The scars of slavery: Iconic Civil War image has Northampton roots

  • The famous image of a former slave next to an image of a book store which was on Main Street in Northampton are part of an exhibit at Historic Northampton. The exhibit shows the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • An image of Henry S. Gere, publisher of the Hampshire Gazette, in an exhibit at Historic Northampton which shows the connection between Gere and images of self- liberated slaves. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Photographs found at Historic Northampton are part of an ongoing exhibit showing the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self liberated slaves, including the famous image of a slave named Peter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Photographs found at Historic Northampton are part of an ongoing exhibit showing the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The famous image of a former slave, which is part of an exhibit at Historic Northampton, shows the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Photographs found at Historic Northampton are part of an exhibit that shows the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marie Panik, the museum manager at Historic Northampton and co-curator sits with Bruce Laurie, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, at an exhibit that shows the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves, including the famous image of a former slave named Peter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Bruce Laurie, at left, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, at an exhibit that shows the connection between Northampton newspaper publisher Henry S. Gere and images of self-liberated slaves. Center photo, a bookstore formerly on Main Street in Northampton, S. E. Bridgman & Company College Bookstore, displayed the photograph of a badly beaten slave named Peter in 1863. On the right, a portrait of Gere, during his service for the 52nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/27/2018 12:47:17 AM

NORTHAMPTON — On July 4, 1863, one of the most widely read magazines in the country during the Civil War published an image capturing the abhorrent cruelties of slavery — the side portrait of an escaped slave with terrifying, streaking scars across his back caused by a whipping from his owner.

The day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, Harper’s Weekly published “A Typical Negro,” which included the image of the tortured former slave. He was misidentified as Gordon (his name was Peter), and the photo was accompanied by a narrative that bore little resemblance to the facts.

It did, however, provide readers in the North with some of the most powerful visual evidence of the wickedness of slavery and the abuses that slaves endured.

Recent research by Bruce Laurie, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, into two local men who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War era — Henry S. Gere of Northampton and Marshall S. Stearns of Northfield — provided new clues about the true identity of the former slave brought to national attention by Harper’s.

Gere, who lived from 1828 to 1914, was the publisher of the Hampshire Gazette from 1857 until his death; Stearns, who lived from 1824 to 1902, was a currier and carpenter. They met during training in Greenfield for the 52nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, and Laurie’s essay delves into how these two local figures helped capture the image that had a profound impact on Northern abolitionists and non-abolitionists alike.

“This image became iconic,” Laurie said at a recent presentation for an exhibition at Historic Northampton based on his research for his 2016 essay, “‘Chaotic Freedom’ in Civil War Louisiana: The Origins of an Iconic Image,” published by the Massachusetts Review.

“Someone, we do not know who, sent a copy to Harper’s magazine,” Laurie said. “It was the favorite journal of the expanding middle class … and it included a heroic story, but it’s rubbish, made up, and had absolutely nothing to do with the truth.”

Marie Panik, museum manager at Historic Northampton, said that an anonymous letter penned to the New York Tribune in 1863 disputed Harper’s account of Gordon. The anonymous letter, signed “Bostonian,” wrote:

“‘Poor Peter’ is the name of the negro whose lacerated back, as presented in the original photograph, has excited both the sympathy and indignation of every humanitarian that has seen it.”

The exhibit, “Chaotic Freedom and the Scars of Slavery: From Baton Rouge to Northampton,” will run at Historic Northampton until Dec. 9.

Laurie’s research led him to several collections of Gere’s and Stearns’ photographs and letters housed at different libraries. By looking through their letters, written during their deployment to Louisiana as part of the Union army, Laurie made an astounding historical connection: Stearns and Gere were responsible for the photograph of the former slave.

“(Gere) says this to his readers in April, 1863: ‘Saw last week one of the most horrid and singular objects I have ever beheld. It was the bare back of a negro who had been beaten by an overseer,’ ” Laurie said, during his Oct. 20 talk about the exhibit.

“The two men (Gere and Stearns) were also responsible for the production of the portrait of Peter, easily the most iconic image of a slave that emerged from the war, his back a mass of sores and scars emblematic of the horrors of Southern slavery,” Laurie wrote in his 2016 essay.

New findings

Laurie did not set out to prove the true identity of the former slave in Harper’s 1863 story. Rather, his research for his 2015 book, “Rebels in Paradise: Sketches of Northampton Abolitionists,” led him to focus on Gere and Stearns.

By looking through collections at various libraries — including Forbes Library in Northampton, the State Library of Massachusetts in Boston, and the Louisiana State University Library in Baton Rouge — Laurie found images and letters that documented a Union-run contraband camp in Baton Rouge, where Gere and Stearns were assigned.

There were images of runaway slaves, mostly women and children, at a former female seminary turned into a contraband camp, which is where freed slaves were housed after the federal government had passed a law confiscating Southern property.

“These people were not citizens, not even treated as human beings,” Laurie said. “They were considered animals and property. What the Confiscation Act did was declare them contraband, which means they could not be returned to their owners. They were not formally free either; they were in limbo.”

As part of the Union Army’s occupation, Stearns ran a plantation as well as the contraband camp, Laurie said, which started with 500 former slaves in January 1863. Within a few months, that number grew to nearly 2,000.

Both Stearns and Gere wrote back home to family and friends about a former slave, named Peter, who entered the camp, and how they would soon be sending images of him.

Although Laurie was unable to find images of Peter among Gere’s and Stearns’ collections, the timing of the letters and their descriptions of Peter meant that “no one else could’ve qualified” as the true identity of the man in Harper’s portrait. There is a bit of mystery shrouding Laurie’s findings, however.

That is because the image used in Harper’s is not the exact same image of the first known photograph of Peter, which was taken in late March or early April of 1863.

The image of Peter that Gere and Stearns referred to in their letters was taken by Boston-born photographer William D. McPherson, who left a watermark on the original portrait.

The image published in Harper’s did not have a watermark, and it varies slightly from McPherson’s: Peter is posed differently, his hair is grown in, and he has a goatee. Harper’s image is also a print version of the photograph, which was created with wood engravings.

As for who took the photograph, “It could’ve been anybody — we can’t resolve that,” Laurie said. “We can say that whoever did it needed Stearns’ permission because Stearns controlled the place where Peter was, so Stearns is at least the enabler of this image which became iconic.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com


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