Branded Hand Interpretive Commentary

White Suffering and The Branded Hand

Martin A. Berger

Sometime in 1845, Jonathan Walker (1799-1878) entered the fashionable Boston daguerreotype studio of Southworth & Hawes to sit for an unusual portrait. In contrast to the many middle-class patrons who made their way to portrait studios to have bust- or full-length likenesses of themselves made for family and friends, Walker had agreed to the request of a prominent Boston physician, Henry Ingorsoll Bowditch (1808-1892), to have a commemorative daguerreotype taken of his hand.

Branded Hand

Just a few years prior, Walker was a little-known New England tradesman and shipwright who had relocated to the sleepy territorial town of Pensacola, Florida. He gained international fame in November of 1844 when convicted by a Florida jury of “aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others.”(1) A white man who had long been opposed to slavery, Walker was known in Pensacola for his unusual determination to treat the slaves and free blacks around him with respect. In June, Walker embarked on a more radical path, consenting to the request of seven enslaved men to sail them several hundred miles to freedom in the Bahamas. Once Parliament’s passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act initiated gradual emancipation in British possessions, Canada, to the north, and various Caribbean islands, to the south, became alluring destinations for American slaves. Unfortunately for Walker and his passengers, his small boat was discovered after fourteen days at sea by a passing American sloop; suspicious of seven blacks sailing with one white man in a cramped boat, the captain ordered Walker’s vessel towed back to a Florida port so that the men could explain themselves to authorities.

Ardent abolitionists such as Bowditch considered Walker a hero for putting his life and liberty at risk for the sake of American slaves. But even for northerners less committed to the abolitionist struggle, Walker’s story was deemed remarkable for the cruelty of the punishment he stoically endured. After a speedy trial, a Florida judge sentenced Walker “to be placed in the pillory for one hour; then brought into court, and branded in the right hand with the letters SS.; then remanded to prison for fifteen days, and remain there until the fine (one hundred and fifty dollars) and the costs of the prosecution should be paid.”(2) The clearly visible branding scars in the daguerreotype, which stood for “slave stealer,” were intended as a punishment for Walker and as a warning to like-minded whites not to act on their political convictions.

The daguerreotype Bowditch commissioned—now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society—shows Walker’s open right hand resting on a table with its palm facing toward the camera and thumb extended upward. The dark cuff of Walker’s jacket is evident at the left-hand side of the image and a hint of his white, stiffened shirtsleeve visible above and below his wrist. Just under the base of the thumb two raised white scars trace themselves across the lines and wrinkles of Walker’s palm, each of which forms a reversed “S”

Daguerreotypes are produced without the aid of negatives. They are made of copper sheets coated with a thin plating of silver that is chemically sensitized to light. Upon exposure to light, a daguerreotype plate produces a mirror image of the object before it, which is why the scars are laterally reversed and the hand appears to be Walker’s left. Because a daguerreotype’s image forms directly on the plate—without mediating negatives—each plate is a unique object from which duplicates are not easily created. The image of Walker’s hand was first and foremost a one-of-a-kind keepsake for a prominent Boston abolitionist who wished to possess a visual reminder of the shipwright’s exploits. The image was seen by small circles of sympathetic men and women who surely passed the image around at intimate gatherings in Bowditch’s home. And yet, despite the limited circulation of the daguerreotype itself, the image of Walker’s branded hand became one of the best-known symbols of the American abolitionist movement. An engraving of the daguerreotype was printed in newspaper accounts of Walker’s ordeal, abolitionist pamphlets, Walker’s bestselling autobiography, and even carved into the imposing funerary obelisk erected to mark his grave upon his death in 1878.(3)

Walker was feted in the north as soon as he made his way to New York after the last of his court costs were paid by supporters and his release secured. The same abolitionists who raised funds to support Walker’s family during his imprisonment, paid a prominent lawyer to look into his case, and discharged his court fines and costs, now encouraged him to pen an account of his exploits and lecture on his experiences. For several years after his release Walker was a sought-after speaker on the abolitionist lecture circuit who frequently shared the stage with former slaves. Walker and the freemen would recount their harrowing experiences before audiences for the sake of raising concern and funds in the north for the abolitionist cause. His stature was such that newspaper headlines announcing abolitionist lectures routinely listed his name first—or alone—even when he was to appear with such well-known figures as John S. Jacobs, the younger brother of Harriet Jacobs, or the century’s great orator, activist and, later, statesman, Frederick Douglass. The Liberator reported on a joint appearance by Walker and Douglass in August of 1845 under the headline: “Walker Meeting in New Bedford.”(4)

It may seem surprising that white newspapers gave greater attention to Walker than Douglass. After all, the white abolitionist spent just eleven months in a Florida jail before his northern supporters paid his court fine and costs, while the former slave endured decades of bondage before escaping on his own to the north. In addition, Douglass was widely acknowledged as an unrivaled speaker who excelled in communicating to audiences the appalling conditions under which slaves lived. But no matter how poignant their experiences and eloquent their testimony, freemen did not enjoy the authority of white abolitionists among European-Americans in the north. White speakers on the abolitionist circuit were valued for their perspectives on slavery, but also for their ability to authenticate the stories told by blacks.

