Typhoid Mary

Typhoid Mary in a 1909 newspaper illustration
Photo Credit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/typhoid/mary.html

There were many ways to die in the overcrowded disease ridden cities of the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Typhoid was one the most terrifying ones simply because of the speed it could spread through a household.   It’s initial symptoms could be anything- fever and some abdominal cramping.  Then the fever got higher and blood clots formed under the skin.  The patient becomes delirious and the brain and the intestines hemorrhage.  The death rate was recorded anywhere from one in ten to three in ten.  It was frightening.  Doctors were building on the advances in the young science of epidemiology led by pioneers like Dr. John Snow.  (For more on him, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/dr-john-snow-father-modern-epidemiology/ ) By the 1900s, they had found the cause of the disease was much like cholera in that it was cause by bacteria found in infected feces.  They were able to trace the cause of outbreaks more accurately, however, outbreaks still happened.

Typhoid broke out in the quiet community of Oyster Bay, Long Island.  One of the families affected was the Warren family where six of the eleven people in the rented vacation home became ill.  The patriarch, Charles Henry Warren, hired civil engineer, George Soper, to determine the cause of the outbreak.  Soper checked out the usual suspects- the food and water supply- and came up empty.  Then he began interviewing the servants.  His suspicions fell on Mary Mallon, a cook for the family who had arrived at the vacation home shortly before the outbreak began.  It was strange though because Mary wasn’t sick.  She was an immigrant in her thirties from Ireland who took pride in her cooking.  When asked if she washed her hands before she cooked, she indignantly replied “Of course not.”  When Soper asked her for samples of her blood, urine and feces, she brandished a meat fork at him and called him indecent.  However, Mary was his best lead.

Soper did more research and found that typhoid seemed to follow Mary wherever she went.  Between 1900 and 1907, Mallon worked as a cook in the New York City area for seven families.  In all of these families, someone became ill with typhoid.  He tried again to get her tested, this time visiting her in the hospital when she was ill with an unrelated ailment.  She locked herself in the bathroom until he left.  Mary was convinced she was being persecuted unjustly.  Finally, Sara Josephine Baker from the New York City Health Department went to Mary’s place of employment with five police officers and she was taken into custody.  The samples were forcibly taken, and it was found Mary had a gallbladder teaming with typhoid bacteria.  They suggested she get her gallbladder removed.  Mary refused.  They told her she could not work as a cook.  Mary refused that as well.  She was put into quarantine on North Brother Island in the East River.  There she stayed for three years.  Mary paid a private lab to run tests and they found she was not a typhoid carrier and sued for her freedom.  She lost.

In 1910, a new health inspector deemed the Mary was no longer a danger to the public.  He released her from quarantine as long as she promised not to be a cook.  Mary duly promised and then promptly disappeared.  Then a new outbreak of typhoid broke out at the Sloane Maternity Hospital in 1915.  It was mostly found in the staff, and there were twenty-three people who became ill and two who died.  They found that a Mary Brown was working in the kitchen.  This Mary Brown soon disappeared when people became sick and matched the description of Mary Mallon.  The authorities soon caught up with her in her Queens apartment, sneaking in through a second story window.  Mary was once again sent to the hospital on North Brother Island.

The public had become fascinated with the case, dubbing her “Typhoid Mary.”  The New York Times reported, she was “a veritable peripatetic breeding ground for the bacilli”.  Any public support she had dwindled once it came out that she went back to cooking and endangered people.  However, Mary did not have many options once she was out in the world.  Cooking was the only skill she had.  Plus, she never truly believed she was a carrier of typhoid so didn’t believe she was putting anyone in danger.  

Scientists from Stanford figured out only recently how Mary could be a carrier and not get sick.  Part of the immune system are macrophages, which “eat” foreign bodies.  When someone becomes sick, the macrophages go into high gear to fight the infection.  However, after a few days the macrophages become less aggressive and the typhoid bacteria actually penetrate and live in the cells meant to kill them.  Even now, that is difficult to treat let alone a hundred years ago.  

