Friday, October 2, 2009

The Scarred Back of a Slave Named Gordon

On page 14 of Sept. 20’s 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.

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? 


Unknown 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.

FireTiger 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.

by 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.

Anonymous said...

The photos are taken of the same side of the body, but one is reversed by some method. Looking at the pattern of scars in just one section around the shoulder blade is the clue because the rest of the poor man's back is just a complete mess.

Greg W said...

Um, I stumbled upon this discussion while looking for a photo of slave scarring. I dispute the basis for your postulations most respectfully.
I am not an expert on this bit of US history nor on this photo. But I have traveled to many lands and spent time with communities where skin scarring and tattoo are marks of seniority and pride, and especially as decoration, although the scarring you show is ritualistic I do not think it is slave punishment derived. I do believe if you search the Australian aboriginal, New Guinea, Pacific islands and the African subcontinent photo records for skin scarring practices, with any image search tool, you will find many similar examples.... Some of which are beautiful and some of which look remarkably like your propaganda photos here. Do not despair for this man's pain, it may well be the image was just applied propaganda. The man has a proud demeanor after all. I do not for one minute however want to seem to be denying the brutality visited upon slaves. Coming from a colonial seafaring country I have seen records, artist impressions and plaster casts of whip scars on flesh from military implements like the cat o' nine tails and rice rope whips. They leave a horrifying terrain. Its just that this photo does not represent that sort of whip scarring but does resemble tribal scarring... It is a thought to consider anyway. Perhaps a point of research into the effectiveness of propaganda and the authenticity of source.

tanya said...


My first thought was also that the scars could be ritualistic, and that abolitionnists thought they'd look "good" for propaganda. However, it is equally possible they come from torture.

Anyhow, what i think i noticed, is,
1. as someone else points out, the little lonely scar above the others could show the pictures are mirror like. However,
2. it also seems that his hair is shorter in your picture... Which would mean they're not taken at the same time...

To Carlos: wikipedia is a great source of info, BUT the fact that something is written in wiki does not mean it is 100% true -just as anything, anywhere actually.
And reading Ms Gage's other posts, one can understand that the lady besides being passionate,probably knows better than most of us where and how to find an as accurate as possible info, as she is a former journalist (see profile).

tanya :')
(i wrote a mail to you last night -european night)

Anonymous said...

Ms. Gage,
In doing geneological research, I found that this slave, Gordon, was owned by my great, great grandfather Captain John Lyons. I have seen this photo many times in my life. It actually made me nauseous to find this out. I feel for this poor man but so glad he made it to freedom twice!

Anonymous said...

Ms. Gage,
I just found out, while doing geneological research, that Gordon was owned by my great, great grandfather, Captain John Lyons. I have seen this picture many times in the past. It literally made me nauseous when I saw the connection. I feel now for this poor man; so glad he made it to freedom twice.

rob said...

one picture of all the thousands of slaves and we take this as the norm? could have been for a legitimate crime or a medical condition, and don't say it was cruel slave masters. They still whipped as punishment in the army

cindy said...

To Carlos: The Wikipedia entry for this photo is: which also mentions the photo was captioned as 'Peter'at some point and that it redirects to the 'Gordon' page.
To Greg W: How you could possibly liken the scars on this man's back to the ritualistically applied tribal scars of various cultural groups when it is blindingly obvious that Gordon's scars were the result of an out-of-control burst of whippings? The scars do not resemble the highly decorative, patterned and meaningfully applied welts of tribal scarification in the least. I strongly dispute your opinion that this man's scarring does not resemble whipping scars and looks more like tribal scarring. The scars on his back have no deliberate pattern nor are they uniform with the other scars. As such it is obvious they have not been applied carefully or ceremoniously as tribal scarification is, on the contrary these scars appear to have been administered with vicious force and without any care as to the specific marks left behind. I have seen thousands of photographs of tribal scarification during my studies in anthropology at university and in person visiting various tribes of the Australian outback, Pacific Islands, Western Africa and the Horn of Africa. I have also seen many photographs of scarring caused by the whipping of slaves and can attest to the similarity these scars leave with the scars Gordon bears on his body. When the evidence of slavery and it's associated brutality is in such copious amounts of documentation and photographic evidence everywhere-not just in this one photograph, I cannot fathom why one would still be in such denial as to whippings like this man endured having taken place.
To 'rob': Before suggesting Gordon deserves no sympathy because 'the army still used whipping as punishment',please show us a photograph of a soldier with the equivalent level of horrific whipping scars this man bears if you wish for it to be a fair comparison. Additionally, if the victim of a whipping deserves no sympathy then please enlighten us as to the reason the army no longer uses whipping as a punishment.
To make the comment that there were thousands of slaves and Gordon's injuries were not the norm misses the point entirely. The point is that while slavery continued to take place in the USA, cases such Gordon's could and did occur without any reprise to slave-masters, in addition to the many other inhumane conditions the practice of slavery permitted. Gordon's scars are testament to the fact that human depravity knows no bounds whilst slavery is permitted to exist.

Anonymous said...

Unknown said...

It does not look like he is sitting in the same chair or spot, like in your photo, perhaps it was taken in different spots or angles

Kimbob said...

If you examine his hand it's obviously not the same photograph.

d said...

Greg A said the following: "Do not despair for this man's pain, it may well be the image was just applied propaganda. The man has a proud demeanor after all. I do not for one minute however want to seem to be denying the brutality visited upon slaves."

So, he's asking the viewer to withhold empathy.
He also knows that the slave was a "proud" man, just look at his "demeanor"! Perhaps he was proud, but pride couldn't stop a bullwhip in the hands of a brutal oppressor. Oh, wait! Those are tribal scars. The last sentence is the equivalent of the "but some of my best friends are" retort and patronizing to say the least.

Ive also seen someone deny that the man was even a Black slave claiming instead that he was a Chinese prisoner.

Seriously, the cognitive dissonance is strong in some folks.

Unknown said...

Rob you are one horrible excuse for an human being! Sounds like you're the type of FILTH that'll try to justify any kind a physical crime against a fellow human! I bet you probably thinks the Nazi holocaust were just a massive sleepover, and no one wanted to go home!

Anonymous said...

Such stupidity here.

It’s clearly not the same. The clothes are different, as is the hair.

Besides that, tribal scars?! Really?!
At the time of the photo being taken, when he reached union lines, he was given a medical and those taking the photos were utterly taken aback by the brutality, others, (escaped enslaved,) didn’t batter an eyelid. Indicating fo them this was normal and nothing they hadn’t seen time and time again.

Anonymous said...

I can relate.