Horrific Stories Included in Pivotal Abolitionist Book


John J. Dunphy

(Originally published in the Book Blog of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

New England abolitionist Theodore Weld seized upon the idea of writing a book that would use firsthand testimony to introduce naive white Americans to the horrors of slavery.

He gathered accounts from whites who had witnessed slavery in the South and border states as well as incriminating notices and advertisements published in Southern newspapers to produce (with the help of his wife, Angelina Grimké and her sister, Sarah) a landmark volume: American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. Published in 1839 by the American Anti-Slavery Society, the book became a runaway bestseller and second only to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in importance to the abolitionist movement.

Its graphic depictions of slavery make for emotionally wrenching reading, even more than a century after the book’s publication. American Slavery as It Is has special interest for St. Louis residents, since two of its accounts are based in the Gateway City.

The first St. Louis incident recounted in the book is drawn from a letter dated July 12, 1834, by Nathan Cole, a Gateway City resident, to the renowned New York abolitionist Arthur Tappan regarding the “proceedings of an inquest held lately in this city upon the body of a slave, the details of which, if published, not one in ten would induce to be true.”

The slave’s “master, or mistress, or both” had accused her of hiding some keys. The master, an army major named Harney, “whipped her for three successive days, and it is supposed by some that she was kept tied during the time until her flesh was so lacerated and torn that it was was impossible for the jury to say whether it had been done with a whip or a hot iron; some think both — but she was tortured to death.” Her name was Hannah, and she had been “the mother of a number of children.”

Harney suspected that Hannah’s husband had told a neighbor of his wife’s torture. This army officer then began torturing the husband until he escaped Harney’s clutches by running to the Mississippi and drowning himself to avoid further torment. We are told that Hannah’s husband “was a pious, industrious slave, perhaps not unsurpassed by any in this place.” We are not told his name, however. Readers are left wondering about the fate of the couple’s children.

The second St. Louis incident is even more horrifying. Francis McIntosh, a free black and riverboat worker, was taken before a justice of the peace on April 28, 1836, and charged with creating a disturbance. The justice of the peace ordered McIntosh taken to jail. A crucial detail of this tragedy, which Weld omitted, concerns the riverman’s apprehension regarding his fate in the slave state of Missouri, where blacks — even free blacks — didn’t fare well in its legal system. McIntosh asked the police officers how long he would have to remain in jail. They told him at least five years. The riverman feared that he would be sold into slavery. He panicked, drew a knife and attacked both police officers. One was killed, while the other was wounded. McIntosh fled, but he was quickly apprehended and placed in jail.

A mob assaulted the jail, dragged McIntosh from his cell, and chained him to a large locust tree. Mob leaders piled wood and shavings around him and then lighted the shavings with a hot branding iron. The mob, now numbering in the thousands, watched McIntosh burn to death.

Weld included an account of the killing by a reporter for The Telegraph of Alton. The reporter noted that when McIntosh’s eyes were “burnt out of his head and his mouth seemingly parched to a cinder, someone in the crowd, more compassionate than the rest, proposed to put an end to his misery by shooting him.”

Other mob members said that such an act was pointless, since McIntosh was already dead. To the amazement of all present, McIntosh replied, “No, no, I am not. I am suffering as much as ever. Shoot me, shoot me.” Mob members refused his plea because they wanted to prolong his suffering. Weld quoted a reporter for a New York newspaper who wrote: “The shrieks and groans of the victim were loud and piercing, and to observe one limb after another drop off was awful indeed.”

Eyewitness accounts regarding how long it took McIntosh to die vary from 10 to 20 minutes. Paul Simon, in his Elijah Lovejoy biography Freedom’s Champion, wrote that an old black man was given 75 cents to keep the fire burning overnight in order to consume McIntosh’s corpse as much as possible. The next day some boys began throwing stones at McIntosh’s charred remains in a game to see who could first break his skull.

Luke E. Lawless, a slaveholder who served as judge of Missouri’s circuit court, ruled that no one should be indicted for McIntosh’s lynching since the act was “either directly or by countenance of a majority of the citizens of St. Louis.”

Weld angrily wrote Lawless essentially decreed that “the state of Missouri has proclaimed to the world that the wretches who perpetrated that unspeakably diabolical murder, and the thousands who stood by consenting to it, were her representatives, and the Bench sanctifies it with the solemnity of a judicial decision.”

Curiously, Weld neglected to mention that the McIntosh killing and Lawless’ judicial sanctioning of it were vigorously denounced by Elijah Lovejoy, the editor of the St. Louis Observer. An enraged pro-slavery mob vandalized the newspaper’s office, which prompted Lovejoy to move his newspaper across the river to the free state of Illinois. He was murdered a year later by a mob infuriated by his editorials condemning slavery.

American Slavery as It Is is still in print. It has also been posted in its entirety online. While the book indeed calls to mind the horrors of slavery, it also serves to remind us of the courage and tenacity of the abolitionists — white and black, male and female — who refused to rest until the shackles binding their fellow Americans had been forever broken.

  • John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.