Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia
An 1859 tract from the American Anti-Slavery Society reprinting a report of Mortimer Neal Thompson, a New York journalist, of a Georgia slave auction. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Mortimer Neal Thompson (1832-1875), a New York humorist and journalist, has nearly disappeared from literary history. He wrote using the pseudonym of ‘Q.C. Philander Doesticks’ and, shortly after Longfellow published The Song of Hiawatha, Thompson contributed his Hiawatha parody titled Plu-Ri-Bus-Tah (New York: Livermore and Rudd, 1856).
Thompson published regularly in The New York Tribune beginning in 1855, where he was a popular correspondent through the Civil War. In 1859 he wrote a lengthy article detailing scenes of one of the largest slave auctions in North American history, Pierce Butler’s sale of 429 slaves in October 1859 in Georgia. Conscious of probable violence against a Northern journalist if he attempted to enter the sale, held at a racetrack near Savannah, Thompson pretended to be a slave-buyer. He took copious notes, examined slaves, occasionally bid at a too-low price in order to avoid winning a bid, and pretended to be greatly disappointed that he had no success. The description he published excoriated slave auctions, slavery, and especially Pierce Butler. This account, published as a separate tract, is a rare example of an antislavery travel narrative written with the aid of a false identity.
Butler was the ex-husband of famed British actress Fanny Kemble, who became deeply opposed to slavery and separated from her husband. Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1863) is a major record of a white woman’s encounter with slavery. Pierce led the life of a wealthy gentleman of leisure and contracted large gambling debts. In order to satisfy his creditors, Pierce arranged the sale of half of his grandfather’s estate and its slaves. The sale proceeds were sufficient to restore his wealth and enable him to travel to Europe. For an account of the sale, see James T. Haley [ed.], Afro-American Encyclopedia: or the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race… (Nashville, TN: Haley and Florida, 1895) 345-347.
In his account, Thompson adopts a searing, ironic tone from behind his incognito disguise. He facetiously dismisses stereotyping and racial supremacism with such lines as “There were no light mulattoes in the whole lot of the Butler stock, and but very few that were even a shade removed from the original Congo blackness. They have been little defiled by the admixture of degenerate Anglo-Saxon blood…” (6) The private dialogue between slave-buyers that Thompson reports captures the crude commercial estimates they employed to gauge the market value of slaves.
He was especially exercised that auctions were an occasion for sexual innuendo, harassment, and threats against black women: “These gentry, with quiet step and subdued voice, moved carefully about among the live stock, ignoring, as a general rule, the men, but tormenting the women with questions which, when accidentally overheard by the disinterested spectator, bred in that spectator's mind an almost irresistible desire to knock somebody down.” (18) Throughout his narrative Thompson finds it necessary to restrain himself in order to remain a journalist. “It was almost too much for endurance to stand and see those brutal slave-drivers pushing the women about,” he writes, “pulling their lips apart with their not too cleanly hands, and committing many another indecent act.” (26)
The narrative is telling for the frankness of its reported dialogue between slave-owners, buyers, and drivers. In one conversation between them, a brutal-looking man advises, “You can manage ordinary niggers by lickin' 'em and givin' 'em a taste of the hot iron once in awhile when they're extra ugly; but if a nigger really sets himself up against me, I can't never have any patience with him. I just get my pistol and shoot him right down; and that's the best way.” (19)
This travel narrative contains points of fine psychological portraiture, as Thompson describes heart-rending scenes of separation. He writes of the individual tragedies caused by the auction, saying “The blades of grass on all the Butler estates are outnumbered by the tears that are poured out in agony at the wreck that has been wrought in happy homes, and the crushing grief that has been laid on loving hearts.” (8)
The events that Thompson described served as the basis for a young adult novel by Julius Lester, Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue (New York: Hyperion, 2005).
- Joe Lockard