“The Savage Mob”: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922
The June release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a collection of letters by an Englishman about his stay in the Antebellum United States, a compilation of poems about religion, slavery and drinking, as well as an anthology of murders and confessions.
Men and Things in America: Being the Experience of a Year’s Residence in the United States, in a Series of Letters to a Friend (1838)
By Andrew Bell
In 1835 English historian and author Andrew Bell travelled to the United States. During his yearlong stay in America he took copious notes of his experiences and upon his return compiled them as a series of letters written under the pseudonym, A. Thomson. Bell discusses many topics including the opinions of Americans toward the Irish and that of the Irish toward Americans, the “pretended absence of poverty in America,” and the conditions of African Americans.
After writing about both the Shakers and the Quakers, Bell describes the relationship of the latter with African Americans.
The Quakers alone, of all the many denominations of a religion of love and good-will to man, furnish the means of their secular or religious improvement. By all the others (I speak of them collectively, not individually) they are denied sympathy in life, and after death a grave. The Quakers, on the contrary, strive zealously to advance their interests in every way. Does an unprincipled slave-owner set up a claim to deprive a free negro of his liberty, he finds a fund set apart by the Friends to defend his cause. Is he out of employ, they find him work; is he in prison, they comfort him, and, if worthy, try to obtain his release; is he sick, they visit him. They open numerous schools for his instruction, or for that of his offspring. To do all these things, and more, in the face of the American world, requires no small degree of moral courage, as well as of active humanity.
Bell also includes this account of the Philadelphia race riot of August 1834:
A few weeks before my arrival in Philadelphia some excesses took place, arising from the mobbish antipathy to the men of colour, which might have been the means of setting the whole country in a flame. It appeared that a murder had been committed by a negro servant on his master, for which he had then been arrested, and was afterwards in due time and form punished for his crime. This unlucky affair caused a deal of excitement; and the odium, which should have been in reason confined to the guilty individual, was extended, by the savage mob, to all of his colour. After insulting and cruelly beating numbers of black men in the public places of Philadelphia, and hunting them about like wild beasts every where, one large body went to the quarter of the city principally inhabited by them, pulled down some of their dwellings over the heads of the inmates, and burnt others. Many of the colored people were so grievously maltreated, that several died.
Although Bell’s experience was not entirely negative, he concludes “that I am not one likely to recommend emigration to America.”
Independent of the forlorn feelings that ever attend a self-banished man, there is a positive want of stability in the prosperity of America, which makes it very hazardous for any mechanic who has learnt but one trade to go thither.
I may observe by the way, that their rail-roads are often flimsy affairs, and dangerous to life and limb to travel on. Canals, too, that shew [sic] well on the maps, are occasionally destitute of water! The truth is, these things are often undertaken for speculation in shares, which pass quickly, like live coals, from hand to hand, and rise much above their value, for a while, but end by burning somebody’s fingers at last.
Rhymes for the Times: Original Poems on Popery, Slavery, and Intemperance (1857)
By a Protestant
As the subtitle suggests, this collection includes an anti-Catholic, anti-slavery, and pro-temperance message. The author, “a Protestant,” gently mocks transubstantiation and tells an amusing tale of a drunken bear as an analogy but takes a different tone when presenting his anti-slavery message. The following stanza are from “The Runaway Slave; A Tale.”
HO! Hunters, here’s a job for you!
A young mulatto lady
Has run away; ye must pursue—
So get your horses ready.
She fled before the break of day
And left her all behind her;
I calculate she’s gone that way,
Your dogs will surely find her.
If she should gain the Under Ground,
To Canada they’ll send her;
I wonder where she can be found,—
What trifles did offend her!
‘Tis true, I sold her only child,
And this has sadly grieved her;
But I was merciful and mild,
And thought I had relieved her.
And when she laid him last to rest,
How fondly did she kiss him;
But he was such a little pest
I thought she’d never miss him.
So when the Negro-trader came,
His lawful trade pursuing,
I thought it neither sin nor shame
To do as all are doing.
For you’re aware we all allow
A negro is a chattel,
And so we buy and sell him too
As Britons do their cattle.
But when she found her child was gone
She made a deal of bother;
I never really thought till then
That she was such a mother.
I never saw such agony,
Nor heard such lamentation,
But you must bring her back to me—
She’s worth my whole plantation.
The Trail of Blood (1860)
The final work highlighted from this release is “a record of crime from the earliest to the present day. Murders, daring outrages, biographical sketches, trials and confessions of celebrated criminals.”
The preface states the purpose of the compilation as:
Without any pretence to elegance of language, or to originality, the main object has been to present TRUTH: startling and authentic narratives demonstrating what human passions may do, unawed by RELIGION, unrestrained by REASON, and careless of consequences. Its perusal should teach every reader to put a guard upon his passions, to watch his impulses, to train his mind and conduct, to moderate his ambition, to quench lust in its first and feeblest developments, and to guard against avarice.
Whether interested in safeguarding their morality or curious about the “Adventures of Samuel Green, Who was executed at Boston for the murder of a Negro named Billy Williams,” or the inside story of a “Brutal Murder in Middletown” or an account of “A Porter House Fracas,” to name only a few of the outrages described here, researchers will have to read the imprint themselves.