In a new printing, a pseudo-slave narrative written to impel the cause of abolition
"The first lick
from Mr. Peterkin laid my back open. I writhed, I wrestled; but blow after blow descended,
each harder than the preceding one. I shrieked, I screamed, I pleaded, I prayed, but here
no mercy shown me. Mr. Peterkin having fully gratified and quenched his spleen, turned to
Mr. Jones and said 'Now is yer turn; you can beat her as much as you please, only jist
leave a bit o'life in her, is all I cares for.' "
In the pages of this putative
autobiography the author poses as a slave for the purpose of bringing attention to the
injustice of slavery. The actual author Mattie Griffith, passing as a black, wanted her
book to horrify and shame the nation.
Identifying herself as Ann, a
former servant woman, she recalls her protected youth and good education as a nearly-white
child. She tells that at twelve she was sold to a brutal master named Peterkin. On his
Kentucky plantation she witnessed and experienced the cruelty of slave life. After his
death one of his daughters took Ann to the city as her servant. Ann found new friendships
there and fell in love with Henry, a slave who killed himself after being cheated out of
his self-purchase. After being sold to an elderly Bostonian who emancipated her, Ann
finishes her story as a schoolteacher for black children.
Pseudo-slave narratives like
Griffith's appeared over the course of the abolitionist movement, and this is the only one
now in print.
Born in Kentucky, Griffith was
by inheritance the owner of six slaves. As a young woman she went north because she
loathed the "peculiar institution." Living in poverty in Philadelphia, Griffith
wrote Autobiography of a Female Slave to help finance her effort to emancipate her slaves
and resettle them in free territory. She professed a keen knowledge of a slave's daily
life and the brutal incidents a slave experienced. From this material she created her
The novel failed commercially,
although it was hailed within the abolitionist movement. The American Anti-Slavery Society
soon afterward gave Griffith the funds to return to Kentucky in order to free and resettle
Mattie Griffith (c.1826– 1906) has
disappeared from American literary history. She remained a lifelong activist, first for
abolition, and then for women's suffrage and for temperance. Joe Lockard is a doctoral
candidate at the University of California, Berkeley.