Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses
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Incidents in the Life
of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs, 1813-97
The historical action of Jacobs's narrative
occurred in Edenton NC
Edenton on Albemarle
[from original title page]
|Incidents in the Life of a
Written by Herself.
[pseudonym / pen name for Harriet Jacobs]
"Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual
bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation
involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their
efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown."
— A Woman Of North
"Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give
ear unto my speech."
—Isaiah xxxii. 9.
Edited By L. Maria Child.
Boston: Published For The Author.
Preface by the Author
[P1] Reader be assured
this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my
adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I
have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my
descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have
concealed the names of places,
and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own
account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this
[P2] I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my
readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. I was born
and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years. Since
I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my
own support, and the education of my children. This has
not left me much leisure
to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has
compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could
snatch an hour from household duties.
[P3] When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a
sketch of my life, but I told him I was altogether incompetent to such an
undertaking. Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I still
remain of the same opinion; but I trust my motives will excuse what might
otherwise seem presumptuous. I have not written my experiences in order to
attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant
to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite
sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of
the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the
South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse.
I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the
Free States what Slavery really is. Only by experience can any one realize how
deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations
[gothic]. May the blessing of God
rest on this imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted people!
—Linda Brent [pseudonym / pen name for Harriet Jacobs]
Introduction by the Editor
[Lydia Maria Child]
 The author of the following autobiography is personally known to me, and her
conversation and manners inspire me with confidence. During the last seventeen
years, she has lived the greater part of the time with a distinguished family in
New York, and has so deported herself as to be highly esteemed by them. This
fact is sufficient, without further credentials of her character. I believe
those who know her will not be disposed to doubt her veracity, though some
incidents in her story are more romantic than fiction.
 At her request, I have revised her manuscript; but such changes as I have made
have been mainly for purposes of condensation and orderly arrangement. I have
not added any thing to the incidents, or changed the import of her very
pertinent remarks. With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the language are
her own. I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had no reason for
changing her lively and dramatic way of telling her own story. The names of both
persons and places are known to me; but for good reasons I suppress them.
 It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in Slavery should be able
to write so well. But circumstances will explain this. In the first place,
nature endowed her with quick perceptions. Secondly, the mistress, with whom she
lived till she was twelve years old, was a kind, considerate friend, who taught
her to read and spell. Thirdly, she was placed in favorable circumstances after
she came to the North; having frequent intercourse with intelligent persons, who
felt a friendly interest in her welfare, and were disposed to give her
opportunities for self-improvement.
 I am well aware that many will accuse me of
indecorum for presenting these pages
to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and much-injured woman
belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and others indelicate.
peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought
to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the
responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this
sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears
are too delicate to listen to them. I do it with the hope of
conscientious and reflecting women at the North to a sense of their duty in the
exertion of moral influence on the question of Slavery, on all possible
occasions. I do it with the hope
that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God that, so
far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from Slavery shall ever be sent
back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty.
—L. Maria Child [Lydia Maria Child, 1802-80, prolific and respected
journalist, editor, novelist, and activist for Abolition, American Indian
rights, and women's rights]
Chapter I. Childhood
[1.1] I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had
passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and
skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be
erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition
of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he
was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish
was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard
earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded.
In complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish
yellow, and were termed mulattoes. They lived together in a comfortable home;
and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I
was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be
demanded of them at any moment. I had one brother, William, who was two years
younger than myself—a bright, affectionate child.
[1.3] I had also a great treasure in
my maternal grandmother,
who was a remarkable woman in many respects. She was the
daughter of a planter
in South Carolina, who, at his death, left her mother and his three children
free, with money to go to St. Augustine, where they had relatives. It was
the Revolutionary War; and they were captured on their passage, carried back,
and sold to
[1.4] Such was
the story my grandmother used to tell me; but I
do not remember all the particulars. She was a little girl when she was captured
and sold to the keeper of a large hotel. I have often heard her tell how hard
she fared during childhood. But as she grew older she evinced so much
intelligence, and was so faithful, that her master and mistress could not help
seeing it was for their interest to take care of such a valuable piece of
property. She became an indispensable personage in the household, officiating in
all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to seamstress.
[1.5] She was much praised for her cooking; and
crackers [tea crackers]
became so famous in the neighborhood that many people were desirous of
obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests of this kind, she asked
permission of her mistress to bake crackers at night, after all the household
work was done; and she obtained leave to do it, provided she would clothe
herself and her children from the profits. Upon these terms, after working hard
all day for her mistress, she began her midnight bakings, assisted by her two
oldest children. The business proved profitable; and each year she laid by a
little, which was saved for a fund to purchase her children.
[1.6] Her master died, and the property was divided among his
heirs. The widow had her dower in the hotel which she continued to keep open. My
grandmother remained in her service as a slave; but her children were divided
among her master's children. As she had five, Benjamin, the youngest one, was
sold, in order that each heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents.
There was so little difference in our ages that he seemed more like my brother
than my uncle. He was a bright, handsome lad, nearly white; for
he inherited the
complexion my grandmother had derived from Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Though only
ten years old, seven hundred and twenty dollars were paid for him.
[1.7] His sale was a terrible blow to my grandmother, but she
was naturally hopeful, and she went to work with renewed energy, trusting in
time to be able to purchase some of her children. She had laid up three hundred
dollars, which her mistress one day begged as a loan, promising to pay her soon.
The reader probably knows that no promise or writing given to a slave is legally
binding; for, according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can
hold no property. When my grandmother lent her hard earnings to her
mistress, she trusted solely to her honor. The honor of a slaveholder to a
[1.8] To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts. My brother Willie and
I often received portions of the crackers, cakes, and preserves, she made to
sell; and after we ceased to be children we were indebted to her for many more
[1.9] Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early childhood. When I
was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by
the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother's mistress was the daughter of
my grandmother's mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were
both nourished at my grandmother's breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at
three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food.
They played together as children; and, when they became women, my mother was a
most faithful servant to her whiter foster sister. On her death-bed her mistress
promised that her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her
lifetime she kept her word.
[1.10] They all spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a
slave merely in name, but in nature was noble and womanly. I grieved for her,
and my young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me
and my little brother. I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress;
and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed on
me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and
proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by
her side for hours, sewing diligently, with
a heart as free from care as that of
any free-born white child. When she thought I was tired, she would send me out
to run and jump; and away I bounded, to gather berries or flowers to decorate
her room. Those were happy days—too happy to last. The slave child had no
thought for the morrow; but there came that blight, which too surely waits on
every human being born to be a chattel. [chattel
slavery regarded slaves as property akin to beasts of burden; "chattel" =
[1.11] When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As I saw
the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed in my
heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to
me. My prayers were not answered. She died, and they buried her in the little
churchyard, where, day after day, my tears fell upon her grave.
[1.12] I was sent to spend a week with my grandmother.
I was now old enough to begin to
think of the future; and again and again I asked myself what they would do with
me. I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind as the one who was
gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for
any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many proofs of
attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes that she had left me free.
My friends were almost certain it would be so. They thought she would be sure to
do it, on account of my mother's love and faithful service. But, alas! we all
know that the memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her
children from the auction block.
[1.13] After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we
learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister's daughter, a child of five
years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of
God's Word: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." "Whatsoever ye would that
men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them." But I was her slave, and I
suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor. I would give much to blot out
from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and,
looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less
bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read
and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave,
I bless her
[1.14] She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed among
her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother's children, and had shared the
same milk that nourished her mother's children. Notwithstanding my grandmother's
long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the
auction block. These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their
masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.
III. The Slaves' New Year's Day.
[Dr. Flint, a small-time surgeon in the town, becomes
Linda's master when his daughter inherits Linda's ownership.]
[3.1] Dr. Flint owned a fine residence in town, several farms, and about fifty slaves,
besides hiring a number by the year.
