860s photograph of a real Alexandria, Virginia slave pen.
Why didn't Solomon tell anyone that he was a free man?
Shortly after his kidnapping, Solomon did try to tell the slave dealer James H. Birch (spelled "Burch" in the book and movie) that he was a free man. Like in the movie, he also told Birch where he was from and asked Birch to remove the irons that were shackling him. The slave dealer refused and instead called upon another man, Ebenezer Rodbury, to help hold Solomon down by his wrists. To suppress Solomon's claims of being a free man, Birch whipped him with a paddle until it broke and then with a cat-o'-nine tails, delivering a severe number of lashes. Solomon addresses the lashings in his memoir, "Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!" Following the lashings, Birch told Solomon that he would kill him if he told anyone else that he was a free man.
Below is a picture of Birch's slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. It had been used to house slaves being shipped from Northern Virginia to Louisiana. The building still stands today and is currently home to the offices of the Northern Virginia Urban League. It should be noted again that this is not the D.C. slave pen where Solomon was held. Solomon was held at the Williams Slave Pen (aka The Yellow House), which was the most notorious slave pen in the capital. The Williams Slave Penn was located at roughly 800 Independence Avenue SW, one block from the Capitol, and is now the site of the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Left: The real James H. Birch's slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. Right: Actor Christopher Berry portrays slave dealer Birch (spelled "Burch" in the movie).
Did a sailor really murder one of the slaves on the ship?
No. The real Solomon Northup did come up with a plan to take over the brig Orleans along with two other slaves, Arthur and Robert. However, unlike what happens in the film, Robert did not die after being stabbed when he came to the defense of Eliza, who in the movie is on the verge of being raped by a sailor. Instead, Robert died from smallpox and the plan to take over the ship was scrapped.
Was Solomon Northup's name really changed?
Yes. Evidence discovered while researching the true story behind 12 Years a Slave confirmed that Solomon Northup's name was in fact changed to Platt Hamilton. An official record of the name appears on the April 1841 manifest of the brig Orleans, the ship that carried Northup southward from the Port of Richmond, Virginia to the Port of New Orleans, Louisiana. The portion of the ship's manifest that displays the name "Platt Hamilton" is pictured below. -Ancestry.com
Solomon Northup's slave name Platt Hamilton appears on the April 1841 ship manifest of the brig Orleans, supporting his story.
Is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) accurately portrayed in the movie?
No. The movie paints William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a hypocrite, contradicting his Christian sermons by overlaying them with his slave Eliza's agonizing screams. In his memoir, Solomon Northup offers the utmost words of kindness for his former master, stating that "there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford." Northup blames William Ford's circumstances and upbringing for his involvement in slavery, "The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery." He calls the real William Ford a "model master", going on to write, "Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness."
Did Northup really get into a scuffle with Tibeats over a set of nails?
Yes. Like in the movie, the scuffle over the nails resulted in a carpenter named John M. Tibeats trying to whip Northup, but Northup fended off the attack, grabbed the whip, and began to strike his attacker. Afterward, Tibeats fetched two overseers that he knew on neighboring plantations. The men bound Northup and put a noose around his neck. They led him out to a tree where they were going to hang him, but were stopped and chased off by Mr. Chapin, a just overseer who worked for William Ford. When Ford returned from a trip later that day, he personally cut the cord from Northup's wrists, arms, and ankles, and he slipped the noose from Northup's neck.
Not depicted in the movie, the 12 Years a Slave true story brings to light a second scuffle that Northup got into with Tibeats while Ford and Chapin were away, resulting in Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe. Fearing impending retaliation from Tibeats, that time he ran away. However, Northup returned to the plantation after being unable to survive on his own in the harshness of the surrounding swamps. Even though he was forgiven by Ford, the plantation owner decided to sell Northup in part to prevent any more feuds with Tibeats. To Northup's misfortune, he ended up being bought by a much crueler master, Edwin Epps.
Was Edwin Epps really as cruel as the movie portrays?
Yes. In fact, the real Edwin Epps was crueler than actor Michael Fassbender portrays him to be in the movie. In addition to Edwin Epps being overcome by "dancing moods", where he would force the exhausted slaves to dance, in real life, Epps also had his "whipping moods". Epps usually found himself in a "whipping mood" when he was drunk. He would drive the slaves around the yard and whip them for fun.
The real Edwin Epps house (left) prior to its restoration and relocation. The single story Louisiana cottage was less grand than the house shown in the movie. Northup helped to build the home for Epps' family.
Did Edwin Epps really obsess over his female slave Patsey?
Yes, but the movie puts more focus on Edwin Epps's alternating passion for and disgust with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) than Northup's memoir. In his book, the real Solomon Northup refers to Epps's "lewd intentions" toward Patsey, especially when he was intoxicated.
