Death and Dying in Slave and Anti-Slave Communities

Evin Ellwood
The permanent and unavoidable features of death have shaped historical narratives for centuries; from the passing of monarchs and rulers by coup or natural cause to the mass perishing of people by way of plague or execution. Death affects all of us and is a crucial part of the human experience. How we interpret the experience of death depends on our own familiarity and understanding of it. For many slaves in mid nineteenth-century America, the pursuit of freedom was often obstructed by suffering and death; suicide, homicide, torture, and executions have influenced the way the slave community lives with the inevitability of death. This essay will examine death in the antebellum black slave and fugitive slave experience; how death was gendered, in what ways the community interacted with death, burial practices and treatment of bodily remains, concepts of an afterlife, and how death was viewed from an abolitionist perspective.

The overarching theme of the essay will show that death is not a passive consequence of history and life, but is an agent of historical change and an important part of slave and abolitionist historiography. Despite the fact that extensive studies have been done on the history and impact of death in the United States of America, limited attention is paid to slaves and fugitive slaves.[1] Accounts of death in the antebellum era are often mentioned in passing, without any emphasis on the process or the people involved. William Still’s The Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts is an excellent example of this; in the monograph, the word “death” is mentioned 201 times but the context surrounding the word is rarely longer than a paragraph worth of information.[2] This common apathetic regard to death in primary resources may be the reason why so few academics have pursued a better understanding of death within that context. Another reason for the lack of study might be the psychological effects associated, due to the vast nature of death. Psychologist Paul Slovic has studied the reasoning behind human apathy in the case of genocide. Slovic concludes that “Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics… The numbers are important, and yet they are not everything.”[3] If this is the human reaction to death en masse, one could safely assume it is why there is little historical agency applied to the death of American slaves and fugitive slaves. The act of being considered an unfortunate statistic is an uncontrollable hindrance to effectively using material to understand the historical impact of death.

In Oberlin, Ohio, there is a gravestone standing four feet high in the archives, a monument to death in the pursuit of freedom. The inscription on the stone reads: “Let Slavery perish! |  LEE HOWARD DOBBINS | a fugitive Slave orphan | brought here by an | adopted mother in her | flight for liberty | MAR. 15, 1853 | left here wasted with | consumption found | a refuge in death | MAR. 26, 1853 | Aged 4 Yr’s.” After his mother had died, Lee Dobbins was adopted by a family friend, Miriam. Miriam had decided to break free from her bondage in Kentucky and flee to Canada with her family. While evading slave catchers in Oberlin, Lee Dobbins caught tuberculosis. Given the option to stay and put herself and her own family at risk of being caught or leaving Dobbins in the care of a family in Oberlin, Miriam chose the latter. Dobbins died a week later.[4] One thousand Oberlin townspeople attended his funeral in the First Church, and the collection paid for the tombstone.[5]

The decision Miriam had to make, between her own well being versus the well being of her dependent was all too familiar for slave mothers. Many mothers struggled with the ethical implications of letting their kin be born into slavery, with the fear of separation being among the top concerns for mothers. The horrors of slavery that black men and women faced fostered a culture of infanticide, albeit reluctantly in most cases.[6] Infanticide was not without its consequences; aside from the moral dilemma of ending the life of a newborn child, a slave mother could be charged with murder and be held responsible for the loss of property of the slave owner. This was the case in the trial of Margaret Garner, who fled from slavery much like Miriam and when faced with being captured and returned to slavery, slit the throat of her own child to save them from a life in bondage.[7] Women were not only responsible for choosing life or death over their family, but had an important job regarding death in the community. Older women were often put in charge of taking care of corpses leading up to the burial, making sure the body was not eaten by pests during the day, as well as cleaning and embalming the deceased for traditional night burials.[8]

Enslaved men were also subject to making decisions of life and death, although it is exercised much more often on themselves and their white counterparts. Enslaved men were much more likely to take chances when it came to fleeing slavery, often citing that they would rather die on the run than return to a life in bondage.[9] If flight was unsuccessful and the fugitive slave perished on his journey, he was often immortalized as a martyr in the slave community.[10] This regard allowed slaves and abolitionists to further harness the power of death in anti-slavery rhetoric. Abolitionist literature in the 1830s often conveys the sentiment that this form of resistance is what made a slave a man.[11] Men were also violent in their resistance. Slave narratives often contested that it was a natural right of a man to fight until he is either dead or free from tyranny, and that any white man would do the same.[12] Propagating this cause was often difficult, as abolitionists did not want to instill a fear of free blacks in the general population, but also did not want to emasculate them by avoiding their often violent struggles of life and death. In publications of abolitionist literature, editors would often emphasise the choice the slave had to make between fighting back and surrendering and dying dishonorably.[13]

Suicide was perhaps one of the most controversial acts a slave could carry out. For a slave, it is often seen as the conclusive form of protest, and for the fugitive slave, a last resort. For slaves, self destruction symbolized liberation, as it was the natural right of someone to die on their own terms, and often out of the reach of their owners.[14] The human stripped of their rights was able to define their existence, without hindrance, by deciding their own fate, something that was unattainable to them in life. Alternatively, for fugitive slaves, suicide was often seen as an act of desperation. If a slave was hopeless, or motivated, enough to leave all they had ever known to pursue freedom, the realization that self destruction is the only real way out is a dark understanding. Suicide, like other forms of death, revealed stark differences between men and women. Men would more often turn to violent self inflicted death, whereas women would lament over suicide, but rarely went through with it. When women did commit suicide, it was often due to extreme sexual violence.[15]

