John S. Jacobs,

"A True Tale of Slavery" in

The Leisure Hour:  A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation

John S. Jacobs, the brother of Harriet Jacobs, published this autobiography in installments in the English magazine The Leisure Hour.  He uses initials to refer to people for whom his sister gave pseudonyms.  Thus he refers to Dr. N (James Norcom, whom his sister calls Dr. Flint) and Mr. S (Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, whom his sister calls Mr. Sands).

N.B. Paragraph numbers provided are not part of the original document. Editorial explanations are in square brackets [ ].

Excerpts from the original digitized document  at Documenting the South.

[From the editor of Leisure Hour:]
The writer of these autobiographical sketches has, since his escape from slavery, held positions of trust in free countries, and every statement may be relied on, although it is not thought advisable to publish names in full.

Chapter One

{1} I was born in Edenton, North Carolina, one of the oldest States in the Union, and had four different owners in eighteen years. My first owner was Miss Penelope H----, the invalid daughter of an innkeeper. After her death I became the property of her mother. My only sister was given to a niece of hers, daughter of Dr. James R. N----, also of Edenton.

{2}  My father and mother were slaves. I have a slight recollection of my mother, who died when I was young, though my father made impressions on my mind in childhood that can never be forgotten. I should do my dear old grandmother injustice did I not mention her too. There was a great difference between her meekness and my father's violent temper, although, in justice to him, I must say that slavery was the cause of

{3} To be a man, and not to be a man--a father without authority--a husband and no protector--is the darkest of fates. Such was the condition of my father, and such is the condition of every slave throughout the United States: he owns nothing, he can claim nothing. His wife is not his: his children are not his; they can be taken from him, and sold at any minute, as far away from each other as the human fleshmonger may see fit to carry them. Slaves are recognised as property by the law, and can own nothing except by the consent of their masters. A slave's wife or daughter may be insulted before his eyes with impunity. He himself may be called on to torture them, and dare not refuse. To raise his hand in their defence is death by the law. He must bear all things and resist nothing. If he leaves his master's premises at any time without a written permit, he is liable to be flogged. Yet, it is said by slaveholders and their apologists, that we are happy and contented. I will admit that slaves are sometimes cheerful; they sing and dance, as it is politic for them to do. I myself had changed owners three times before I could see the policy of this appearance of contentment. My father taught me to hate slavery, but forgot to teach me how to conceal my hatred. I could frequently perceive the pent-up agony of his soul, although he tried hard to conceal it in his own breast. The knowledge that he was a slave himself, and that his children were also slaves, embittered his life, but made him love us the more. . . .

{4} Dr. N----, being related to the family of my owner, was permitted to take me from my father in my tenth year, and put me in his shop. He too well knew the value of knowledge, and the danger of communicating it to human "property," to allow it to be disseminated among his slaves; and he therefore instructed his sons, who had charge of me, to see that I did not learn to write. Soon after this, my sister was taken into his house, but no interdict against the acquisition of knowledge, such as he had imposed upon me, could avail in her case. Our father had endeavoured to bestow upon both of us some rays of intellectual light, which the tyrant could not rob us of.

{5} . . . Being, as he was then considered, the best house-carpenter in or near the town, [my father] was not put to field-work, although the privilege of working out, and paying his owner monthly, which he once enjoyed, was now denied him. This added another link to his galling chain--sent another arrow to his bleeding heart. My father, who had an intensely acute feeling of the wrongs of slavery, sank into a state of mental dejection, which, combined with bodily illness, occasioned his death when I was eleven years of age. He left us the only legacy that a slave father can leave his child, his whips and chains. These he had taught us to hate, and we resolved to seek for liberty, though we travelled through the gates of death to find it.

Chapter Two

{6} Time passed swiftly on, and in due season death smote down Mrs. H----, my mistress. The hungry heirs ordered us slaves to mount the auction-block; and all of us, old and young, male and female, married and single, were sold to the highest bidder. Even my grandmother's grey hairs and many years' hard service in the public-house did not save her from the auctioneer's hammer. But, fortunately for her, she possessed a tried and trusty friend, in whose hands she placed the savings of thirty years, that he might purchase her and her son Mark. She had two other children, a son and a daughter, but they were owned by other parties.