Did Edwin Epps really chase after Solomon with a knife?
Yes. In the movie, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fetches Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), he tells her not to look in Epps direction and to continue on walking. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who was half intoxicated and contemplating satisfying his lewd intentions toward Patsey, demands to know exactly what Solomon said to Patsey. When Solomon refuses to tell him, he chases after Solomon with a knife, eventually tripping over the fence of a pig pen. In the book, he does chase after Solomon with a knife, but there is no mention of him tripping over the fence.
Did Mistress Epps really encourage her husband to whip Patsey?
Yes. Despite Patsey having a remarkable gift for picking cotton quickly, she was one of the most severely beaten slaves. This was mainly due to Mistress Epps encouraging her husband Edwin to whip Patsey because, as Northup writes, Patsey had become the "slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress." Northup goes on to describe her as the "enslaved victim of lust and hate", with nothing delighting Mistress Epps more than seeing Patsey suffer. Northup states that it was not uncommon for Mistress Epps to hurl a broken bottle or billet of wood at Patsey's face.
As portrayed in the 12 Years a Slave movie, in his book Northup describes one of the whippings that Patsey received as being "the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness&mdashone I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror". It was during this whipping that Epps forced Northup to deliver the lashings. After Northup pleaded and reluctantly whipped Patsey more than forty times, he threw down the whip and refused to go any further. It was then that Epps picked up the whip and applied it with "ten-fold" greater force than Northup had.
Left: Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) pleads with her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Right: A drawing in Northup's 1853 memoir depicts the "staking out and flogging" of Patsey, who can be seen on the ground. Epps is shown directing Solomon to continue the lashings after Solomon throws down the whip and refuses.
Did Patsey really beg Solomon to end her life?
No. This pivotal, emotionally-charged scene is perhaps the movie's biggest blunder with regard to the true story. It was most likely unintentional and is the result of the filmmakers misreading a line in Northup's autobiography. In the book, Northup is discussing the suffering of Patsey, who was lusted for by her master and hated by his jealous wife.
Did Patsey and Mistress Shaw really talk over tea?
No. In the movie, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a plantation owner, have a conversation over tea. This scene was invented for the film. Director Steve McQueen wanted to give Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) a voice.
Did Armsby betray Northup by letting Epps know about Northup's letter to his friends in New York?
Yes. In his memoir, Northup describes Armsby as a man who came to the plantation looking to fill the position of overseer but was reduced to labor with the slaves. In an effort to better his role on the plantation, he divulged Northup's secret to Edwin Epps. When Epps confronted Northup, he denied ever writing the letter and Epps believed him.
Although it is not shown in the movie, this was not the first time that Solomon Northup tried to have someone help him send a letter home. When he was on the ship that brought him south, a sailor helped him mail a letter he'd written. That letter actually made it home to New York and was obtained by attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon's father's former master. Since Solomon was not yet aware of his final destination, he could not provide a location in the letter. Officials in New York told Henry that no action would be taken until they knew where to look for Solomon.
The book reveals that a sailor helped Solomon Northup send a letter home while he was on the ship south. The letter made it, but Solomon was unable to provide his location.
Was Brad Pitt's character, Samuel Bass, based on a real person?
Yes. Samuel Bass's portrayal in the 12 Years a Slave movie is very accurate to how Northup describes him in the book, including his argument with Edwin Epps. Much of what Bass (Brad Pitt) says during that scene is taken almost verbatim from the book, ". but begging the law's pardon, it lies. . There's a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet&mdashyes, Epps, there's a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it's a coming as sure as the Lord is just."
Did the real Samuel Bass help to free Northup?
Yes. Like in the movie, Samuel Bass, who also appears in Northup's autobiography, was influential in Northup's release. As the movie indicates, Samuel Bass was a Canadian who was in Louisiana doing carpentry work for Northup's owner, Edwin Epps. Northup began assisting Bass and eventually decided to confide in him after he learned that Bass was against slavery. After Solomon shared his story of being tricked and kidnapped into slavery, Samuel Bass became determined to help him, even vowing to travel to New York himself. Bass wrote letters on Solomon's behalf to various individuals back in New York. The first of these letters ended up being the one that set in motion the events that led to Solomon's release from slavery in early 1853. - Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave
Attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon's father's former master, rescued Solomon from slavery.
The letters written by Samuel Bass that were sent to New York eventually caught the attention of New York Whig attorney Henry B. Northup, who was a relative of Solomon's father's former master. Henry was a part of the family that took in Solomon's father Mintus after he was freed.
Realizing the injustice, Henry made the long journey south to Louisiana and successfully brokered a deal for Solomon's release. After he rescued Solomon, he returned home with him and fought to bring Solomon's kidnappers to justice. Henry was also instrumental in securing a publisher for the memoir that would tell Solomon's story, and in finding the ghost writer, David Wilson, who lived within five miles of Henry's home. Henry hoped that the book would alert the public to his case against Solomon's two kidnappers.
