12 Years a Slave Like You’ve Never Seen Before: The True Story of Solomon Northup

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The movie 12 Years a Slave is based on the novel of the same name which was written by Solomon Northup. It is a powerful movie that won three academy awards and enjoyed critical acclaim. The novel was a record of Solomon’s experiences as a slave after he had been kidnapped. While a large number of slaves had the misfortune of being born into servitude, Solomon was born as a free man in New York who lost his wife, three children, and liberty at the hands of a pair of slave catchers named Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton.

Solomon spent 12 terrible years as a slave in Louisiana. The book Twelve Years a Slave outlines the horrors he endured and witnessed during his time in servitude. It is a harrowing account of violence, sexual abuse, and murder as the ex-slave refused to hold back. Eventually, he managed to escape with the aid of friends and worked with the Underground Railroad to help slaves reach freedom in Canada. His novel helped the abolitionist cause and is still regarded as a critical historical document.

Early Life

Solomon was born in Essex County, New York in either July 1807 or 1808. His mother was a free woman of color while his father, Mintus, was a freed slave having worked for the Northup family. When Captain Henry Northup died, he manumitted Mintus in his will. The principle of partus sequitur ventrem declared that a child’s slave status followed that of its mother which meant Solomon and his brother, Joseph, were both freemen.

Given that black people were subject to strict state property requirements in New York at the time, it is clear that the Northup’s were reasonably well off because Mintus saved enough money to purchase land. As a result, he met the requirement and was eligible to vote. The family also had enough money to provide Joseph and Solomon with a relatively high standard of education.

Solomon married Anne Hampton in either 1828 or 1829, and they continued to live in New York State. The couple had three children and owned a farm in Hebron. Solomon held several jobs and gained a reputation for being a talented violin player. He also earned employment on the railroad construction in Saratoga when the family moved there in 1834. Anne was renowned as an excellent cook and worked at several public houses. While work was occasionally scarce, the Northup family fared well for the standards of the era.

However, Solomon’s life was about to be turned upside down after an encounter with Brown and Hamilton at Saratoga Springs in 1841. They told him they worked for a circus in Washington D.C. and were actively seeking a violinist. Solomon believed his absence would be brief and since his wife was only 20 miles away in Sandy Hill, he decided not to write and tell her about the news. As he rode in a carriage with the two men on the way to Albany, Northup was probably thinking about how the money would help his family. Little did he realize he had fallen into a trap and would spend the next 12 years in captivity.

Kidnapped!

Solomon was wary because he would be traveling to a place where slavery was legal, so he needed to stop and get his ‘free papers’ which outlined his status as a free man. The city had one of the largest slave markets in the nation and slave traders were known to kidnap free black people to meet the intense demand for healthy slaves. After witnessing Brown’s circus act, Solomon retired to his hotel room but felt as if he had been drugged. It is likely that Brown and Merrill used laudanum or belladonna.

When Solomon awoke, he was sitting on a wooden bench in handcuffs with chains on his ankles which were bolted to the floor. He had been the victim of abduction; just another statistic as vile slave traders fulfilled the demand for workers, a task that had been more difficult by the ban on the import of slaves into America in 1808. Solomon was given the name ‘Platt’ after a local slave owner and sold to James H. Birch for $650 in a slave auction in Louisiana.

Captivity – The Early Years

While Brown and Merrill claimed that Solomon was a fugitive slave, it is unlikely that Birch cared one way or another; he may well have known that Solomon was the victim of abduction. In any case, along with Solomon’s jailer, Ebenezer Radburn, Birch beat the unfortunate slave to prevent him from saying he was a free man. Birch then claimed that Solomon was a slave from Georgia and kept him as property.

Solomon was forced to embark on a torturous journey by sea to New Orleans where a slave named Robert died of smallpox. Solomon and a number of other slaves also caught the disease. Solomon persuaded an English sailor named John Manning to send a message to a lawyer named Henry Northup, the son of the man who had released Mintus from slavery; he was also Solomon’s childhood friend. In 1840, the New York State Legislature passed a law that provided financial assistance for the recovery of free people who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. While Henry wanted to help, he had no idea where Solomon was.

Birch’s partner, Theophilus Freeman, sold Solomon at the New Orleans slave market. Now, Solomon was owned by a man named William Prince Ford who was apparently a kind and caring man who treated his slaves with consideration. Solomon wrote that the influences around Ford “blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery.”

Solomon helped Ford with his dilemma of moving timber from the farm onto the market by using his carpentry skills to build looms. However, Ford was in severe financial difficulties and had to sell 18 of his slaves. While 17 were sold to a man named Compton, Northup could not pick cotton, so he was sold to a tradesman named John M. Tibaut. As hard as it was to be transplanted from his life of freedom into slavery, things were about to get a lot worse for Solomon.

Excessive Cruelty

It is at this point that Solomon clearly shows the horrors of slavery as he, along with other slaves, were subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of cruel masters. Tibaut was a particularly wicked individual, and one encounter almost cost Solomon his life. While he was working on a carpentry project, Tibaut began whipping him because the nails he used were apparently too big. Instead of meekly accepting his fate, Solomon took the whip from Tibaut and started beating him.

Tibaut and two men attacked Solomon and were about to lynch him when a man named Chapin, Ford’s overseer, got involved and prevented the murder. As it happened, Ford still had an ‘investment’ in Solomon worth $400. Ford owed money to Tibaut, but since the cost of Solomon was greater than what Ford owed, he had a chattel mortgage on Solomon which was worth the difference. Solomon was certain that the debt Tibaut owed to Ford saved his life.

On another occasion, Tibaut attacked Solomon with an ax but the slave throttled him until he was unconscious. Solomon fled and returned to Ford. After four days, Ford convinced Tibaut to hire Solomon out. Eventually, he sold Solomon to a slave owner named Edwin Epps who held Solomon captive for the next 10 years. Epps was another cruel and heartless man who enjoyed beating his slaves. He whipped them for not meeting daily quotas or simply for pleasure.

On one occasion, he forced Solomon to whip a slave named Patsey for the ‘crime’ of going to a nearby plantation for soap. After 30 lashes, Solomon refused to continue, so Epps began beating her mercilessly. He also routinely sexually abused Patsey. Throughout his spell as a slave, Solomon wrote about the various indignities they suffered. This included eating bacon infested with maggots, physical and sexual abuse, and the constant hard toil.

Free at Last

In 1852, a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass arrived to do some work for Epps. He was an abolitionist, so Solomon told Bass that he was a free man who had been kidnapped. Bass decided to help, writing and sending letters to Solomon’s friends. Bass showed bravery at this time, especially in light of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law which made it a federal offense to assist slaves in their escape.

Eventually, Bass wrote to William Perry and Cephas Parker, two men he was friends with back in Saratoga. They got in touch with Henry Northup who traveled to Epps’ plantation with Solomon’s free paper. This meant that Epps was legally obliged to release him. Northup wisely brought the Sheriff of Marksville to ensure the law was enforced. Epps eventually conceded the case, and Solomon was officially free on January 4, 1853.

Solomon was reunited with his wife and children and began working as a carpenter. He was also heavily involved in the abolitionist movement and the book Twelve Years a Slave was published in 1853. Little is known about his later life, and there is scant evidence to suggest a time, place or cause of death. Theories that he was kidnapped again or murdered in a revenge plot have been shot down. It is more likely that he either died in poverty or lived with his daughter in Virginia where he died in 1863.

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