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



  IN this chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin were recorded some of the most highly-wrought and touching incidents of the slave- trade. It will be well to authenticate a few of them.

  One of the first sketches presented to view is an account of the separation of a very old decrepit negro woman from her young son, by a sheriff's sale. The writer is sorry to say that not the slightest credit for invention is due to her in this incident. She found it, almost exactly as it stands, in the published journal of a young Southerner, related as a scene to which he was eye-witness. The only circumstance which she has omitted in the narrative was one of additional inhumanity and painfulness which he had delineated. He represents the boy as being bought by a planter, who fettered his hands, and tied a rope round his neck which he attached to the neck of his horse, thus compelling the child to trot by his side. This incident alone was suppressed by the author.

  Another scene of fraud and cruelty, in the same chapter, is described as perpetrated by a Kentucky slave-master, who sells a woman to a trader, and induces her to go with him by the deceitful assertion that she is to be taken down the river a short distance, to work at the same hotel with her husband. This was an instance which occurred under the writer's own observation, some years since, when she was going down the Ohio river. The woman was very respectable, both in appearance and dress. The writer recalls her image now with distinctness, attired with great neatness in a white wrapper, her clothing and hair all arranged with evident care, and having with her a prettily-dressed boy about seven years of age. She had also a hair-trunk of clothing, which showed that she had been carefully and respectably brought up. It will be seen, in perusing the account, that the incident is somewhat altered to suit the purpose of the story, the woman being there represented as carrying with her a young infant.

  The custom of unceremoniously separating the infant from its


mother, when the latter is about to be taken from a Northern to a Southern market, is a matter of every-day notoriety in the trade. It is not done occasionally and sometimes, but always, whenever there is occasion for it; and the mother's agonies are no more regarded than those of a cow when her calf is separated from her.

  The reason of this is, that the care and raising of children is no part of the intention or provision of a Southern plantation. They are a trouble; they detract from the value of the mother as a field-hand, and it is more expensive to raise them than to buy them ready raised; they are therefore left behind in making up of a coffle. Not longer ago than last summer, the writer was conversing with Thomas Strother, a slave minister of the gospel in St. Louis, for whose emancipation she was making some effort. He incidentally mentioned to her a scene which he had witnessed but a short time before, in which a young woman of his acquaintance came to him almost in a state of distraction, telling him that she had been sold to go South with a trader, and leave behind her a nursing infant.

  In Lewis Clark's narrative he mentions that a master in his neighbourhood sold a woman and child to a trader, with the charge that he should not sell the child from its mother. The man, however, traded off the child in the very next town, in payment of his tavern-bill.

  The following testimony is from a gentleman who writes from New Orleans to the National Era.

  This writer says:—

  While at Robinson, or Eyree Springs, twenty miles from Nashville, on the borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, my hostess said to me, one day, “Yonder comes a gang of slaves chained.” I went to the road-side and viewed them. For the better answering my purpose of observation, I stopped the white man in front, who was at his ease in a one-horse waggon, and asked him if those slaves were for sale. I counted them and observed their position. They were divided by three one-horse waggons, each containing a man-merchant, so arranged as to command the whole gang. Some were unchained; sixty were chained in two companies, thirty in each, the right hand of the one to the left hand of the other opposite one, making fifteen each side of a large ox-chain, to which every hand was fastened, and necessarily compelled to hold up—men and women promiscuously, and about in equal proportions—all young people. No children here, except a few in a waggon behind, which were the only children in the four gangs. I said to a respectable mulatto woman in the house, “Is it true that the negro-traders take mothers from their babies?” “Massa, it is true; for here, last week, such a girl (naming her), who lives about a mile off, was taken after dinner— knew nothing of it in the morning—sold, put into the gang, and her baby given away to a neighbour. She was a stout young woman, and brought a good price.”


  Nor is the pitiful lie to be regarded which says that these unhappy mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, do not feel when the most sacred ties are thus severed. Every day and hour bears living witness of the falsehood of this slander, the more false because spoken of a race peculiarly affectionate, and strong, vivacious and vehement, in the expression of their feelings.

