The story of Solomon Northup had been overlooked for many decades, but winning the Oscar puts it into the cultural mainstream. And it ensures that his memoir, which startled Americans in 1853, will never be forgotten.
And, of course, Oscars awarded to Lupita Nyong'o for playing Patsey and to screenwriter John Ridley for adapting Solomon Northup's memoir are also worth celebrating. Ms. Nyong'o's portrayal of a tragic character was riveting. And John Ridley's respect for Solomon Northup as a man and a writer has been evident in interviews and acceptance speeches he has made during Oscar season.
It's easy to laugh at the frivolity surrounding Oscar night. But the success of "12 Years a Slave" means that other worthy stories which may have been overlooked might someday gain wide recognition. And that alone is something we should all welcome.
And, of course, the Oscar win means the film will be seen by many more people. It comes out on DVD this week, and it will likely be watched for many years.
If you haven't seen the film yet, I would recommend it. It is disturbing, of course. It would have to be. There are not many acts of violence in it compared to most movies. But the violence is palpable, brutal acts committed to characters we care about. Hard to watch, yes. But perhaps some things should be witnessed.
I recall that last year I was paying attention to the Oscars because "Lincoln" was nominated. And I was especially disappointed that Tommy Lee Jones didn't win an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens.
Last night the Oscar news was much better. And I must say, I could get used to caring about a Hollywood awards show every year because some awesome history has been thoughtfully portrayed.
- The True Story of Solomon Northup
- See How Newspapers in the 1850s Covered Solomon Northup
- How Solomon Northup Shared a Screenwriting Award
Photograph: Director Steve McQueen holding the Oscar for Best Picture/Getty Images
A year earlier, Harriet Beecher Stowe had published Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel had been astoundingly popular, and it provoked a backlash. Stowe responded quickly by publishing a second book, The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a compendium of true stories which had inspired incidents in the novel.
Northup included pages at the end of his memoir quoting the legal documents which had secured his freedom. And his subsequent fight for justice was mentioned at times in newspaper accounts.
The New York Times published an extensive story on January 20, 1853, about his initial attempt to hold a Washington, D.C., slave broker accountable. Northup was thwarted, as a black man was not allowed to testify in the local courts.
In New York State, the two men who had brought Northup to Washington and arranged his kidnapping were tracked down and arrested in 1854. Efforts to prosecute them met a number of obstacles, however, and the case against them was finally dropped three years later.
According to an 1857 newspaper story, Northup had to abandon his search for justice after the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which said African Americans were not citizens and did not have the right to sue in court.
Northup never received justice in the legal system. But perhaps he gained some measure of satisfaction speaking out and participating in the abolitionist movement in the decade before the Civil War.
This week in Newspaper Sunday we look at mentions of Solomon Northup in news stories from the 1850s.
Note: the links below lead to excerpts from articles at the Chronicling America archive at the Library of Congress. You can click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page to view the entire page of the newspaper.
- Vermont Watchman and State Journal, February 10, 1853: A New England newspaper reprinted the lengthy New York Times article about Northup's case in the Washington courts. (Note: His name was often misspelled in newspaper accounts.)
- Anti-Slavery Bugle, June 18, 1853: A abolitionist newspaper carried a story from a New York paper about a visit to the Washington, D.C., slave pen where Solomon Northup's descent into slavery began.
- Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 12, 1854: One of the men who arranged Northup's kidnapping was tracked down and arrested in New York State.
- Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 14, 1854: A news item about the legal case in New York proceeding against the two men who had kidnapped Solomon Northup.
- Der Lecha Patriot, July 19, 1854: Even a German language newspaper in Pennsylvania covered the Northup case.
- The Anti-Slavery Bugle, July 22, 1854: The abolitionist press followed the initial legal moves in New York State closely.
- Holmes County Republican, August 27, 1857: Four years after gaining his freedom, an Ohio newspaper reported that Northup had been prevented from speaking in Canada by an angry mob.
- Fayetteville, Observer, September 10, 1857: The incident in Canada was also mentioned in a Tennessee newspaper.
