Twelve Years a Slave

by Solomon Northup

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"Wiley suffered severely at the hands of Master Epps, as has been related in the preceding chapter, but in this respect he fared no worse than his unfor- tunate companions. " Spare the rod," was an idea scouted by our master. He was constitutionally sub- ject to periods of ill-humor, and at such times, how- ever little provocation there might be, a certain amount of punishment was inflicted. The circum- stances attending the last flogging but one that I re- ceived, will show how trivial a cause was sufficient with him for resorting to the whip.

A Mr. O'lSTiel, residing in the vicinity of the Big Pine Woods, called upon Epps for the purpose of pur-


chasing me. He was a tanner and currier by occu- pation, transacting an extensive business, and intend- ed to place me at service in some department of his establishment, provided he bought me. Aunt Phebe,, while preparing the dinner-table in the great house, overheard their conversation. On returning to the yard at night, the old woman ran to meet me, design- ing, of course, to overwhelm me with the news. She entered into a minute repetition of all she had heard, and Aunt Phebe was one whose ears never failed to drink in every word of conversation uttered in her hearing. She enlarged upon the fact that "Massa Epps was g'wine to sell me to a tanner ober in de Pine Woods," so long and loudly as to attract the at- tention of the mistress, who, standing unobserved on the piazza at the time, was listening to our conver- sation.

" Well, Aunt Phebe," said I, " I'm glad of it. I'm tired of scraping cotton, and would rather be a tanner. I hope he'll buy me."

O'Niel did not effect a purchase, however, the par- ties differing as to price, and the morning following his arrival, departed homewards. He had been gone but a short time, when Epps made his appearance in the field. ISTow nothing will more violently enrage a master, especially Epps, than the intimation of one of his servants that he would like to leave him. Mis- tress Epps had repeated to him my expressions to Aunt Phebe the evening previous, as I learned from the latter afterwards, the mistress having mentioned


to her that she had overheard us. On entering the field, Epps walked directly to me.

" So, Piatt, you're tired of scraping cotton, are you? You would like to change your master, eh ? You're fond of moving round — traveler — ain't ye ? Ah, yes — -like to travel for your health, may be? Feel above cotton-scraping, I 'spose. So you're going into the tanning business ? Good business — devilish fine business. Enterprising nigger ! B'lieve I'll go into that business myself. Down on your knees, and strip that rag off your back ! I'll try my hand at tanning."

I begged earnestly, and endeavored to soften him with excuses, but in vain. There was no other alter- native ; so kneeling down, I presented my bare back for the application of the lash.

" How do you like tanning ?" he exclaimed, as the rawhide descended upon my flesh. " How do you like tanning f " he repeated at every blow. In this manner he gave me twenty or thirty lashes, inces- santly giving utterance to the word " tanning," in one form of expression or another. When sufficiently " tanned," he allowed me to arise, and with a half- malicious laugh assured me, if I still fancied the busi- ness, he would give me further instruction in it when- ever I desired. This time, he remarked, he had only given me a short lesson in " tanning " — the next time he would " curry me down."

Uncle Abmm, also, was frequently treated with great brutality, although he was one of the kindest and most faithful creatures in the world. He was my


cabin-mate for years. There was a benevolent ex- pression in the old man's face, pleasant to behold. He regarded us with a kind of parental feeling, always counseling us witli remarkable gravity and delibe- ration.

Returning from Marshall's plantation one afternoon, whither I had been sent on some errand of the mis- tress, I found him lying on the cabin floor, his clothes saturated with blood. He informed me that he had been stabbed ! While spreading cotton on the scaf- fold, Epps came home intoxicated from Holmesville, He found fault with every thing, giving many orders so directly contrary that it was impossible to execute any of them. Uncle Abram, whose faculties were growing dull, became confused, and committed some blunder of no particular consequence. Epps was so enraged thereat, that, with drunken recklessness, he flew upon the old man, and stabbed him in the back. It was a long, ugly wound, but did not happen to penetrate far enough to result fatally. It was sewed up by the mistress, who censured her husband with extreme severity, not only denouncing his inhumanity, but declaring that she expected nothing else than that he would bring the family to poverty — that he would kill all the slaves on the plantation in Tsonie of his drunken fits.

It was no uncommon thing with him to prostrate Aunt Phebe with a chair or stick of wood ; but the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to wit- ness — one I can never recall with any other emotion


than that of horror — was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey.