  The case which the writer supposed of the woman's throwing herself overboard is not by any means a singular one. Witness the following recent fact, which appeared under the head of


  The editorial correspondent of the Oneida (N. Y.) Telegraph, writing from a steamer on the Mississippi river, gives the following sad story:—

  “At Louisville, a gentleman took passage, having with him a family of blacks —husband, wife, and children. The master was bound for Memphis, Tennessee, at which place he intended to take all except the man ashore. The latter was handcuffed, and although his master said nothing of his intention, the negro made up his mind, from appearances, as well as from the remarks of those around him, that he was destined for the Southern market. We reached Memphis during the night, and whilst within sight of the town, just before landing, the negro caused his wife to divide their things, as though resigned to the intended separation, and then, taking a moment when his master's back was turned, ran forward and jumped into the river. Of course he sank, and his master was several hundred dollars poorer than a moment before. That was all; at least, scarcely any one mentioned it the next morning. I was obliged to get my information from the deck hands, and did not hear a remark concerning it in the cabin. In justice to the master, I should say that, after the occurrence, he disclaimed any intention to separate them. Appearances, however, are quite against him, if I have been rightly informed. This sad affair needs no comment. It is an argument, however, that I might have used to-day, with some effect, whilst talking with a highly-intelligent Southerner of the evils of slavery. He had been reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, and spoke of it as a novel, which, like other romances, was well calculated to excite the sympathies, by the recital of heart-touching incidents which never had an existence, except in the imagination of the writer.”

  Instances have occurred where mothers, whose children were about to be sold from them, have, in their desperation, murdered their own offspring, to save them from this worst kind of orphanage. A case of this kind has been recently tried in the United States, and was alluded to, a week or two ago, by Mr. Giddings, in his speech on the floor of Congress.

  An American gentleman from Italy, complaining of the effect of Uncle Tom's Cabin on the Italian mind, states that images of fathers dragged from their families to be sold into slavery, and of babes torn from the breasts of weeping mothers, are constantly presented before the minds of the people as scenes of


every-day life in America. The author can only say, sorrowfully, that it is only the truth which is thus presented.

  These things are, every day, part and parcel of one of the most thriving trades that is carried on in America. The only difference between us and foreign nations is, that we have got used to it, and they have not. The thing has been done, and done again, day after day, and year after year, reported and lamented over in every variety of way; but it is going on this day with more briskness than ever before, and no doubt; the other, and such scenes as we have described are enacted oftener, as the author will prove when she comes to the chapter on the internal slave-trade.

  The incident in this same chapter which describes the scene where the wife of the unfortunate article, catalogued as “John, aged 30,” rushed on board the boat and threw her arms around him, with moans and lamentations, was a real incident. The gentleman who related it was so stirred in his spirit at the sight, that he addressed the trader in the exact words which the writer represents the young minister as having used in her narrative.

  My friend, how can you, how dare you, carry on a trade like this? Look at those poor creatures! Here I am, rejoicing in my heart that I am going home to my wife and child; and the same bell which is the signal to carry me onward towards them will part this poor man and his wife for ever. Depend upon it, God will bring you into judgment for this.

  If that gentleman has read the work, as perhaps he has before now, he has probably recognised his own words. One affecting incident in the narrative, as it really occurred, ought to be mentioned. The wife was passionately bemoaning her husband's fate, as about to be for ever separated from all that he held dear, to be sold to the hard usage of a Southern plantation. The husband, in reply, used that very simple but sublime expression which the writer has placed in the mouth of Uncle Tom, in similar circumstances:—“There'll be the same God there that there is here.”

  One other incident mentioned in Uncle Tom's Cabin may, perhaps, be as well verified in this place as in any other.

  The case of old Prue was related by a brother and sister of the writer as follows:—She was the woman who supplied rusks and other articles of the kind at the house where they boarded. Her manners, appearance, and character were just as described. One day another servant came in her place, bringing the rusks. The sister of the writer inquired what had become of Prue. She seemed reluctant to answer for some time, but at last said that they had taken her into the


cellar and beaten her, and that the flies had got at her and she was dead!

  It is well known that there are no cellars, properly so called, in New Orleans, the nature of the ground being such as to forbid digging. The slave who used the word had probably been imported from some State where cellars were in use, and applied the term to the place which was used for the ordinary purposes of a cellar. A cook who lived in the writer's family, having lived most of her life on a plantation, always applied the descriptive terms of the plantation to the very limited enclosures and retinue of a very plain house and yard.