- The Anti-Slavery Bugle, September 19, 1857: The end of Northup's search for justice was explained by an abolitionist newspaper: "since the Dred Scott decision he has been obliged to abandon all hope of bringing them to justice, because he cannot sue in the United States courts."
Illustration: Solomon Northup being whipped in a Washington slave jail, as depicted in the 1853 edition of Twelve Years a Slave/courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections
The reasons behind the shocking incident were murky. And it was suspected in the North that the victim, Jonathan Cilley, had been set up by crafty political antagonists from the South and West.
In his short time on Capitol Hill, Cilley had shown a willingness to aggressively challenge southern politicians. And his friends in the North, including his college classmate Nathaniel Hawthorne, would always believe Cilley had been a martyr to the regional conflicts which would deepen and eventually split the nation.
Henry Clay, one of the most powerful men in America, was widely suspected to have played a malicious role in arranging the violence. His connection to the duel would emerge as a political issue when he later ran for president.
The congressional colleague who fatally shot Cilley, William Graves, had chosen to use rifles in the duel. The Kentuckian was proficient with a rifle. Cilley was not.
The men missed each other entirely during the first round of shots. And they missed again in a second round. Graves then contended he had not gotten "satisfaction" for some perceived slight. On a third round of shooting he struck his target.
Cilley was hit in the leg. An artery was ripped open and he bled to death within minutes.
A few days later, on February 27, 1838, a funeral for Cilley was held in the U.S. Capitol. The nation was shocked by the incident, and it was never entirely forgotten. Henry Clay's connection to the duel became an issue in 1844, when he ran for president, and lost.
And people would wonder for decades whether the death of the promising politician from Maine was simply a peculiar misunderstanding that somehow got out of hand or part of a calculated and ruthless political strategy.
Full story: The Fatal Duel Between Congressmen
Illustration: Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Maine/Library of Congress
Accepting the award at a formal event held at USC's Doheny Library in Los Angeles, Ridley gave an emotional acceptance speech.
"Until I read Solomon's memoir, I didn't know what being a writer was all about," Ridley said. "The way that Solomon wrote, the clarity with which he wrote, and more importantly, the strength of his character, what he went through without bitterness, without hate, that really taught me something."
Struggling to hold back tears at times, Ridley also acknowledged descendants of Northup who were in attendance at the dinner.
Ridley's work has been nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, and "12 Years a Slave" has been nominated in nine Oscar categories.
Solomon Northup had been kidnapped into slavery in 1841, and was finally freed in January 1853. His book Twelve Years a Slave was published later that year. (The book title used the word "Twelve" while the film title uses numerals.)
Arriving in the hands of the public a year after Uncle Tom's Cabin, Northup's book was bound to be controversial. Northup obviously knew his story would be questioned and even denounced by the defenders of slavery. To establish that his story was not fiction, the final few dozen pages of his book contained the legal documents related to his case.
Northup died in obscurity. But it's heartening to know that his story lives on. And, in a remarkable occurrence, he was able to share a prestigious award of the film community 161 years and one month after he was freed from horrific servitude on a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Read onward: The Real History of Solomon Northup
Photograph: Screenwriter John Ridley arriving at the Scripter Award ceremony, February 8, 2014/Getty Images
A little more than two years earlier, Gardner had earned a place in the history of photography by arriving at the site of the Battle of Antietam while dead soldiers were still frozen in gruesome poses. His graphic photographs startled Americans, who had never experienced the relatively new art of photography in that way.
After leaving the employ of Mathew Brady, perhaps because Brady's company took too much credit for the Antietam photographs, Gardner established his own studio in Washington. Lincoln, who had always recognized the importance of image in politics, would visit occasionally and sit for portraits.
The session on February 5, 1865 had a purpose which is largely forgotten: an artist, Matthew Wilson, wanted to paint Lincoln, and to save time Lincoln agreed to sit for portraits he could use for reference.
The significance of that Sunday afternoon spent in Gardner's studio only became apparent afterward. Lincoln was assassinated ten weeks later, and the photos taken by Gardner are believed to be his final studio portraits. (Gardner had his camera set up outside the Capitol and took an iconic photo of Lincoln's second inauguration a month later.)
