The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Boston: Jewett, 1854



  IN the very first chapter of the book we encounter the character of the negro-trader, Mr. Haley. His name stands at the head of this chapter as the representative of all the different characters introduced in the work which exhibit the trader, the kidnapper, the negro-catcher, the negro-whipper, and all the other inevitable auxiliaries and indispensable appendages of what is often called the “divinely-instituted relation” of slavery. The author's first personal observation of this class of beings was somewhat as follows:

  Several years ago, while one morning employed in the duties of the nursery, a coloured woman was announced. She was ushered into the nursery, and the author thought, on first survey, that a more surly, unpromising face she had never seen. The woman was thoroughly black, thickset, firmly built, and with strongly-marked African features. Those who have been accustomed to read the expressions of the African face know what a peculiar effect is produced by a lowering, desponding expression upon its dark features. It is like the shadow of a thunder-cloud. Unlike her race generally, the woman did not smile when smiled upon, nor utter any pleasant remark in reply to such as were addressed to her. The youngest pet of the nursery, a boy about three years old, walked up, and laid his little hand on her knee, and seemed astonished not to meet the quick smile which the negro almost always has in reserve for the little child. The writer thought her very cross and disagreeable, and, after a few moments' silence, asked, with perhaps a little impatience, “Do you want anything of me to-day?”

  “Here are some papers,” said the woman, pushing them towards her; “perhaps you would read them.”

  The first paper opened was a letter from a negro-trader in Kentucky, stating concisely that he had waited about as long as he could for her child; that he wanted to start for the South, and must get it off his hands; that, if she would send him two hundred dollars before the end of the week, she should have it;


if not, that he would set it up at auction, at the court-house door on Saturday. He added, also, that he might have got more than that for the child, but that he was willing to let her have it cheap.

  “What sort of man is this?” said the author to the woman, when she had done reading the letter.

  “Dunno, ma'am; great Christian I know—member of the Methodist church, anyhow.”

  The expression of sullen irony with which this was said was a thing to be remembered.

  “And how old is this child?” said the author to her.

  The woman looked at the little boy who had been standing at her knee with an expressive glance, and said, “She will be three years old this summer.”

  On further inquiry into the history of the woman, it appeared that she had been set free by the will of her owners; that the child was legally entitled to freedom, but had been seized on by the heirs of the estate. She was poor and friendless, without money to maintain a suit, and the heirs, of course, threw the child into the hands of the trader. The necessary sum, it may be added, was all raised in the small neighbourhood which then surrounded the Lane Theological Seminary, and the child was redeemed.

  If the public would like a specimen of the correspondence which passes between these worthies, who are the principal reliance of the community for supporting and extending the institution of slavery, the following may be interesting as a matter of literary curiosity. It was forwarded by Mr. M. J. Thomas, of Philadelphia, to the National Era, and stated by him to be “a copy taken verbatim from the original, found among the papers of the person to whom it was addressed, at the time of his arrest and conviction, for passing a variety of counterfeit banknotes:”—

  Poolsville, Montgomery Co., Md., March 24, 1831.

  DEAR SIR,—I arrived home in safety with Louisa, John having been rescued from me, out of a two-storey window, at twelve o'clock at night. I offered a reward of fifty dollars, and have him here safe in jail. The persons who took him, brought him to Fredericktown jail. I wish you to write to no person in this State but myself. Kephart and myself are determined to go the whole hog for any negro you can find, and you must give me the earliest information, as soon as you do find any. Enclosed you will receive a handbill, and I can make a good bargain if you can find them. I will, in all cases, as soon as a negro runs off, send you a handbill immediately, so that you may be on the look-out. Please tell the constable to go on with the sale of John's property; and, when the money is


made, I will send on an order to you for it. Please attend to this for me; likewise write to me, and inform me of any negro you think has run away—no matter where you think he has come from, nor how far—and I will try to find out his master. Let me know where you think he is from, with all particular marks, and if I don't find his master, Joe's dead!

