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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Man with the Branded Hand

This month, Wisconsin abolitionist Jonathan Walker will be inducted into the National Abolitionist Hall of Fame in Petersboro, N.Y. Known in his own day as "The Man with the Branded Hand," Walker is finally getting national recognition more than 150 years after his dramatic act. At the time, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier honored him with the following lines:

"With that front of calm endurance,
on whose steady nerve in vain,
Pressed the iron of the prison,
smote the fiery shafts of pain..."

(from the 1846 poem Voices of Freedom).

Soon after Whittier wrote those lines, the man with the branded hand moved to Wisconsin. He retired to Fond du Lac, and later to Washington County, after five years of lecturing and writing against slavery. He used a uniquely grisly device to make his point during his lectures – seared in the palm of his right hand was a brand with the letters "S.S.", which stood for "Slave Stealer".

The History Behind the Branding

The act that inspired the poem took place two years earlier in the summer of 1844. Walker, a middle-aged Massachusetts sea captain in the Caribbean on business, attempted to smuggle several fugitive slaves from Pensacola, Florida, to the British West Indies, where slavery was illegal. His boat, however, was seized at sea and brought into the authorities at Key West, where Walker was charged with stealing a slave owner's "property" and was sent back to Pensacola.

After a long confinement in prison, he was sentenced a large fine and a branding on his right hand.

"When about to be branded," Walker wrote afterwards, "I was placed in the prisoner's box. [The court officers] proceeded to tie my hand to a part of the railing in front. I remarked that there was no need of tying it, for I would hold still. He observed that it was best to make sure, and tied it firmly to the post, in fair view; he then took from the fire the branding-iron, of a slight red heat, and applied it to the ball of my hand, and pressed it on firmly, for fifteen or twenty seconds. It made a spattering noise, like a handful of salt in the fire, as the skin seared and gave way to the hot iron. The pain was severe while the iron was on, and for some time afterwards."

Walker is said to have tolerated this pain stoically, knowing it was no worse than what his compatriots in the ship and their families were likely to undergo, or what slaves commonly suffered at the hands of their owners.

Later, friends in the North furnished the money to pay the fine and secure Walker's release from prison.

From Slave Stealer to Anti-Slavery Leader

After his release from prison, Walker became a celebrity of sorts. He became known as a great anti-slavery leader and was hailed a hero by Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Whittier and other famous poets of the time. From 1845-1849 he lectured about anti-slavery with Henry Watson, a fugitive slave. He also authored books and pamphlets about his experiences and his support for slavery's abolition.

During his presentations, Walker would hold up his mutilated hand. His treatment shocked and outraged citizens across the country. It helped crystallize in the public mind the brutalizing effects of slave owning on the human soul. It also helped raise public consciousness about the issue years before the Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott, or the book "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had made slavery a universally discussed issue.

'Slave Saver' Retires in Wisconsin

Walker retired from the limelight by moving with his large family to Wisconsin in 1851. He lived in Fond du Lac for one year, and then moved to a tract of land known as "Spring Farm" in the town of Mitchell in Fond du Lac County. Four years later the Walkers moved to a farm a few miles south of Plymouth in Sheboygan County. The Walkers lived in Wisconsin throughout the great fugitive slave controversies and the entire Civil War.

In 1866, Walker moved to Lake Harbor, Michigan, where he operated a small fruit orchard until his death in 1878. After his death, the United States government joined with Muskegon, Michigan, to erect a monument in Walker's honor.

Some of Walker's descendants remained in Wisconsin, including his daughter, Mrs. Marie Walker Underhill, who lived in Sheboygan County, and his son, Dr. Lloyd Garrison Walker.

Walker liked to say that the letters seared into his flesh actually stood for "Slave Saver".

2013 Honors

For more on Walker's Wisconsin connections and on his induction into the National Abolitionist Hall of Fame -- and a photograph of his hand -- , see this article in the Sheboygan Press.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on October 1, 2013

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