[3.2] Hiring-day at the south takes place on the 1st of January. On the 2d, the slaves
are expected to go to their new masters. On a farm, they work until the corn and
cotton are laid. They then have two holidays. Some masters give them a good
dinner under the trees. This over, they work until Christmas eve. If no heavy
charges are meantime brought against them, they are given four or five holidays,
whichever the master or overseer may think proper. Then comes New Year's eve;
and they gather together their little
alls, or more properly speaking, their little nothings, and wait anxiously for
the dawning of day. At the appointed hour the grounds are thronged with men,
women, and children, waiting, like criminals, to hear their doom pronounced. The
slave is sure to know who is the most humane, or cruel master, within forty
miles of him.
[3.3] It is easy to find out, on that day, who clothes and feeds his slaves well; for
he is surrounded by a crowd, begging, "Please, massa, hire me this year. I will
work very hard, massa."
[3.4] If a slave is unwilling to go with his new master, he is whipped, or locked up
in jail, until he consents to go, and promises not to run away during the year.
Should he chance to change his mind, thinking it justifiable to violate an
extorted promise, woe unto him if he is caught! The whip is used till the blood
flows at his feet; and his stiffened limbs are put in
chains, to be dragged in
the field for days and days!
[3.5] If he lives until the next year, perhaps the same man will hire him again,
without even giving him an opportunity of going to the hiring-ground. After
those for hire are disposed of, those for sale are called up.
[3.6] O, you happy free women, contrast
your New Year's day with that of the
poor bond-woman! With you it is a pleasant season, and
the light of the day is
blessed. Friendly wishes meet you every where, and gifts are showered upon you.
Even hearts that have been estranged from you soften at this season, and lips
that have been silent echo back, "I wish you a happy New Year." Children bring
their little offerings, and raise their rosy lips for a caress. They are your
own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you.
[3.7] But to the slave mother New Year's day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She
sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her
the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the
day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has
brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother's instincts, and is capable
of feeling a mother's agonies.
[3.8] On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the
auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they
took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was
brought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away.
She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he
refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one,
wherever he could command the highest price? I met that mother in
the street, and her wild, haggard face lives to-day in my mind. She wrung her
hands in anguish, and exclaimed, "Gone! All gone! Why
don't God kill me?"
I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily,
yea, of hourly occurrence.
[3.9] Slaveholders have a method, peculiar to their institution, of getting rid of
old slaves, whose lives have been worn out in their service. I knew an old
woman, who for seventy years faithfully served her master. She had become almost
helpless, from hard labor and disease. Her owners moved to Alabama, and the old
black woman was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for
V. The Trials Of Girlhood.
[5.1] During the first years of my service in Dr. Flint's family, I was accustomed to
share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to
me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by
the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a
sad epoch in the life of a slave girl.
My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as
I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with
indifference or contempt. The master's age, my extreme youth, and the fear that
his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment
for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish
his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims
tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue.
Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling.
[5.3] He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my
grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as
only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred.
But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with
him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred
commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to
his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny.
But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether
the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case,
there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even
from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The
mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings
towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the
vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater
than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths
that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel
bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would
refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which
trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.
[5.5] Every where the years bring to all enough of sin and sorrow; but
in slavery the
very dawn of life is darkened by these shadows. Even the little child, who is
accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children, will learn, before she is
twelve years old, why it is that her mistress hates such and such a one among
the slaves. Perhaps the child's own mother is among those hated ones. She
listens to violent outbreaks of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding
what is the cause. She will become prematurely knowing in evil things.
will learn to tremble when she hears her master's footfall.
She will be
compelled to realize that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty
upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in
the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.
[5.6] I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to
feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely,
and shrink from the memory of it. I cannot tell how much I suffered in the
presence of these wrongs, nor how I am still pained by the retrospect.
met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by
heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him. If I went out for a
breath of fresh air, after a day of unwearied toil, his footsteps dogged me. If
I knelt by my mother's grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there. The light
heart which nature had given me became heavy with sad forebodings. The other
slaves in my master's house noticed the change. Many of them pitied me; but none
dared to ask the cause. They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the
guilty practices under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was
an offence that never went unpunished.
[5.7] I longed for some one to confide in. I would have given the world to have laid
my head on my grandmother's faithful bosom, and told her all my troubles. But
Dr. Flint swore he would kill me, if I was not as silent as the grave. Then,
although my grandmother was all in all to me, I feared her as well as loved her.
I had been accustomed to look up to her with a respect bordering upon awe. I was
very young, and felt shamefaced about telling her such impure things, especially
as I knew her to be very strict on such subjects.
[5.8] Moreover, she was a woman of a high spirit. She was
usually very quiet in her demeanor; but if her indignation was once roused, it
was not very easily quelled. I had been told that she once chased a white
gentleman with a loaded pistol, because he insulted one of her daughters. I
dreaded the consequences of a violent outbreak; and both pride and fear kept me
[5.9] But though I did not confide in
my grandmother, and even
evaded her vigilant watchfulness and inquiry, her presence in the neighborhood
was some protection to me. Though she had been a slave, Dr. Flint was afraid of
her. He dreaded her scorching rebukes. Moreover, she was known and patronized by
many people; and he did not wish to have his villainy made public. It was lucky
for me that I did not live on a distant plantation, but in a town not so large
that the inhabitants were ignorant of each other's affairs. Bad as are the laws
and customs in a slaveholding community, the doctor, as a professional man,
deemed it prudent to keep up some outward show of decency.
[5.10] O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me! Reader, it is not
to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered
in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my
sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered.
[5.11] I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child;
the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each
other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely
sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave's
heart. I knew how soon her laughter would be changed to sighs. The fair child
grew up to be a still fairer woman. From childhood to womanhood her pathway was
blooming with flowers, and overarched by a
sunny sky. Scarcely one day of her
life had been clouded when the sun rose on her happy bridal morning.
[5.12] How had those years dealt with her slave sister, the little playmate of her
childhood? She, also, was very beautiful; but the flowers and sunshine of love
were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her
persecuted race are compelled to drink.
[5.13] In view of these things, why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north?
Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right? Would that I had more
ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak! There are
noble men and women who plead for us, striving to help those who cannot help
themselves. God bless them! God give them strength and courage to go on! God
bless those, every where, who are laboring to advance the cause of
VI. The Jealous Mistress.
[6.1] I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the half-starved
paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered among the slaves of America. I
would rather drudge out my life on a cotton plantation, till the grave opened to
give me rest, than to live with an unprincipled master and a jealous mistress.
The felon's home in a
penitentiary is preferable. He may repent, and turn from the error of his ways,
and so find peace; but it is not so with a favorite slave. She is not allowed to
have any pride of character. It is deemed a crime in her to wish to be virtuous.
[6.2] Mrs. Flint possessed the key to her husband's character before I was born. She
might have used this knowledge to counsel and to screen the young and the
innocent among her slaves; but for them she had no sympathy. They were the
objects of her constant suspicion and malevolence. She watched her husband with
unceasing vigilance; but he was well practiced in means to evade it. What he
could not find opportunity to say in words he manifested in signs. He invented
more than were ever thought of in a deaf and dumb asylum. I let them pass, as if
I did not understand what he meant; and many were the curses and threats
bestowed on me for my stupidity.
One day he caught me teaching myself to write. He frowned,
as if he was not well pleased; but I suppose he came to the conclusion that such
an accomplishment might help to advance his favorite scheme. Before long, notes
were often slipped into my hand. I would return them, saying, "I can't read
them, sir." "Can't you?" he replied; "then I must read them to you." He always
finished the reading by asking, "Do you understand?"