Suicide was also heavily publicised in abolitionist literature. For abolitionists, suicide was an opportunity to educate their audience about the brutal reality of slavery. Authors had to be careful balancing education with cultural sentiment on suicide; some considered it a testament to slave inferiority rather than an honourable means to an end.[16]  Finding a way to foster empathy when viewing the self inflicted death of blacks and grow support for the abolitionist movement, as well as fight negative connotations of self destruction was difficult. Methodology to do so changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Shifting away from the understanding that suicide is ingrained in slavery and an unfortunate reality, abolitionists ushered in a new era of slave narratives that emphasize suicide as a last resort, and appreciate those who self destructed as morally fortified due to the adversity they faced, this was reinforced by first hand accounts of former slaves who were able to detail the hardships of facing thoughts of suicide.[17]

Once the act of dying is over, it is up to the survivors to take care of the corpse. A physical embrace and saying goodbye was traditional, as was properly burying the deceased on an east-west axis.[18] The orientation of the body, as well as the objects commonly found with the bodies were symbolic of the deceased’s return to Africa.[19]  This was often difficult, as some slave laws banned groups larger than seven slaves to gather at once.[20] In some cases, slave owners did take steps to comfort their grieving slaves. One common practice was to attend the funeral and bring rum or whiskey for the mourning kin. While some slave owners would feel compelled to talk, especially if they were close with the recently departed, others chose to be silent participants in the ceremony.[21] As slave communities developed, they began to adopt more European practices in their funerals; the main differences being the adoption of headstones and coffins.[22] This change also signals a loss of African tradition, as slaves become more accustomed to Euro-American burial practices, African slave autonomy is diminished.

Just as some slave owners were receptive to slave traditions and would mourn with the community, others would disregard the sanctity of funeral rights, even going out of their way to ruin the ceremonies and disgrace the bodies.[23] Along with corpse abuse and mutilation, many slave owners chose to sell their perished slaves to medical schools, where the body would be used as a cadaver.[24] One account of being sold into the cadaver trade was that of John Copeland of Oberlin, Ohio. After being found guilty of participating in a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry with John brown, Copeland was sentenced to death. After being killed, his family was unable to recover the body due to the white medical students having first pick of the deceased for their work.[25] The sanctity that the body held after death was just as important as the slave’s concept of an afterlife. As Christianity grew in the slave community, the concept of freedom in heaven was popularized. They believed heaven would be a place just for them and were eager to build their relationship with god, as seen in some songs about death: “Me and my God gonna do as we please. / Gonna chatter with the Father, argue with the Son. / Tell ‘urn ’bout the world I just come from.”[26] Slaves also believed that their slave master, and the slave holding class as a whole, were damned and would burn in hell for eternity.[27] As for the unscrupulous act of self destruction, many justified the choice by viewing slavery as a greater sin than suicide.[28]

, It is clear there is more to death in black antebellum America than most scholars will acknowledge. Death does not only separates people, but as a common experience  can bring people together. From the act of dying, to the ceremony, tradition, and sorrow that follows, death plays an active role in our lives and in history. By learning about what death was and how it was experienced in the slave and anti-slave community, we can build a better understanding of how people who lived often in the worst conditions viewed their existence, and what drove them to risk everything in the pursuit of something better. Death can be seen as the great liberator or as the “easy way out,” but overall it is a driver of change, both for abolitionists who looked to use death to foster support, and those who needed it most to put an end to a life of suffering.


[1] The lack of discussion in Mortal Remains alone is enough to raise suspicions of academic study. See Douglas R. Egerton, “A Peculiar Mark of Infamy: Dismemberment, Burial, and Rebelliousness in Slave Societies,” in Mortal Remains: Death in Early America, ed. Nancy Isenberg, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), table of contents, 1.

[2] William Still, The Underground Rail Road. A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, & C., Narrating the Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their efforts of Freedom (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1883)

[3] Paul Slovic, “”If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act”: Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” Judgment and Decision Making 2, no. 2 (2007), 86.

[4]  Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Underground Railroad, and Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations (London: Routledge, 2008), 163.

[5] Disease and illness was a leading cause of childhood mortality in slave communities. It had become such a large problem that slave owners would often take life insurance policies out on children to protect their investment. See Diana Berry, The Price for their Pound of Flesh (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 54

[6] Berry, Their Pound of Flesh, 28.

[7]Samuel May Jr., The Fugitive Slave Laws and its Victims (New York: American Anti Slavery Society, 1861), 37-44

[8] Egerton, Mortal Remains, 156.

[9] Sarah N. Roth, “‘How a Slave was made a Man’: Negotiating Black Violence and Masculinity in Antebellum Slave Narratives,” Slavery & Abolition 28, no. 2 (2007), 262.

[10] Ibid., 263.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 257.

[13] Ibid., 261-262.

[14] Terri Snyder, Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America (Chicago: Chicago

University Press, 2015), 125

[15] Ibid., 149-150.

[16] Ibid.,136.

[17] Ibid., 125, 147.

[18] David R. Roediger, “And Die in Dixie: Funerals, Death, & Heaven in the Slave Community 1700-1865,” The Massachusetts Review 22, no. 1 (1981), 170-174.

[19] Ross W. Jamieson, “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices,” Historical Archeology 29, no. 4 (1995), 49, 52.

[20] Roediger, “Die in dixie,” 164.

[21] Ibid., 165-166.

[22] Jamieson, “Burial Practices,” 53-54.

[23] Roediger, “Die in Dixie,” 168.

[24] Berry, Their Pound of Flesh, 152.

[25] Ibid., 121.

[26] Roediger, “Die in Dixie,” 180.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Snyder, Power to Die, 156.


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