The authority of whites is demonstrated by a nineteenth-century publishing convention for slave narratives, whereby publishers routinely included a foreword by a prominent white citizen attesting to the truthfulness of the slave whose story was told in the chapters that followed. The forewords offered tacit assurance to readers that the author of the narrative was a former slave (and not a white impostor hoping to turn a quick buck), as it explicitly vouched for the veracity of the story told. As America’s most famous white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison wrote reassuringly in the preface to Douglass’s bestselling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845): “I am confident that it is essentially true in all its statements; that nothing has been set down in malice, nothing exaggerated, nothing drawn from the imagination; that it comes short of the reality, rather than overstates a single fact in regard to SLAVERY AS IT IS.”(5) Since Garrison had witnessed none of the events recounted in Douglass’s autobiography, his willingness to lend his name to Douglass’s story was ultimately as important as his choice of words. Much as Garrison vouched for Douglass’s printed account by attaching his name to the autobiography, so Walker bestowed legitimacy on the freeman’s oral testimony through his willingness to share the stage.

But Walker’s presence worked on white audiences in other ways as well, allowing them to imagine the centrality of suffering, white martyrs in the anti-slavery movement. The comparatively few white abolitionists who’d been imprisoned, mistreated or martyred for acting on their beliefs became the face of slavery for millions of whites in the north, notwithstanding that it was millions of black Americans who lived under and engaged in daily struggles against the slave system. The white abolitionist organizer and editor, Maria Weston Chapman, lamented how the plight of the occasional white abolitionist distracted white audiences from their attention to the much greater distress of millions of blacks. As she observed, when a white man is arrested for attempting to free slaves: “The whole North, aye, Europe, is unusually moved. Money is poured out, like water, for the prisoner’s family, and to test points of law for the prisoner’s benefit.” Speaking specifically of Walker’s treatment, Frederick Douglass observed that it “was one of the few atrocities of slavery that roused the justice and humanity of the north.”(6)

The historian Marcus Wood reminds us that the suffering of the black slave was long associated by whites in Great Britain and the United States with the suffering of Christ. As Wood explains, “the abused and tortured body of the slave was closer to Christ’s experience than were the bodies of free abolitionists. Ultimate suffering at the hands of the wicked implicitly raises the slave victim above the white audience either inflicting or contemplating suffering.”(7) And as Wood points out, the image of the black slave as a Christ-like figure posed a peculiar challenge for even the most radical white abolitionists, since few whites could then conceptualize of blacks as their moral, intellectual, or spiritual equals. Because a belief in the evils of slavery did not equate with a belief in black equality, the specter of suffering blacks being closer to Christ than God-fearing white abolitionists was unsettling to many whites.

This is what made the narratives of white abolitionist martyrs so appealing to European-American audiences. While no one could argue that Walker suffered more than the slaves he tried to aid, his suffering appeared nobler, given that it was freely chosen. Like Christ, and unlike slaves who were forced or born into servitude, Walker chose his fate. Walker’s autobiography is filled with references to his chosen suffering and to the religious nature of his cause. He repeatedly wrote of “the act for which I was called to suffer;” “the misery and suffering of imprisonment;” the “severe” pain he endured during and after his branding, which he deemed part of “the most degrading punishments that human invention has produced.”(8) In his detailed recounting of the court-ordered branding, Walker described the scene in the following manner: “When about to be branded, I was placed in the prisoner’s box [in the courtroom]. The Marshall, Ebenezer Dora, formerly of Maine, proceeded to tie my hand to a part of the railing front. I remarked that there was no need of tying it, for I would hold still.”(9) It is a minor but telling detail that Walker recounts his willingness to compliantly present his hand for branding. As wrong as he believes the punishment ordered by the court to be, Walker accepts his sentence as something he is called on to stoically endure. A subsequent press account of his court case took pains to note that Walker, “on Christian grounds objects to any legal [appeal] proceedings in his own behalf, choosing to suffer wrong.”(10)

White accounts of Walker’s ordeal consistently presented him as a Christ-like figure who chose to suffer for the cause of abolition. Many of his supporters re-branded the “SS” scars to stand for “soul savior,” “slave savior,” or “salvation to the slave,” making Walker’s links to Christ even more clear by highlighting how black salvation hinged on his sacrifice. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier brought these links before a large reading public in “The Branded Hand” (1846), his famous tribute to Walker. In it he wrote that Walker’s “branded palm shall prophesy, ‘Salvation to the Slave!’” A heated essay appearing in the Boston Chronicle took the imagery a step farther in its conflation of Walker and Christ. The editors wrote of the branding: “This thing which ye have done unto the least of his little ones, ye have done unto Him who died for the slave. Into His hands, still bearing the nail-marks of the cross, have ye burned the literal signet of your malignity to man and human freedom.”(11) Given the like placement of Walker’s brand and the stigmata on Christ’s hands, few would have missed the visual analogy as Walker moved among abolitionist crowds at the conclusion of his talks, holding out his marked right palm for eager audiences in the 1840s.(12) So fixated was Walker on his own suffering, that the first edition of his 119-page published account of his exploits contains not a word on the fate of the seven men who set off with him from Florida. Several of them are not even named in the text. The enslaved men who enlisted Walker’s help, initiating the chain of events described in the autobiography, are inexplicably dropped from the narrative at the moment of Walker’s arrest.