Mary was not always well treated in quarantine, and it was not an easy life.  She suffered a stroke and died from its effects six years later. She was still living on North Brother Island, and her New York Times obituary attributed 41 cases of typhoid and 3 deaths to her.


The Current Wars

Thomas Edison

AC/DC-  It’s not just a band.  It was the culmination of the struggle between two geniuses.  In the late 19th century, electricity was the hot new technology.  Thomas Edison had begun work with this field and in the 1870’s invented the first practical light bulb.  Arc lamps were used in cities on larger scales, but were not suitable for a business or a home.  Edison’s light bulb filled that niche.  To power all these new electric light bulbs, Edison created the investor-owned Edison Illuminating Company.  One problem.  These all used direct current or DC, which had a major drawback of a very short transmission range.  Customers had to be less than a mile from the power plan to get electricity.

Edison had a brilliant employee- Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla.  He worked with Edison to improve the DC generators, but also worked on his ideas about alternating current, or AC, on the side.  Edison completely discounted Tesla’s ideas as impractical and put himself firmly on the DC train.  He was convinced that since DC maintained current at a lower voltage it was much safer than AC, which could change directions and voltages by using a transformer.  It didn’t hurt that most of Edison’s patents were on machines using DC, and the switch to AC would cost him significant money.  The two made a bet that Tesla could improve the efficiency of Edison’s dynamos.  If Tesla succeeded, he claimed Edison promised him $50,000, a goodly sum of money both then and now.  Tesla worked twenty four-seven for months, and finally presented his ideas to Edison.  However, Edison claimed the offer was a joke saying “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”  This did not go over well with Tesla, who quit on the spot.  The rivalry was born.

Nicola Tesla

Tesla, despite his genius, had to take whatever job he could get after quitting Edison’s company.  After a few years of digging ditches, he finally had enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company in 1884.  In the next three years, Tesla researched and eventually filed for seven US patents in the field of AC motors and power transmission.  These patents included the plans for AC generators, wires, transformers, lights and a 100 horsepower AC motor.  Seeing the practicality of AC, George Westinghouse approached Tesla for a deal.  Westinghouse was an inventor in his own right, having developed the air brake.  Westinghouse also had a history of feuding with Edison, which made he and Tesla natural allies.  He bought all of Tesla’s patents for $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock in the Westinghouse corporation.  This was the equivalent of about a million dollars in today’s money.  Tesla took the deal and immediately built himself a new laboratory.  What he didn’t realize was he got short changed.  Those patents were priceless as Westinghouse set out to revolutionize the business of electricity.  The current wars were in full swing.

George Westinghouse Photo Credit- Joseph G. Gessford – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As cities across America began to build power stations, the fight between Edison and Westinghouse was on.  Edison was convinced AC would kill people and was determined to make the public see it too.  He embarked on a full scale propaganda campaign, which included euthanizing stray dogs with AC current during lectures before an audience.  Westinghouse wrote,

“I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice. Imagine that! Why they even had a professor named Harold Brown who went around talking to audiences… and electrocuting dogs and old horses right on stage, to show how dangerous alternating current was.”

Professor Brown also had a hand in replacing the form of capital punishment from hanging to the “electrical chair”.  Edison was sure to let everyone know the electric chairs were “’alternating machines,’ manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse”.  He also quipped that criminals should be used as linesmen because the AC lines were so dangerous.  The first prisoner executed by electric chair was William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn State Prison.  The execution was described as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”  The entire process became known as “Westinghousing”.  It eventually came out that Brown was on Edison’s payroll, but the damage had been done.  Deaths of linemen in 1889 kicked off the “electric Wire Panic”, and Westinghouse was blamed.  Newspapers who had condemned Brown for double dealing, quoted him in stories as an expert on how dangerous AC was.