{7} They began to sell off the old slaves first, as rubbish. One very old man went for one dollar; the old cook sold for seventeen dollars. The prices varied from that to 1600 dollars, which was the price of a young man who was a carpenter. Dr. N---- bought me for a shop-boy. It would be in vain for me to attempt to give a description of my feelings while standing under the auctioneer's hammer: I can safely say that I shall not realize such feelings again. . . .

{8} But to return to my subject. I left my sister in the doctor's family. Some six or eight years have passed since I was sold, and she has become the mother of two children. After the birth of her second child, she was sent to live on his plantation, where she remained for two or three months, and then ran away. As soon as she was gone, my aunt, the two children, and myself, were sent to gaol. . . .

{9} The old doctor no doubt thought that this would be the means of bringing my sister back; but you will by-and-by see that she did not leave with the intention of returning. She had not yet been called to make her back bare for the lash; but she had gone to live on the doctor's plantation, where she daily expected it. Her mental sufferings were more than she could longer bear. With her it was, in the language of one of our fathers, "liberty or death."

{10} The doctor offered 100 dollars reward for her, and threatened to punish to the extreme penalty of the law, any person or persons found harbouring, or assisting her in any way to make her escape. . . . The news was soon circulated among the slave-catchers of the north, and they were sticking their unwanted faces in every coloured man's door, on account of my sister. . . .  In two or three weeks [the doctor] received a letter from New York, stating (erroneously, as it turned out) that my sister was taken, and safely lodged in gaol. This called the old man from home. He had got to prove property and pay expenses. . . .

{11} While the old man was gone, I had a negro trader call with others to see me. His name was G----; he said he would buy me if the old doctor would sell me; I told him I thought he would--that he told me he intended to do so when he put me in gaol.

{12} After some two weeks the doctor returned home without my sister. The woman that had been taken up and put in gaol was a free woman; but what could she do with the wretch who put her there? America is a free country, and a white man can do what he pleases with a coloured man or woman in most of the States. . . . The old man came to have a little talk with me about my sister.

{13} "Well, John, I have not got Harriet, but I will have her yet. Don't you know where she is?"

{14} "How can I know, sir? I have been in gaol ever since my sister left you. Mr. G---- was here while you were away, sir, and said that he wanted to buy me."

{15} "Buy you! I don't want to sell you."

{16} "You told me when you put me here that you did."

{17} "Yes, but not if you will go back to the shop and behave yourself. Mr. G---- has not got money enough to buy you."

{18} "I do not know how to behave differently from what I have done."

{19} "Your behaviour will do; but I am afraid you are going to run away from me."

{20} "I have not said anything about running away from you, sir."

{21} "I know that; but your sister is gone, and you will be going next."

{22} Up to this time I had heard nothing of my sister; but I felt sure that she was with her friends in Edenton.

Chapter Three

{23} . . .    At the doctor's last visit to the jail, he described to me the wretchedness of the free people of colour in New York, and stated that they had not the comforts of his slaves, and how much better off we were than they. To this I said nothing. My mind was fully made up, that I must, in order to effect my escape, hide as much as possible my hatred to slavery, and affect a respect to my master, whoever he might be. The doctor and myself knew each other too well for me to hope to get away from him. I must change owners in order to do that. Secondly, I had made up my mind that, let the condition of the coloured people of New York be what it might, I would rather die a free man than live a slave. . . .

{24} There were two or three slaveholders in the town, that would give him more for me than he could get from a trader, but he would not sell me to any one in the town. Mr. S----, who afterwards bought me, came to the jail, and asked me if I would live with him if he bought me. I told him that I would; but the question was not asked how long.

{25} I had been here just two months when Mr. S---- got a negro trader to buy the two children for my grandmother and me for himself. The doctor at first tried to bind the trader not to sell me to any one in the State; but this he would not agree to, saying that he sold his slaves wherever he could get the most for them; he finally agreed to take me out of town in irons, but to sell me the first chance he could get. The old man did not think that he had bargained for me before I was sold. This important part of the business being settled, we were sold, the two children for 500 dollars, I believe, and I for 900 dollars. The blacksmith's tools, handcuffs, and chain were all in readiness at the jail. The chain was thirty or forty feet long, with handcuffs every two or three feet. The slaves were handcuffed right and left on each side of the chain. . . .