[6.4] Sometimes he would complain of the heat of the tea room,
and order his supper to be placed on a small table in the piazza. He would seat
himself there with a well-satisfied smile, and tell me to stand by and brush
away the flies. He would eat very slowly, pausing between the mouthfuls. These
intervals were employed in describing the happiness I was so foolishly throwing
away, and in threatening me with the penalty that finally awaited my stubborn
disobedience. He boasted much of the forbearance he had exercised towards me,
and reminded me that there was a limit to his patience.
[6.5] When I succeeded in avoiding opportunities for him to talk
to me at home, I was ordered to come to his office, to do some errand. When
there, I was obliged to stand and listen to such language as he saw fit to
address to me. Sometimes I so openly expressed my contempt for him that he would
become violently enraged, and I wondered why he did not strike me.
[6.6] Circumstanced as he was, he probably thought it was better
policy to be forebearing. But the state of things grew worse and worse daily. In
desperation I told him that I must and would apply to my grandmother for
protection. He threatened me with death, and worse than death, if I made any
complaint to her. Strange to say, I did not despair. I was naturally of a
buoyant disposition, and always I had a hope of somehow getting out of his
clutches. Like many a poor, simple slave before me, I trusted that some threads
of joy would yet be woven into my dark destiny.
[6.7] I had entered my sixteenth year, and every day it became more apparent that my
presence was intolerable to Mrs. Flint. Angry words frequently passed between
her and her husband. He had never punished me himself, and he would not allow
any body else to punish me. In that respect, she was never satisfied; but, in
her angry moods, no terms were too vile for her to bestow upon me. Yet I, whom
she detested so bitterly, had far more pity for her than he had, whose duty it
was to make her life happy. I never wronged her, or wished to wrong her, and one
word of kindness from her would have brought me to her feet.
[6.8] After repeated quarrels between the doctor and his wife, he announced his
intention to take his youngest daughter, then four years old, to sleep in his
apartment. It was necessary that a servant should sleep in the same room, to be
on hand if the child stirred. I was selected for that office, and informed for
what purpose that arrangement had been made.
By managing to keep within sight of
people, as much as possible, during the day time, I had hitherto succeeded in
eluding my master, though a razor was often held to my throat to force me to
change this line of policy. At night I slept by the side of my great aunt, where
I felt safe. He was too prudent to come into her room. She was an old woman, and
had been in the family many years. Moreover,
as a married man, and a
professional man, he deemed it necessary to save appearances in some degree. But
he resolved to remove the obstacle in the way of his scheme; and he thought he
had planned it so that he should evade suspicion. He was well aware how much I
prized my refuge by the side of my old aunt, and he determined to dispossess me
of it. The first night the doctor had the little child in his room alone. The
next morning, I was ordered to take my station as nurse the following night. A
kind Providence interposed in my favor. During the day Mrs. Flint heard of this
new arrangement, and a storm followed. I rejoiced to hear it rage.
[6.9] After a while my mistress sent for me to come to her room. Her first question
was, "Did you know you were to sleep in the doctor's room?"
[6.10] "Yes, ma'am."
[6.11] "Who told you?"
[6.12] "My master."
[6.13] "Will you answer truly all the questions I ask?"
[6.14] "Yes, ma'am."
[6.15] "Tell me, then, as you hope to be forgiven, are you innocent of what I have
[6.16] "I am."
[6.17] She handed me a Bible, and said, "Lay your hand on your heart, kiss this holy
book, and swear before God that you tell me the truth."
[6.18] I took the oath she required, and I did it with a clear conscience.
[6.19] "You have taken God's holy word to testify your innocence," said she. "If you
have deceived me, beware! Now take this stool, sit down, look me directly in the
face, and tell me all that has passed between your master and you."
[6.20] I did as she ordered. As I went on with my account her color changed frequently,
she wept, and sometimes groaned. She spoke in tones so sad, that I was touched
by her grief. The tears came to my eyes; but I was soon convinced that her
emotions arose from anger and wounded pride.
She felt that her marriage vows
were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor
victim of her husband's perfidy [deceit, treachery]. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was
incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her
unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.
Yet perhaps she had some touch of
feeling for me; for when the conference was ended, she spoke kindly, and
promised to protect me. I should have been much comforted by this assurance if I
could have had confidence in it; but my experiences in slavery had filled me
with distrust. She was not a very refined woman, and had not much control over
her passions. I was an object of her jealousy, and, consequently, of her hatred;
and I knew I could not expect kindness or confidence from her under the
circumstances in which I was placed. I could not blame her. Slaveholders' wives
feel as other women would under similar circumstances. The fire of her temper
kindled from small-sparks, and now the flame became so intense that the doctor
was obliged to give up his intended arrangement.
[6.21] I knew I had ignited the torch, and I expected to suffer for it afterwards; but
I felt too thankful to my mistress for the timely aid she rendered me to care
much about that. She now took me to sleep in a room adjoining her own. There I
was an object of her especial care, though not to her especial comfort, for she
spent many a sleepless night to watch over me. Sometimes I woke up, and found
her bending over me. At other times she whispered in my
ear, as though it was her husband who was speaking to me, and listened to hear
what I would answer. If she startled me, on such occasions, she would glide
stealthily away; and the next morning she would tell me I had been
talking in my sleep, and ask who I was talking to. At last, I began to be
fearful for my life. It had been often threatened; and you can imagine, better
than I can describe, what an unpleasant sensation it must produce to
wake up in the dead of night and find a jealous woman bending over you. Terrible
as this experience was, I had fears that it would give place to one more
[6.22] My mistress grew weary of her vigils; they did not prove satisfactory. She
changed her tactics. She now tried the trick of accusing my master of crime, in
my presence, and gave my name as the author of the accusation. To my utter
astonishment, he replied, "I don't believe it; but if she did acknowledge it,
you tortured her into exposing me." Tortured into exposing him!
Truly, Satan had
no difficulty in distinguishing the color of his soul! I understood his object
in making this false representation. It was to show me that I gained nothing by
seeking the protection of my mistress; that the power was still all in his own
hands. I pitied Mrs. Flint. She was a second wife, many years the junior of her
husband; and the hoary-headed miscreant was enough to try the patience of a
wiser and better woman. She was completely foiled, and knew not how to proceed.
She would gladly have had me flogged for my supposed false oath; but, as I have
already stated, the doctor never allowed any one to whip me. The old sinner was
The application of the lash might have led to remarks that would have exposed
him in the eyes of his children and grandchildren.
How often did I rejoice that
I lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each other! If I had been on a
remote plantation, or lost among the multitude of a crowded city, I should not
be a living woman at this day.
[6.23] The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition
Inquisition, 1480-1700s]. My master
was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to
tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude
to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the
[6.24] My grandmother could not avoid seeing things which excited her suspicions. She
was uneasy about me, and tried various ways to buy me; but the never-changing
answer was always repeated: "Linda does not belong to
She is my daughter's property, and I have no legal right to sell her." The
conscientious man! He was too scrupulous to sell me; but he had no
scruples whatever about committing a much greater wrong against the helpless
young girl placed under his guardianship, as his daughter's property. Sometimes
my persecutor would ask me whether I would like to be sold. I told him I would
rather be sold to any body than to lead such a life as I did. On such occasions
he would assume the air of a very injured individual, and reproach me for my
ingratitude. "Did I not take you into the house, and make you the companion of
my own children?" he would say. "Have I ever treated you like a negro? I
have never allowed you to be punished, not even to please your mistress. And
this is the recompense I get, you ungrateful girl!" I answered that he had
reasons of his own for screening me from punishment, and that the course he
pursued made my mistress hate me and persecute me. If I wept, he would say,
"Poor child! Don't cry! don't cry! I will make peace for you with your mistress.
Only let me arrange matters in my own way. Poor, foolish girl! you don't know
what is for your own good. I would cherish you. I would make a lady of you. Now
go, and think of all I have promised you."
[6.25] I did think of it.