  This same lady, while living in the same place, used frequently to have her compassion excited by hearing the wailings of a sickly baby in a house adjoining their own, as also the objurgations and tyrannical abuse of a ferocious virago upon its mother. She once got an opportunity to speak to its mother, who appeared heart-broken and dejected, and inquired what was the matter with her child. Her answer was, that she had had a fever, and that her milk was all dried away; and that her mistress was set against her child, and would not buy milk for it. She had tried to feed it on her own coarse food, but it pined and cried continually; and in witness of this she brought the baby to her. It was emaciated to a skeleton. The lady took the little thing to a friend of hers in the house who had been recently confined, and who was suffering from a redundancy of milk, and begged her to nurse it. The miserable sight of the little, famished, wasted thing affected the mother so as to overcome all other considerations, and she placed it to her breast, when it revived, and took food with an eagerness which showed how much it had suffered. But the child was so reduced that this proved only a transient alleviation. It was after this almost impossible to get sight of the woman, and the violent temper of her mistress was such as to make it difficult to interfere in the case. The lady secretly afforded what aid she could, though, as she confessed, with a sort of misgiving that it was a cruelty to try to hold back the poor little sufferer from the refuge of the grave; and it was a relief to her when at last its wailings ceased, and it went where the weary are at rest. This is one of those cases which go to show that the interest of the owner will not always insure kind treatment of the slave.

  There is one other incident, which the writer interwove into the history of the mulatto woman who was bought by Legree for his plantation. The reader will remember that, in telling her story to Emmeline, she says:—


  “My mas'r was Mr. Ellis—lived in Levee-street. P'raps you've seen the house.”

  “Was he good to you?” said Emmeline.

  “Mostly, till he tuk sick. He's lain sick, off and on, more than six months, and been orful oneasy. 'Pears like he warn't willin' to have nobody rest, day nor night; and got so cur'ous, there couldn't nobody suit him. 'Pears like he just grew crosser every day; kep me up nights till I got fairly beat out, and couldn't keep awake no longer; and 'cause I got to sleep one night, Lors! he talk so orful to me, and he tell me he'd sell me to just the hardest master he could find; and he'd promised me my freedom, too, when he died!”

  An incident of this sort came under the author's observation in the following manner. A quadroon slave family, liberated by the will of the master, settled on Walnut Hills, near her residence, and their children were received into her family school, taught in her house. In this family was a little quadroon boy, four or five years of age, with a sad, dejected appearance, who excited their interest.

  The history of this child, as narrated by his friends, was simply this: his mother had been the indefatigable nurse of her master, during a lingering and painful sickness which at last terminated his life. She had borne all the fatigue of the nursing both by night and by day, sustained in it by his promise that she should be rewarded for it by her liberty, at his death. Overcome by exhaustion and fatigue, she one night fell asleep, and he was unable to rouse her. The next day, after violently upbraiding her, he altered the directions of his will, and sold her to a man who was noted in all the region round as a cruel master, which sale, immediately on his death, which was shortly after, took effect. The only mitigation of her sentence was that her child was not to be taken with her into this dreaded lot, but was given to this quadroon family to be brought into a free State.

  The writer very well remembers hearing this story narrated among a group of liberated negroes, and their comments on it. A peculiar form of grave and solemn irony often characterises the communications of this class of people. It is a habit engendered in slavery to comment upon proceedings of this kind in language apparently respectful to the perpetrators, and which is felt to be irony only by a certain peculiarity of manner, difficult to describe. After the relation of this story, when the writer expressed her indignation in no measured terms, one of the oldest of the sable circle remarked, gravely—

  “The man was a mighty great Christian, anyhow.”

  The writer warmly expressed her dissent from this view, when another of the same circle added—


  “Went to glory, anyhow.”

  And another continued—

  “Had the greatest kind of a time when he was a-dyin'; said he was goin' straight into heaven.”

  And when the writer remarked that many people thought so who never got there, a singular smile of grim approval passed round the circle, but no further comments were made. This incident has often recurred to the writer's mind, as showing the danger to the welfare of the master's soul from the possession of absolute power. A man of justice and humanity when in health, is often tempted to become unjust, exacting, and exorbitant in sickness. If, in these circumstances, he is surrounded by inferiors, from whom law and public opinion have taken away the rights of common humanity, how is he tempted to the exercise of the most despotic passions, and, like this unfortunate man, to leave the world with the weight of these awful words upon his head: “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”