{26} Now we were all snugly chained up, the children in the cart, and the women walking behind; friends weeping, and taking a farewell shake of the hand--wives of their husbands, and parents of their children. I went with the gang as far as Mr. J. B. S----'s, the man that had my uncle taken in New York. Here the cart was stopped and the blacksmith's tools taken out, and Mr. L---- began to hammer away at my irons. When they were off, he told me to take the children and go home to Mr. S----; the children went to my grandmother, and I to Mr. S----, who had purchased me for a body servant; but, knowing the temper of the doctor, who would be angry at being outwitted, he sent me to his plantation, where I stopped for three months. . . . Up to the day that I left North Carolina, I never dared to trust myself in his power. Again and again he searched my grandmother's house for my sister. . . . He wanted to get hold of me [to extort from me my sister's hiding place, and ]. . .  with oaths of the most dreadful kind, he told me he would butcher me. I had seen too much of his cruelty to doubt his purpose.

Chapter Four

{27} . . .  [After three months] my master took me into town to live with him. . . . My work had never been very hard, neither had I known, as many do, the want of food; and as for the lash, from a boy I had declared that I would never carry its stripes upon my back. It is true my condition was much bettered with my new master; but I was happier only as I could see my chance for escape clearer. At length I grew sick of myself in acting the deceitful part of a slave, and pretending love and friendship where I had none. Unpleasant as it was thus to act, yet, under the circumstances in which I was placed, I feel that I have done no wrong in so doing; I did everything that I could to please my master, who treated me with as much kindness as I could expect from any one to whom I was a slave. . . . He asked me one day if I wanted to be sold. This woke up a little of the old feeling, and I had almost forgotten myself for a minute. "No, sir," I said, "I am not anxious to be sold, but I know I have got to serve some one." Here he made me a promise which I shall never forget, though it was not consoling to me. He said, "You shall not serve any one after me: I have been offered a very handsome price for you; but I don't want to sell you." True, I was glad to hear him say that I should serve no one after him; this required a little consideration; he was but a few years older than me, and to wait for him to die looked to me too much like giving a man who was in want of his daily bread a cheque on the bank to be paid when he is dead. To have prayed for his death would have been wrong; to have killed him would have been worse; so, finally, I concluded to let him live as long as the Lord was willing he should, and I would get off as soon as possible. My pride would not allow me to let a man feed and clothe me for nothing; I would work the ends of my fingers off first. . . .

{28}  At this time my condition was so much better than my sister's, that I had almost ceased to speak of leaving in the presence of my grandmother; for there is an inexpressible feeling in the breast of a woman who has lost child after child, whether it has been taken by force or by the hand of death, that makes her cling with tighter grasp to the last one. . . .

{29} My grandmother's house had seven rooms--two upper rooms, and five on the lower floor: on the west side there was a piazza. On the east side there were two rooms, with a lobby leading to the centre of the house. The room on the left on entering the lobby was used as a store-room; the ceiling of this room was of boards, the roof was shingled; the space between the roof and ceiling was from three and a half to four feet in height, running off to a point. My uncle made a cupboard in one corner of this room, with the top attached to the ceiling. The part of the board that covered the top of the cupboard was cut and made into a trap-door; the whole of it was so small and neatly done that no one would have believed it to be what it was--the entrance to her hiding-place. Everything that she received was put in that little cupboard. One of the upper rooms was lathed and plastered; a hole was broken in the wall, through which she could speak to my uncle or grandmother; and, to prevent her losing the use of her limbs, the windows were sometimes closed that she might come down and walk about the room. When she was sick, I visited her, and gave her such medicines as she needed. . . .  Although [the doctor] could hear nothing of her, he somehow seemed to think that she had not made her escape. . . .  The doctor's wife was as anxious as himself to get my sister again, and made promises of handsome presents to the slaves if they would try to find out where she was, but to no effect. She remained in that strange place of concealment six years and eleven months before she could get away!