[6.26] Reader, I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the
plain truth. Yet when victims make their escape from the wild beast of Slavery,
northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive
back into his den, "full of dead men's bones, and all uncleanness." Nay, more,
they are not only willing, but proud, to give their daughters in marriage to
slaveholders. The poor girls have romantic notions of a sunny clime, and of the
flowering vines that all the year round shade a happy home. To what
disappointments are they destined! The
young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her
happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of
complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are
born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home,
and it is ravaged of its loveliness.
[6.27] Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of many little
slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it.
They regard such children as
property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation; and it
is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing them into the
slave-trader's hands as soon as possible, and thus getting them out of their
sight. I am glad to say there are some honorable exceptions.
[6.28] I have myself known two southern wives who exhorted their husbands to free those
slaves towards whom they stood in a "parental relation;" and their request was
granted. These husbands blushed before the superior nobleness
of their wives' natures. Though they had only counseled them to do that which it
was their duty to do, it commanded their respect, and rendered their conduct
more exemplary. Concealment was at an end, and confidence took the place of
[6.29] Though this bad institution deadens the moral sense, even in white women, to a
fearful extent, it is not altogether extinct. I have heard southern ladies say
of Mr. Such a one, "He not only thinks it no disgrace to be the father of those
little niggers, but he is not ashamed to call himself their master. I declare,
such things ought not to be tolerated in any decent society!"
VII. The Lover.
[7.1] Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine
around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?
When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in
resignation, and say, "Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord!" But when the
ruthless hand of man strikes the blow, regardless of the misery he causes, it is
hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will
be youth. I loved and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would
turn out a bright lining. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are
too dense for light to penetrate. . . .
[7.2] There was in the neighborhood
a young colored carpenter; a free born man. We had
been well acquainted in childhood, and frequently met together afterwards. We
became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I
loved him with all the ardor of a young girl's first love.
[7.3] But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the
gave no sanction to the marriage of such, my heart sank within me.
wanted to buy me; but I knew that Dr. Flint was too willful and arbitrary
a man to consent to that arrangement. From him, I was sure of experiencing all
sort of opposition, and I had nothing to hope from my mistress. She would have
been delighted to have got rid of me, but not in that way.
[7.4] It would have relieved her mind of a burden if she could
have seen me sold to some distant state, but if I was married near home I should
be just as much in her husband's power as I had previously been,—for the
husband of a slave has no power to protect her. Moreover, my mistress, like many
others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their
own; that they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress. I
once heard her abuse a young slave girl, who told her that a colored man wanted
to make her his wife. "I will have you peeled and pickled, my lady," said she,
"if I ever hear you mention that subject again. Do you suppose that I will have
you tending my children with the children of that nigger?" The girl to
whom she said this had a mulatto child, of course not acknowledged by its
father. The poor black man who loved her would have been proud to acknowledge
his helpless offspring.
[7.5] Many and anxious were the thoughts I revolved in my mind. I was at a loss what
to do. Above all things, I was desirous to spare my lover the insults that had
cut so deeply into my own soul. I talked with my grandmother about
it, and partly told her my fears. I did not dare to tell her the worst. She had
long suspected all was not right, and if I confirmed her suspicions I knew a
storm would rise that would prove the overthrow of all my hopes.
love-dream had been my support through many trials; and I could not bear to
run the risk of having it suddenly dissipated. There was a lady in the
neighborhood, a particular friend of Dr. Flint's, who often visited the house. I
had a great respect for her, and she had always manifested a friendly interest
in me. Grandmother thought she would have great influence with the doctor. I
went to this lady, and told her my story. I told her I was aware that my lover's
being a free-born man would prove a great objection; but he wanted to buy me;
and if Dr. Flint would consent to that
arrangement, I felt sure he would be willing to pay any reasonable price. She
knew that Mrs. Flint disliked me; therefore, I ventured to suggest that perhaps
my mistress would approve of my being sold, as that would rid her
of me. The lady listened with kindly sympathy, and promised to do her utmost to
promote my wishes. She had an interview with the doctor, and I believe she
pleaded my cause earnestly; but it was all to no purpose.
[7.7] How I dreaded my master now! Every minute I expected to be summoned to his
presence; but the day passed, and I heard nothing from him. The next morning, a
message was brought to me: "Master wants you in his study." I
found the door ajar, and I stood a moment gazing at the hateful man who claimed
a right to rule me, body and soul. I entered, and tried to appear calm. I did
not want him to know how my heart was bleeding. He looked fixedly at me, with an
expression which seemed to say, "I have half a mind to kill you on the spot." At
last he broke the silence, and that was a relief to both of us.
[7.8] "So you want to be married, do you?" said he, "and to a free nigger."
[7.9] "Yes, sir."
[7.10] "Well, I'll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you
honor so highly. If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my
[7.11] What a situation I should be in, as the wife of one of
his slaves, even
if my heart had been interested!
[7.12] I replied,
"Don't you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about
marrying? Do you suppose that all men are alike to her?"
[7.13] "Do you love this nigger?" said he, abruptly.
[7.14] "Yes, sir."
[7.15] "How dare you tell me so!" he exclaimed, in great wrath. After a slight pause,
he added, "I supposed you thought more of yourself; that you felt above the
insults of such puppies."
[7.16] I replied, "If he is a puppy, I am a puppy, for we are both of the negro race.
It is right and
honorable for us to love each other. The man you call a puppy
never insulted me, sir; and he would not love me if he did not believe me to be
a virtuous woman." [Romantic codes of
honor, chivalry, contrasted with Dr. Flint's action below]
[7.17] He sprang upon me like a tiger, and gave me a stunning blow.
It was the first
time he had ever struck me; and fear did not enable me to control my anger. When
I had recovered a little from the effects, I exclaimed, "You have struck me for
answering you honestly. How I despise you!"
[7.18] There was silence for some minutes. Perhaps he was deciding what should be my
punishment; or, perhaps, he wanted to give me time to reflect on what I had
said, and to whom I had said it. Finally, he asked, "Do you know what
you have said?"
[7.19] "Yes, sir; but your treatment drove me to it."
[7.20] "Do you know that
I have a
right to do as I like with you,—that I can kill you,
if I please?"
[7.21] "You have tried to kill me, and I wish you had; but you have
no right to do as
you like with me."
[7.22] "Silence!" he exclaimed, in a thundering voice. "By heavens, girl, you forget
yourself too far! Are you mad? If you are, I will soon bring you to your senses.
Do you think any other master would bear what I have borne from you this
morning? Many masters would have killed you on the spot. How would you like to
be sent to jail for your insolence?"
[7.23] "I know I have been disrespectful, sir," I replied; "but you drove me to it; I
couldn't help it. As for the jail, there would be more peace for me there than
there is here."
[7.24] "You deserve to go there," said he, "and to be under such treatment, that you
would forget the meaning of the word peace. It would do you good. It
would take some of your high notions out of you. But I am not ready to send you
there yet, notwithstanding your ingratitude for all my kindness and forbearance.
You have been the plague of my life. I have wanted to make you happy, and I have
been repaid with the basest ingratitude; but though you have proved yourself
incapable of appreciating my kindness, I will be lenient towards you, Linda. I
will give you one more chance to redeem your character. If you behave yourself
and do as I require, I will forgive you and treat you as I always have done; but
if you disobey me, I will punish you as I would the meanest slave on my
plantation. Never let me hear that
fellow's name mentioned again. If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will
cowhide [whip] you both; and if I catch him lurking about my premises, I will shoot him
as soon as I would a dog. Do you hear what I say? I'll teach you a lesson about
marriage and free niggers! Now go, and let this be the last time I have occasion
to speak to you on this subject."
[7.25] Reader, did you ever hate? I hope not. I never did but once; and I trust I never
shall again. Somebody has called it "the atmosphere of hell;" and I believe it
[7.26] For a fortnight the doctor did not speak to me. He thought to mortify me; to
make me feel that I had disgraced myself by receiving the honorable addresses of
a respectable colored man, in preference to the base proposals of a white man.
