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"Mysteries of a Shamble," New-York Tribune (July 15, 1861)

In "Mysteries of a Shamble," published in the New-York Tribune on July 15, 1861, an unnamed writer republishes excerpts from a cache of letters between slave traders discovered by Union troops in occupied Alexandria. The article's author may have been Moncure Daniel Conway.

Transcription from Original

Since the day when couched in some secret corner of the house, I threaded with that interest that is upon the verge of horror the mystical corridors of the Castle of Otranto, or the unfathomable Mysteries of Udolpho, the authors of which, as is well known, dined daily on raw meats of fierce animals, in order that their work should be sufficiently exciting to boys couched in corners as aforesaid—since then, to begin again, I have had no similar experience until this day, when I have been poring over a hundred or more letters that were found in that slave shamble which was broken up at Alexandria, and whose ring and chain torn out of the dungeon are now—blessed symbols—in the hands of H. W. Beecher, who exhibits the same to his friends. These letters are indeed graphic. I have read all of L. L. D. Russell's letters about the sunny South and Slavery, but I do not feel that they are so descriptive as these letters and bills of sale found in Mr. Kephart's slave-pen at Alexandria. I mean to give you some specimens, just as they come to hand. But first let me say, these letters, which were secured by a friend of mine from the floor of the shamble where they lay in a huge pile, run through date from 1837 to 1857. They show a consistent and definite trade between Maryland and Virginia and the Cotton States. This office had agents all through Maryland and Virginia, whose sole occupation it was to go around and harvest the annual crop of negroes, which, having grown mature enough for service, and not needed on the farms where they were born, are bargained for by the itinerant agents of the trade. Into the far South go all the young and rising generations of slaves.

We hear it constantly stated by the glossers over of slavery, that public opinion in the South is opposed to the separation of families, and that such separations are extremely rare. Now, there are is scarcely a paper found in this shamble that does not bear witness that such is, on the contrary, the normal usage of slaves in Maryland and Virginia. Nay, more, the highest names of the highest and wealthiest families of those States are here found trafficking, for Louisiana and Georgia, young men and women who have grown up, "raised in their houses," as they occasionally say, but who are superfluous to them; here are such names as the Worthingtons and Talbots of Maryland, and the Carters and Baxters of Virginia.

No. 1 is from Mr. Bacon Tait, who seems to represent the higher branches of the business at Richmond, Va. After giving an account of certain sales, Mr. Tait gives the following semi-commercial, semi-philosophical observations: "Mr. Boudor complains a good deal about the negroes he has for sale, and I acknowledge that he has sufficient cause. It was all in all a most wretched lot of negroes when I saw them, and it was perhaps false in me for not advising the rule here of at least ¾ of them. I assure you, Captain, that inferior negroes are never cheap for the La. Market. Trash and defective are never permanently profitable. They are very frequently sold at a profit for the time being, yet the sales as often recoil upon the vendor, with detriment more than counterbalancing such profit." We do not find that this Baconian reflection infringed at all upon the business in which Mr. Tait was then engaged.

In No. 2 we have a line which gives a neat picture of Mr. Boudor, alluded to as complaining in the last letter. This gentleman writes from New-Orleans, at which point he holds the garner into which the harvestings of the Northern slaves are brought, before distribution into patriarchial plantations. "You ask," says this glorious gentleman, writing to Kephart the Alexandrian, "you ask for information about little boys and girls"—kind-hearted, affectionate Kephart! How childhood seems to call out his profoundest interest! Boudor replies, "All I can say is that they are always ready sale, but they must be purchased right or they do not pay much profit." Can any one tell us how little boys and girls may be purchased "right?"

Nos. 3, 4, and 5 interest us in a certain sensation girl, whose disposal seems to create a variety of speculations on the part of Messrs. Brashear, Kephart and Sims, all of "the profession." This girl, we learn from No. 3, is named Dulcena Dulceboso, and instead of being the dulcet being her name would imply, she is termed "a hard case" and "a hard one." About a year after, we find some more notes about her which are by no means dulcet notes. No. 4, one of these latter, mentions her thus: "I suppose that big price for the great Dulcena has not been obtained, and my own private opinion is, it will never will be. White people, "it is sighingly added, "won't sell in modern times; it would do in days of yore." We have an idea that Dulcena D. did not prove entirely tractable among these elegant gentlemen, for in No. 5, written some months afterward, we read: "I hope Harbin will put a 56-pound weight around the Dulcena Dulceboso's neck, and sink her in the Mississippi River before she may ever get to Natchez." It is Brashaer, professional of Natchez, who expresses himself thus piously.