Were Solomon Northup's parents slaves?
Our exploration into the true story behind 12 Years a Slave brought to light the fact that Solomon's father Mintus Northup was a former slave who had been emancipated in approximately 1798. His mother had never been a slave. She was a mulatto and was three quarters white (her name is never mentioned in the book). Solomon was therefore born a free man in 1807, at a time when slavery still existed in New York. Solomon's father had been a slave to Capt. Henry Northup, a Loyalist who freed Mintus around 1798 as part of a provision in his will. Mintus took his master's surname.
What happened to Solomon Northup after he was freed?
With input from Northup, ghost writer David Wilson, an attorney and great orator, wrote the memoir.
Upon his return home to Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup shared his story and gave interviews to the local press. His story became well known in the North and he started to speak at abolitionist rallies. An 1855 New York State Census confirms that he had indeed returned to his wife Anne, as the two were together again. He also lists himself as a land owner and a carpenter.
In the hands of a ghost writer by the name of David Wilson (pictured), Northup started to provide input for his book. It was published around the middle of July, 1853, after just three and a half months of research, writing, and interviews by the white ghost writer Wilson, who was himself a prominent New York lawyer and author of two books about local history. Henry Northup, the attorney who helped to free Solomon, also contributed to the production of the book and encouraged its speedy publication in an effort to garner public interest in bringing Northup's kidnappers to trial.
Were Solomon Northup's kidnappers ever brought to justice?
No. With the help of public interest in Northup, partially as the result of his book, attorney Henry Northup set his sights on two men, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, who were believed to have played pivotal roles in the kidnapping. The two men were arrested but never convicted. Disagreements over where the case should be tried, New York or the District of Columbia, led to the decision over jurisdiction to be sent to the New York Supreme Court and then to the New York Court of Appeals. This was after three of the four counts against the two men had already been dropped since it was determined that these counts originated in Washington, D.C., not the state of New York.
During this time, the men in custody applied for release. Joseph Russell's bail was nominal and Alexander Merrill's bail was set at $800. The New York Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower courts, citing that the indictment legally could not be split, with one count being valid while the other three were ruled invalid due to issues over jurisdiction. In May of 1857, the case was discharged and the two men were never brought to trial. -Twelve Years a Slave - Dr. Sue Eakin Edition
When and how did Solomon Northup die?
Is it possible that Solomon Northup planned his kidnapping with the two men in order to split the profits?
Though the idea might seem far-fetched, there has always been some conjecture that Solomon Northup was a willing accomplice to his kidnappers, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. The theory was that Northup planned to split with Merrill and Russell the profits from being sold into slavery after he would either escape or have Merrill and Russell subsequently arrange for him to be freed. In a response to reader inquiries, a newspaper column that appeared in The Saratoga Press at the time goes as far as to raise the possibility that the case against Merrill and Russell was thrown out for such reasons.
"We would answer by saying that since the indictment was found, the District Attorney was placed in possession of facts that whilst proving their guilt in a measure, would prevent a conviction. To speak more plainly, it is more than suspected that Sol Northup was an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but that the purchaser was too sharp for him, and instead of getting the cash, he got something else."
According to the testimony of John S. Enos, Alexander Merrill had attempted this scenario earlier in his kidnapping career. Yet, with regard to Northup, no evidence was ever found to prove that he was involved in his own kidnapping and the events chronicled in his book Twelve Years a Slave have been widely accepted as being none other than the true story. -Twelve Years a Slave - Dr. Sue Eakin Edition
Watch two featurettes that include interviews with the actors and director Steve McQueen. View the 12 Years a Slave movie trailer.
This featurette, released just prior to the movie, features interviews by the director and actors as they reflect on Solomon Northup's autobiography and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance. The film's main stars are featured, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Alfre Woodard.
In this featurette released in conjunction with the movie, director Steve McQueen explains what drew him to the story. McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor share their thoughts on the real Solomon Northup, the history, the film and the character. The producers also weigh in.
12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in the North and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana, where he remained for 12 years until he was released. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup and Brad Pitt is a Canadian carpenter who befriends Northup. Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender both portray slave owners. The movie is based on Solomon Northup's autobiography Twelve Years a Slave published in 1853.
Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave” is one man’s fight for survival and freedom. Although he faced obstacles, suffered from disappointment, frustration and lived an absolute surrender and total subordination, he is a man of principle. He has never lost his dignity, his patience, his pride, his love and faithfulness to his wife and children and above all, he has never lost his faith. Despite all sorrows and pain, he drops the tears down his face, tears of happiness. He finally closed that chapter of his life and the unforgettable twelve years of slave. Finally, the most touching and beautiful scene in the movie comes. Solomon Northup reunites with his family and his grandson, Solomon Northup Staunton.