But though his lips disdained to address me, his eyes were very loquacious.
animal ever watched its prey more narrowly than he watched me. He knew that I
could write, though he had failed to make me read his letters; and he was now
troubled lest I should exchange letters with another man. After a while he
became weary of silence; and I was sorry for it.
[7.27] One morning, as he passed through the hall, to leave the
house, he contrived to thrust a note into my hand. I thought I had better read
it, and spare myself the vexation of having him read it to me. It expressed
regret for the blow he had given me, and reminded me that I myself was wholly to
blame for it. He hoped I had become convinced of the injury I was doing myself
by incurring his displeasure. He wrote that he had made up his
mind to go to Louisiana; that he should take several slaves with him, and
intended I should be one of the number. My mistress would remain where she was;
therefore I should have nothing to fear from that quarter. If I merited kindness
from him, he assured me that it would be lavishly bestowed. He begged me to
think over the matter, and answer the following day.
[7.28] The next morning I was called to carry a pair of scissors to his room. I laid
them on the table, with the letter beside them. He thought it was my answer, and
did not call me back. I went as usual to attend my young mistress to and from
school. He met me in the street, and ordered me to stop at his office on my way
back. When I entered, he showed me his letter, and asked me why I had not
answered it. I replied, "I am your daughter's property, and it is in your power
to send me, or take me, wherever you please." He said he was very glad to find
me so willing to go, and that we should start early in the autumn. He had a
large practice in the town, and I rather thought he had made up the story merely
to frighten me. However that might be, I was determined that I would never go to
Louisiana with him.
[7.29] Summer passed away, and early in the autumn Dr. Flint's eldest son was sent to
Louisiana to examine the country, with a view to emigrating. That news did not
disturb me. I knew very well that I should not be sent with
him. That I
had not been taken to the plantation before this time, was owing to the fact
that his son was there. He was jealous of his son; and jealousy of the overseer
had kept him from punishing me by sending me into the fields to work. Is it
strange, that I was not proud of these protectors? As for the overseer, he was a
man for whom I had less respect than I had for a bloodhound.
[7.30] Young Mr. Flint did not bring back a favorable report of Louisiana, and I heard
no more of that scheme. Soon after this, my lover met me at the corner of the
street, and I stopped to speak to him. Looking up, I saw my master watching us
from his window. I hurried home, trembling with fear. I was sent for,
immediately, to go to his room. He met me with a blow. "When is mistress to be
married?" said he, in a sneering tone. A shower of oaths and imprecations
followed. How thankful I was that my lover was a free man! that my tyrant had no
power to flog him for speaking to me in the street!
[7.31] Again and again I revolved in my mind how all this would end. There was no hope
that the doctor would consent to sell me on any terms. He had an iron will, and
was determined to keep me, and to conquer me.
My lover was an
intelligent and religious man. Even if he could have obtained permission to
marry me while I was a slave, the marriage would give him no power to protect me
from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the
insults I should have been subjected to. And then, if we had children, I knew
they must "follow the condition of the mother." What a terrible blight that
would be on the heart of a free, intelligent father! For
his sake, I felt
that I ought not to link his fate with my own unhappy destiny. He was going to
Savannah to see about a little property left him by an uncle; and hard as it was
to bring my feelings to it, I earnestly entreated him not to come back. I
advised him to go to the Free States, where his tongue would not be tied, and
where his intelligence would be of more avail to him. He left me, still hoping
the day would come when I could be bought. With me the lamp of hope had gone
out. The dream of my girlhood was over. I felt lonely and desolate.
[7.32] Still I was not stripped of all. I still had my good grandmother, and my
affectionate brother. When he put his arms round my neck, and looked into my
eyes, as if to read there the troubles I dared not tell, I felt that I still had
something to love. But even that pleasant emotion was chilled by the reflection
that he might be torn from me at any moment, by some sudden freak of my master.
If he had known how we loved each other, I think he would have exulted in
separating us. We often planned together how we could get to the north. But, as
William remarked, such things are easier said than done. My movements were very
closely watched, and we had no means of getting any money to defray our
expenses. As for grandmother, she was strongly opposed to her children's
undertaking any such project. She had not forgotten poor Benjamin's sufferings,
and she was afraid that if another child tried to escape, he would have a
similar or a worse fate. To me, nothing seemed more dreadful than my present
life. I said to myself,
"William must be free. He shall go to the north, and I will follow him."
Many a slave sister has formed the same plans.
X. A Perilous Passage In The Slave Girl's
[10.1] After my lover went away, Dr. Flint contrived a new plan. He seemed to have an
idea that my fear of my mistress was his greatest obstacle. In the blandest
tones, he told me that he was going to build a small house for me, in a secluded place, four miles away from the town. I shuddered; but I was
constrained to listen, while he talked of his intention to
give me a home of my
own, and to make a lady of me.
[10.2] Hitherto, I had escaped my dreaded fate, by being in the
midst of people. My grandmother had already had high words with my master about
me. She had told him pretty plainly what she thought of his character, and there
was considerable gossip in the neighborhood about our affairs, to which the
open-mouthed jealousy of Mrs. Flint contributed not a little. When my master
said he was going to build a house for me, and that he could do it with little
trouble and expense, I was in hopes something would happen to frustrate his
scheme; but I soon heard that the house was actually begun. I vowed before my
Maker that I would never enter it: I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn
till dark; I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on, from day to day,
through such a living death. I was determined that the master, whom I so hated
and loathed, who had blighted the prospects of my youth, and made my life a
desert, should not, after my long struggle with him, succeed at last in
trampling his victim under his feet. I would do any thing, every thing, for the
sake of defeating him. What could I do? I thought and thought, till I
became desperate, and made a plunge into the abyss.
[10.3] And now, reader, I come to a period in my unhappy life, which I would gladly
forget if I could. The remembrance fills me with sorrow and shame. It pains me
to tell you of it; but I have promised to tell you the truth, and I will do it
honestly, let it cost me what it may. I will not try to screen myself behind the
plea of compulsion from a master; for it was not so. Neither can I plead
ignorance or thoughtlessness. For years, my master had done his utmost to
pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure principles inculcated
by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood.
The influences of
slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girls; they
had made me prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world. I knew
what I did, and I did it with
[10.4] But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have
been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by
law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!
If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice;
I could have had a home shielded by the laws; and I should have been spared the
painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects
had been blighted by slavery. I wanted to keep myself pure; and, under the most
adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was
struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and
proved too strong for me
[gothic]. I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man; as if all
my efforts must be frustrated; and I became reckless in my despair.
[10.5] I have told you that Dr. Flint's persecutions and his wife's jealousy had given
rise to some gossip in the neighborhood. Among others, it chanced that
unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the
circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother, and often spoke to
me in the street. He became interested for me, and asked questions about my
master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of
sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me,
and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.
[10.6] So much attention from a superior person was, of course, flattering; for human
nature is the same in all. I also felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged
by his kind words. It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend. By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart. He was
educated and eloquent gentleman; too eloquent, alas, for the poor slave girl who
trusted in him. Of course I saw whither all this was tending. I knew the
impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not
married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a
slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems
less degrading to give one's self, than to submit to compulsion. There is
something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except
that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely
as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so
great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy.
There may be sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all
principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.
[10.7] When I found that my master had actually begun to build the lonely cottage,
other feelings mixed with those I have described. Revenge, and calculations of
interest, were added to flattered vanity and sincere gratitude for
kindness. I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint so much as to know that I
favored another, and it was something to triumph over my tyrant even in that
small way. I thought he would revenge himself by selling me, and I was sure my
friend, Mr. Sands, would buy me. He was a man of more generosity and feeling
than my master, and I thought my freedom could be easily obtained from him. The
crisis of my fate now came so near that I was desperate.
