News Articles, 1999
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Solomon's Wisdom
Solomon Northup was no Uncle Tom, no character in a novel by a white woman. He was a free black man, and his harrowing tale of kidnap, sadistic enslavement and salvation is the real thing.

By Michelle Genz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page F01

He drained the drink. Just one drink. The nausea was almost instantaneous. Then his head exploded in pain.

Solomon Northup's new friends led him from the tavern to the National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, where he had awakened that morning with the glorious sum of $43 in his pocket and a document proclaiming him a free black man in slave territory. The day had been almost dreamlike for the young man who had been raised on a farm. He and his white companions had wandered the Capitol's grounds like tourists, visited the White House and joined the throngs in the streets awaiting the funeral procession for President William Henry Harrison, who had died a month after taking office. Cannons fired in tribute, their concussive impact breaking windows in buildings nearby.

And then the drink. Just one. And he was being half-supported, half-dragged into his rented bed. He was desperately thirsty, but his head felt as if it were being torn off his shoulders. He couldn't move. Past midnight, near delirium, he sensed people entering the room. Voices, he did not know whose, told him they were taking him to a doctor. Through the pain, Northup perceived that he was led through an alley perpendicular to Pennsylvania Avenue, and that opposite, there was a light burning in a window. Walking toward the light was his last conscious sensation.

A medical historian would later conclude Northup had been doped by belladonna, laudanum or both. When he came to, he was in chains in utter darkness, alone in an underground cell. He had been handcuffed and propped on a bench, the iron fetters around his ankles locked to a heavy ring embedded in the floor. He tried to stand, but collapsed, his head throbbing still and his body weak. Reaching with his cuffed hands toward his pocket, he felt for his money and free papers. They were gone.

Understanding broke on him as had the nausea and headache, only the pain was far more penetrating, a hole in his being that swallowed both past and future. Northup had been duped. Drugged and sold into slavery by his new "friends." He had been a fool to trust them, and he would pay with the loss of his humanity.

As monumental, as illegal as it was, his tragedy was not uncommon. Carol Wilson, associate professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., documents more than 300 kidnappings of free blacks in her 1994 book "Freedom at Risk." Thousands more are presumed, she says, enough to have kept free black communities vigilant, and terrorized.

Only Northup preserved that terror in print. His pain, like that of the others, would have been invisible had he not survived 12 brutal years, engineered an unlikely rescue, then forced himself to recount his ordeal. "Twelve Years a Slave" is considered by historians to be among the most credible and telling contemporaneous portraits of American slavery, but otherwise largely forgotten. We know the fiction, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. But the authentic story, written by a black man, a bestseller of its day, has almost vanished from view. Even Northup's great-great-granddaughter, 80-year-old Lois Merkley of Auburn, N.Y., knew nothing about her ancestor until she was sent a copy of his book a couple of years ago.

Now the scholarship of a team from Union College in Schenectady is shining a light on Solomon Northup's bleak tale of the not-distant-enough American past. Four students and their professor, Clifford Brown, set out last summer to trace Northup's odyssey. They gathered photographs, family trees, bills of sale, maps and hospital records on a trail through New York, Washington and Louisiana -- enough documentary evidence to confirm Northup's remarkably detailed account. Their exhibit on Northup's life runs through March 14 at the college's Nott Memorial building. Until they began, not one of them had ever heard of Northup, though he had lived in a town barely 20 miles away.

To Join the Circus

Solomon Northup's train lurched into the six-year-old Washington station just before nightfall in late March 1841. He dusted the locomotive's black soot from his only jacket, grabbed his violin case and satchel, and helped his two companions with their three large trunks. He had quickly grown endeared to these solicitous fellows, who never missed a chance to praise him, and treated him with such respect. With total trust in their promises of high pay to play his violin, the 32-year-old Northup had followed them from his home in New York to Washington. If he felt a few stares as he toured the capital with his white hosts, Northup never remarked on it. Though it might well have been unusual to see whites playing host to a black man, they blended in with an integrated throng on busy Pennsylvania Avenue. The population of the city then was one-fourth black, with free blacks outnumbering slaves nearly 4 to 1. But there was reason to be wary: Washington City was one of the most lucrative sl ave markets in the nation.