No. 6 furnishes us the following extracts: "The woman Leaply bought of Mr. Thomas I sold to a Creole at $675 payable the 1st of April with 8 percent interest and I hold a mortgage on her that was a good sale she was dam trifilin." "I have some tight cases on hand Jimy Leaply for instance the doublehead boy also I heard from Harbin on Yesterday saying he still had Dulcena Dulceboso on hand yet and I am inclined to believe will for some time. Ware talks of coming by to see you this Spring he a whole soul chap and the darndest whig you ever saw."

No. 7 gives us an affecting view of what constitutes real human affliction to some minds. A New Orleans trader writes: "The next thing is the girle Caroline Browner. this I cannot blame you for. she was a no. 1 looking negro. She as been been returned and her master claims of me another negro in her place or $400. she it appears has fits no mistake about it. if the man insists I shall have to pay him the $400 for if he sues me I shall be the loser. this you see is trouble in fact." "The blacksmith is not sold yet."

No. 8 is from Mr. S. Grady of Richmond, and informs us that "there is some activity in the market now for young negroes, and they very scarce. I have sold so many negroes lately that there is not now one girl in Jail but what is grown and only two boys*—do send me some young negroes.—To-day Rachel Lockhart is sold at $587.50. This is the best offer we have had since she was sick affecting her eyes so that she had to be blistered on the black of the neck—and Mr. Tait said I had better let her go. Sophia is laid up again."

In No. 9 Mr. Robert Windsor of Alexandria informs somebody that a "Boy" bought by Mr. Welsh, in Brentsville, is not delivered because the owner is not well, and that "he—'the boy'—has gone to the neighborhood of Bladensburg to see a woman and child." What woman and child he has gone to see before he is "delivered" up does not appear; nor by what name the woman and the child called him when they met and when they met and when they parted!

No. 10. A gleam upon the darkness. Mr. Richard H. Carter writes from Rectortown, Faquier County thus: "Mr. Kephart.—Dear Sir—A few days since your agent, Mr. Bashears, bought in this neighborhood a woman by the name of Mima and her child from a Mr. Shermate—the husband of Mima lives with me, and such appears to be the distress of both parties on account of the separation that I am induced to make an appeal to your humanity (!) in their behalf." He then makes an offer to redeem the woman and her child, which is manifestly the best he can do but which he feels is not quite up to the market possibility. "I am aware, Sir, that such cannot be your usual way of doing business, and that, if you do make any arrangement, it must proceed from a motive of humanity; but from what I learn concerning you, I am induced to hope my application will not be in vain." Let us hope that there is no one in the form of humanity who has not a soft place in his heart, and that Mr. Carter found one even in the heart of Kephart, and that Mm. and her child found a home with the kindly man who was willing to redeem her, though "he has already more negroes than he actually wants," as he states elsewhere.

No. 11 comes from the same neighborhood and the same name, and makes a bad contrast. Geo. Carter writes from Oatlands, London Co., Va.: "I have a mulatto female servant, twenty years old, a first rate seamstress, capable of cutting out both men's and women's apparel, hearty, robust. She is for sale, and if you wish to buy her, and will stipulate to send her to New Orleans or to the South, you shall have a bargain in her. Her mistress has taken great pains in learning her to sew, and she is an excellent ladies' chambermaid." What this girl had done to make it necessary that she should go so far away, even if the price was lowered for that object, can only be conjectured. Is it possible that she was considered too near to some young scion of Oatlands at any spot short of New-Orleans? Watchful parents must, for such reasons, dispose of valuable articles at ruinous rates, lest they keep them at much more ruinous rates.

In No. 12, John T. West, of Elkton, Cecil Co. Md., makes earnest inquiries of Mr. J. Brewan, after "2 vary likely young negro girls" and "ware that man lives that owens that fast race horse wich," &c., &c.

No. 13, and last, is very suggestive, and reveals a phantom behind all these figures. It is Mr. Bacon Tait, of Richmond, who writes to Mr. Windsor: "Pray do me the favor to hand the enclosed letter privately to Mr. Armsteid. Don't take it to him at his house, but seek an opportunity to give it to him when none of his family can see you do so."

Thank God, the slave-dealer finds in woman, in the wife and daughter, influences he cannot trust! "The family," where face meets face and affections spring, is no place where his letters can be safely delivered or his negotiations carried on.

*The reader is reminded that all active negroes in the South however old are termed "boys."