Solomon Northup was born free in New York. He married and did various jobs to earn money, such as working on a canal, cutting up lumber, rafting, and playing the violin. He eventually earned enough money to buy a farm. His wife became known as a cook. He also worked driving a hack and did work on the railroad. He advised any slaves he spoke to to seek freedom whenever they found the opportunity. He had a ten-year-old and eight-year-old daughter, as well as a five-year-old boy.
One day, two men who claimed to work at a circus offered him a job playing violin. He went with them to Washington D.C. where he witnessed the funeral of President Harrison (the cannon fire which was part of the ceremony broke windows with the noise). He never saw the circus, though. The men offered him a drink which made him sick. He fell unconscious and woke up in chains, his money and free papers gone.
When he told the slave trader he was free, he got beat with a paddle until it broke, then he was beaten with the cat o’ nine tails. He meets other freemen who were also kidnapped and put into slavery. While on board a ship, they hatch a plan to escape, but one of them gets smallpox and dies, so they’re not able to accomplish their plan. He ends up getting smallpox himself. At the hospital, the bell rings whenever someone dies to signal the undertaker to come pick up the body.
There’s a heart-breaking scene of a mother being taken from her children. His first master was actually kind and he befriended Native Americans who lived in the area, probably Chicopees. He tells us slaves are more productive under kind masters because they actually want to make them happy. He used his rafting experience to make transporting lumber more efficient and also figured out how to make looms.
Unfortunately, his kind master has financial difficulty and has to sell him to Tibeats, a carpenter. His new master tries to whip him, but he takes the whip away and whips his master instead! Tibeats then attempts to hang him, but the overseer points out he still owes four hundred dollars mortgage, so he can’t kill Solomon because he doesn’t fully own him yet.
Solomon gets rented out to someone else. Luke 12:47 seems to be the slave masters’ favorite scripture: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” As terrible as his story is, there are a few funny moments like when Solomon is ordered to leave fellow slaves in the stocks for eating watermelons on the sabbath, but he lets them go and they get a watermelon for him.
Tibeats later comes at him with an axe, which he disarms. I’ve got to say the fight scenes in this are better than you’d expect in a work of nonfiction. Solomon knows that if he lets Tibeats live, he’ll try to kill him again, but if he kills Tibeats, he’ll be put to death. The only good option is running away. Tibeats returns on horseback with dogs and a couple other men to find him. Since slaves aren’t taught to swim, escape is pretty much impossible from this region in Louisiana, but since he was born free, Solomon knew how to swim and was able to get away. We get a chase scene worthy of an action movie. However, he isn’t able to live in the wilds on his own and eventually has to come back.
Solomon gets hired out to another master to build cabins and Tibeats eventually sells him to Edwin Epps who grew cotton. I found it interesting that slaves got passes to travel between plantations and can get food or shelter at any plantation along the way.
Epps liked to get drunk and whip his slaves just for fun. He forced his slaves to pick cotton from sunup until sundown except for a 10 or 15 minute lunch. If the moon was full, they’d have to pick during the night too. The cotton is weighed and slaves who don’t meet quota are whipped. If they get more than quota, their quota is raised from then on. The cotton-picking is in addition to other chores like cutting wood or feeding animals, which is done by candlelight. The slaves finally get to eat dinner at midnight. They’re only given three and a half pounds of bacon and a pack of corn a week and use a gourd instead of crockery to carry water and dinner. Solomon used a stick of wood for a pillow. The cabins have no floor or window and enough space between boards to let rain in.
Epps would sometimes be in a merry mood and make his slaves dance with him while Solomon played the violin. Epps would dance with whip in hand, lashing any who rested. At one point when Solomon got sick, Epps wouldn’t send for a doctor until he was near death. Epps was enamored with his slave Patsey, which made his wife jealous and intent on Patsey’s suffering.
Later, Solomon is sent to a sugar cane plantation and told to whip other slaves who were idle. In Louisiana, slaves were allowed to keep any money they earned working on Sunday. It’s the only way to get kitchen utensils. He earned 10 dollars for sugar cane and another 17 for playing the violin, making him the richest slave around.
Worms got into the bacon one summer. In order to eat, some slaves hunted racoon or opossum in the swamps, but this could only be done after dark when all other chores were done. So Solomon invents a fish trap to get food.
We’re told the white men of the South often get into fights with each other, sometimes killing each other. Solomon thinks this is a result of slavery making them value human life less. A slave’s only days off are the Christmas holiday. Epps only allowed three days off for Christmas, less than other masters gave.
Solomon was made a driver, meaning he had to whip other slaves or he’d get whipped himself. If Epps was watching close up, he’d have no choice but to whip others, but if Epps was far away, he’d whip the air close to them and the other slave would pretend to be hurt. One day while drunk, Epps tried to cut his throat. Solomon was able to run from him around the plantation until he tired out.
In order to free himself, he gets ahold of paper and makes his own ink and pen to write a letter. He meets a white man fallen on such hard times, he works alongside slaves on a nearby plantation. Solomon asks if he’ll mail the letter for him, but the white man tells Epps about it. Solomon convinces Epps that the white man is lying, then burns the letter.
Solomon subdues the dogs by whipping them severely so if he ever gets the chance to escape, they won’t stop him. Many slaves will hide out in the swamps for a few days to escape punishment or just to get a rest.
A carpenter who’s opposed to slavery comes to the plantation to build a new house. Solomon helps and tells him his story. The carpenter writes a letter on his behalf, and people from New York finally find and rescue him.
This is a truly harrowing story, but it’s also quite cinematic, which is probably why it got made into a movie. The movie leaves a lot out, though, so it’s best to read the book as well.