  Write to me about the crooked-fingered negro, and let me know which hand and which finger, colour, &c.; likewise any mark the fellow has who says he got away from the negro-buyer, with his height and colour, or any other you think has run off.

  Give my respects to your partner, and be sure you write to no person but myself. If any person writes to you, you can inform me of it, and I will try to buy from them. I think we can make money, if we do business together; for I have plenty of money, if you can find plenty of negroes. Let we know if Daniel is still where he was, and if you have heard anything of Francis since I left you. Accept for myself my regard and esteem. REUBEN B. CARLLEY. John C. Saunders.

  This letter strikingly illustrates the character of these fellow-patriots with whom the great men of our land have been acting in conjunction, in carrying out the beneficent provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law.

  With regard to the Kephart named in this letter, the community of Boston may have a special interest to know further particulars, as he was one of the dignitaries sent from the South to assist the good citizens of that place in the religious and patriotic enterprise of 1851, at the time that Shadrach was unfortunately rescued. It, therefore, may be well to introduce somewhat particularly JOHN KEPHART, as sketched by RICHARD H. DANA, Jun., one of the lawyers employed in the defence of the perpetrators of the rescue:—

  I shall never forget John Caphart. I have been eleven years at the bar, and in that time have seen many developments of vice and hardness, but I never met with anything so cold-blooded as the testimony of that man. John Caphart is a tall, sallow man, of about fifty, with jet-black hair, a restless, dark eye, and an anxious, care-worn look, which, had there been enough of moral element in the expression, might be called melancholy. His frame was strong, and in youth he had evidently been powerful, but he was not robust. Yet there was a calm, cruel look, a power of will and a quickness of muscular action, which still render him a terror in his vocation.

  In the manner of giving in his testimony, there was no bluster or outward show of insolence. His contempt for the humane feelings of the audience and community about him was too true to require any assumption of that kind. He neither paraded nor attempted to conceal the worst features of his calling. He treated it as a matter of business, which he knew the community shuddered at, but the moral nature of which he was utterly indifferent to, beyond a certain secret pleasure in thus indirectly inflicting a little torture on his hearers.


  I am not, however, altogether clear, to do John Caphart justice, that he is entirely conscience-proof. There was something in his anxious look which leaves one not without hope.

  At the first trial we did not know of his pursuits, and he passed merely as a policeman of Norfolk, Virginia. But, at the second trial, some one in the room gave me a hint of the occupations many of these policemen take to, which led to my cross-examination.

  From the Examination of John Caphart, in the “Rescue Trials,” at Boston, in June and November, 1851, and October, 1852.

  Question. Is it a part of your duty, as a policeman, to take up coloured persons who are out after hours in the streets?

  Answer. Yes, sir.

  Q. What is done with them?

  A. We put them in the lock-up, and in the morning they are brought into court and ordered to be punished—those that are to be punished.

  Q. What punishment do they get?

  A. Not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.

  Q. Who gives them these lashes?

  A. Any of the officers. I do sometimes.

  Q. Are you paid extra for this? How much?

  A. Fifty cents a head. It used to be sixty-two cents. Now it is fifty. Fifty cents for each one we arrest, and fifty more for each one we flog.

  Q. Are these persons you flog men and boys only, or are they women and girls also?

  A. Men, women, boys, and girls, just as it happens.

  [The government interfered, and tried to prevent any further examination; and said, among other things, that he only performed his duty as police-officer under the law. After a discussion, Judge Curtis allowed it to proceed.]

  Q. Is your flogging confined to these cases? Do you not flog slaves at the request of their masters?

  A. Sometimes I do. Certainly, when I am called upon.

  Q. In these cases of private flogging, are the negroes sent to you? Have you a place for flogging?

  A. No. I go round, as I am sent for.

  Q. Is this part of your duty as an officer?

  A. No, sir.

  Q. In these cases of private flogging, do you inquire into the circumstances, to see what the fault has been, or if there is any?