Chapter Five

{30} The latter end of the third year after I was sold, my master was elected Member of Congress. . . . I could tell many things I observed of the life of members of Congress when at Washington, but I refrain from mentioning more than one or two customs of social life.

{31} I will say it is twelve o'clock. The ladies have taken breakfast. A visitor comes and rings the door-bell, and you, on answering it, tell her that the mistress is not in; the reply most invariably is, "Go and tell her who it is, and she will be in." Just as well say, "Go and tell her she has lied, not knowing who has called to see her." The same is the case of the gentlemen. Here is a bill before the House, the merits and demerits of which they have spent weeks in discussing; it is now to be voted on at such an hour. The sergeant-at-arms is sent out in search of the absent members; some of them are having a little game of cards--could not think of waiting until after four o'clock; the pay is just the same for playing cards as though they were making laws, only you must lie a little when the sergeant-at-arms calls, and say that you are not in. I could not bear this system of lying. I avoided answering these calls whenever I could.

{32} After my master had been there a short time, he went to board with Mrs. P----, who had two young nieces here, to one of whom he was soon engaged to be married. As good luck would have it, this young lady had a sister living in Chicago, and no place would suit her like that to get married in, I admired her taste much. I wanted to go there too. My master could not do otherwise than give his consent to go there with her. The next question to be settled was about taking me with him into a free state. Near the time for him to leave, he told me that he intended to marry. I was pleased at this, and anxious to know who the fortunate lady might be. He did not hesitate to tell me what he intended to do, stating at the same time that he would take me with him if I would not leave him. "Sir," said I, "I never thought that you suspected me of wanting to leave you."

{33} "I do not suspect you, John. Some of the members of the House have tried to make me believe that you would run away if I took you with me. Well, get my things all ready; we are to leave on the first day of next week; I will try you, any how."

{34} Everything was ready, and the hoped-for time came. He took his intended, and off we started for the West. When we were taking the boat at Baltimore for Philadelphia, he came up to me and said, "Call me Mr. Sawyer; and if anybody asks you who you are, and where you are going, tell them that you are a free man, and hired by me."

{35} . . . [In] New York, where we stopped three or four days, I went to see some of my old friends from home, who I knew were living there. I told them that I wanted their advice. They knew me, they knew my master, and they knew my friends also. "Now tell me my duty," said I. The answer was a very natural one, "Look out for yourself first." I weighed the matter in my mind, and found the balance in favour of stopping. If I returned along with my master, I could do my sister no good, and could see no further chance of my own escape. I then set myself to work to get my clothes out of the Astor House Hotel, where we were stopping; I brought them out in small parcels, as if to be washed. This job being done, the next thing was to get my trunk to put them in. I went to Mr. Johnson's shop, which was in sight of the Astor House Hotel, and told him that I wanted to get my trunk repaired. The next morning I took my trunk in my hand with me: when I went down, whom should I see at the foot of the steps but Mr. Sawyer? I walked up to him, and showed him a rip in the top of the trunk, opening it at the same time that he might see that I was not running off. He told me that I could change it, or get a new one if I liked. I thanked him, and told him we were very near home now, and with a little repair the old one would do. At this we parted. I got a friend to call and get my trunk, and pack up my things for me, that I might be able to get them at any minute. Mr. Sawyer told me to get everything of his in, and be ready to leave for home the next day. I went to all the places where I had carried anything of his, and where they were not done, I got their cards and left word for them to be ready by the next morning. What I had got were packed in his trunk; what I had not been able to get, there were the cards for them in his room. They dine at the Astor at three o'clock; they leave the room at four o'clock; at half-past four o'clock I was to be on board the boat for Providence. Being unable to write myself at that time, and unwilling to leave him in suspense, I got a friend to write as follows:--
"Sir--I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours,
{36} This note was to be put into the post-office in time for him to get it the next morning. I waited on him and his wife at dinner. As the town clock struck four, I left the room. I then went through to New Bedford, where I stopped for a few months.