Northup's false sense of security could owe in part to the fact that he had been born to freedom. He bore the surname of his father's master, who had treated his slaves humanely, and freed them in his will. The devotion between black and white Northups endured, a fact that for Solomon would prove providential.

In traveling south to work, he left behind his wife, Anne, and their three children. At various times, he had farmed, cut lumber, worked as a carpenter and played fiddle at dances in the surrounding villages. But in the winter of 1841, Northup was out of work. Walking through town one day, he met two fashionably dressed strangers. A mutual friend mentioned Northup's musical talent. The strangers were exultant. They said they worked for a circus in Washington. They were taking a break to travel, and staging shows here and there to pay their way. They were desperate for an accompaniest. Wouldn't Northup like to come along? They'd pay a dollar a day for him to follow them to New York City, plus three dollars each time he played for a performance.

Northup dashed home for a change of clothes and his fiddle. Stepping outside, he saw an elegant carriage awaiting him. Northup took the reins, "happy as I had ever been on any day in all my life." In Albany that night, Northup felt the first tinge of disillusionment. Their "show" amounted to juggling balls and a couple of magic tricks, with Solomon playing in the background. The take at the door was thin. By morning, the men talked only of getting back to Washington as quickly as possible. They hurried on to New York, never staging another show. But their real work commenced in earnest: persuading Northup to follow. The flattery was intense, and the proposed pay high. The circus, they promised, would be heading back north in a matter of days. Finally Northup agreed. The next morning, they advised him to get his free papers, as they would be traveling through a slave state. It was a ruse to reassure him, not that he needed reassurance. The cost of the papers -- $2 -- hardly seemed wort h it to Northup, "the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner."

Now, chained in the dark, he faced the consequences of his naivete. He had three miserable hours to consider it, then heard a key in the lock. Two men entered.

One was the keeper of this establishment, known as the Williams Slave Pen, on the corner of Seventh and South B Street, now Independence Avenue. The other was James H. Birch, prominent hotel owner, commander of the auxiliary guard of Washington's police force, and one of the city's most notorious slave traders. Birch had paid the "circus performers" $650 for Northup the night before at Sheckell's Tavern, just across the Mall on Constitution (ironically, the current location of the Federal Trade Commission). Birch told Northup he was sending him to New Orleans. Northup demanded that he be unchained. He was a free man, he said, threatening Birch with retribution if he did not comply. Birch flew into a rage.

"You're a black liar!" he bellowed. "You're a runaway from Georgia!"

The two men ripped off Northup's clothes, and forced him over the bench. The caretaker stomped his boot on the chain between Northup's handcuffs. Birch grabbed a hardwood paddle 20 inches long and nine inches wide, and began swatting Northup's naked back. When his arm ached with exertion, he asked Northup if he still insisted he was free. Northup would not recant his claim. Finally the paddle broke in Birch's hand. He grabbed a cat-o'-nine-tails, a thick rope unraveled at one end, with knots tied at the end of each strand. It was "far more painful than the other," wrote Northup. By now the flesh of his back was shredded and bloody, the injury so profound Northup thought he was on the verge of death. "Even now," he wrote a dozen years later, "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!"

When Northup could no longer speak, the pen keeper intervened. "Birch desisted, saying, with an admonitory shake of his fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or anything whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what would follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me."

Sold Down the River

A generic federal office building sits at the corner of Seventh and Independence, formerly NASA's offices, now home to the Department of Education, just across the avenue from the Air and Space Museum. Through the vertical blinds of a second-story window, a woman gazes blankly outside, resting her eyes from computer fatigue.

The red bricks that once stood on this ground are buried 40 feet down in a churn of dirt and time; the agony they enclosed is deeper still. When you know, it is impossible not to wonder if she knows the nature of the foundation that supports her, the sad history underfoot.

