by Hugh Gilmore
There are things you read because you’d heard about them or you read a review somewhere, but there are other, humbler, things which can appear under your nose one day and can shake your very bones. This is such a story.
I run a business buying and selling old books and “paper.” Two weeks ago, I was browsing some 19th century pamphlets I’d stored in a crawl space. I made topic piles: the Second National Bank; post-Civil War Reconstruction; slavery. I stopped and read some titles. “A Discourse on the Slavery Question,” 1839. “The Southern Platform: A Manual of Southern Sentiment on the Subject of Slavery,” 1858. “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” 1836.
Then, almost missed because it was postcard-sized, I saw a pamphlet titled “GREAT AUCTION OF SLAVES/ AT SAVANNAH, GEORGIA/ March 2nd and 3rd, 1859/ Reported for the Tribune.”
Great? A GREAT slave auction? Like a “great” rock concert? Or a great book? Was there some irony present? I set the others aside and began to read. Twenty-eight pages later I finished and felt I’d just stumbled on one of American literature’s most darkly satirical condemnations of human cruelty and greed. Sad and horrible. With a Philadelphia connection!
It was a true story, written for a Yankee newspaper, about an actual slave auction of “440 Negroes,” the greatest (in numbers) sale in America of human beings ever. The persons sold were from two huge adjacent plantations owned by the same man. The article-turned-pamphlet had nearly as much influence as Mrs. Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in arousing American indignation against slavery.
The story was written by a man named Mortimer Thomson (who used the penname “Q.K. Philander Doesticks” in his other writings). On assignment from the New York Herald Tribune, he covered the auction on March 2 and 3, 1859, posing as a plantation owner looking to buy some slaves. He insinuated himself into every sphere of activity. He noticed the weeping and pleading to their “massas” of people who had been born on the plantation, and lived their entire lives there until that point. Now they begged not to be separated from the people they loved. His brief, touching vignettes turned chattel into human beings.
The slaves were on display out in the stable stalls of the racetrack where the sale was held. Thomson saw crude backwoodsmen with mud on their boots and whisky on their breath crudely examine the human chattel, pinching, pulling, turning, pulling open mouths and talking about which “wenches” they’d like to take back with them. He saw all the sham gentry finely parading about like this was a social event. Plus lots of simple, flinty-looking farmers looking to buy people.
It rained nearly the whole two days of the sale, which contributed to the slaves and their descendants ever after referring to the event and its aftermath as the “Time of Weeping.” As though the very heavens wept for the shame and degradation inflicted on them. The phrase still lives on in the South.
One person not crying that day was a Philadelphian. His name was Pierce Mease Butler. He had inherited from his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler (a U.S. senator from South Carolina and a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention) two of the largest rice and cotton plantations in coastal Georgia – both made profitable through the exacting use of slave labor. But young Butler’s bad business decisions, and huge gambling debts, depleted his $700,000 inheritance. Supposedly reluctantly, he put most of his slaves, 440 of them, up for sale. He raised $300,000 that day.
In a fit of generosity, while the Weeping Time was in full-drench mode, he walked among his human property with a money pouch, personally giving $1 coins to each of the departing.
Mortimer Thomson wrote his piece on the train back to New York. His trenchantly satirical and heart-rending account appeared in the New York Herald Tribune on March 9, 1859 occupying the entirety of page five. His name did not appear with the article. Death threats already had echoed up from Georgia. About to affect Lincoln’s 1860 election, the article was reprinted as a separate publication by the American Anti-slavery Society of New York. I held a surviving copy in my hand that day.
The Herald Tribune article is available online. So is its pamphlet form. And info about Pierce Mease Butler, his ex-wife, the famous 19th century actress Fanny Kemble, Mr. “Doesticks” Thomson, the extinct racetrack in the Savannah suburbs, the Butler plantations and much more.
I wanted to know more, so I read a book that follows up the Great Auction’s impact. It’s by Anne Caroline Bailey and titled, “The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.” (2017) I learned that some few of the slaves, after Emancipation in 1863, found their family members, often in faraway states. Mr. Pierce Mease Butler went broke again and died in 1867. He and his father, Major Butler, are buried at the Episcopal Christ Church Churchyard in Philadelphia (A National Historic Landmark). I suppose you could go visit and tell them what you think. Just as when they were alive, though, I doubt they’ll listen.
Hugh Gilmore lives and writes in Chestnut Hill. He is the author of “Scenes from a Bookshop,” a series of stories about his Year in the Life of a bookshop he ran on Chestnut Hill Avenue once upon a time.