  A. That's none of my business. I do as I am requested. The master is responsible.

  Q. In these cases, too, I suppose you flog women and girls, as well as men?

  A. Women and men.

  Q. Mr. Caphart, how long have you been engaged in this business?

  A. Ever since 1836.

  Q. How many negroes do you suppose you have flogged, in all, women and children included?

  A. [Looking calmly round the room.] I don't know how many niggers you


have got here in Massachusetts, but I should think I had flogged as many as you've got in the State.

  [The same man testified that he was often employed to pursue fugitive slaves. His reply to the question was, “I never refuse a good job in that line.”]

  Q. Don't they sometimes turn out bad jobs?

  A. Never, if I can help it.

  Q. Are they not sometimes discharged after you get them?

  A. Not often. I don't know that they ever are, except those Portuguese the counsel read about.

  [I had found, in a Virginia report, a case of some two hundred Portuguese negroes, whom this John Caphart had seized from a vessel, and endeavoured to get condemned as slaves, but whom the Court discharged.]

  Hon. John P. Hale, associated with Mr. Dana as counsel for the defence in the Rescue Trials, said of him in his closing argument:—

  Why, gentlemen, he sells agony! Torture is his stock-in-trade! He is a walking scourge! He hawks, peddles, retails, groans and tears about the streets of Norfolk!

  See also the following correspondence between the two traders, one in North Carolina, the other in New Orleans: with a word of comment by Bishop Wilberforce, of Oxford:—

  Halifax, N. C., Nov. 16, 1839.

  DEAR SIR,—I have shipped in the brig Addison—prices are below:

No. 1. Caroline Ennis 650.00
2. Silvy Holland 625.00
3. Silvy Booth 487.50
4. Maria Pollock 475.00
5. Emeline Pollock 475.00
6. Delia Averit 475.00

  The two girls that cost 650 dollars, and 625 dollars, were bought before I shipped my first. I have a great many negroes offered to me, but I will not pay the prices they ask, for I know they will come down. I have no opposition in market. I will wait until I hear from you before I buy, and then I can judge what I must pay. Goodwin will send you the bill of lading for my negroes, as he shipped them with his own. Write often, as the times are critical, and it depends on the prices you get to govern me in buying. Yours, &c.Mr. Theophilus Freeman, New Orleans. G. W. BARNES.

  The above was a small but choice invoice of wives and mothers. Nine days before, namely, 7th November, Mr. Barnes advised Mr. Freeman of having shipped a lot, of forty-three men and women. Mr. Freeman, informing one of his correspondents of the state of the market, writes (Sunday, 21st Sept., 1839), “I bought a boy yesterday, sixteen years old, and likely, weighing one


hundred and ten pounds, at 700 dollars. I sold a likely girl, twelve years old, at 500 dollars. I bought a man yesterday, twenty years old, six feet high at 820 dollars; one to-day, twenty-four years old, at 850 dollars, black and sleek as a mole.”

  The writer has drawn in this work only one class of the negro-traders. There are all varieties of them, up to the great wholesale purchasers, who keep their large trading-houses; who are gentlemanly in manners and courteous in address; who, in many respects, often perform actions of real generosity; who consider slavery a very great evil, and hope the country will at some time be delivered from it, but who think that so long as clergyman and layman, saint and sinner, are all agreed in the propriety and necessity of slave-holding, it is better that the necessary trade in the article be conducted by men of humanity and decency, than by swearing, brutal men, of the Tom Loker school. These men are exceedingly sensitive with regard to what they consider the injustice of the world, in excluding them from good society, simply because they undertake to supply a demand in the community, which the bar, the press, and the pulpit, all pronounce to be a proper one. In this respect, society certainly imitates the unreasonableness of the ancient Egyptians, who employed a certain class of men to prepare dead bodies for embalming, but flew at them with sticks and stones the moment the operation was over, on account of the sacrilegious liberty which they had taken. If there is an ill-used class of men in the world, it is certainly the slave-traders; for, if there is no harm in the institution of slavery—if it is a divinely-appointed and honourable one, like civil government and the family state, and like other species of property relation—then there is no earthly reason why a man may not as innocently be a slave trader as any other kind of trader.