Just two lifetimes ago, an odd structure stood here: four brick walls 10 feet high open to the sky. A man standing with his back to the far wall would certainly see the Capitol looming in the distance. This was the Williams Slave Pen. Along with Robey Slave Pen a block away on Eighth, it was Washington's most notorious. Northup was let into the yard several days after his capture. A roof formed an open shed where the slaves could sleep, like a farmer's barnyard, Northup recounted in his book, "save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there. A stranger looking at it would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!"

A block away, 158 years to the month after Northup's abduction, a group of schoolchildren head up the dirt path along the Mall. Unfettered by the usual rules of school hallways, they let loose their excitement with constant motion, jackets flapping, legs scrambling, hands grabbing. Bringing up the rear is a little regiment led by a black boy of about 7, calling out a military sound-off to his buddies, black and white. Obediently they answer his chant, happily stomping their sneakers in the dust.

Here, Northup passed, in the middle of the night, chained to his fellow slaves, stirring the same dust. Birch was at the head of the line, while the pen keeper walked behind, herding his charges with a big stick. At the Potomac docks, they boarded a steamboat and began their journey by water, stagecoach and train to New Orleans, the most dreaded slave destination, origin of the expression "sold down the river."

In Richmond, Northup was handcuffed to a heavyset man, who poured out his story: He too was free, with family in Cincinnati. Lured south with the promise of work, he had been seized in Fredericksburg, and beaten into silence.

Together with 38 others, the two were marched onto the brig Orleans, stowed away in the hold. They sailed down the James River into the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. There, a smaller boat approached with four more slaves. One was struggling, demanding to be released. His face was badly swollen, one side of it a long, raw sore. Forced into the hold, he told his story: A free man from Norfolk, he was heading home late one night, attacked by a gang, gagged, bound and beaten senseless.

Three kidnapped free blacks, out of 44 on the Orleans. One load of freight, one journey down river, out of hundreds.

Emboldened by their shared desperation, the three free men plotted a violent escape: They would hide on deck as the other slaves were locked in for the night, steal the captain's bedside pistols and cutlass, and kill until they had control of the ship. Northup would then steer it to New York. They may have had the Amistad in mind -- only days before Northup's kidnapping, enslaved Africans who had mutinied and commandeered a Spanish ship named the Amistad had been set free by the U.S. Supreme Court, which deemed them kidnapped, and their insurrection justified.

But before Northup's mutiny could be realized, the heavyset man from Cincinnati came down with smallpox and died. They wrapped him in a horse blanket, tied the ends and tossed it overboard. Devastated, Northup tried one last measure: Befriending an English-born sailor from Boston, he secretly borrowed pen and paper and wrote to Henry B. Northup, the nephew of his father's former master, and a prominent New York lawyer. When the brig reached port, the sailor mailed his letter.

Henry Northup was stymied: a heart-rending plea for help in his hands, and no way to discover where Solomon might have been sold. He could do nothing but wait to hear more. It would be a long wait.

Voyage's End

As he was led off the ship in New Orleans, Northup the free man was reborn Platt the slave. The name had been forced on him by the slave trader in an attempt to erase his past. Now that he was in Louisiana, he knew it was pointless, and dangerous, to rebel. He did not speak his real name for 12 years.

After only one day on land, he fell ill with smallpox, an illness that would mark him for life. He went blind for three days, nearly died, but after 16 days he was deemed fit enough to parade around the slave pen for customers, his feet still covered by sores. His value diminished by illness, he was sold for $1,000, a $350 profit, minus transport costs.