Despite this bad press, the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the honor of illuminating the Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair over the newly founded General Electric Company, which had taken over Edison’s company.  They won because the price of copper was soaring and DC power stations need more heavy copper lines than AC.  On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and a hundred thousand electric lights illuminated all the buildings on the fairgrounds.  The Fair was a triumph of Tesla’s AC system, and the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the contract to construct generators for a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls.  In 1896, the plant was completed and the AC generators were delivering power to Buffalo, New York twenty-six miles away.  A feat that would have been impossible for the DC generators.

By this time, Edison had left his electric company for other pursuits.  With his dogmatic prejudice against AC gone, General Electric began researching AC based equipment.  Edison publicly bragged on how well his stock was doing, but was privately bitter about it.  From that point on, 80 percent of the electrical devices in the US were made to use AC.


The Fox Sisters

The Fox sisters. From left to right: Margaret, Kate and Leah

Spiritualism was sweeping the United States in the late 1840’s.  As discussed in the book Occult America, this was the first chance for women to exercise any type of religious or political leadership.  There were many women who were involved with the Spiritualist practices of seances and spirit channeling.  The first American-born woman to become a recognized public preacher was Jemima Wilkinson or the Publick Universal Friend as she preferred to be called (For more on her, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/publick-universal-friend/ )  The Fox Sisters were American women that took up the mantle o
f Spiritualism and their legacy is shrouded in accusations of fraud.

In March 1848, strange things started happening in the Fox home in Hydesville, New York.  Strange noises were heard around bed time in the dark rooms of their home that had no explanation.  Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate Fox, 11, told the tale to their neighbor, who then came over to hear for herself.  Maggie ordered the room to count to five, and five loud thuds were heard as the girls were huddled on the bed.  The girls soon declared the thuds were the work of spirits, who were trying to communicate with the living through the use of “spirit raps”.   A system was worked out where series of knocks corresponded to letters of the alphabet, and messages began to come forth.

The girls’ parents were good Methodists and had concerns about this, and vacated the house forthwith.  They sent the girls to live with their older sister Leah Fox Fish in nearby Rochester.  This area of New York was known as the “burned over” region, and was a hotbed of religious reform and activity.  Rumors of the girls’ experiences reached community leaders, Isaac and Amy Post.  They were intrigued as rumors indicated a peddler was murdered in the Fox home prior to their residence and they believed the girls were communicating with his spirit.  A group of investigators took it upon themselves to investigate the Fox home and found what they believed were fragments of bone and strands of hair.  They were convinced these were the remains of the spirit the Fox girls called “Mr. Splitfoot.”

At this point, Leah Fox also got into the act saying she was a medium who could communicate with the Post’s deceased daughter.  The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and the girls put on a demonstration of the Spiritualist ability.  Four hundred people came to hear the spirits rap and answer questions.  Afterwards, the girls were taken into a private chamber and examined by a panel of “skeptics”.  Female examiners had the girls disrobe and checked their undergarments for anything that could have produced the sounds.  That had to have been embarrassing for two young girls.

Their exploits caught the attention of Andrew Jackson Davis, who was known as the Poughkeepsie Seer.  He had written a book a year prior predicting the rise of Spiritualism, and he took the appearance of the Fox Sisters as the manifestation of that prophecy.  With his blessing, the girls went on the road with Leah as their manager and began a professional tour to spread the word of the spirits.  They played first played New York City and charged a dollar admission and offered private meetings for the more wealthy bereaved.  They entertained the notables of the day including P.T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant and William Lloyd Garrison.

Leah stayed behind in New York, while Kate and Maggie continued their tour in cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.  Even though famous publications like the Scientific American scoffed at their sessions, people flocked to get a seat at the table to hear the messages of the spirits.  Committees and forums were formed to expose the sisters as frauds, but they could not prove anything.  However, there were clues there were shenanigans going on.  Leah would often go into the audience and gather information, which was magically repeated back by the spirits.  Also, notably the ghost of Benjamin Franklin appeared and had noticeably bad grammar.  When someone mentioned this fact, Maggie is reported as stomping her foot and exclaiming angrily, “You know I never understood grammar.”  Despite all this, the sisters’ fame grew and their seances were hugely popular and their services widely sought after.

