Desperate



“…but I did not want to go and I jumped out the window…”
Source: “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States,” by Jesse Torrey, 1817 (Page 43)

When most people think of the “horrors” of slavery, the first thing that comes to mind is physical abuse, and perhaps second, the sexual exploitation of slave women by their male masters. But for the slaves, nothing was more devastating than the loss of family.

Slaves had no marriage or family rights. Slave owners could, and did, split up families as necessary to meet their needs or interests. It didn’t happen “all the time”; but if it happened once in a slave’s lifetime – that would be horrible enough, and something a slave would not forget or forgive.

So devastating was the loss of family that some slaves… just lost it. Or at least, that is the story told by New Yorker Jesse Torrey, Jr (or Jesse Torrey “Jun” in some places) in his book “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States,” which was published in 1817. {The full title of the book is “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States: with reflections on the practicability of restoring the moral rights of the Slave, without impairing the legal privileges of the possessor; and a Project of a Colonial Asylum for Free Persons of Colour: including Memoirs of Facts on the interior Traffic in Slaves, and on Kidnapping. Illustrated with Engravings.” Folks in the 19th century were sometimes given to long-winded oratory and long-winded book or pamphlet titles.}

As noted here (page xv),

Torrey did not seek or anticipate immediate abolition of slavery. For the present he desired humane treatment of the bondmen, and urged their owners to be “guardians, patrons, benefactors and neighbours” to them; in the future he advocated gradual redemption by governmental purchase. He was especially moved by the wrongs suffered by slaves who had been freed and afterwards kidnapped into slavery again, brought legal suits himself to secure the restitution of their liberty and aided in raising subscriptions to defray the legal expenses of the trials. In recognition of his efforts, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in bondage, voted him a formal letter of thanks in August, 1816.

In his book, Torrey recounts the story of a slave woman who, so distraught over losing her husband when she and her children were sold, throws herself out a window, shattering her back in the process. Torrey captures the event in the engraving at the top of this blog entry. In that image, the slave woman seems to float in the air, almost frozen in time; the viewer is struck by the surreal sight of this black woman in white, surrounded by dark and suspended over the street below. In Torrey’s book, the caption beneath the picture foretells the woman’s fate, once time unfreezes: “…but I did not want to go and I jumped out the window…”

I’ve always wondered if this event was real or imagined. It almost seems too good to be true, that is, the story and Torrey’s investigation of it seem too perfect a fit for the narrative he was creating (although Torrey presents it as true and “unvarnished”). In any event, it is a chilling tale that no doubt happened somewhere at sometime. For Torrey, it would lead to a “humid eye”:

[A] youth… informed me on returning from school, in the evening of the 19th December, 1815, that a black woman, destined for transportation to Georgia, with a coffle which was about to start, attempted to escape, by jumping out of the window of the garret of a three story brick tavern in F Street, about day break in the morning; and that in the fall she had her back and both arms broken! I remarked that I did not wonder that she did so, and inquired whether it had not killed her? To which he replied, that he understood that she was dead, and that the Georgia-men, had gone off with the others.

The relation of this shocking disaster, excited considerable agitation in my mind, and fully confirmed the sentiments, which I had already adopted and recorded, of the multiplied horrors added to slavery, when its victims are bought and sold, frequently for distant destinations, with as much indifference as fourfooted beasts. Supposing this to have been a recent occurrence, and being desirous of seeing the mangled slave before she should be buried, I proceeded with some haste, early on the following morning, in search of the house already mentioned. Calling at a house near the one at which the catastrophe occurred, I was informed, that it had been three weeks since it took place, and that the woman was still living. Having found the house, I desired permission of the landlord to see the wounded woman; to which he assented, and directed a lad to conduct me to her room; which was in the garret over the third story of the house.

On entering the room, I observed her lying upon a bed on the floor, and covered with a white woolen blanket, on which were several spots of blood, (from her wounds,) which I perceived was red, notwithstanding the opacity of her skin. Her countenance, though very pale from the shock she had received, and dejected with grief, appeared complacent and sympathetic. Both her arms were broken between the elbows and wrists, and had undoubtedly been well set and dressed; but from her restlessness, she had displaced the bones again, so that they were perceptibly crooked.

