The sensational story blared from the front page of the January 20, 1853, edition of the New York Times. Shocked New Yorkers read the incredible tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man who had been lured from upstate Saratoga Springs to the slave territory of Washington, D.C. by a pair of white men who promised him employment as a fiddler in a traveling circus. There, the two men drugged the married father of three, who awoke to find himself bound in chains inside a dark underground cell of the Williams Slave Pen. From there, he was transported to Louisiana, where he toiled for a dozen years as a slave on cotton and sugar plantations before proof of his status as a freeman resulted in his emancipation.
Three months later, Northup was back in the Times with news of his impending memoir, “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.” With the searing memories still fresh in his mind, Northup recounted the brutality he experienced and witnessed during his years in bondage.
In antebellum America, the slave narrative was a case of life imitating art. Readers couldn’t help but notice that the real-life horrors exposed in Northup’s expansive book, written with the assistance of lawyer-turned-writer David Wilson, echoed those in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published just the year before. The novelist also saw the unmistakable similarities—even in the settings for both stories. In “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which Stowe published in 1853 in response to critics who had said she exaggerated and sensationalized slavery’s brutality, she wrote, “It is a singular coincidence, that Solomon Northup was carried to a plantation in the Red River country, that same region where the scene of Uncle Tom’s captivity was laid; and his account of this plantation, his mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.”
Like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Twelve Years a Slave” became a bestseller and an important piece of anti-slavery literature in the decade leading up to the Civil War. Northup’s account of his ordeal sold 30,000 copies in three years, and the second edition was dedicated to Stowe. “Its truth is far greater than fiction,” wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Oh! It is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.” The book’s success led to a lecture tour and a theatrical adaptation.
In addition to stirring the country, “Twelve Years a Slave” stirred the memory of Thaddeus St. John, a New York county judge who had witnessed Northup along with two boyhood friends, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, while journeying to Washington, D.C. in 1841. When St. John encountered the two men a few days later, they were without Northup but in possession of new clothes and flashy watches and ivory canes. St. John accused them of selling Northup for $500, but Merrill told him he was wrong–they had in fact sold him for $650.
Based on St. John’s lead, Northup identified Merrill and Russell as his abductors. Authorities arrested the pair in July 1854, and a hearing was held in the Saratoga County Courthouse. Merrill and Russell spent a few months behind bars, but ultimately the case fizzled amid questions of jurisdiction and statute of limitations. A quest for justice against the slave trader who bought Northup in the nation’s capital also failed as the color of the black man’s skin precluded the kidnapping victim from being permitted to testify in court.
In spite of the memoir’s commercial success, Northup earned only $3,000, and his ultimate fate is still a mystery. The last mention of him in the press occurred in 1857 when a Canadian newspaper reported that he was forced to flee a scheduled lecture appearance in Streetsville, Ontario when audience members jeered him with racial epithets. There is speculation that money woes forced Northup to become a vagabond, and there are even far-flung theories that he was murdered by Merrill and Russell or abducted into slavery for a second time.
Much like Northup himself, “Twelve Years a Slave” faded from the public consciousness after the guns of the Civil War fell silent. His story was resurrected, however, in a 1968 reprint that was co-edited by Louisiana historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Their scholarly research and voluminous footnotes attested to the truth of an incredible life story that was all too real, one that Northup wrote he would leave “for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”