At a performance in Philadelphia, Maggie met her future husband, Arctic explorer, Elisha Kent Kane.  He was charmed by her even though he was convinced she was a complete fraud.  He convinced her to quit the tour and go back to school, which she did exchanging a ring and vows with him in 1857.  Sadly, they were not together very long before his sudden death that same year.  Maggie fell into alcoholism in her grief.  With nothing else, Maggie went back to being a medium although she had promised Kane she would not.  At one point, she is supposed to have been called by former first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, to attempt to contact the spirit of her deceased husband.  The account appeared in The New York Times in February 1872, and was used in 1875 by her son Robert Todd Lincoln as evidence of her squandering the family fortune on Spiritualist foolishness.  Mary was briefly committed to a sanitarium by her son.

Kate did not fair much better.  She went to school paid for by Horace Greeley.  He had offered to educate both young Fox sisters, but Leah did not want Maggie to quit the medium show as she was seen as more talented.  Kate did spent four months in the Greeley home in Chappaqua, New York attempting to contact the couple’s deceased five year old son.  When she came of age, Kate married a devout Spiritualist.  After so many deaths in the American Civil War, business was booming for mediums and Kate and her husband made money hand over fist.  However, fame began to take its toll and Kate drifted into drink as well.  By this time, she had two sons with her husband.  Her eldest, Ferdinand, she was convinced was a medium as well.  Sadly, her husband died suddenly from a stroke in 1885.

That same year, Maggie was called in to a commission in New York state to prove her abilities, which she failed.  Spiritualism was beginning to run its course, and it was difficult for the sisters to find work.  Kate was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct in 1888 and lost custody of both her children.  Leah and the other Spiritualists they worked with turned their backs on the sisters for their drinking.  Leah had married a wealthy man and had basically turned her back on her two sisters.  It was time for a change.  Maggie made the decision to denounce Spiritualism once and for all.  She booked the New York Academy of Music and offered an exclusive to the New York World for $1500.  Kate was in the audience lending her support as Maggie described how the two of them began the deception in their home so long ago.  She claimed,

“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began.  At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.”

The apple dropping was soon not enough, and they moved onto manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds.

“A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them.  It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”

Critics of spiritualism crowed this was the proof they needed that the whole movement was bunk.  Spiritualists claimed it was the sad ravings of a drunk.  Both Maggie and Kate recanted the recantation later and tried to perform again as mediums, but it was unsuccessful.  Kate drank herself to death and was found by one of her sons.  She was only 56.  Maggie died a year later in 1893 penniless at the age of 59.


Ida B. Wells-Barnett

ida_b__wellsI don’t know about you, but there are days I get very discouraged.  People are rude, everything I do fails and nothing goes my way.  Then I read about people like Ida B. Wells, and I realize I need to suck it up.  My life is pretty easy in comparison.  This woman is the epitome of rising on your own steam and is a true badass.

Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Ida B. Wells was the daughter of two slaves- James and Lizzie Wells.  This made her a slave too.  Luckily when she was six months old, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which made young Ida and her family free.  However, they were still living in the Civil War south so they weren’t out of the woods yet.  Money was tight in the family as there were seven Wells children, but their mother Lizzie had some fame as a cook and their father was a talented carpenter so they were able to support the family.  Once the war was over, Ida’s parents became active in the newly formed Republican party.  Her father became a trustee of Shaw University,  a school for newly freed slaves, where Ida eventually received her education.

