The Column in Between: Re-reading John Rogers’ “The Slave Auction” (1859)

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (1859)

Having written about reenacted slave auctions from the mid-19th century to the present (Auslander 2010; Auslander 2013; Auslander 2015), I am fascinated by John Roger’s 1859 plaster sculpture “The Slave Auction,” which the artist produced in copied format for sale during the Civil War period. Harold Holzer (2015) offers a reading of the piece in his volume The Civil War in 50 Objects. a review of works in the New York Historical Society collections. I’d like here to extend his thoughtful interpretation.

Five figures are depicted in this mass-reproduced sculptural group. Towering above the others, behind a podium, is the raised figure of the white auctioneer, his hair curled upwards, echoing the upward twist of his mustache, as if, Rogers noted, he possesses the devilish horns of “Old Nick”. To the left of the column is a striking enslaved African American man, his arms crossed defiantly, standing in classical contrapposto pose.

To the right is an enslaved woman, holding a baby to her breast, while another child clutches and hides behind her dress. The woman is depicted with notably white or European features, consistent with white abolitionists’ frequent emphasis on the near- white status of imperiled enslaved heroines. Her features also reference the theme of repeated sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women by white slaveowners, a prominent motif in abolitionist discourse of the day. The podium bears a poster with the words; “Great Sale/of/Horses, Negroes & Other/Farm Stock/ This Day at/Public Auction.”

Iconographic and Textual Sources

By 1859, Rogers would have had innumerable textual and visual models to draw upon for this work, given that the mise en scene of the slave auction had been widely favored by northern abolitionist writers and artists for decades.

Hammat Billings, The Auction Sale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852: 174

He was surely familiar with abolitionist Hammat Billings illustration, “The Auction Sale” in the second edition (1852, p. 174) of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the accompanying text, the adolescent Albert pleads without success for his purchaser to also buy his mother, from whom he is separated. In the image, the smartly dressed auctioneer towers above the enslaved chattel, who crouch in shadows. A poster is visible to the left, advertising for runaway slaves, driving home the overall theme of danger, rather as a poster is used in the Rogers sculpture to emphasize the horror of bondage.

More broadly, Rogers’ composition was likely informed by the Biblical imagery running through Stowe’s novel. Chapter 30, for example, opens with a meditation on a New Orleans slave warehouse, as diverse enslaved people are readied for the auction block:

“Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be “sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;” and that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.”

Rogers’ image similarly evokes the Gospels. Here we see a version of the Holy Family, now divided by the satanic auctioneer or slave dealer. The female figure with newborn evokes both Mary with the infant Jesus as well as the weeping Pieta. There may even be an echo of John: 19’s report that Pontius Pillate, after acquiescing to demands that Jesus be crucified, had a noticed prepared and affixed to the cross, reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Rogers’ central column, in turn, boasts the poster announcing the day’s auction, as if it too, were a cross of martyrdom.

As Holzer notes, the proximate inspiration of Rogers’ work may have been the vast slave sale of 436 enslaved people, March 2-3, 1859 conducted at the Ten Broek racecourse in Savannah, on behalf of planter Pierce Mease Butler to settle extensive debts (DeGraft-Hanson 2010). The sale was surreptitiously observed by northern journalist Mortimer Thomson, who published an expose of the auction in the New York Herald Tribune on March 9, under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Doesticks described the poignant case of the young woman Daphne, who had given birth two weeks earlier. A blanket covered her and her baby, although the prospective buyers protested that they wished to judge her uncovered limbs. Rogers may also have been influenced by Doesticks’ account of the young man Jeffrey, who pleaded in vain for his new buyer to also purchase the young woman Dorcas, whom he was in love with.

In his influential account in the Tribune, the reporter contrast the “dapper” appearance of the slave dealer Joseph Bryan, with the heart-breaking visages of those being torn asunder from friends and kin:

‘The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands.”

Rogers presumably read this widely reprinted piece, and his sculpture may well have been an effort to translate this text into sculptural form.

Rogers was perhaps also inspired by a widely-reported mock slave auction staged thirteen years earlier, by the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. In 1846 at his church in Manhattan, Rev. Beecher raised funds to secure the freedom of the sisters Mary and Emily Edmundson, who had been recaptured after the failed mass escape attempt of The Pearl in Washington DC in April 1848. Much was made at the time of the young women’s relatively light skin, which rendered them particularly sympathetic to white audiences, and the threat of sexual abuse that hung over them should they be acquired by southern slave owners. Rev. Beecher, playing the part of the southern slave auctioneer, reportedly took great pride in driving up the price offered by the congregation to redeem the two young women, who were emanicipated in November 1848.

The Central Podium

To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of Rogers’ composition is the podium at the center of the assemblage. The column provides height to the elevated auctioneer, and simultaneously dramatizes the imminent division between the man on the left and the woman and her children to the right.