The same man bought Eliza, a woman who had been with Northup since Washington. She had arrived in the Williams Slave Pen dressed in silk and adorned with rings, a rich Washingtonian's concubine who had been sold to pay off a debt. With her were her two beautiful children, a boy of about 10, and a gorgeous 6-year-old mulatta girl, the daughter of her former master. She had followed Northup in handcuffs to the steamboat that dark night and sobbed in the hold of the Orleans. Her son was sold off when they arrived in New Orleans. Eliza raised such a ruckus the trader threatened to beat her down -- that kind of thing scared away customers. He was still so incensed that when the man who bought Northup offered to buy the mother and daughter together, the trader refused out of spite.

This was a death warrant for Eliza. Northup watched as Eliza sickened and died from grief.

Master and Slave

Solomon Northup's ability to overcome his outrage is one of the most compelling aspects of his endurance. After being close to murder on the Orleans, he managed to deeply respect the man who bought him. William Prince Ford was fair and kind, he felt. Were it not for the absence of his family, he says, he could have stood his master's "gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days."

His master's gentle nature did not prevent him from selling Northup to satisfy a debt, however. Ford owed money to John M. Tibaut, an itinerant carpenter. In lieu of cash, he gave him Northup, maintaining a $400 "mortgage" since Northup was worth more than the debt.

That inhumanely mercenary detail would save his life.

Tibaut was abusive and insulting. One day, working on a project on Ford's plantation, Tibaut became enraged that Northup was using the wrong size nail and came after him with a whip. It was the first beating Northup faced since the slave pen. Tibaut ordered him to strip. He refused. When Tibaut raised the whip, Northup grabbed him, flipped him on his back and pinned him by the neck with his foot. Northup seized the whip himself, and beat Tibaut until his screams were heard in the field, and Ford's overseer rode up at a gallop.

The punishment for hitting a master in Louisiana was death. But hearing Northup's story, and knowing Tibaut, the overseer took Solomon's side.

Tibaut took off on his horse and returned with two men, whips and rope in hand. They bound Northup hand and foot. Tibaut hung a noose around his neck. As they dragged him toward a tree, the overseer emerged from the house with a pistol.

"Gentlemen," he said. "Whoever moves that slave another foot from where he stands is a dead man." Ford still had a mortgage on Northup, the overseer observed. If Tibaut killed him, he would owe Ford $400.

For a month, Northup was hired out elsewhere while Tibaut cooled off. But within three days of Northup's return, Tibaut flew into a rage over his planing of a board. He came at Northup with a hatchet. Northup grabbed Tibaut's neck with one hand and the hatchet with the other, wresting it away. Tibaut got free and grabbed an ax, and Northup dove on him, strangling him until he loosened his grip, face blue and eyes bulging. It was all he could do not to kill him.

Northup had no choice but to flee. When Tibaut revived, he found his friends and set off with a pack of dogs. Northup had plunged into the Great Cocodrie Swamp, a 40-mile stretch of snake-infested bog. His senses inflamed with fear, he saw water moccasins at each step. Every log was alive with them, he wrote, and they rippled every puddle. Branches tearing at his clothes and skin, one foot stabbed with thorns when his shoe ripped off at the ankle, he ran zigzags around alligators. The sound of hounds baying forced him on. When he came to deep water, he swam, a skill forbidden to slaves, learned in the streams of New York. It saved him. The hounds were left scentless.

Scratched and bleeding, his clothes in shreds and his body covered with slime, he knocked on the door of his former master. Ford and his wife offered food and refuge. Four days later, Ford persuaded Tibaut to sell his slave. It was a huge relief to Northup, until he met his new master.

Edwin Epps was known in the racist terms of the time as a "nigger breaker," and he was proud of it. A huge, pale man, with an enormous nose, his drinking binges sometimes lasted two weeks. His favorite entertainment was to command his slaves to "dance" while he cracked a long whip. The forced "dancing" might go on until dawn, when the master passed out, and the slaves were forced into the fields.

Epps demanded a torturous daily load of cotton, and punished those who failed to deliver. If a bit of leaf were found in the cotton, or a branch broken -- 25 lashes. Standing in the field idle: 100 lashes. Wrote Northup: "It is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark till bedtime."

