A Debt to Jonathan Walker, “The Man With the Branded Hand”

Jonathan Walker was an abolitionist known as “The Man With the Branded Hand.” Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer, my forthcoming book, owes a debt to the abolitionist for its title. A lot goes into choosing a title for any book. Choosing the title for Sid Johnson’s story was a challenge until I got deeper into research for the book, learning more about Walker’s story.

Jonathan Walker, Abolitionist and Slave Stealer
Jonathan W. Walker, "The Man With the Branded Hand"

Slave Stealer: Guilty of the Worst Crime

The term slave stealer was in use in the 1850s, the period in which my book is set. Sometimes referred to as “man stealing,” the one who stole slaves was “guilty of one of the worst crimes against the sanctity of property.” The stealer might be someone who was helping freedom seekers to safety or might be someone who wanted them for resale.

The term slave stealer was most often connected to Jonathan Walker. He was also known as “the man with the branded hand.” Walker was born in Massachusetts. He loved boats and the sea, learning to sail when he was a boy. He became captain of a fishing boat as a young man. After moving to the South, he became concerned about the plight of slaves. How could a society with a constitution that talked about all men being created equal tolerate such inequality? For his part, black people who worked for him sat at his table for dinner. His neighbors were offended. He began quietly helping enslaved people to freedom. In 1835, he went on an expedition to Mexico. There, he helped American freedom seekers to settle.

Jonathan Walker’s Branded Hand

The events that led to Jonathan Walker’s hand being branded began in June 1844. After careful planning, Walker set out from Florida, bound for the British West Indies where slavery had been abolished 10 years before. Aboard were seven black men—Moses Johnson,Charles Johnson, Anthony Catlett, Silas Scott, Harry Scott, Charles Phil, and Len Johnson.

Things might have gone differently if Walker hadn’t become sick on the journey. The men who were with him didn’t know anything about navigation. They were “rescued” by another another boat, only to be arrested. After being taken to Pensacola, Florida, Walker’s bail was set at $10,000. As he couldn’t pay, Walker was put in jail, where he remained in an ankle shackle until being tried for slave stealing four months later. For a month, his cell was a bare floor that served as bed, table and chair. He was later allowed a table, chair, and straw for a bed. Walker was charged $25 for his upkeep in jail.

After his four-month wait, Walker was tried and convicted of slave stealing. He was fined $600, sentenced to one hour in public stocks, and publicly branded on the right hand with the letters SS, and returned to prison where he was kept in an ankle shackle in the same dank, unpleasant conditions as before.

In a letter to his granddaughter, he wrote of the experience:

“It was in front of the Court House…your grandfather was fastened in the U. S. Pillory [stocks] for one hour, and pelted with rotten eggs, and then taken into the Court House and branded with the U.S. branding iron after passing through the form of a trial in a United States Court …”

Daguerreotype image of Walker's branded hand, 1845 by photographers Southworth & Hawes.
This Daguerreotype image, an early form of photography, was used by the Boston firm of Southworth & Hawes, 1845. It created a mirror image of Jonathan Walker's branded right hand.

The Slave Stealer is Freed

Northern abolitionists were outraged when they heard Walker had been branded with the S.S. for slave stealer. Despite evidence that branding of slaves was legal and often used to identify them in advertisements, the horror didn’t seem to be real until they heard about Walker. They rallied behind him and eventually paid his fine. After he was released, Walker worked to bring slavery to an end in the United States. Along with other famous abolitionists, he called on people to denounce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Walker spoke out and wrote about the inhuman conditions and the brutal treatment of slaves that he observed from his cell. Money he made went to support his family and abolitionist causes. He never made the claim that what he endured was equal to the treatment of slaves he had witnessed both before and during his captivity. While in jail. he kept a brief journal. Nearly every day an entry reads, “J.T. beat cook.” From his cell he could see the filthy kitchen. The cook was a slave. When she beat her, the jailer’s wife gave the cook 20 to 50 strokes with a rawhide whip.

As to the seven freedom seekers, we have little information. Four were imprisoned next to Walker. They were whipped 50 blows with a paddle–a cruel form of punishment–and released to Robert C. Caldwell, the slaveholder. Walker wrote that Caldwell assured him that he did not intend to punish them more. Walker noted that they could hardly walk the day after the whipping. Sometimes people who tried to escape from slavery and were re-captured were given inhumane punishment or killed in order to make them an example to others who might be tempted to escape.

Frederick Douglass wrote of Jonathan Walker’s slave stealer brand, “It was one of the few atrocities of slavery that roused the justice and humanity of the North to a death struggle with slavery…His example of self sacrifice moved us all to more heroic endeavor in behalf of slaves.”

As I read about Jonathan Walker’s life, I realized that slave stealer was exactly the term I needed. One of the themes in Sid Johnson and the Phantom Slave Stealer is the ugly legacy of slavery.

How does phantom come into the title? You’ll have to wait and see.

Other Sources for young people doing research, for teachers and parents:

COGGAN, BLANCHE. “The Underground Railroad In Michigan.” Negro History Bulletin 27, no. 5 (1964): 122–26.

Alvin F. Oickle. Jonathan Walker – The Man With the Branded Hand. Lorelli Slater Publisher, 1998. 

Timothy F. REILLY. “Slave Stealing in the Early Domestic Trade as Revealed by a Loyal Manservant.” 

Oscar Sherwin. “‘STOP THE RUNAWAY!’” Negro History Bulletin 8, no. 6 (1945): 129–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44212242.

Osborn T. Smallwood. “The Historical Significance of Whittier’s Anti-Slavery Poems as Reflected by Their Political and Social Background.” 

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