Joe, Please accept my regrets at the delay in replying to this most
interesting posting. I seem to have found the time to have tried to be
humorous on two occasions, but have put this far more serious endeavor on
the back burner several times. I considered e-mailing you privately, but
thought there might be another individual or two who would be interested in
I see the angle you are trying to establish, but think you are fishing
in the wrong hole. In my book, Searching For Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's
World, I refer to these stories as "Dehumanizing Stories." Just as Sam
Clemens was exposed to the dialect stories that made fun of the lack of
education and vocabulary of slaves -- with the important consequence that he
learned to write in dialect -- he was also exposed to humorous stories that
reinforced racial stereotypes about physical characteristics of African
Americans. There were also stories that mocked abolitionists and racial
equality. (If you have the May 12, 1853 HDJ on hand you will note there is
an article taking a swipe at the abolitionists two articles up.) The
psychological burden of treating slaves as inhumanely as they were in Sam's
world necessitated a classification system that treated African Americans as
less human than other people. I will not bother here to go through all the
different themes, but will jump immediately to the case at hand.
One aspect of the dehumanization of slaves was a fascination with
physical oddities among African Americans. Like livestock breeders, slave
culture closely examined all the specimens in their holdings. Particularly
well-built slaves could bring a premium on the market. Oddities were the
subject of much gossip. Other oddities reported in the Hannibal press among
births to slaves were: triplets, a male child completely covered with hair,
and Siamese twins.
It is important to remember that we are in the pre-Mendelian (God, I
hope that is a word), pre-Darwinian world.
Note this from the April 30, 1853 Journal,
CURIOSITIES. - Yesterday we were told by an old man named Tyler, living in
S. Louis County, that he has in his possession a negro girl about six years
old, whose body, legs and arms, are marked like a spotted horse. She is
very black, with kinky hair, except where these spots are, some of which are
very large. These spots present the appearance of healthy skin, but very
fair - as much so as that of white persons of the fairest complexion. On
her forehead is a white blaze, extending from between her eyebrows some
distance under hair. All the hair on her head is very black except that
which grows over this blaze, and that is in color like the whitest wool.
It is a pretty hard story; but we don't like, unless we know the man better,
to say right down that we don't believe it.
He talks about exhibiting her.
ANOTHER.-A bystander stated that there is in Monroe County a white boy who
has a black spot covering the back of his neck, extending half way down his
back, and covering both shoulders.
And Note this from the May 21, Journal:
The Lewistown (Ill.) Republican copies our statements about two spotted
negroes - one in St. Louis county
and one in Monroe county, and adds:
Now, Mr. Journal man, we don't know about the white wool! But last winter,
in St. Louis, we saw a negro man, who up to his nineteenth year, was as
"black as any nigger," after which time he began to turn white, in spots.
His face and shoulder, are now almost white. He was raised in Kentucky. If
the editor of the Journal will call at Dobyns & Spaulding's daguerean rooms,
corner of Fourth and Olive streets, St. Louis, he can see a splendid
miniature picture of the "animal," which if not as large as life, is "twice
There was also a fascination with slaves who had what was probably vitiligo,
an autoimmune disorder in which the cells that make pigment in the skin,
called melanocytes, are destroyed. There are several stories about slaves
who became "white." Michael Jackson has this disease.
I do not think you have found the root of Pudd'nhead Wilson. However, as
Tom Quirk has pointed out to me quite forcefully, I should stick to history
and leave literature to you literaturists. The 5/12/53 story is in fact
part and parcel of the very important role the press played in perpetuating
slavery. Along with the churches and government, the press kept up a
constant stream of stories that justified the institution, made slaveholders
feel good about themselves, belittled slaves, mocked and belittled the
enemies of slavery, and perpetuated the theology of slavery.
Part of the theology of slavery was the physical inferiority of blacks.
These stories relegate them to near animal status. In fact, you will notice
the Illinois editor actually used the word.
Please excuse the variation in typeface, I did a little cut and paste to
save time. My book will be out in the early fall from University of
Missouri Press. I think people will be quite surprised at what previous
historians and biographers have simply omitted from the story. It will
definitely provide context for the 5/12/53 HDJ story.