[I] have since been informed by the Mayor of the city, who is a physician, and resides not far distant from the place, that he was called to visit her immediately after her fall; and found besides her arms being broken, that the lower part of the spine was badly shattered, so that it was doubtful whether she would ever be capable of walking again, if she should survive. The lady of the Mayor said she was awakened from sleep by the fall of the woman, and heard her heavy struggling groans.

I inquired of her, whether she was asleep when she sprang from the window. She replied, “No, no more than l am now.” Asking her what was the cause of her doing such a frantic act as that, she replied, “They brought me away with two of my children, and would’nt let me see my husband—they did’nt sell my husband, and I did’nt want to go ;—I was so confused and ‘istracted, that I didnt know hardly what I was about—but I did’nt want to go, and I jumped out of the window;—but I am sorry now that I did it;—they have carried my children off with ‘em to Carolina.”

I was informed that the Slave Trader, who had purchased her near Bladensburgh, (she being a legal slave,) gave her to the landlord as a compensation for taking care of her. Thus her family was dispersed from north to south, and herself nearly torn in pieces, without the shadow of a hope of ever seeing or hearing from her children again! He that can behold this “poor woman,” (as a respectable citizen of Washington afterwards expressed himself, on requesting of her landlord the privilege of seeing her,) and listen to her unvarnished story; and then delineate it with the mental pencil, (quill) and then view the picture from his own hand, without a humid eye, I will confess possesses a stouter heart than I do…

…I have since learned many recent instances of the tragical consequences of the usurped trade in the souls and bodies of men. I have been informed by several different persons in the District of Columbia, that a woman who had been sold in Georgetown, for the southern slavemarket, cut her own throat, ineffectually, while on the way, in a hack, to the same depository above mentioned; and that on the road to Alexandria, she completed her design of destroying her life, by cutting it again mortally.

A statement was published in the Baltimore Telegraph a few months ago, that a female slave who had been sold in Maryland, with her child, on the way from Bladensburgh to Washington, heroically cut the throats of both her child and herself, with mortal effect. This narrative has been since confirmed by a relative of the person who sold them. An African youth, in the city of Philadelphia, lately cut his throat almost mortally, merely from the apprehension, as he said, of being sold. This information was obtained from several respectable citizens of Philadelphia, who had personal knowledge of the fact.

PS:
• In 1799 New York passed a gradual emancipation law. The law freed slaves who were born after a 1799 when they reached the age of 25 (females) or 28 (males). However, this was followed by a wave of slave kidnappings, in which young slaves were sold to the South before they were old enough to be free. In 1817, a new law was passed which freed all slaves in 1827. See here.

• In the text, Torrey uses the term “Georgia-men.” I believe this is a derisive term for men who sell or steal slaves, or sell or steal free blacks into slavery.

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One thought on “Desperate

  1. If the “Christian” slave “owners” had followed the Golden Rule as promulgated by their purported Rabbi (Teacher) much of the evil of slavery would have been mitigated. But the treatment of animals in the same era was no better. To see how a true Christian in a society that permitted and supported slavery would conduct him/herself, the laws of Moses regarding slavery and polygamy, and the letter of Paul to Philemon, gives a good account.
    The Golden Rule regarding slavery: The slave “owner” need only consider how (s)he would wish to be treated if (s)he was a slave. Then treat the slave likewise.
    If the professed “Christians” had treated their slaves as they would want to be treated if their roles were swapped, the example would have spread through society eventually abolishing slavery.
    Unfortunately the attitude that some people can own other people is with us today, even in America, “the land of the free.”
    The state (the government) claims the right to the labor of its own citizens. The individual income tax is a seizure of a (wo)man’s labor for public use without just compensation. The mother is taught that her child, whom she generated within her own person, is her property to do with as she pleases until the child’s body exits her body completely.
    This is worse than the openly slave days, when the laws provided that the murderer of a slave was to be punished just as the murder of a free person (difficult to enforce, but the law). But today, in the spirit of Dred Scott v. Sandford, the preborn human child’s life is forfeit by the CHOICE of her “owner,” her mother. If mother CHOOSES, her child will live. If mother CHOOSES, the fruit of her womb is destroyed with impunity.

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