We know from surviving accounts of Walker’s abolitionist talks that he would hold up his hand to audiences so that they might view his famous scars. At the conclusion of his lectures, one can imagine Walker passing among eager audiences, allowing men and women to take his middle-aged hand in their own to inspect the scars up close. Younger, less restrained, observers may even have touched the raised letters. The daguerreotype allowed this intimate ritual to be repeated by Bowditch and his associates at their leisure. Produced on a “ninth plate,” The Branded Hand was created on one of the smallest daguerreotype plates in circulation, measuring just 2 x 2.5 inches. Even with the inclusion of its protective casing, the framed image was diminutive. To see it clearly one needed to take it in hand; while women and children may have used both hands to cradle the daguerreotype, a man could easily have grasped it in one. To hold and study the daguerreotype is to see the stigma burned into the copper plate as a visual reminder of Walker’s ordeal, and to place an overlay of the “SS” brand across one’s own palm. For the elite, white viewers who cradled the daguerreotype, the mere desire to hold the image attested to their own abolitionist credentials, as it aligned Walker’s more famous hand with their own. With the superimposition of his “SS” scars on their palms, the daguerreotype may also have flattered viewers into imagining his or her own “suffering” (either emotional or financial) for the noble abolitionist cause. As it raised interest in and awareness of the fight against slavery, the Branded Hand daguerreotype helped to ensure that abolition would remain linked in the minds of white northerners to the dedication and suffering of European-Americans. In the odd logic of its day, the plight of blacks was publicized through attention to the experiences of whites whose more modest—and often imagined—suffering bore little relation to that experienced by millions of American slaves.

Martin A. Berger is Director of the Visual Studies Graduate Program and Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His most recent book is Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2011).


(1) Jonathan Walker, The Branded Hand: The Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola, Florida, for Aiding Slaves to Escape from Bondage (Boston: Anti-Slavery Society, 1848), 32.

(2) Walker, Branded Hand, 40.

(3) For engraved reproductions of the daguerreotype image, see “The Branded Hand,” Prisoner’s Friend: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Criminal Reform, Philosophy, August 13, 1845, 79; “The Man with the Branded Hand,” Zion’s Herald, July 12, 1899, 877; and the title page in each of Walker’s many editions of his autobiography The Branded Hand. For the popularity of newspaper engravings of the branded hand image, see Hazel Wolf, On Freedom’s Altar: The Martyr Complex in the Abolition Movement (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), 67.

(4) “Communications: Jonathan Walker and John S. Jacobs on Sunday,” The North Star, March 31, 1848; “Walker Meeting in New Bedford,” The Liberator, August 22, 1845, 135.

(5) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: FQ Classics, 2007), 10; when John S. Jacobs published an account of his life in The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, the journal’s white editors prefaced his essay with their comment that “The writer of these autobiographical sketches has, since his escape from slavery, held positions of trust in free countries, and every statement may be relied on.” In “A True Tale of Slavery,” The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation (February 7, 1861), 85.

(6) Maria Weston Chapman, The Liberty Bell (Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1845), 205-06; Douglass quoted in “The Branded Hand,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 2, 1878, 1.

(7) Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000), 243.

(8) Walker, Branded Hand, 101, 20, 40, 86.

(9) Walker, Branded Hand, 40-43.

(10) Walker, Branded Hand, 44; C.M. Bruleigh, “Tour on the Cape,” Liberator, February 28, 1845, 35.

(11) For whites’ reinterpretation of the “SS” branding, see Walker, Branded Hand, 108; “Walker Meeting in New Bedford,” The Liberator, August 22, 1845, 135; “Jonathan Walker,” Christian Reflector, August 21, 1845, 136; “The Branded Hand,” Liberator, September 5, 1845, 1; also, see Frank Edward Kittredge, “The Man with the Branded Hand,” The New England Magazine, November 1898, 369. “The Branded Hand,” Boston Chronicle, reprinted in Elihu Burritt, Sparks from the Anvil (London: Charles Gilpin, 1847), 97-98.

(12) [Anti-Slavery Society], The Branded Hand, pamphlet #9 (Philadelphia: Anti-Slavery Society, c.1846), 34. For abolitionist’s empathetic imaginings of themselves and their family members as suffering slaves, see Aileen S. Kraditor, Means and Ends in American Abolition: Garrison and His Critics on Strategy and Tactics, 1834-1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1967), 237-39, 242.