Viewed from behind, the auctioneer’s lower legs emerge out the column, rather as if he were a serpentine demonic presence, slithering out of the wood, perhaps redolent of the tree in the Garden of Eden that presaged the Fall. (The bunching of his rear waistcoat may recall a devil’s tail). In contrast. the black adults’ bare feet, like the feet of hiding child, are firmly planted on the base of the auction block.

John Rogers, The Slave Auction (Collection of Historic New England)

The central flat rectangular frontage of the podium, out of which the crouched auctioneer extends, could be read as a kind of phallic presence, redolent of the Law of the Father that is about to tear asunder this small family, as well as the implied likelihood that the enslaved woman, like her enslaved foremothers, will be subjected to white male sexual predation. The auctioneer is seen in the act of bringing his gavel down upon the podium, sealing the sale that will rend the family in two. In that sense, he and the gavel could be read as castrating forms, emasculating the heroic male black figure. The flatness of the podium front could thus be read as site of absence, a terrible void effacing the natural rights of paternity. The overall gendered imagery of the grouping, after all, prioritizes the mid-19th century ideal of the family, with the black husband solitary, tall and erect, and his wife with children, and bent over in grief, much lower than the male head of the family. This “natural” family formation is just about to be violated by demonic auctioneer rising from above the victims.

Appropriately, the shaft-like podium provides a surface for the poster announcing the sale, emphasizing, in effect, white control over the written word, implying that sinful white greed and lust seek to supplant the black man’s god-given prerogatives. It is intriguing in this regard, that the folds in the black man’s breeches, over the seat of his manhood, echo the folds in the adjacent poster. Perhaps the sculptor means to imply that right (in the sense of the male hero’s virtue) will ultimately prevail over the work of the Devil, who dares to sell off in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s words, ‘the soul immortal.”

This reading would lend further support to the sense that the central wooden column, severing the victims from one another, hints at the cross itself, under which Mary cradled her martyred son. It is striking that the enslaved woman, holding the infant to her breast, rests her head, and that of the baby, upon the podium. Perhaps, this vertical space, although at the present moment an instrument of a dreadful martyrdom, hints at a coming transformation and the promise of redemption under the cross, when the faithful will all once more be united.

The Sculpture’s Afterlife

Holzer remarks that the sculptural group did not sell anywhere near as well as Rogers had anticipated. New York City shops on the eve of the Civil War were reluctant to alienate southern customers and often refused to display the work. Rogers thus hit upon the strategy of having an African American worker hawk the mass-reproduced plasters from a push cart.

One of these was purchased by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The work may have influenced Rev. Beecher in undertaking several months later, on February 6th, 1860 his most famous mock slave auction, from the pulpit of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. As I discuss in my 2013 paper, Touching the Past, through this auction a light-skinned nine-year-old enslaved girl known as Sally Maria Diggs, or “Pinky,” was redeemed for a $900 purchase price raised from the congregation. Following the precedent from his other mock auctions, Rev. Beecher intimated that were Pinky not saved from slavery, she faced a life of likely sexual servitude, and that in freeing her, the faithful were offered the opportunity to redeem themselves from sin.

Rev. Beecher famously gave to the girl an opal-studded gold ring offered by a congregation member, the writer Rose Terry, telling Pinky, “Now remember this is your freedom ring.” (In subsequent re-tellings, Rev. Beecher is said to have uttered the more dramatic phrase, “With this ring I wed thee to freedom.) Nearly six decades later, in 1927, the woman who had once been known as Pinky or Rose Terry, now known as Mrs. James Hunt, returned a ring (not, it appears, the same ring) to the Plymouth congregation, perhaps freeing herself, I have argued, from the complex and rather humiliating weight of her 1860 public redemption.

A copy of the work is in the collection of Historic New England, a gift of the founder of the organization’s forerunner, William Sumner Appleton (1874–1947), evidently in 1935. Perhaps Appleton, whose Boston family had abolitionist tendencies, had inherited the piece.

References

Auslander, Mark, 2011. “Holding on to Those Who Can’t be Held”: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore’s Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)

_____________2013 Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments, Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183

_____________2014. Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reeanactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres. North American Dialogue (Society for the Anthropology of North America) 17:1, pp. 1-12.

_____________ 2015. Contesting the Roadways: The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. Southern Spaces. August 2015.

______________2019. Competing Roadways, Contesting Bloodlines: Registers of Biopower at a Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. pp. 189-203. Varieties of Historical Experience. Stephen Palmie and Charles Stewart, eds. Routledge Kegan Paul.

Holzer, Harold (and the New York Historical Society). 2015. The Civil War in 50 Objects. Penguin Random House.

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