12 Years a Slave - Slave Pens in Washington

Slave Pens in Washington (Illustration) American History African American History Civil Rights Ethics Law and Politics Social Studies Nineteenth Century Life Film Slaves and Slave Owners

Solomon Northup included this illustration in his book, 12 Years a Slave, between pages 44 and 45. It depicts his treatment in a Washington City slave pen, at the hands of slave-traders, in April of 1841.  Online, courtesy "Documenting the American South," University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 


Despite their promises and assurances to Solomon Northup, that a job awaited him as a violinist, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell had a far-different motive for befriending the freeman from Saratoga Springs, New York.  To further their nefarious plan, they identified themselves with fake names:  Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton.

All along, Merrill (about aged 40) and Russell (about aged 25) planned to sell Solomon to slave traders in Washington. They just had to find a way to get the unsuspecting man to America’s capital city.

The two plotters suggested that Solomon obtain papers proving his freeman status (which he did) before they made the trip from Saratoga to Washington. Criminals like to make sure things appear copecetic. It helps to keep their real motives hidden.

Arriving in Washington, the three men stayed at the Gadsby (later called the National) Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Although he was a freeman, Northup was black (which meant he had to stay in the back of the hotel).

Washington was buzzing with activity. William Henry Harrison, the sitting President, had just died in office (on April 4, 1841), and his funeral procession took place the day after Solomon arrived. Northup watched the goings-on, with Brown and Hamilton, who later plied their new "friend" with food and alcoholic beverages (likely laced with some type of debilitating drug).

Recovering from the effects of his illness, Solomon woke up in another part of Washington City. Still in sight of the Capitol Building, he was chained to the floor of a slave pen. His papers, confirming that he was a freeman, had vanished.

The Robey and Williams slave pens, located in the heart of Washington—likely at (or near) where the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) building now stands—caused foreign observers to wonder how the capital of American democracy could prominently feature such places. Northup wondered the same thing, once he realized where he was.

The freeman learned, quickly, what could happen by claiming some misunderstanding had landed him in the wrong place. He also discovered the damage which a paddle and cat-o’-ninetails could do to a person’s bare skin.

Solomon wasn’t the only freeman to be kidnapped and sold into slavery by Northerners.  And he wasn't the only “slave” in the Williams pen. Randall, a young boy of about 10 years, was also there.

Soon Randall’s mother (Eliza) and half-sister (Emily) joined the young lad in the slave pen. Eliza had fallen on hard times. Believing she was about to be freed, she was instead sold to James H. Burch, a well-known slave dealer.

Because Eliza couldn’t read, she didn’t realize the document she believed confirmed her freedom was, in fact, a Bill of Sale.  Selling people in America, including very young children, was legal at the time.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Feb 27, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Aug 27, 2016

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