It has been seen that the jealousy and hatred of Mistress Epps made the daily life of her young and agile slave completely miserable. I am happy in the belief that on numerous occasions I was the means of averting punishment from the inoffensive girl. In Epps' absence the mistress often ordered me to whip her without the remotest provocation. I would refuse, saying that I feared my master's displeasure, and sev- eral times ventured to remonstrate with her against the treatment Patsey received. I endeavored to im- press her with the truth that the latter was not re- sponsible for the acts of which she complained, but that she being a slave, and subject entirely to her master's will, he alone was answerable.

At length " the green-eyed monster " crept into the soul of Epps also, and then it was that he joined with his wrathful wife in an infernal jubilee over the girl's miseries.

On a Sabbath day in hoeing time, not long ago, we were on the bayou bank, washing our clothes, as was our usual custom. Presently Patsey was missing, Epps called aloud, but there was no answer. ~No one had observed her leaving the yard, and it was a won- der with us whither she had gone. In the course of a couple of hours she was seen approaching from the direction of Shaw's. This man, as has been intima- ted, was a notorious profligate, and withal not on the most friendly terms with Epps. Harriet, his black


wife, knowing Patsey's troubles, was kind to her, in consequence of which the latter was in the habit of going over to see her every opportunity. Her visits were prompted by friendship merely, but the suspi- cion gradually entered the brain of Epps, that another and a baser passion led her thither — that it was not Harriet she desired to meet, but rather the unblush- ing libertine, his neighbor. Patsey found her master in a fearful rage on her return. His violence so alarmed her that at first she attempted to evade direct answers to his questions, which only served to increase his suspicions. She finally, however, drew herself up proudly, and in a spirit of indignation boldly denied his charges.

" Missus don't give me soap to wash with, as she does the rest," said Patsey, " and you know why. I went over to Harriet's to get a piece," and saying this, she drew it forth from a pocket in her dress and ex- hibited it to him. " That's what I went to Shaw's for, Massa Epps," continued she ; " the Lord knows that was all."

" You lie, you black wench ! " shouted Epps.

" I don't lie, massa. If you kill me, I'll stick to that,"

" Oh ! I'll fetch you down. I'll learn you to go to Shaw's. I'll take the starch out of ye," he muttered fiercely through his shut teeth.

Then turning to me, he ordered four stakes to be driven into the ground, pointing with the toe of his boot to the places where he wanted them. "When the stakes were driven down, he ordered her to be strips


ped of every article of dress. Ropes were then brought, and the naked girl was laid upon her face, her wrists and feet each tied firmly to a stake. Step- ping to the piazza, he took down a heavy whip, and placing it in my hands, commanded me to lash her. Unpleasant as it was, I was compelled to obey him. ISTowhere that day, on the face of the whole earth, I venture to say, was there such a demoniac exhibition witnessed as then ensued.

Mistress Epps stood on the piazza among her chil- dren, gazing on the scene with an air of heartless sat- isfaction. The slaves were huddled together at a lit- tle distance, their countenances indicating the sorrow of their hearts. Poor Patsey prayed piteously for mercy, but her prayers were vain. Epps ground his teeth, and stamped upon the ground, screaming at me, like a mad fiend, to strike harder.

" Strike harder, or your turn will come next, you scoundrel," he yelled.

" Oh, mercy, massa ! — -oh! have mercy, do. Oh, God ! pity me," Patsey exclaimed continually, strug- gling fruitlessly, and the flesh quivering at every stroke.

"When I had struck her as many as thirty times, I stopped, and turned round toward Epps, hoping he was satisried ; but with bitter oaths and threats, he ordered me to continue. I inflicted ten or fifteen blows more. By this time her back was covered with long welts, intersecting each other like net work. Epps was yet furious and savage as ever, demanding



if she would like to go to Shaw's again, and swear- ing he would flog her until she wished she was in h — I. Throwing down the whip, I declared I could punish her no more. He ordered me to go on, threatening me with a severer flogging than she had received, in ease of refusal. My heart revolted at the inhuman scene, and risking the consequences, I absolutely re- fused to raise the whip. He then seized it himself, and applied it with ten-fold greater force than I had. The painful cries and shrieks of the tortured Patsey, mingling with the loud and angry curses of Epps, loaded the air. She was terribly lacerated — I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed. The lash was wet with blood, which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground. At length she ceased struggling. Her head sank listlessly on the ground. Her screams and supplications gradually decreased and died away into a low moan. She no longer writhed and shrank beneath the lash when it bit out small pieces of her flesh. I thought that she was dying !