I shuddered to think of
being the mother of children that should be owned by my old tyrant. I knew that
as soon as a new fancy took him, his victims were sold far off to get rid of
them; especially if they had children. I had seen several women sold, with
babies at the breast. He never allowed his offspring by slaves to remain long in
sight of himself
and his wife. Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children
well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon. I
also felt quite sure that they would be made free. With all these thoughts
revolving in my mind, and seeing no other way of escaping the doom I so much
dreaded, I made a headlong plunge. Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader!
You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or
custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely
subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding
the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the
sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. I know I did
wrong. No one can feel
it more sensibly than I do. The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to
my dying day. Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel
that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.
[10.8] The months passed on. I had many unhappy hours. I secretly mourned over the
sorrow I was bringing on my grandmother, who had so tried to shield me from
harm. I knew that I was the greatest comfort of her old age, and that it was a
source of pride to her that I had not degraded myself, like most of the slaves.
I wanted to confess to her that I was no longer worthy of her love; but I could
not utter the dreaded words.
[10.9] As for Dr. Flint, I had a feeling of satisfaction and triumph in the thought of
telling him. From time to time he told me of his intended arrangements, and I
was silent. At last, he came and told me the cottage was completed, and ordered
me to go to it. I told him I would never enter it. He said, "I have heard enough
of such talk as that. You shall go, if you are carried by force; and you shall
[10.10] I replied, "I will never go there.
In a few months I shall be a mother."
[10.11] He stood and looked at me in dumb amazement, and left the house without a word.
I thought I should be happy in my triumph over him. But now that the truth was
out, and my relatives would hear of it, I felt wretched. Humble as were their
circumstances, they had pride in my good character. Now, how could I look at
them in the face? My self-respect was gone! I had resolved that I would be
virtuous, though I was a slave. I had said, "Let the storm beat! I will brave it
till I die." And now, how humiliated I felt!
[10.12] I went to my grandmother. My lips moved to make confession, but the words stuck
in my throat. I sat down in the shade of a tree at her door and began to sew. I
think she saw something unusual was the matter with me.
mother of slaves is very watchful. She knows there is no security for her
children. After they have entered their teens she lives in daily expectation of
trouble. This leads to many questions. If the girl is of a sensitive nature,
timidity keeps her from answering truthfully, and this well-meant course has a
tendency to drive her from maternal counsels.
[10.13] Presently, in came my mistress, like a mad woman, and accused me concerning her
husband. My grandmother, whose suspicions had been previously awakened, believed
what she said. She exclaimed, "O Linda! Has it come to this? I had rather see
you dead than to see you as you now are. You are a disgrace to your dead
mother." She tore from my fingers my mother's wedding ring and her silver
thimble. "Go away!" she exclaimed, "and never come to my house, again." Her
reproaches fell so hot and heavy, that they left me no chance to answer.
tears, such as the eyes never shed but once, were my only answer. I rose from my
seat, but fell back again, sobbing. She did not speak to me; but the tears were
running down her furrowed cheeks, and they scorched me like fire. She had always
been so kind to me! So kind! How I longed to throw myself at her feet, and
tell her all the truth! But she had
ordered me to go, and never to come there again. After a few minutes, I mustered
strength, and started to obey her. With what feelings did I now close that
little gate, which I used to open with such an eager hand in my childhood! It
closed upon me with a sound I never heard before.
[10.14] Where could I go? I was afraid to return to my master's. I walked on recklessly,
not caring where I went, or what would become of me. When I had gone four or
five miles, fatigue compelled me to stop. I sat down on the
stump of an old tree. The stars were shining through the boughs above me. How
they mocked me, with their bright, calm light!
The hours passed by, and as I sat
there alone a chilliness and deadly sickness came over me. I sank on the ground.
My mind was full of horrid thoughts. I prayed to die; but the prayer was not
answered. At last, with great effort I roused myself, and walked some distance
further, to the house of a woman who had been a friend of my mother. When I told
her why I was there, she spoke soothingly to me; but I could not be comforted. I
thought I could bear my shame if I could only be reconciled to my grandmother. I
longed to open my heart to her. I thought if she could know the real state of
the case, and all I had been bearing for years, she would perhaps judge me less
harshly. My friend advised me to send for her. I did so; but days of agonizing
suspense passed before she came. Had she utterly forsaken me? No. She came at
last. I knelt before her, and told her the things that had poisoned my life; how
long I had been persecuted; that I saw no way of escape; and in an hour of
extremity I had become desperate. She listened in silence. I told her I would
bear any thing and do any thing, if in time I had hopes of obtaining her
forgiveness. I begged of her to pity me, for my dead mother's sake. And she did
pity me. She did not say, "I forgive you;" but she looked at me lovingly, with
her eyes full of tears. She laid her old hand gently on my head, and murmured,
"Poor child! Poor child!"
XIV. Another Link To Life.
[14.1] I had not returned to my master's house since the birth of my child.
The old man
raved to have me thus removed from his immediate power; but his wife vowed, by
all that was good and great, she would kill me if I came back; and he did not
doubt her word. Sometimes he would stay away for a season. Then he would come
and renew the old threadbare discourse about his forbearance and my ingratitude.
He labored, most unnecessarily, to convince me that I had lowered myself. The
venomous old reprobate had no need of descanting on that theme. I felt
humiliated enough. My unconscious babe was the ever-present witness of my shame.
I listened with silent contempt when he talked about my having forfeited
good opinion; but I shed bitter tears that I was no longer worthy of being
respected by the good and pure. Alas! slavery still held me in its poisonous
grasp. There was no chance for me to be respectable. There was no prospect of
being able to lead a better life.
[14.2] Sometimes, when my master found that I still refused to accept what he called
his kind offers, he would threaten to sell my child. "Perhaps that will humble
you," said he.
me! Was I not already in the dust? But his threat lacerated my
heart. I knew the law gave him power to fulfill it; for slaveholders have been
cunning enough to enact that "the child shall follow the condition of the
mother," not of the
father, thus taking care that licentiousness
shall not interfere with avarice. This reflection made me clasp my innocent babe
all the more firmly to my heart. Horrid visions passed through my mind when I
thought of his liability to fall into the slave trader's hands. I wept over him,
and said, "O my child! perhaps they will leave you in some cold cabin to die,
and then throw you into a hole, as if you were a dog."
[14.4] When Dr. Flint learned that I was again to be a mother, he was exasperated
beyond measure. He rushed from the house, and returned with a pair of shears. I
had a fine head of hair; and he often railed about my pride of arranging it
nicely. He cut every hair close to my head, storming and swearing all the time.
I replied to some of his abuse, and he struck me. Some months before, he had
pitched me down stairs in a fit of passion; and the injury I received was so
serious that I was unable to turn myself in bed for many days. He then said,
"Linda, I swear by God I will never raise my hand against you again;" but I knew
that he would forget his promise.
[14.5] After he discovered my situation, he was
like a restless spirit from the pit
came every day; and I was subjected to such insults as no pen can describe. I
would not describe them if I could; they were too low, too revolting. I tried to
keep them from my grandmother's knowledge as much as I could. I knew she had
enough to sadden her life, without having my troubles to bear. When she saw the
doctor treat me with violence, and heard him utter oaths terrible enough to
palsy a man's tongue, she could not always hold her peace. It was natural and
motherlike that she should try to defend me; but it only made matters worse.
[14.6] When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had
ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for
women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and
sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.