{37} Thank God! I am now out of their reach; the old doctor is dead; I can forgive him for what he did do, and would have done if he could. The lawyer I have quite a friendly feeling for, and would be pleased to meet him as a countryman and a brother, but not as a master.

Chapter Six

{38} . . .  For the first week or so I could not realize the great transformation from a chattel slave to a man; it seemed to me like a dream; but I soon began to feel my responsibility, and the necessity of mental improvement. The first thing, therefore, that I strove to do was to raise myself above the level of the beast, where slavery had left me, and fit myself for the society of man. I first tried this in New Bedford by working in the day and going to school at night. Sometimes my business would be such that I could not attend evening schools; so I thought the better plan would be to get such books as I should want, and go a voyage to sea. I accordingly shipped on board the "Frances Henrietta," of New Bedford. This was a whaling voyage; but I will not trouble you with any fishing stories. I will make it short. After being absent three years and a half, we returned home with a full ship, 1700 barrels of sperm oil and 1400 of whale oil.

{39} I had made the best possible use of my leisure hours on board, and kept the object that drove me from my friends and my home before me when on shore. I had promised myself, if what money I had coming to me would be an inducement to any one to bring my sister off from the south, that I would have her; but there was better news than that, in the bosom of an old friend, waiting to be delivered.

{40} The ship dropped her anchor, and the shore boats came off with friends of different persons on board, among whom was R. P----. He had scarcely spoken to me before he began to tell me about my sister; her coming to New Bedford in search of me, and her going back to New York, where, he told me, I should find her. This news was to me quite unexpected. I said, if my sister was free from her oppressor, I was a happy man. I hurried on shore, drew some money of the owners, and made my way to New York. I found my sister living with a family as nurse at the Astor House. At first she did not look natural to me; but how should she look natural, after having been shut out from the light of heaven for six years and eleven months! I did not wish to know what her sufferings were, while living in her place of concealment. The change that it had made in her was enough to make one's soul cry out against this curse of curses, that has so long trampled humanity in the dust.

{41} After she had recovered a little from the surprise of seeing me, I began to speak of home. "Oh, brother," she said, "grandmother was so disappointed in your stopping behind. Mr. S---- had written for them to make ready his house for his reception on such a day; grandmother got the news of it, and invited some of your old friends to come and spend the evening with you. Supper was all ready, and our ears were all intent to catch the first blast of the stage horn, when Uncle Mark left the room to go and meet you. The coach drove up to the tavern door, and the passengers had all got out, when Dr. W---- asked Mr. S---- what had become of you. He said the abolitionists had got you away from him in New York. When Uncle Mark returned, grandmother looked for awhile, and then asked, 'Where is my child?' 'He is gone, mother; he left Mr. S---- in New York.'

{42} "When she heard that you were gone, she wept like a child. Aunt Sue Bent was there, and on seeing grandmother's tears, said to her: 'Molly, my child, this is no time for crying. Dry up those tears, fall upon your knees, and thank God that one more has made his escape from the house of bondage. I came here to see him, but I am glad he is not here. God bless the boy, and keep him from all harm.'

{43} "This (continued my sister) increased my anxiety, and caused me to adopt new plans for my escape. . . . My uncle saw that escape was my only hope, and that there was no time like the present for action. While everybody believed that I was in New York was the best time to get there. He accordingly made arrangements with the captain of a vessel running between New York and Edenton, for my passage to the former port.

{44} "I had been here but a short time, when some of my friends sent for me to acquaint me of my danger. . . . Dr. N---- . . .  wants to catch me, to make an example of, for the good of the institution of slavery. But, brother, I have now fallen into new hands. Mary Matilda N---- is married to a northern man. He, too, is trying to find out where I am stopping in New York. I know not where to go, nor what to do."

{45} I could see my sister's danger, and well imagine her feelings. We selected Boston, Massachusetts, for our home, and remained there quietly for a few years. Massachusetts had so far precluded the slaveholders from her borders, as to make the hunted fugitive feel himself somewhat secure under the shadow of her laws. Her great men had not sold themselves to the slave power, and her little men had not learnt that they were slaves until after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill. From that hour I resolved to seek a home in some foreign clime.