Northup had never picked cotton. It was a hellish task, requiring stamina and dexterity like no other, and he was never good at it. In the end, Epps realized no amount of whipping helped, and he pulled Northup out of the fields to cut wood or sugar cane.

A slave named Patsey, on the other hand, was extraordinarily adept. A gifted athlete with incredible endurance and a noble bearing; her fingers flew through the bolls, both hands at once. Epps counted on her load, 2 1/2 times the amount of anyone else's, but now and then, he pulled her from the fields for another task: sex.

Epps's wife knew, and demanded Patsey be sold, but Epps refused. Instead, he would savagely beat her to appease his jealous wife. "She had been literally excoriated," Northup wrote. "Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes."

More than once, Patsey offered Northup money to put her out of her misery, to kill her and bury her in the swamp. Northup begged her to hang on.

When Epps was away, his wife would ask Northup to whip Patsey. Northup always refused. But one day, Epps himself asked. He was convinced she had slipped off to see the master of a neighboring plantation. In a jealous rage, he ordered her stripped and tied to posts in the ground. Then he handed the whip to Northup. As Mistress Epps looked on with her children from the porch, Northup delivered the lashing. Patsey pleaded for mercy, but Epps only shouted "Harder!" After 45 blows, Northup refused to go on. An enraged Epps took over, far more vigorously than Northup. When he stopped, Patsey was nearly unconscious, blood dripping down her sides. Untied, she fell into Northup's arms, whispering his name. She lay on her pallet, unmoving, for days.

In June 1852, Northup began building a new house for Epps, with a hired Canadian carpenter. Samuel Bass was widely known in the region as a liberal who loved to argue politics. Northup quickly realized he was strongly antislavery, the first with that sentiment Northup encountered in all his time in the South. One day, out of earshot of anyone else, Northup told him of his plight. Bass was horrified; the two arranged a secret rendezvous.

Just past midnight, among the tall weeds at the edge of the bayou, they met. Bass brought pencil and paper from his tool chest, Northup had a candle from the kitchen. Northup told Bass his real name, described the kidnapping, and named the lawyer in New York who might help him.

Bass vowed to help. By the time they separated, Northup was in tears. He had kept his secret 12 long years.

Finally, an Answer

Bass's letter was dated Aug. 15, 1852. Months passed with no reply.

On a cold January morning in 1853, Northup and the others were struggling to pick cotton, their fingers numb with cold. Epps cursed himself for having forgotten his whip, and rode off, vowing to come back and warm them with a lashing. As the slaves muttered over their rotten master, Northup looked up. He saw a carriage near the house. Two men walked toward them through the field. It was the local sheriff, joined by a man whose familiar face made Northup's knees go weak.

"Henry B. Northup! Thank God!" cried Solomon, clutching the lawyer's hands.

"Throw down that sack," said Henry Northup.

Bass's letter had arrived in early September. Under a New York anti-kidnapping law passed the year before Solomon's disappearance, Henry Northup was appointed an agent of the state charged with rescuing Solomon.

It was miraculous that Henry ever found Solomon. Possibly to avoid retribution if the letter fell into the wrong hands, it never mentioned Bass or Northup's owner by name, or that Northup was known as Platt. It only pinpointed the region of his captivity, and there were thousands of slaves in Bayou Boeuf.

Henry Northup hired a local lawyer, who said his only hope was to search plantation to plantation. Before their departure, they made political small talk. "You have no abolitionists in this part of the country, I presume?" Henry ventured, half-joking. The local lawyer laughed.

"Only one," he said. "By the name of Bass." Then he thought a moment. "What was the date of that letter?" He put the two together -- Bass had been working in Bayou Boeuf at that time. Who else would have dared to help a slave? They found Bass at the docks, on the verge of leaving for a two-week trip.

As Solomon Northup, faint with joy, stepped up to board the carriage to freedom, Patsey came around the cabin in tears and threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, de Lord! de Lord! What'll become of me?"