One particular portrait taken that day captured Lincoln looking exhausted. The glass negative used by Gardner cracked, so the print he made was marred. Yet the flaw only seemed to add character to the depiction of Lincoln after years of war.
The image of Lincoln was haunting, and for decades it was believed to have been taken just days before his assassination. But it has been confirmed that Gardner actually took the remarkable "cracked negative" portrait on that Sunday afternoon in early February 1865.
Photograph: Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, February 5, 1865/Library of Congress
Not all her journalism dealt with serious social reforms, and she is best remembered today for an around-the-world voyage promoted by her newspaper, the New York Evening World.
Seeking to travel faster than the characters in the Jules Verne novel Around the World In Eighty Days, Bly left New York City on November 14, 1889, on a steamship bound for England. She kept moving, filing dispatches by telegraph from England, France, Italy, and onward across the globe.
In America, readers paid close attention as she continued to report from India, Hong Kong, and Japan. She sailed across the Pacific, set foot in California in January, and within 90 minutes had embarked on a cross-country railroad journey.
Amazingly, Nellie Bly made it back to New York City on January 25, 1890. The New York Evening World triumphantly printed a headline: "The Globe Girdled In 72 Days 6 Hours 11 Minutes."
This week in Newspaper Sunday we look at reports from Nellie Bly's trip around the world.
Note: The links below lead to excerpts of newspaper articles at the Chronicling America archive at the Library of Congress. To view the entire page of the newspaper, click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page.
- New York Evening World, November 15, 1889, 2 p.m. Special: Nellie Bly's departure was announced with the headline "30,000 Mile Race."
- New York Evening World, December 18, 1889: Her paper reported "Nellie Bly is on time" as she reached India.
- New York Evening World, December 24, 1889: "The bright little lady stepped ashore at Hong Kong yesterday," read a telegraphed dispatch on the front page on Christmas Eve, 1889.
- New York Evening World, December 28, 1889: Nellie Bly sailed from Hong Kong, bound for Yokohama, Japan, and then onward to America.
- New York Evening World, January 22, 1890: After sailing through the Golden Gate, Nellie Bly was on a train bound for the East Coast within 90 minutes.
- New York Evening World, January 25, 1890, 2 p.m. Extra: "Home To-Day" proclaimed the headline announcing Nellie Bly's imminent arrival back in New York City.
- New York Evening World, January 25, 1890, final edition: A front-page item headlined "Itinerary Beaten" detailed how Nellie Bly had circled the globe ahead of schedule.
- New York Evening World, January 25, 1890, Nellie Bly Extra: In a special edition of the World, a large front-page cartoon depicted the journey.
More: Biography of Nellie Bly
Illustration: Nellie Bly/Getty Images
The harsh judgment of Poe, who was born 205 years ago today, was not entirely unwarranted. The Tribune noted that Poe had "few or no friends."
Yet the article announcing his death also provided a fairly laudatory account of his writing career. It even said, "literary art had lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars."
Appreciation for Poe's writing has continued to grow. While he is perhaps best remembered as a dark and disturbed character writing macabre tales, the innovations he brought to fiction created pathways followed by countless other authors.
Poe helped create the genre of short fiction. And within that form, he pioneered horror and detective stories. Much of today's popular entertainment could trace its roots back to Poe.
He was orphaned, expelled from West Point, and fired from editing jobs for excessive drinking. And he was able to peer deeply into the human mind and create characters possessing considerable psychological depth.
The newspaper account of his death also contained remarkable personal remembrances of Poe. He was described as having an uncommonly expressive way of speaking. And his eyes were said to contain "fiery tumult."
And while fascination with Poe has continued to grow, it appeared evident 164 years ago that his place in literature was already secure. The October 9, 1849, newspaper article detailing his final decline also said, "His imagery was from the worlds which no mortals can see but with the vision of genius."