{46} Mrs.----, on hearing my intention to leave the north, sent for me. I called on her and was shown to her room by my sister, when the following conversation took place.

{47} "John, I understand you intend to leave for some years."

{48} "I do, madam."

{49} "Then my business with you is with respect to your sister. She has spent many years in our family, and we are still desirous to have her remain with us. John, I know that the law is an absolute one, and that the prosecutors are deaf to the claims of justice and humanity; but I have resolved that Harriet shall not be taken out of my house. This I will promise you as a lady."

{50} A few months after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill, my sister was looking over the list of arrivals in one of the daily papers, when she saw the names of Mr. and Mrs. M---- of Edenton. She immediately made it known to Mrs.----, who sent her out of the house without a moment's delay. As the little girl that she had charge of at the time would not be separated from her, they were both sent off together. In due time Mr. M---- came rapping at the door, not as an honest man, but as a slave-catcher. The door being opened, he said to the woman, "Go and tell Harriet that I have got a letter for her; it is from her grandmother, and I have promised to deliver it to her myself." The message was taken to Mrs.----, who informed him that my sister had left town, and that he could not see her. M---- saw that all of his plans were frustrated, and sold my sister for 300 dollars. She was paid for by her mistress and her friends, and is now living in safety.

Chapter Seven

{51} In concluding this short statement of my experience of slavery, I beg the reader to remember that I am not writing of what I have heard, but of what I have seen, and of what I defy the world to prove false. . . .

[Jacobs uses this chapter to detail the cruelty he had observed from slaveowners.]

{52} I know that the picture I have drawn of slavery is a black one, and looks most unnatural; but here you have the State, the town, and the names of all the parties. One who has never felt the sting of slavery would naturally suppose that it was to the slaveholder's advantage to treat his slaves with kindness; but the more indulgent the master the more intelligent the slave; the more intelligent the slave, the nearer he approximates to a man; the nearer he approximates to a man, the more determined he is to be a free man; and to argue that the slaves are happy, or can be happy while in slavery, is to argue that they have been brutalized to that degree that they cannot be considered men. What better proof do you want in favour of universal freedom than can be given? You can find thousands of ignorant men who will lay down their lives for their liberty; can you find one intelligent man who would prefer slavery?

{53} The last thing that remained to be done to complete this hell on earth was done in 1850, in passing the Fugitive Slave Law. There is not a State, a city, nor a town left as a refuge for the hunted slave; there is not a United States officer but what has sworn to act the part of the bloodhound in hunting me down, if I dare visit the land of Stars and Stripes, the home of the brave, and land of the free. Yet, according to the American declaration of independence, it is a self-evident truth that all men are created by their Maker free and equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where are the coloured man's rights to-day in America? They once had rights allowed them. Yes, in the days that tried men's souls they had a right to bleed and die for the country; but their deeds are forgotten, their swords and bayonets have been beaten into chains and fetters to bind the limbs of their children. The first man that was seen to fall in the revolutionary struggle for liberty, was a coloured man; and I have seen one of his brethren, who had fled from his whips and chains, within sight of that monument erected to liberty, dragged from it into slavery, not by the slave-owners of the south, for they knew not of his being there, but by northern men. . . .

{54} In conclusion, let me say that the experience of the past, the present feeling, and above all this, the promise of God, assure me that the oppressor's rod shall be broken. But how it is to be done has been the question among our friends for years. After the prayers of twenty-five years, the slaves' chains are tighter than they were before, their escape more dangerous, and their cup of misery filled nearer its brim. Since I cannot forget that I was a slave, I will not forget those that are slaves. What I would have done for my liberty I am willing to do for theirs, whenever I can see them ready to fill a freeman's grave, rather than wear a tyrant's chain. The day must come; it will come. Human nature will be human nature; crush it as you may, it changes not; but woe to that country where the sun of liberty has to rise up out of a sea of blood. When I have thought of all that would pain the eye, sicken the heart, and make us turn our backs to the scene and weep, I then think of the oppressed struggling with their oppressors, and have a scene more horrible still. But I must drop this subject; I do not like to think of the past, nor look to the future, of wrongs like these.

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