Journey into the life of a slave: Part One

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GORDON and Wilson Chinn are two slaves who nearly everyone who has read about slavery has come across because their photographs are iconic as a representation of just how gloomy, inhuman and unbearable the lives of slaves were in America.
Perhaps the most famous anti-slavery image ever made is ‘The Scourged Back’, in which an escaped slave, Gordon, poses to reveal the web of raised scars covering his body.
His picture was first published on July 4 1863, in Harper’s Weekly.
So who is Gordon?
Gordon escaped his master in Mississippi and threw the pursuing bloodhounds off his scent by rubbing himself with onions.
After an arduous journey, he managed to reach the Union Army stationed at Baton Rouge, 80 miles away.
Gordon decided to enlist in the Union Army — something that President Abraham Lincoln had legalised only months earlier — and during the required medical examination, the officers saw his back “furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day last.”
They called for a photographer to document it.
On April 16 1863, a surgeon, S. K. Towle, sent the photograph of Gordon’s back with a letter to W. J. Dale, Surgeon General of the state of Massachusetts.
He wrote: “Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishment than this man must have received, though nothing in his appearance indicates any unusual viciousness — but on the contrary he seems intelligent and well behaved.”
In December of 1863, eight former slaves were brought north from New Orleans, sponsored by the American Missionary Association and the National Freedman’s Relief Association.
They were taken to photographers’ studios in New York and Philadelphia and posed in dramatic scenes for photographs, which were sold for 25 cents each to raise money for the education of former slaves in Louisiana.
The other purpose of these photographs was to increase abolitionist sentiment in the north by using the fledgling science of photography to dramatise the evils of slavery.
Five members of the group were children aged from six to 11 — three girls and two boys — and four of them were so fair-skinned that they appeared entirely Caucasian, although all five had been born as slaves.
The only adult in the series of photos was Wilson Chinn, identified on most of the photographs as ‘a branded slave’.
When Wilson Chinn’s photographs were published by Harper’s Weekly, they came with the following quotation, “Wilson Chinn is about 60 years old, he was ‘raised’ by Isaac Howard of Woodford County, Kentucky.
“When 21 years old he was taken down the river and sold to Volsey B. Marmillion, a sugar planter about 45 miles above New Orleans.
“This man was accustomed to brand his negroes, and Wilson has on his forehead the letters ‘V. B. M’.
“Of the 210 slaves on this plantation 105 left at one time and came into the Union camp.
“Thirty of them had been branded like cattle with a hot iron, four of them on the forehead, and the others on the breast or arm.”
The most imposing picture of Chinn is the one in which he is wearing an iron neck collar.
This devise was frequently used as punishment for trying to run away, the collar’s spikes would catch on trees and bushes, making it almost impossible to escape again and at times the slave’s neck would break when caught by tree branches.

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