Full story: Life of Edgar Allan Poe
Photograph: Daguerretype of Edgar Allan Poe/Getty Images
Icy conditions were still consistent enough in the late 1890s for New Yorkers to race sleighs on city streets. A story from January 1896 described a wager in which the first driver to get his sleigh to a particular tavern would win a magnum of champagne.
Sleigh racing had become something of a curiosity in 1896, but New Yorkers regularly traveled by sleigh in winters earlier in the 19th century. Familiar lithographs depict sleighing scenes in Manhattan, and mentions of traveling about by sleigh appear in various written accounts from the early 1800s, such as the diaries of Philip Hone.
The severity of winters lessened throughout the 19th century. Icy conditions in 1875, including ice bridges that enabled people to walk from Manhattan to New Jersey, and from Brooklyn to Manhattan, were reported as being the worst in 30 years.
This week in Newspaper Sunday, a look at stories about sleighing conditions and ice.
The links below lead to excerpts of newspaper articles at the Library of Congress; to view the entire page of the newspaper, click the "persistent link" on the excerpt page.
- New York Tribune, April 10, 1843: In April 1843 sleighs were able to cross the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie on the ice.
- New York Tribune, December 3, 1844: Reports from Boston from late November indicate sleighing conditions and ships in danger of being detained in ice all winter.
- New York Tribune, December 9, 1845: In early December sleighing conditions were reported in New York State and New England.
- New York Tribune, February 10, 1875: People walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan across a frozen East River ran into problems.
- New York Sun, February 11, 1875: People walked across the Hudson River on an ice bridge from West 16th Street in Manhattan to New Jersey.
- New York Tribune, February 11, 1875: New York was described as "an ice-bound city."
Illustration: Sleigh race as depicted by Currier and Ives/Library of Congress
Hurricane force winds came out of the north Atlantic and battered Ireland on the night of January 6, 1839. As the howling winds tore thatched roofs off cottages and extinguished candles and lamps, many of the rural Irish believed they faced the end of the world.
Figures are difficult to determine, but it was believed about 300 people died. In some villages the freakish winds whistled down chimneys, scattering fires and setting houses ablaze.
The storm passed in a day, but in the superstitious rural society the bizarre event lived on in memories and folk tales. And the Big Wind later became a legally significant milestone.
A quirk of Irish society in the 1800s familiar to genealogists today was that birthdays were not considered very significant. And a great many people honestly had no idea of their precise age.
When the British, who were still ruling Ireland in the early 20th century, tried to determine the age of some very old people for the purpose of allocating pensions, the solution was to ask them if they could remember the night of the Big Wind. If they had a story to tell, they were old enough.
The Full Story: Ireland's Big Wind
Photograph: Irish house with thatched roof/Getty Images
New Yorkers today unknowingly walk past a monument to Hughes and his pugnacious leadership, the tall brick walls surrounding the churchyard at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral at the corner of Prince and Mott Streets. When the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic hatred of the Know-Nothing Party erupted in other cities in the 1840s and Catholic churches were burned, Hughes had the walls built. They stood as a fortress in the middle of the city.
It was obvious the Irish would defend their turf. And behind its battlements, St. Patrick's survived. The Know-Nothings picked their fights elsewhere.
Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the skills Hughes possessed at sending a message. Early in the Civil War Lincoln sent him on a diplomatic mission to Paris, and he also visited Dublin and Rome. His travels and statements may have helped to dissuade Britain from becoming too close to the Confederacy for fear of inflaming the already rebellious population in Ireland.
During the New York City Draft Riots Hughes was criticized for not doing more to stop some of the city's Irish from rampaging. Though seriously ill at the time, he did finally make a speech from the balcony of his residence, urging calm and obedience to the law.
Hughes had many detractors, who derided him as "Dagger John." The nickname was based on his practice of drawing a cross, which supposedly resembled a dagger, next to his signature. But it also alluded to what was perceived to be his ruthless nature.
There's no denying that he wielded considerable power in New York City. And he was in many ways a symbol of Irish struggle and ascendance in America during the 19th century.
The full story: Archbishop John Hughes
Illustration: Archbishop John Hughes/Library of Congress