Tragedy hit when an epidemic of yellow fever swept through the area when Ida was only fourteen.  Sadly both her parents and her youngest sibling died of the disease, leaving Ida to provide for the family.  Ida convinced the superintendent of a nearby school she was eighteen and secured a job as a teacher.  This continued until 1882, when the family moved in with an aunt in Memphis Tennessee.  Living in Memphis, she traveled to Nashville to attend Fisk University.  It was on one of these trips between Memphis and Nashville that a fateful confrontation took place.  Ida purchased a first class ticket and was riding in the “ladies’ car”.  A conductor asked her leave and go to the “Jim Crow” car to make room for a white passenger.  The “Jim Crow” car did not have first class accommodations as you can well imagine.  Ida refused.  The conductor tried to remove her by force, taking her by the arm.  Ida was not having it, and bit the conductor on the back of the hand and held onto the seat back in front of her.  She wrote in her autobiography,

“I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”

She filed suit against the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company and won a $500 settlement in a circuit court case.  This decision was eventually overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Remember that the law of the land at this time was 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of race creed or color in public accommodations.  This was widely ignored.  It did not come before the Supreme Court until Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which established the “separate but equal” doctrine.  Anyone looking at pictures of the “colored” accommodations and facilities can attest these were anything but equal.  However, I digress.  This only fueled Ida’s fire against injustice, and she began writing about issues of race and politics in the south under the pseudonym “Iola”.  Her work challenging “Jim Crow” laws were widely published in black newspapers and magazines.  Eventually, she purchased a managing share of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper.  

In 1892, Ida unfortunately had more to write about.  Three of her friends owned the People’s Grocery in Memphis.  Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss and Henry Stewart were making a successful go of their business, and were out performing the grocery store across the street.  This did not sit well with the white owners of said store, and they set out to do something about it.  On March 9, 1892, a group of white men confronted McDowell, Moss and Stewart and a scuffle ensued.  Some white men were injured, so the three black men were arrested.  A mob broke into the jail and lynched the three men.  Ida wasn’t going to have it.  She was angry at the murder of her friends for the crime of being black and successful with good reason.  Using her powerful voice as a journalist, she wrote editorials on this injustice.  

“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”

Ida investigated this lynching as well as others across the south.  She put herself in danger countless times gathering information about these murders and published her findings in the pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases”.  She went on to make several lectures on the subject and publish a book in 1895 called A Red Record.  These detailed the anatomy of a lynching and countered the popular “rape myth” used by many mobs to justify the murder of black men.  She had found that many “rapes” were consensual relationships between white women and black men or just a product of pure fiction.  The proponents of Jim Crow took notice and burned her newspaper to the ground.  Ida was on a trip to New York, but was warned not to return to Memphis as she would be killed.  So Ida took her show on the road.  She traveled to England and established the British Anti-Lynching Society in 1894.  Finally returning home to the US to settle in Chicago.  There she met the man who was to become her husband.  He was Ferdinand L. Barnett, a lawyer and newspaper editor.  Ferdinand was apparently her match as he was a fellow feminist and supported his wife’s causes.  Their wedding made the New York Times.  Together the couple had four children.

Ida’s work was far from over, and marriage did not slow her down.  She protested the exclusion of black exhibitors  from the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in her new hometown of Chicago.  Out of this came the pamphlet “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World’s Colombian Exposition”, which brought her the acclaim of Frederick Douglass. (For more on Frederick Douglass, please see this post http://www.historynaked.com/frederick-douglass/ ) That same year she helped launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  After a series of terrible assaults on the black community in Springfield Illinois in 1908, Wells was one of the leaders who called for the creation of a national organization.  She was one of two black women who joined with W.E.B. DuBois and other organizers to sign “the call”.  Out of this, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was created.  Ida later cut ties with the organization as she disagreed with the strategies of Booker T. Washington.  She was considered one of the most radical of the radicals.

Ida was also active in the cause of women’s suffrage and marched in the 1913 Women’s March on Washington (http://www.historynaked.com/first-womens-march-washington/ ), causing a kerfuffle because she would not be segregated in the parade.  Haven’t these people learned yet?  Ida didn’t march in the back.  She led.  She continued leading by becoming one of the first black women to run for public office.  In 1930, she ran for the Illinois State legislature, but was defeated.  A year later in 1931, Ida died of kidney disease at the age of 68.  She left behind a legacy of work and words to inspire future generations.  She said, “I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”  This woman was wise.  Keep fighting the good fight, brothers and sisters.


Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was another straight up badass.  When you look at his life on paper, it is impressive- rising from slavery to famous orator and abolitionist.  However, in reading Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers by Nick Offerman (if you haven’t read it, go now), it struck me as it struck the author exactly what a feat that was.  The bare bones of it are amazing, but the details truly show what this man accomplished.

Born as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey had a tough time from the start.  He never knew his father, who was rumored to be the master of the plantation.  He spent little time with his mother as it was common practice to separate slave mothers and children to make them easier to sell.  In fact, Frederick’s mother lived on a completely different plantation.  Even Frederick himself was not sure of his birth year as slaves were not taught the years or months of the calendar.  He estimated his birth sometime in February 1818.  By the time he was eight years old his mother had died, and his master hired him out to work as a body servant in Baltimore at the house of Hugh Auld.  Sophia Auld, Hugh’s wife, recognized that Frederick was bright and began teaching him the letters of the alphabet even though this was illegal under Maryland state law.  Their lessons were discovered and Sophia was strongly admonished that educating a slave would “ruin him” as he would become dissatisfied with his lot in life and desire something better like freedom.  Let’s let that sink in for a moment.  Slave masters thought they had to make sure to keep those in it ignorant because otherwise they might figure out there was a better life.  There are so many problems with that statement I don’t know where to start.  That hurt my brain and my heart.

However, Frederick did not lose his desire for education and took any opportunity to learn more.  Auld sent young Frederick out to work at the Baltimore wharf, specifically Durgin and Bailey’s shipyard.  He noticed that each piece completed by the ship carpenters had two letters written on them to designate where it went.  For example, “S” for starboard side, “L” for larboard side, “F” for forward and “A” for aft.  He copied these letters until he had them perfectly memorized, and those were his first four letters.  Frederick saved hunks of bread and would trade them to neighborhood white boys for impromptu writing lessons.  He said “my copy-book was the board fence, brick wall, and pavement; my pen and ink was a lump of chalk.”  He
also would spend any free time he could copying the writing lessons of the Auld’s son Thomas until he could write a similar hand to the young man.  All of this was an amazing risk as if he was caught, Frederick would have been whipped or possibly killed.  When he was twelve, he bought the book The Columbian Orator, which contained revolutionary speeches, debates and writings.  Those have to have been an amazing eye opener to the young man.

Frederick was sent by Auld to work for a shipbuilder named William Gardner.  He worked as a caulker, ensuring the ship’s hull was water tight.  He was well paid for his labor, but was forced to turn over all of his salary to Hugh Auld every week.  Frederick wrote later, “…Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.”  The boats he worked on were free, but he, a living man, was not.

When Frederick was fifteen, the was sent back to the Eastern Shore to labor as a field hand.  He was hired out to a notorious “slave breaker” named Edward Covey.  This guy was a straight up villain, who took any excuse he could to beat the living daylights out of young Frederick.  Probably because he knew Frederick was ten times the man he was and hundred times smarter.  That’s my penny’s worth of pop psychology for the day.  Anyway, he did everything he could to make Frederick fail so he could punish him- whipping him with sticks until they break over Frederick’s back.  He was whipped so often that the wounds from his previous beatings did not have time to heal before the next one.  This was purely meant to break Frederick’s will and after six months of this treatment it began to work.  In his biography, Frederick described sitting like a zombie during church services on Sunday and generally being in a “beast-like stupor”.  Frederick even got so desperate he walks seven miles to appeal to his old master.  No dice.  He actually praised Covey as a good manager and sent Frederick back.  Both you and I know this is not going to go well.  Covey tried to whip Frederick and Frederick does the unthinkable.  He fought back.  The two went at it hammer and tongs for two hours, and eventually Covey gives up.  Unbelievably, nothing else happened.  Frederick hypothesized that Covey doesn’t want to lose face by admitting a slave fought him.  Maybe he was scared of another butt kicking.  Who knows, but he left Frederick alone after that.  After that epiphany, Frederick was not long for slavery.