It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight — the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees — peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and


thought within myself — " Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin ! "

Finally, he ceased whipping from mere exhaustion, and ordered Phebe to bring a bucket of salt and wa- ter. After washing her thoroughly with this, I was told to take her to her cabin. Untying the ropes, I raised her in my arms. She was unable to stand, and as her head rested on my shoulder, she repeated ma- ny times, in a faint voice scarcely perceptible, " Oh, Piatt — oh, Piatt !" but nothing further. Her dress was replaced, but it clung to her back, and was soon stiff with blood. We laid her on some boards in the hut, where she remained a long time, with eyes closed and groaning in agony. At night Phebe applied melted tallow to her wounds, and so far as we were able, all endeavored to assist and console her. Day after day she lay in her cabin upon her face, the sores preventing her resting in any other position.

A blessed thing it would have been for her — days and weeks and months of misery it would have saved her — had she never lifted up her head in life again. Indeed, from that time forward she was not what she had been. The burden of a deep melancholy weigh- ed heavily on her spirits. She no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step — there was not that mirthful sparkle in her eyes that formerly distin- guished her. The bounding vigor — the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth, were gone. She fell into a mournful and desponding mood, and often-

patsey's idea of god, &c. 259

times would start up in her sleep, and with raised hands, plead for mercy. She became more silent than she was, toiling all day in our midst, not uttering a word. A care-worn, pitiful expression settled on her face, and it was her humor now to weep, rather than rejoice. If ever there was a broken heart — one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffer- ing and misfortune — it was Patsey's.

She had been reared no better than her master's v beast — 'looked upon merely as a valuable and hand- some animal — and consequently possessed but a.lim- ited amount of knowledge. And yet a faint light cast its rays over her intellect, so that it was not wholly dark. She had a dim perception of God and of eternity, and a still more dim perception of a Sav- iour who had died even for such as her. She enter tained but confused notions of a future life — not com- prehending the distinction between the corporeal and spiritual existence. Happiness, in her mind, was ex- emption from stripes — from labor — from the cruelty of masters and overseers. Her idea of the joy of heaven was simply rest, and is fully expressed in these lines of a melancholy bard :

" I ask no paradise on high,

With cares on earth oppressed,

The only heaven for which I sigh, Is rest, eternal rest."

It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quar- ters, that the slave does not understand the term — does not comprehend the idea of freedom. Even on


Bayou Bosuf, where I conceive slavery exists in its most abject and cruel form — where it exhibits fea- tures altogether unknown in more northern States — ■ the most ignorant of them generally know full well its meaning. They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it — that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic hap- piness. They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man's, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to un- merited and unprovoked punishment, without reme- dy, or the right to resist, or to remonstrate.

Patsey's life, especially after her whipping, was one long dream of liberty. Far away, to her fancy an immeasurable distance, she knew there was a land of freedom. A thousand times she had, heard that somewhere in the distant North there were no slaves — no masters. In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of the earth. To dwell where the black man may work for himself — live in his own cabin — till his own soil, was a blissful dream of Patsey's — a dream, alas ! the fulfillment of which she can never realize.

The effect of these exhibitions of brutality on the household of the slave-holder, is apparent. Epps' oldest son is an intelligent lad of ten or twelve years of age. It is pitiable, sometimes, to see him chas-


tising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his child- ish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a cer- tain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation. Mounted on his pony, he often rides into the field with his whip, play- ing the overseer, greatly to his father's delight. Without discrimination, at such times, he applies the rawhide, urging the slaves forward with shouts, and occasional expressions of profanity, while the old man laughs, and commends him as a thorough-going boy.

" The child is father to the man," and with such training, whatever may be his natural disposition, it cannot well be otherwise than that, on arriving at ma- turity, the sufferings and miseries of the slave will be looked upon with entire indifference. The influ- ence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.

Young Master Epps possessed some noble qualities, yet no process of reasoning could lead him to com- prehend, that in the eye of the Almighty there is no distinction of color. He looked upon the black man simply as an animal, differing in no respect from any other animal, save in the gift of speech and the pos- session of somewhat higher instincts, and, therefore, the more valuable. To work like his father's mules — to be whipped and kicked and scourged through life — to address the white man with hat in hand, and eyes


bent servilely on the earth, in his mind, was the natu- ral and proper destiny of the slave. Brought up with such ideas — in the notion that we stand without the pale of humanity — no wonder the oppressors of my people are a pitiless and unrelenting race.

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