The Man with the Branded Hand | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Man With the Branded Hand

The Story of Jonathan Walker, Abolitionist

The Man with the Branded Hand | Wisconsin Historical Society

"With that front of calm endurance, on whose steady nerve in vain, Pressed the iron of the prison, smote the fiery shafts of pain." - John Greenleaf Whitter, "Voices of Freedom."

Jonathan Walker

Soon after Whittier wrote those lines, Captain Jonathan Walker moved to Wisconsin. He retired to Fond du Lac and later Washington county after five years of lecturing and writing against slavery. He had a uniquely grisly device for making his point from the lecture stage: the palm of his right-hand had been branded by a Florida court with the letters "S.S." for "slave stealer".


In 1846 Walker, a middle-aged Massachusetts sea captain in the Caribbean on business, tried to carry several fugitive slaves from Pensacola to the British West Indies where slavery was illegal. His boat, however, was seized at sea and brought to the authorities at Key West, where Walker was charged with theft of the slave owner's "property." He was sent back to Pensacola and after a long confinement in a Florida prison was sentenced to pay a large fine and be branded on his right hand with the letters "S.S." for "slave stealer."

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

Growing Fame

After his release from prison Walker became a celebrity of sorts, and from 1845 to 1849 he lectured on the anti-slavery circuit in company with a fugitive slave named Henry Watson. He also authored books and pamphlets about his experience and in support of slavery's abolition. His treatment shocked and outraged citizens across the country and helped crystallize in the public mind the brutalizing effects that slave-owning had on the human soul. It helped raise public consciousness about the issue years before the Fugitive Slave Act, Dred Scott, or "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had made slavery a universally discussed institution.

Walker retired from the limelight by moving with his large family to Wisconsin in 1851, living here throughout the great fugitive slave controversies and the entire Civil War. In 1866, he moved to Lake Harbor, Michigan, where he operated a small fruit orchard until his death in 1878. Some of his descendants stayed in Wisconsin. He liked to say that the letters burned into his flesh actually stood for "Slave Saver."

Learn More

See more about Abolition.