In 1838, he made a break for it getting on a train dressed in the uniform and identification of a free black seaman, Frederick makes it to New York City.  From there he was able to bring his fiancee, a young blank woman named Anna Murray, to New York and they were married.  Frederick declared himself free, and the two adopted the new name of Douglass.  The moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and had five children together.  He looked for work as a ship’s caulker, but could not find work due to prejudice.  Not giving up, he took whatever work he could find as a day laborer.  He was not afraid to get his hands dirty doing whatever was needed to get the means to provide for himself and his family.  He also joined the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City, and became a sexton as well as an licensed preacher.  It was his sermons which brought him to the attention of other prestigious parishioners such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  They thought he would make a great addition to the abolitionist movement.brand_bio_bio_frederick-douglass-mini-biography_0_172232_sf_hd_768x432-16x9

It seems the pro-slavery movement was right to fear men like Frederick as the Abolitionists found a potent weapon in his life experiences and the eloquence in which he could express them.  He got a job with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and went on speaking tours across the North and Midwest.  His skill as an orator brought the ugliness of slavery home to his audience in a way in which others could not.  He wrote his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845, in response to accusations that he could not be a fugitive slave because he was too eloquent.  Because all black people had to be ignorant and simple minded.  Ugh.  This in itself was extremely dangerous as now his former masters knew his new name and where he was.  Frederick and his family escaped to overseas and traveled throughout England, Ireland and Scotland.  While there, he met many abolitionists and one offered to pay for his freedom.  On December 5, 1846, Mary Richardson, a quaker from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England, bought one Frederick Douglass from Hugh Auld of Baltimore for $711.66.  He was then manumitted for 125 pounds sterling.  Frederick Douglass was a free man on paper and could return home.

The Douglass family relocated to Rochester, New York and started The North Star newspaper.  In 1855, he published his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom.  In his copious spare time, he ran a station on the Underground Railroad.  He also took up the cause of women’s rights, saying at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, he could not accept the right to vote if women were not granted suffrage as well.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out and Frederick did not stop his work.  He campaigned tirelessly that emancipation would be one of the outcomes of the war and advocated for African American troops.   He recruited many of these young men to fight, including two of his own sons, and then went to Lincoln himself when they did not receive equal pay or fair treatment.  His work bore fruit with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.  These amendments ended slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves and stated no one could be denied voting rights on the basis for race, skin color or previous servitude.

During the Reconstruction, Frederick was a well known figure and held many prestigious offices such as assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission, legislative council member of the D.C. Territorial Government, board member of Howard University, and president of the Freedman’s Bank.  However, when Reconstruction was declared over, Frederick did not just fade into the background.  He served as a US Marshal for DC, Recorder of Deeds for DC and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti.  All at a time when African Americans were seriously restricted from holding office due to fraud and violence.  His work in the government did not end his speaking career either.  He worked vigorously for women’s rights, and published his third book in 1881, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  This indicated that as far as we have come, we still had a long way to go to being the Land of the Free.  He was even named as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate in her 1872 run for the presidency, although he did not agree to it.  (For more on that, please see this post  http://www.historynaked.com/victoria-woodhull/)

Despite all of this official work, Frederick and Anna remained happily married until Anna’s tragic death from a stroke in 1882.  Two years later, Frederick remarried and it was nothing less than a scandal. He married Helen Pitts, an activist and daughter of two abolitionist.  She was twenty years his junior, which was not odd for the time, and also white.  This did not go over well at all, and most of their married life was spent overseas.

Frederick Douglass died after a heart attack at the age of 77 after attending a meeting for the National Council of Women.  Hail and Farewell.