[14.7] Dr. Flint had sworn that he would make me suffer, to my last day, for this new
crime against him, as he called it; and as long as he had me in his power
he kept his word. On the fourth day after the birth of my babe, he entered my
room suddenly, and commanded me to rise and bring my baby to him. The nurse who
took care of me had gone out of the room to prepare some nourishment, and I was
alone. There was no alternative. I rose, took up my babe, and crossed the room
to where he sat. "Now stand there," said he, "till I tell you to go back!"
child bore a strong resemblance to her father, and to the deceased Mrs. Sands,
her grandmother. He noticed this; and while I stood before him, trembling with
weakness, he heaped upon me and my little one every vile epithet he could think
of. Even the grandmother in her grave did not escape his curses. In the midst of
his vituperations I fainted at his feet. This recalled him to his senses. He
took the baby from my arms, laid it on the bed, dashed cold water in my face,
took me up, and shook me violently, to restore my consciousness before anyone
entered the room. Just then my grandmother came in, and he hurried out of the
house. I suffered in consequence of this treatment; but I begged my friends to
let me die, rather than send for the doctor. There was nothing I dreaded so much
as his presence. My life was spared; and I was glad for the sake of my little
ones. Had it not been for these ties to life, I should have been glad to be
released by death, though I had lived only nineteen years.
[14.8] Always it gave me a pang that
my children had no lawful claim to a name. Their
father offered his; but, if I had wished to accept the offer, I dared not while
my master lived. Moreover, I knew it would not be accepted at their baptism. A
Christian name they were at least entitled to; and we resolved to call my boy
for our dear good Benjamin, who had gone far away from us.
[14.9] My grandmother belonged to the church; and she was very desirous of having the
children christened. I knew Dr. Flint would forbid it, and I did not venture to
attempt it. But chance favored me. He was called to visit a patient out of town,
and was obliged to be absent during Sunday. "Now is the time," said my
grandmother; "we will take the children to church, and have them christened."
[14.10] When I entered the church,
recollections of my mother came over me, and I felt
subdued in spirit. There she had presented me for baptism, without any reason to
feel ashamed. She had been married, and had such legal rights as slavery allows
to a slave. The vows had at least been sacred to
her, and she had never
violated them. I was glad she was not alive, to know under what different
circumstances her grandchildren were presented for baptism. Why had my lot been
so different from my mother's? Her master had died when she was a child;
and she remained with her mistress till she married.
She was never in the power
of any master; and thus she escaped one class of the evils that generally fall
[14.11] When my baby was about to be christened, the former mistress of my father
stepped up to me, and proposed to give it her Christian name. To this I added
the surname of my father, who had himself no legal right to it; for my
grandfather on the paternal side was a white gentleman.
What tangled skeins
the genealogies of slavery! [skein = knot of
thread or yarn; metaphor] I loved my father; but it mortified me to be obliged
to bestow his name on my children.
[14.12] When we left the church, my father's old mistress invited me to go home with
her. She clasped a gold chain round my baby's neck.
I thanked her for this
kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my
daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she
might never feel the weight of slavery's chain, whose iron entereth into the
[Later: Linda escapes from slavery, hiding in a swamp
and, below, in a small garret of her grandmother's home. Her children still live
in the town, unaware of their mother's presence.]
XXI. The Loophole Of Retreat.
[21.1] A small shed had been added to my grandmother's house years ago. Some boards
were laid across the joists at the top, and between these boards and the roof
was a very small garret
[attic] never occupied by any thing but rats and mice
[gothic]. It was a
pent roof, covered with nothing but shingles, according to the southern custom
for such buildings. The garret was only nine feet long and seven wide. The
highest part was three feet high, and sloped down abruptly to the loose board
floor. There was no admission for either light or air. My uncle Phillip, who was
a carpenter, had very skillfully made a concealed trap-door, which communicated
with the storeroom. He had been doing this while I was waiting in the swamp. The
storeroom opened upon a piazza.
[21.2] To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the
house. The air was stifling; the darkness total. A bed had been spread on the
floor. I could sleep quite comfortably on one side; but the slope was so sudden
that I could not turn on my other without hitting the roof. The rats and mice
ran over my bed; but I was weary, and I slept such sleep as the wretched may,
when a tempest has passed over them. Morning came. I knew it only by the noises
I heard; for in my small den day and night were all the same. I suffered for air
even more than for light.
[21.3] But I was
not comfortless. I heard the voices of my
children. There was joy and there was sadness in the sound. It made my tears
flow. How I longed to speak to them! I was eager to look on their faces; but
there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep. This continued darkness
was oppressive. It seemed horrible to sit or lie in a cramped position day after
day, without one gleam of light. Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my
lot as a slave, though white people considered it an easy one; and it was so
compared with the fate of others. I was never cruelly overworked; I was never
lacerated with the whip from head to foot; I was never so beaten and bruised
that I could not turn from one side to the other; I never had my heel-strings
cut to prevent my running away; I was never chained to a log and forced to drag
it about, while I toiled in the fields from morning till night; I was never
branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds. On the contrary, I had always
been kindly treated, and tenderly cared for, until I came into the hands of Dr.
Flint. I had never wished for freedom till then. But though my life in slavery
was comparatively devoid of hardships, God pity the woman who is compelled to
lead such a life!
[21.4] My food was passed up to me through the trap-door my uncle had contrived; and my
grandmother, my uncle Phillip, and aunt Nancy would seize such opportunities as
they could, to mount up there and chat with me at the opening.
But of course
this was not safe in the daytime. It must all be done in darkness. It was
impossible for me to move in an erect position, but I crawled about my den for
exercise. One day I hit my head against something, and found it was a gimlet
[a boring-tool]. My
uncle had left it sticking there when he made the trap-door. I was as rejoiced
as Robinson Crusoe could have been at finding such a treasure. It put a lucky
thought into my head. I said to myself, "Now I will have some light. Now I will
see my children." I did not dare to begin my work during the daytime, for fear
attention. But I groped round; and having found the side next the street, where
I could frequently see my children, I stuck the gimlet in and waited for
evening. I bored three rows of holes, one above another; then I bored out the
interstices between. I thus succeeded in making one hole about an inch long and
an inch broad. I sat by it till late into the night, to enjoy the little whiff
of air that floated in. In the morning I watched for my children. The first
person I saw in the street was Dr. Flint. I had a shuddering, superstitious
feeling that it was a bad omen. Several familiar faces passed by. At last I
heard the merry laugh of children, and presently two sweet little faces were
looking up at me, as though they knew I was there, and were conscious of the joy
they imparted. How I longed to tell
them I was there!
[21.5] My condition was now a little improved. But
for weeks I was tormented by
hundreds of little red insects [realistic
detail; verisimilitude], fine as a needle's point, that pierced through
my skin, and produced an intolerable burning. The good grandmother gave me herb
teas and cooling medicines, and finally I got rid of them. The heat of my den
was intense, for nothing but thin shingles protected me from the scorching
summer's sun. But I had my consolations. Through my peeping-hole I could watch
the children, and when they were near enough, I could hear their talk. Aunt
Nancy brought me all the news she could hear at Dr. Flint's. From her I learned
that the doctor had written to New York to a colored woman, who had been born
and raised in our neighborhood, and had breathed his contaminating atmosphere.
He offered her a reward if she could find out any thing about me. I know not
what was the nature of her reply; but he soon after started for New York in
haste, saying to his family that he had business of importance to transact. I
peeped at him as he passed on his way to the steamboat. It was a satisfaction to
have miles of land and water between us, even for a little while; and it was a
still greater satisfaction to know that he believed me to be in the Free States.
My little den seemed less dreary than it had done. He returned, as he did from
his former journey to New York, without obtaining any satisfactory information.
When he passed our house next morning, Benny was standing at the gate. He had
heard them say that he had gone to find me, and he called out, "Dr. Flint, did
you bring my mother home? I want to see her." The doctor stamped his foot at him
in a rage, and exclaimed, "Get out of the way, you little damned rascal! If you
don't, I'll cut off your head."
[21.6] Benny ran terrified into the house, saying, "You can't put me in jail again. I
don't belong to you now." It was well that the wind carried the words away from
the doctor's ear. I told my grandmother of it, when we had our next conference
at the trap-door, and begged of her not to allow the children to be impertinent
to the irascible old man.
