Friday, May 3, 2013

The Scourged Back-- A Famous Photo of a Beaten Runaway Slave, Revisited

Yesterday (Thursday May 2, 2013) I came home at night and saw that my blog had received nearly 700 hits in a few hours, most of them for a post I wrote over four years ago called "The Scarred Back of a Slave Named Gordon".  I couldn't figure out where the interest in this famous and grisly photograph was coming from until my sharp-eyed sister-in-law, Robin Paulson, alerted me to an on-line essay in The New York Times' Opinionator blog in the  "Disunion" section, titled "A photo taken 150 years ago of a runaway slave changed the way Americans saw the Civil War".  The essay by Ted Widmer discussed this watershed image,  which dramatized, through the still-new science of photography, the brutality of some slave owners and served as an effective tool for the abolitionist cause.  Widmer went on to discuss other photographs currently on view in the exhibit "Photography and the American Civil War" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I think that readers wanted to know more about the story of this particular slave, and that's why they searched out my original blog post.  I've had a number of comments since it was first published in October of 2009 and I'm re-posting it below along with the comments and also with an additional image of Gordon and his scarred back, which I added to the post only about a week ago.

On page 14 of the Sept. 20, [2009] Book Review, The New York Times published a shocking photograph of a slave with a horribly scarred back to illustrate a review of “Deliver Us from Evil”.

Because I collect antique photos and have many dealing with slavery and the life of black people in the 1800's, I wrote to the Times the back story behind this photo, and the letter, somewhat abbreviated, is in the book review section this Sunday--Oct. 4, 2009.

I wrote: This famous photograph, usually titled “The Scourged Back”, was widely circulated by abolitionists and is one of the earliest examples of photography used as propaganda. A contemporary newspaper, The New York Independent, commented: “This Card Photograph should be multiplied by the 100,000 and scattered over the states. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. (Harriet Beecher) Stowe cannot approach, because it tells the story to the eye.”

As photo historian Kathleen Collins explained in The History of Photography Vol. 9 Number 1, January, 1985—it shows a slave named Gordon who escaped his master in Mississippi by rubbing himself with onions to throw off the bloodhounds. He took refuge with the Union Army at Baton Rouge and, in 1863, three engraved portraits of him were printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing the man “as he underwent the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service—his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day last.”

The actual photographs of the escaped slave, taken by McPherson and Oliver of New Orleans, were widely circulated as carte-de-visite photos. On the verso of the mount were the comments of S. K. Towle, Surgeon, 30th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers: “…Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishments than this man must have received, though nothing in his appearance indicates any unusual viciousness—but on the contrary, he seems intelligent and well-behaved.”

I have a colored glass slide of the same photograph (above) in my collection, undoubtedly used in anti-slavery lectures. Abolitionists exploited the new medium of photography, circulating, in addition to "the Scourged Back", CDV’s of a slave named Wilson who was branded on the forehead, and selling thousands of the series of emancipated “white”-appearing slave children from New Orleans, posed patriotically, including wrapped in the American flag. On the back was printed: “The nett [sic] proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks.”

April 24, 2013--Because of questions I've received about this famous image, I am now adding below one of the original CDVs of Gordon's back showing him with his head tilted farther back to show his beard.  I do not own this image, but I've always been aware of it. I always assumed that both these poses of Gordon were taken at the same time, but when I study them together I don't know.  Another question--I always assumed that "my" image up at the top was  reversed--something that could easily happen with a glass negative.  (All daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are reversed mirror images of the actual subject, so if the subject is holding a newspaper, for example, the headlines will be reversed mirror-image writing.)  Now, looking at these two photos of Gordon together, I can't tell if the images show him turned to face opposite sides, or is one of them reversed and he's looking over his left shoulder in both of them?  Or do you think they were taken at two different photo sessions, separated by time?  Opinions? 


candicecusack said...
Ms. Gage: I just read your letter to the editor in the NYT Book Review. Fascinating information. Thank you for taking the time to expand readers' understanding of this amazing photograph.
Carlos said...
have you ever looked at wikipedia?

try it out.

and on this page we see a picture of your Gordon, only its in black and white and his name is Peter (according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, which is online at

and why would a picture this old be in color anyway.
Joan Gage said...
Carlos--sorry I didn't read your comment until now. I looked up the wikipedia reference--(evidently it was originally written in French?). Anyway, I have seen the original article in Harper's Weekly 4th July 1868 with the description of Gordon's escape and arrival in the Union Camp at Baton Rouge. An engraving of the same photo in the Harper's article--with the same scars on his back--was titled "Gordon Under Medical Inspection". The name "Gordon" was repeated throughout the article. The surgeon who examined him was quoted in the article. He sent the photos on to the surgeon general of the State of Massachusetts.

You're right that a photo that old would be in black and white--not colored. The image I own is a much later glass slide of that same photograph that has been hand-colored. A black and white carte-de-visite version (mounted on cardboard the size of a visiting card) was widely circulated both in the United State and in Great Britain. The later glass slides could be projected on a wall and probably dated from the late 1900's. These slides would be used to illustrate speeches about the evils of slavery. This glass slide that I own was recently used in the PBS Series "God in America."

Joan Gage
Anonymous said...
This phote alone obliterate the silly notion that during slavery, the relationship between slave-master and slave was passive and usually on good terms. It sickens me to the core, to merely take a peek at this photo.

Anonymous said...

I was curious, what is that on the top of his head. I have heard horrible stories of slaves whipped until breasts were sliced of, is that some type of skin flap from him catching the whip on the top of his head?
by Joan Gage said...
To Anonymous: To help answer your question I have just updated the post, adding another photo taken of Gordon--whether at the same time, I don't know. But I think what you're referring to is just a lock of his hair sticking up, so I added the second photo to give a better look at his hair. But I'm glad you asked the question, because I never noticed it before.

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