Solomon Northup's descendants proud
ROCHESTER -- Born a free man in upstate New York — then later kidnapped and sold into slavery — Solomon Northup's story, now a film, is not just entertainment for his Rochester-native descendants.
Hollywood's biopic about Northup, "12 Years a Slave," named after his 1853 memoir, details his treacherous journey through slavery from 1841 to 1853 on major Louisiana cotton plantations.
"My sufferings," Northup wrote: "I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!"
Northup was born in Minerva, N.Y., and worked as a successful musician, cab driver and carpenter in Saratoga Springs for years before his abduction in Washington, D.C. He worked on different plantations, owned by some he praised for their humanity and others he criticized for their cruelty.
"I read the book myself three times, and each time I had a different emotion, but overall, I'm very, very proud," said Kevin Linzy, 51, Northup's great-great-great-grandson. "I really want not just Rochester, but the world to know about Solomon Northup, what he did and what he stood for at that time."
The family learned about their history in the late 1990s after visiting Saratoga Springs for the annual Solomon Northup Day celebration, now held every July.
Northup's narrative presents a plethora of messages and lessons that his descendants believe could be placed in a modern context.
Solomon Northup’s decendants, from left, Melissa Archie, Deirdre Linzy and Kevin Linzy discuss their family’s history at their Rochester home. (Photo: Donyelle Davis/staff photographer )
"He constantly faced all kind of adversities, but at the same time, he knew who he was inside," said Melissa Archie, Northup's great-great-great-granddaughter. "He had faith that sooner or later (he would be free). I would like young people to take from that, that you could do anything you put your mind to."
The Linzys said they were not directly involved in the movie's production and found out about the film shortly after its release, but agreed that the movie's portrayal was powerful and authentic. They wish their grandmother, Victoria Northup Linzy Dunham, who died in 2007 at 98 years old, could have had a chance to see the film, which is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
"They didn't do the typical Hollywood-style and blow it out of proportion, they actually followed the book," said Deirdre Linzy. "Some of the scenes were really, really hard to watch."
Darren Wagner, Northup's great-great-great-great-grandson, read the book as a teenager and said he has learned lessons from it that he has taken with him throughout his life.
"As a younger black man, I will never be faced with any of those challenges or obstacles in my life that I can even imagine like what Grandpa Northup went through," he said. "So every challenge and obstacle that I do have, is somewhat nothing compared to his, so there is no reason that I can't accomplish or get past it."
History of Solomon Northup
To celebrate as we bring to light all the people involved in the struggle for freedom in the Americas and encourage a better understanding of freedom and justice through the eyes of the African-American experience past and present and encourage youth participation in the struggle for freedom throughout the world.
The mission of the event is to publicly acknowledge the contributions of Solomon Northup along with a testament to the peculiar circumstances that placed him in history
to give citizens an opportunity to appreciate first-hand how, in Solomon Northup’s case, and terrible circumstances, can lead to a greater benefit of positive change for the larger community and
to remember that the sacrifices made have strengthened our community so we must never forget.
Legacy of Solomon Northup
On his way back to New York, Northup visited Washington, D.C. again. An attempt was made to prosecute a dealer of enslaved people involved in his kidnapping years earlier, but the testimony of Solomon Northup was not allowed to be heard as he was Black man. And without his testimony, the case collapsed.
A lengthy article in the New York Times on January 20, 1853, headlined “The Kidnapping Case,” told the story of Northup’s plight and the thwarted attempt to seek justice. In the next few months, Northup worked with an editor, David Wilson, and wrote Twelve Years a Slave.
No doubt anticipating skepticism, Northup and Wilson added extensive documentation to the end of Northup’s account of his life as a an enslaved person. Affidavits and other legal documents attesting to the truth of the story added dozens of pages at the end of the book.
The publication of Twelve Years a Slave in May 1853 attracted attention. A newspaper in the nation’s capital, the Washington Evening Star, mentioned Northup in a blatantly racist item published with the headline “Handiwork of Abolitionists”:
Solomon Northup did not become a prominent figure in the North American 19th-century Black activist movement, and he seems to have lived quietly with his family in upstate New York. It is believed he died sometime in the 1860s, but by that time his fame had faded and newspapers did not mention his passing.
In her non-fiction defense of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published as The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe referred to Northup’s case. “The probability is that hundreds of free men and women and children are all the time being precipitated into slavery in this way,” she wrote.
Northup’s case was highly unusual. He was able, after a decade of trying, to find a way to communicate with the outside world. And it can never be known how many other free Black people were kidnapped into enslavement and were never heard from again.