[21.7] Autumn came, with a pleasant abatement of heat. My eyes had become accustomed to
the dim light, and by holding my book or work in a certain position near the
aperture I contrived to read and sew. That was a great relief to the tedious
monotony of my life. But when winter came, the cold penetrated through the thin
shingle roof, and I was dreadfully chilled. The winters there are not so long,
or so severe, as in northern latitudes; but the houses are not built to shelter
from cold, and my little den was peculiarly comfortless. The kind grandmother
brought me bedclothes and warm drinks. Often I was obliged to lie in bed all day
to keep comfortable; but with all my precautions, my shoulders and feet were
frostbitten. O, those long, gloomy days, with no object for my eye to rest upon,
and no thoughts to occupy my mind, except the
dreary past and the uncertain
future! I was thankful when there came a day sufficiently mild for me to wrap
myself up and sit at the loophole to watch the passers by. Southerners have the
of stopping and talking in the streets, and I heard many conversations not
intended to meet my ears. I heard slave-hunters planning how to catch some poor
fugitive. Several times I heard allusions to Dr. Flint, myself, and the history
of my children, who, perhaps, were playing near the gate. One would say, "I
wouldn't move my little finger to catch her, as old Flint's property." Another
would say, "I'll catch any nigger for the reward.
A man ought to have what
belongs to him, if he
is a damned brute." The opinion was often expressed that
I was in the Free States. Very rarely did any one suggest that I might be in the
vicinity. Had the least suspicion rested on my grandmother's house, it would
have been burned to the ground. But it was the last place they thought of.
there was no place, where
slavery existed, that could have afforded me so good a place of concealment.
[21.8] Dr. Flint and his family repeatedly tried to coax and bribe my children to tell
something they had heard said about me. One day the doctor took them into a
shop, and offered them some bright little silver pieces and gay handkerchiefs if
they would tell where their mother was. Ellen shrank away from him, and would
not speak; but Benny spoke up, and said, "Dr. Flint, I don't know where my
mother is. I guess she's in New York; and when you go
there again, I wish you'd ask her to come home, for I want to see her; but if
you put her in jail, or tell her you'll cut her head off, I'll tell her to go
XXIII. Still In Prison.
[23.1] When spring returned, and I took in the little patch of green the aperture
commanded, I asked myself how many more summers and winters I must be condemned
to spend thus. I longed to draw in a plentiful draught of fresh air, to stretch
my cramped limbs, to have room to stand erect, to feel the earth under my feet
again. My relatives were constantly on the lookout for a chance of escape; but
none offered that seemed practicable, and even tolerably safe. The hot summer
came again, and made the turpentine drop from the thin roof over my head.
[23.2] During the long nights I was restless for
want of air, and I had no room to toss
and turn. There was but one compensation; the atmosphere was so stifled that
even mosquitoes would not condescend to buzz in it. With all my
detestation of Dr. Flint, I could hardly wish him a worse punishment, either in
this world or that which is to come, than to suffer what I suffered in one
single summer. Yet the laws allowed him to be out in the free air, while
I, guiltless of crime, was pent up here, as the only means of avoiding the
cruelties the laws allowed him to inflict upon me! I don't know what kept life
within me. Again and again, I thought I should die before long; but I saw the
leaves of another autumn whirl through the air, and felt the touch of another
winter. In summer the most terrible thunder storms were acceptable, for the rain
came through the roof, and I rolled up my bed that it might cool the hot boards
under it. Later in the season, storms sometimes wet my clothes through and
through, and that was not comfortable when the air grew chilly. Moderate storms
I could keep out by filling the chinks with oakum.
[23.3] But uncomfortable as my situation was, I had glimpses of things out of doors,
which made me thankful for my wretched hiding-place. One day I saw a slave pass
our gate, muttering, "It's his own, and he can kill it if he will." My
grandmother told me that woman's history. Her mistress had that day seen her
baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a
likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors,
and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what
had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The
next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.
[23.4] Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men. She was a slave,
the wet nurse of her mistress's children. For some trifling offence her mistress
ordered her to be stripped and whipped. To escape the degradation and the
torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death.
[23.5] Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of many such facts as
these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he
up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery
was "a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master,
and a blessing to the slave!" . . . .
[In this concluding chapter, Linda has escaped to the
north, joining her children and finding shelter and employment with the Bruce
XLI. Free At Last.
[41.1] . . . Without my knowledge, Mrs. Bruce employed a gentleman in New York to enter
into negotiations with Mr. Dodge. He proposed to pay three hundred dollars down,
if Mr. Dodge would sell me, and enter into obligations to relinquish all claim
to me or my children forever after. He who called himself my master said he
scorned so small an offer for such a valuable servant. The gentleman replied,
"You can do as you choose, sir. If you reject this offer
you will never get any thing; for the woman has friends who will convey her and
her children out of the country."
[41.2] Mr. Dodge concluded that "half a loaf was better than no bread," and he agreed
to the proffered terms. By the next mail I received this brief letter from Mrs.
Bruce: "I am rejoiced to tell you that the money for your freedom has been paid
to Mr. Dodge. Come home to-morrow. I long to see you and my sweet babe."
[41.3] My brain reeled as I read these lines. A gentleman near me said, "It's
have seen the bill of sale." "The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a
blow. So I was sold at last! A human being
sold in the free city
of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn
from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth
century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to
antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the
United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love
freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous
friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for
what never rightfully belonged to him or his.
[41.4] I had objected to having my freedom bought, yet I must confess that when it was
done I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from my weary shoulders. When I
rode home in the cars I was no longer afraid to unveil my face and look at
people as they passed. I should have been glad to have met Daniel Dodge himself;
to have had him seen me and known me, that he might have mourned over the
untoward circumstances which compelled him to sell me for three hundred dollars.
[41.5] When I reached home, the arms of my benefactress were thrown round me, and our
tears mingled. As soon as she could speak, she said, "O Linda, I'm
so glad it's all over! You wrote to me as if you thought you were going to be
transferred from one owner to another. But I did not buy you for your services.
I should have done just the same, if you had been going to sail for California
to-morrow. I should, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that you left me
a free woman."
[41.6] My heart was exceedingly full. I remembered how my poor father had tried to buy
me, when I was a small child, and how he had been disappointed. I hoped his
spirit was rejoicing over me now. I remembered how my good old grandmother had
laid up her earnings to purchase me in later years, and how often her plans had
been frustrated. How that faithful, loving old heart would leap for joy, if she
could look on me and my children now that we were free! My relatives had been
foiled in all their efforts, but God had raised me up a friend among strangers,
who had bestowed on me the precious, long-desired boon. Friend! It is a common
word, often lightly used. Like other good and beautiful things, it may be
tarnished by careless handling; but when I speak of Mrs. Bruce as my friend, the
word is sacred.
[41.7] My grandmother lived to rejoice in my freedom; but not long after, a letter came
with a black seal. She had gone "where the wicked cease from troubling, and the
weary are at rest."
[41.8] Time passed on, and a paper came to me from the south, containing an obituary
notice of my uncle Phillip. It was the only case I ever knew of such an honor
conferred upon a colored person. It was written by one of his friends, and
contained these words: "Now that death has laid him low, they call him a good
man and a useful citizen; but what are eulogies to the black man, when the world
has faded from his vision? It does not require man's praise to obtain rest in
God's kingdom." So they called a colored man a
citizen! Strange words to
be uttered in that region!
[41.9] Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and
my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slaveholders as are
the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not
saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition.
of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my
own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. I wish it for my
children's sake far more than for my own. But God so orders circumstances as to
keep me with my friend Mrs. Bruce. Love, duty, gratitude, also bind me to her
side. It is a privilege to serve her who pities my oppressed people, and who has
bestowed the inestimable boon of freedom on me and my children.
[41.10] It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in
bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not
altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender
memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a
dark and troubled sea.
Newspaper ad seeking information about escaped slave Harriet Jacobs;
James Norcom was the real Dr. Flint