Remember Jenny and Noah? I have another suspicion about the motivation for their escape.
Between 1825 and 1826, a series of events happened to women in Douglass's autobiographies. First, Harriet Bailey, Douglass's mother, most likely gave birth to her final child, also named Harriet, and then died. Second, their master, Aaron Anthony, beat Frederick's teen aged cousin Hester (aka Esther)to a bloody pulp because she favored a young slave, Ned Roberts. She also gave birth to a child. Third, Jenny and Noah escaped. Fourth, Douglass's aunt Maryann, cousin Betty (daughter of his Aunt Milly), and both of Jenny and Noah's children were sold to slave traders. Only the escape and sale have precise dates. The valuation document from December 1826 and Douglass's sequencing in his narratives allow an estimation of the other dates. The three events may have no direct relationship to one another, but I wonder if they do.
First of all, I believe that Aaron Anthony did father all of Harriet Bailey's children. At least, I believe that he is the most likely of the known candidates for the position since he had the most constant and complete access to her throughout her childbearing. If that was true, then when Bailey died, the widowed Anthony found himself without an outlet for his sexual urges. Of his property, the sexually mature women included Betsy Bailey (age 51, a grandmother of 19 children); Aunt Katy (about age 35, mother of three); Harriet's older sister Milly (age 37, mother of six); Harriet's younger sisters Jenny (of the runaway ad, age 26 mother of three), Betty (age 24, mother of two), Maryann (of the sale, age 19, no children), and Hester (about age 15, no children).
Douglass makes clear, in his Victorian way, that he believed that Anthony beat Hester because she refused his sexual advances. He probably did not understand that at the time, being only about seven years old; and most studies on the subject have found that enslaved adults did all that they could to keep enslaved children relatively ignorant of sex. At the time, the incident made beating a reality rather than a rumor, something that he witnessed in all its savagery rather than something heard about from others. Later, he put together the beating with the ways that masters sexually exploited their female slaves.
Thus, Harriet, the former concubine had died or lay at death's door, and Anthony turned to the next sexually mature, although quite young, woman on his property to replace Harriet. She resisted, having chosen Ned Roberts for her husband, and Anthony beat her in retaliation.
Originally, I had argued that, without children, Hester was the most likely choice as Harriet's replacement because she had no children and Anthony might see no reason to interfere in an already existing liaison that resulted in children such as Jenny's with Noah. Furthermore, my formulation assumed that Hester's beating took place before Jenny ran away and after Maryann's sale.
Maybe I am wrong about that. Maybe all of the women suspected that he would come after any of them when Harriet died? Maybe that was part of the impetus for Jenny and Noah to run away? Maybe Anthony went after Maryann and she resisted, which put her on the auction block? Maybe I am right about that, and he went after both Maryann and Hester, but only them, beat one into submission and sold the other as a threat? There are so many possibilities, none of which have any evidence to make it more plausible than any other -- even in the context of other studies. I'm also making the assumption that Anthony was essentially monogamous in his exploitation of slaves (if not in his marriage).
Still, I think there is something to all of these events occurring in the span of 12-18 months. I just don't have the information to investigate any of it any further than speculation -- not even very well-informed speculation.
What I do see is the fragility of these women's lives, and the range of experiences and responses to that fragility. One bore seven children to her master, with no real option to choose any other father for her children once Anthony had settled on her. One was beaten for refusal. One was sold away from her cousins, sisters, mother and friends, whether or not that was for refusal seems almost beside the point in the sum of her experience. Another ran away, leaving behind two children and the grave of a third. Then, Betsey Bailey, mother to all four women, grandmother to the dead and sold babies, nursemaid to all, for all of the respect accorded to her, could do nothing to mitigate any of this.
Whatever their responses to the conditions of their lives, they had no control over the most basic interactions in their most intimate relationships. Any choices that they had were often between bad and just as bad. The way that Anthony ordered their universe, he forced them to participate in the perpetuation of slavery through their bodies and through their children, both labor as work and labor as childbearing, through child rearing and child abandoning. To begin comprehending Douglass's private life with women -- his marriage, any extramarital liaison that a historian might consider, his daughter and her marriage -- a historian must begin with his Douglass's understanding of this.
In fact, the key to understanding his perception of women and their rights has a connection to this, as well. I just haven't figured out exactly how, yet.