Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jenny, Hester, Harriet, and Maryann

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.


  1. I can't comment on the effect on Douglass' thinking, since I don't know him well enough, but I like the way you describe the situation, laying out your underlying assumptions (Anthony and Harriet were longtime and in some way monogamous sexual partners, though issues of definition, especially around questions of choice and consent, remain extremely murky given the power differentials involved, which are all too well suggested by subsequent events), and the varying effects her death may have had on what apparently had been, for some time, a somewhat stable system of relationships. We can't be sure exactly what Anthony did (though his approach to Hester, her refusal, and the subsequent beating do seem like something very close to verifiable facts), but the enslaved women's (and, where relevant, their male partners') awareness of what he could or might do is perhaps equally relevant in their decision-making.

    I'm in the early stages of trying to figure out a somewhat similar situation: the wife in a slaveowning couple died, and there are clear signs of instability on her home plantation in the year that followed. She left very few papers (or they were destroyed), but what I've found makes her seem like an intelligent woman, actively engaged in the public concerns of the day as well as in her home plantation -- someone who might well have had some influence on the running of the plantation (and who by that influence would, of course, be fully implicated in the act of slaveowning). I at first thought that her husband's search for a sexual partner among his slaves might have played a role in some of the events that followed her death, but I'm currently leaning away from that interpretation (which in fact may be an overly simplistic/reductionist one, undervaluing in some ways her role in his life and the workings of the plantation).

    Anyway -- different woman, of a very different class and power position, but some of the same questions arise about who she might have been, what role(s) she might have played, and how (and to what extent) we can tell. One constant that I do think applies to her death as well as Harriet Bailey's (and that is probably one of those things that remains true, if framed generally enough, in the present day): deaths tend to both reveal and change relationships, between the decendent and others, and among the survivors, making the time surrounding them an especially rich one for historical investigation.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I hope that I am clear that I don't think that this IS what happened, just that it is a possibility, and that the temporal relationship between these events should be considered as significant, even if it wasn't.

    Ahhh, plantation mistresses -- they are up next in my current chapter (and always implicated in slaveowning). In you research, a comparison might be the Hemings women, specifically Sally, since Jefferson did not plan to remarry, but was a virile man and did also have a house that required management (assuming she also was housekeeper). That didn't undervalue Martha Jefferson's role, it was just a practicality.

    Your last point is quite important. In fact, someone else and I were having a similar conversation, but speaking mostly in emotional terms. I think I was moving toward it with Harriet's death, but Anthony's death just a year after the events in this post overshadowed it since the Bailey family ended up divided among his three heirs -- and then again as those heirs died in short order, so I hadn't consciously considered Harriet as part of this system that had to adjust in the wake of her death. Thank you for pointing that out.

    A similar adjustment happened when Anna Douglass died, especially when Douglass remarried. People focus on the short space between the two events, but that was common, wasn't it? The change of spouses is all part of the seismic shift in the wake of the death. It's not just about sex, either, but about childcare, household management, inheritance, potential geographical relocation, opportunities to escape slavery, and potential sale.

    I'll be interested in reading your work as it progresses. Plantation mistresses -- or mistresses over slaves -- are up next in the chapter I'm working on.