A week later in Washington, Henry Northup signed out a warrant for James Birch, charging him with kidnapping and selling a free man into slavery. Birch claimed Northup was sold to him as a slave from Georgia. Solomon Northup, being black, was not allowed to testify. Birch went free.

Interviewed in Washington, Northup's story made the front page of the New York Times. The striking similarities of his story to the recent international sensation "Uncle Tom's Cabin" made Northup the hot news of the day.

On Jan. 21, 1853, 44-year-old Solomon Northup was reunited with his wife and children. He told his story to a local writer, David Wilson, an 1840 graduate of Union College, who helped him write "Twelve Years a Slave" in three months.

The book, published that same year, sold 30,000 copies in three years. It was read by Frederick Douglass, who wrote in his newspaper Liberator: "Think of it: For thirty years a man, with all a man's hopes, fears, and aspirations . . . then for twelve years a thing, a chattel, classed with mules and horses. . . . Oh! It is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are."

The book jogged the memory of a county judge from Fonda, N.Y., named Thaddeus St. John. Thirteen years earlier, in Baltimore on his way to Washington, he had bumped into two old friends, traveling with a black man. Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell were acting strangely, he recalled. They quickly whispered to him not to use their real names. Later, he ran into the same three again in Washington, the night before Harrison's funeral. The two were drinking at the National Hotel. On his return trip to New York, he ran into Merrill and Russell again in Baltimore, this time without the black man. The men were newly outfitted, with ivory canes and gold watches. St. John made a wisecrack: "What, did you sell your black friend for $500?"

"Raise that by $150," Merrill shot back. Russell cut him off: They'd had good luck gambling, he said.

The judge met Solomon; they recognized each other immediately. With Henry Northup, they tracked down the kidnappers and had them arrested. Solomon's testimony was admissible in New York. But the issue of jurisdiction -- whether the crime was committed in New York or Washington, sent the case shuffling up and down through courts of appeals for two years.

By then, the press attention had dwindled to nothing. A new district attorney may have lost interest in prosecuting the case. In any event, Merrill and Russell were never tried.

For his 12 stolen years, Solomon Northup received scant compensation -- $3,000 for the copyright of his book. He bought some property in Glens Falls next to his by now married daughter's house.

Northup's case has one final mystery: No one knows what happened to him. By 1863, he was gone: His name does not appear on the records of the sale of his property. Only his wife and son-in-law are named.

When his book was republished in 1869, its editors did nothing to locate him. By 1876, conjecture was filling the void. Some cried conspiracy. In "The Bench and Bar of Saratoga County," a book on local legal proceedings, E.R. Mann wrote that sometime after he initiated the doomed effort to bring his kidnappers to justice, "Northup again disappeared. What his fate was is unknown to the public, but the desperate kidnappers no doubt knew."

And in 1909, Henry Northup's nephew John, in a long letter to Henry's granddaughter, wrote: "The last I heard of him, Sol was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book. All at once, he disappeared. We believe that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed."

Professor Brown and his Union College students scoured graveyards looking for tombstones with Solomon's name. They looked through church records, in historical societies. They called his great-great-grandchildren. All turned up nothing.

Washington College historian Carol Wilson says Northup's health would likely have been poor after enslavement, that one doesn't need to conjure murderous kidnappers to account for him not living a long life. Brown, too, doubts the conspiracy theory. Because Northup was something of a celebrity, Brown says, it doesn't seem likely he could have vanished without a public outcry.

Khayree Miles, a 19-year-old student who worked on the project, who retraced Northup's steps -- waded in the swamp where he had fled the hounds, picked cotton on a plantation, essayed the utter darkness of the Louisiana night -- and came to feel a kinship with a long-dead man he'd never heard of before, thinks otherwise.

"It had to be foul play," he insisted, "knowing how many people he was challenging, being specific about names in his book. We're going to do other research on it. It's a part of me now. I can't walk away."

The manuscript of "Twelve Years a Slave" is available on the Internet from the University of North Carolina's Southern Historical Collection at docsouth/northup/northup.html.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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