Harriet, in her costume as scout, was furnished by the kindness of Mr. J. C. Darby.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman – Part 22

Woman-Whipping — Ethically and Esthetically Considered

By S. M. Hopkins,
Professor in the Auburn Theological Seminary

The subject of the preceding memoir appears to have retained all her life a feeling recollection of the effects of the whip in the hands of her youthful mistress. Considering the vigor and frequency of the application, this is not strange. Infinite cuffs and thwacks, more or less, pass into oblivion; but a flogging with a raw-hide is not easily forgotten. A slave’s experience of the whip, however, was not confined to his or to her early days. A slave race must be controlled by fear and pain; and the discipline, it was naturally thought, could not begin too early. From childhood to old age they were liable to stripes, for any reason or for no reason. If the slave was guilty of no fault, he might be whipped, as appears from the preceding narrative, merely to impress him with a salutary sense of the master’s right and disposition to whip.

A Northern man, born and bred under the influences of freedom and the protection of law, and made acquainted with slavery in its old palmy days, can never forget his sensations at his first sight of a slave-whipping. The utmost he has ever seen in the way of corporal punishment has been the switching of some obstreperous child by competent authority; a discipline administered with prudence and moderation; drawing no blood and leaving no scar. He now sees an adult person stripped to the skin, his arms tied at their utmost stretch above his head, or across some object which binds him into a posture the best adapted to feel the full force of each blow. The instrument of suffering is not a birch twig or a ferule, but a twisted raw-hide, or heavy “black snake;” either of them highly effective weapons in the hands of a stout executioner.

Our Northern novice stands horror-stricken and paralyzed for a moment; but at the second or third blow, and the piteous scream of Oh Lord! Massa! which follows, he digs his fingers into his ears, and rushes to the furthest corner of his tent or dwelling, to escape the scene. Even if he could have endured the sight and sound a while longer, he dared not. The horror in his face, and perhaps the irrepressible word or act of interference was too sure to bring upon himself the vengeance due to a “d–d Abolitionist.” The little knot of Southern  habituès look on with critical inspection, squirting tobacco-juice, with their hands in their pockets.

If the subject is a woman, the interest rises higher, and the crowd would be greater. There is a refinement of cruelty in the whipping of a woman which used to stimulate agreeably the dull sensibilities of a Southern mob. A dish of torture had to be peppered very high to please the palates of those epicures in brutality. The helplessness and terror of the victim, the exposure of her person, the opportunity for coarse jests at her expense, all combined to make it a scene of rare enjoyment.

How the “chivalric” mind can endure the loss of such gratifications it is difficult to conceive. The Romans were weaned from crucifixions and gladiatorial combats very gradually. The process of ameliorating criminal law and humanizing public sentiment went on for more than two centuries. It was full four hundred years after the epoch of our redemption when the monk Telemachus threw himself between the hired swordsmen, whom a Christian audience was applauding, and laid down his own life to wind up the spectacle. But the bloody morsel has been snatched from the mouths of the “chivalry” at one clutch. No wonder their mortification vents itself in weeping and wailing, and knashing of teeth, and in such miscellaneous atrocities as their “Ku-Klux-Klans” can venture to inflict on helpless freedmen and radicals.

Continued in Part 2

Previously: Appendix II
Next: An Essay on Woman Whipping — Part 2

This is part of a multi-part series published to celebrate Black History Month in 2012. The list of published posts can be found at Book Directory: Scenes In The Life Of Harriet Tubman. Use the Stay In Touch box below to recieve e-mail notifications about new posts.

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