All posts by Jonathan W. White

The Enduring Legacy of Patsey

12 Years a Slave is one of the greatest movies about American history. Much to their credit, the filmmakers did an admirable job of capturing the life and experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After twelve long, torturous years in Louisiana, Northup was able to secure his freedom and return to his family. In 1853 he published a memoir of his ordeal, which is the basis for the movie.

Solomon Northup, from the frontispiece of his memoir. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

The figure at the emotional center of the film is a slave named Patsey, whom Northup described as a “slim and straight” twenty-three-year-old dark-skinned woman who “glories in the fact that she is the offspring of a ‘Guinea nigger,’ brought over to Cuba in a slave ship.” Patsey had “an air of loftiness in her movement,” he wrote, “that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy.” Were she not bound in servitude she “would have been chief among ten thousand of her people,” he mused, but “her intellect [was bound] in utter and everlasting darkness.” In the fields, Patsey could pick far more cotton than her fellow laborers—upwards of five hundred pounds in a day. She was the “queen of the field,” Northup wrote—a line repeated several times in the film.[1]

Northup and Patsey were owned by Edwin Epps, whom Northup described as a “large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions,” who stood six feet high with blue eyes and a light complexion. Epps, according to Northup, had “repulsive and course” manners, indicating that he’d “never enjoyed the advantages of an education.” Nor had he any sense “of kindness or of justice.” And when he was drunk he became either “a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his ‘niggers,’” or he would “lash[ ] them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.”[2]

While Patsey “was a joyous creature” and “a laughing, light-hearted girl” by nature, she “wept oftener, and suffered more, than any of her companions,” remembered Northup. Her back “bore the scars of a thousand stripes”—not because she was lazy, unmindful, or rebellious, but because Epps had turned his “lustful eye” toward her. If Patsey would not succumb to his sexual demands, she would be whipped. And of course, this exploitation—perceived by Epps’s wife as favoritism—caused Patsey’s mistress to despise her. “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her suffer,” wrote Northup. In addition to the whippings by Epps, her mistress physically abused her, even hurling bottles to “smite her unexpectedly in the face.” Patsey was “the enslaved victim of lust and hate” with “no comfort in her life.”[3]

“The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

After her most brutal whipping, which is painfully depicted in the film, Northup wrote that Patsey “no longer moved with that buoyant and elastic step.” She also lost the “mirthful sparkle in her eyes,” and “the sprightly, laughter-loving spirit of her youth” had disappeared. Now she worked in silence with “a care-worn, pitiful expression” on her face. “If ever there was a broken heart—one crushed and blighted by the rude grasp of suffering and misfortune—it was Patsey’s.”[4]

On the day that Northup was finally rescued from bondage, Patsey ran to him and threw her arms around him, tears streaming down her face. “I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free,” she told him, “but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?” As Northup’s carriage pulled off, he looked back and saw Patsey “with drooping head, half reclining on the ground.” He would never see her again.[5]

“Scene in the Cotton Field, Solomon Delivered Up,” from 12 Years a Slave. Courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Northup lamented in his memoir that Patsey would always be a slave. She knew that “a land of freedom” existed somewhere, but it seemed “an immeasurable distance” away. “In her imagination it was an enchanted region, the Paradise of earth,” he wrote. To be able to own her own land and cabin, and to work for herself, “was a blissful dream of Patsey’s—a dream, alas! the fulfillment of which she can never realize.”[6]

While Patsey endured many more years of cruel tyranny under Edwin Epps, Northup’s prediction did not come to pass. During the Civil War, as Union troops moved deeper into the South, they eventually made their way to Epps’s Louisiana plantation. Remarkably, several northern soldiers who had read Northup’s book in their youth still remembered the characters—and longed to meet them. And, most significantly, these soldiers learned about Patsey’s fate during the Civil War.

These sources help to answer one of the questions that has most stymied those interested in Northup’s narrative: what happened to Patsey?[7] Writing on May 11, 1863, Captain Henry Devendorf of the 110th New York Infantry told his wife, Armonella, of “a little item that will be of interest to you.” One night he met a slave named Bob who belonged to a “Master Epes.” Devendorf wrote, “Solomon Northrup [sic] immediately occurred to me, and I asked him if he ever knew a slave by the name of Platt,” which had been Northup’s name as a slave. “Oh! golly, yes, master,” Bob replied. “He raised me. I guess I does know him.” Devendorf tried to get Bob to go with him, “but he would not on account of his mother, whom, he said, he must now stay with and support.” Devendorf asked other slaves about Northup and found that he “was a very popular darkey among them; also that his story was true.” Perhaps most satisfying, Devendorf reported that “Patsy went away with our army last week, so she is at last far from the caprices of her jealous mistress.”[8]

Private John Hall of the 8th Vermont Infantry had a similar experience, asking his wife in a letter on May 20, 1863, whether she remembered Northup’s book. “I am now very near where he used to live, many negroes on this plantation knew him, he used to fiddle here.” He continued, “If you remember about it, the book speaks of old aunt Phoebe and Patsy, who were whipped, and Bob; they were all on Epps plantation.” Aunt Phoebe was still there, Hall wrote, “but the rest have all gone with some soldiers that passed their house. I hope that it will so happen that I can see some of them before I leave this section of the country.”[9] (It appears from this letter that Bob had decided to leave the plantation after all.)

Even thirty years after the war, a Union veteran who had fought with the 24th New York Cavalry recalled meeting a number of soldiers “who told me of having read the book at the time it was published (in 1854), and who had visited the plantation of Edwin Epps. . . . They told of seeing and talking with his former slave comrades,” including Patsey.[10]

While we do not yet know what happened to Patsey past the mid-point of the war, these recent discoveries reveal that she at least survived long enough to attain freedom in the summer of 1863. Further research in digitized newspapers, soldiers’ correspondence, or federal records at the National Archives may one day reveal other details about her life.

The suffering and injustice that Patsey endured was inflicted upon many slave women and girls on countless plantations throughout the Old South. While most of their names and experiences have been lost to history, Patsey’s story survives. Northup’s graphic account impressed it deeply upon the minds of Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century—so much so that Union soldiers marching through the South remembered her name and story in vivid detail almost a decade after they’d read it. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey in the film serves that same purpose, reminding new generations of Americans that we cannot ignore and ought never forget the brutal realities of slavery.

[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853), 166, 179, 186, 188.

[2] Ibid., 162-63, 183.

[3] Ibid., 188-89.

[4] Ibid., 253-59.

[5] Ibid., 308.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] A few writers have searched for Patsey’s story. See, for example, Katie Calautti, “‘What’ll Become of Me?’: Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave,” Vanity Fair (March 2, 2014), www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/03/patsey-12-years-a-slave (accessed March 17, 2017). One of the commenters at this article posted the Mexico Independent article, which is cited below.

[8] “Letters from Capt. Devendorf,” Mexico Independent, Mexico, N.Y., June 18, 1863.

[9] “From the 8th Regiment,” Lamoille Newsdealer, Hyde Park, Vt., July 2, 1863.

[10] S. E. Chandler, “Bayou Boeuf, La.,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., September 27, 1894. Not all soldiers believed Northup’s account. Shortly after this article appeared, A. A. Gardner of the 93rd New York Infantry replied that one of the kidnappers told him that Northup had concocted the kidnapping scheme in order to make money but that the plan had gone awry (this defense had appeared forty years earlier when the kidnappers went to trial). He concluded that 12 Years a Slave was “ahead of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’” “as a work of fiction.” See “A Slave Twelve Years,” National Tribune, Washington, D.C., October 11, 1894.

Jonathan W. White

Jonathan W. White is associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University. His latest book is Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). Check out his website at www.jonathanwhite.org, or follow him on Twitter at @CivilWarJon.