Jan. 4, 2022

Solomon Northup Regains his Freedom

Solomon Northup Regains his Freedom

January 4, 1853. After being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon Northup regains his freedom. Support for this episode comes from Laytrip - layaway travel for everyone: https://laytrip.com

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Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: A listener note: this episode contains references to violence against enslaved persons. It may not be suitable for all audiences.

A man wakes up in a dark room. His head is pounding. Slowly, he opens his eyes. He has no idea where he is or how he got here. Thin rays of watery sunlight filter through the iron bars covering the window.

Solomon Northup is a 32-year-old violinist from Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is African American, but unlike millions of other Black people in the United States at the time, Solomon is free.

Solomon goes to stand up but discovers he can’t. His wrists and ankles are shackled. He tries to yank his arms free, but it’s no use. Panic begins to set in. He scrambles to his knees and looks around wildly, his mind racing.

He thinks back to the night before.

He was in Washington D.C. with two circus performers, Merrill and Russell. He was playing violin for them in a show. Afterward, they all went drinking. The last thing he remembers is feeling unwell and going to bed.

Suddenly, a key scrapes in the lock and the door creaks open. A scrawny, mean-looking jailer walks in, a sly smile on his face.

He sneers, “rise and shine, slave.”

Solomon holds up his manacled wrists. He informs the jailer there’s been some mistake. He is a free man. And this is an outrageous insult, he demands to be released. The jailer just smirks and says, "if you’re a free man, show me your papers.”

Solomon pats himself down, but he doesn’t have his papers. He assures the jailer that he’s telling the truth and that the two circus performers – Merrill and Russell – will vouch for him.

The jailer shakes his head and says, “you’re nothing but a slave.” And before Solomon can protest anymore, the jailer produces a wooden paddle.

Beaten until his flesh is torn and bloody, Solomon will be transported south, to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. Incidents of kidnapping such as this are a shockingly common occurrence in the years before the American Civil War, when the expansion of cotton cultivation in the Deep South led to a higher demand for slaves. 

But Solomon Northup’s story will end differently than most. He will remain a slave for twelve years, enduring unspeakable cruelty at the hands of plantation owners. But then – on January 4, 1853 – Solomon will regain his freedom, return to his family, and spend the rest of his life fighting to save others from the same injustice.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 4th: Solomon Northup Regains his Freedom.

Act One: Solomon is Kidnapped

It's March 1841, a few days before Solomon is kidnapped.

Solomon walks through Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. It's a bright sunny day. Plenty of others are out walking this fine morning too, and they smile and wish Soloman a good day as he strolls by. Soloman is a well-liked and well-respected member of this community.

He knows just about everyone, except for the two men now approaching him. But there's something reassuring about their smiling faces. Solomon listens politely as they make his acquaintance.

Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill tell him that they are members of a touring circus company, and they are looking for a talented fiddler to play a couple of shows with them in New York City. They have heard from townfolk that Solomon is the man for the job.

Solomon is uncertain at first. His wife, Anne, is currently out of town on work, and Solomon doesn't want to travel to New York City without telling her.

But Russell and Merrill are quite persistent. They offer him a generous fee too, one Solomon can't afford to turn down.

Overall, Solomon and Anne do well in Saratoga Springs. Solomon often plays violin at the town's grand hotels. Before that, he helped construct canals and railroads in upstate New York. And as a result, the Northups are able to dress themselves and their three children in fine clothes. But they are by no means rich, and raising children is expensive. So Solomon says yes to the job. Russell and Merrill assure Soloman that the trip will only take a few days. He will be back in Saratoga Springs long before Anne gets back in town.

Before departing for New York, Solomon obtains a copy of his "free papers", documents that prove his status as a free man. And with these in hand, he joins Russell and Merrill in their horse-drawn wagon, and the trio rattle their way south.

The performance is a success. And afterward, Russell and Merrill ask Solomon if he would be interested in playing one more show in Washington D.C. Again, Solomon hesitates. New York City is one thing, but in Washington, slavery is legal. It's a dangerous place to be for a free Black man. But Russell and Merrill cajole him and offer him even more money. Eventually, Solomon agrees.

They travel south to Washington, where they perform their final show. Afterward, to celebrate, Russell and Merrill take Solomon to a restaurant, where the three men dine heartily and drink many toasts to their success.

Toward the end of the evening, Solomon starts to feel nauseous and drowsy. But it's not the alcohol making him feel this way. His drinks have been spiked with laudanum, a powerful sedative. And the last thing he remembers before blacking out, is Russell and Merrill helping him back to his hotel room.

The following morning, after regaining consciousness, Solomon wakes to find himself in a prison cell, his wrists in handcuffs and his ankles chained to the floor.

The jailer enters. But he is no ordinary jailer. He is a slave trader, named James H. Birch. Soon, Solomon discovers he’s been locked in the Williams Slave Pen, a notorious prison in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, which serves as a transition point for free men and women of color before they are illegally sold into slavery.

Solomon declares his identity, but Birch silences him by beating him repeatedly with a wooden paddle until it splinters over Solomon's back.

Solomon and several other victims of kidnapping will be held in the slave pen until they are transported south to Richmond, Virginia, a few days later. All the while, Solomon clings to the hope that Merrill and Russell – who he still believes to be decent men – will make inquiries into his whereabouts.

But in truth, Merrill and Russell are slave-catchers. They've handed Solomon over to Birch in exchange for cash. Now Solomon is without his free papers and he’s been forced into a brutal system that views his body as property and his life as worthless.

But in the face of unfathomable fear and desperation, Solomon clings to a glimmer of hope: the thought of one day seeing his family again, however unlikely the odds. In the end, this hope will save Solomon's life.

Act Two: Into Bondage

It’s March 1841, shortly after Solomon's kidnapping.

A steamboat chugs along the Mississippi River, its chimneys belching black smoke into the humid air. Idle deckhands stand around, chewing tobacco, leaning over the railings, and staring out across the broad brown river.

Below deck, the ship's human cargo have been crammed inside a dark and filthy cell. They are all African American – men, women, and children who were kidnapped from the north, where they lived in freedom. They’re now being transported south, to New Orleans, where they will be sold into slavery.

Among them, Solomon Northup sits in silence.

Another man sidles up to Solomon. He introduces himself as Robert, and he lets Soloman know he’s hatched a plan to get them off the ship. In hushed conspiratorial tones, Robert tells Solomon that there’s only a handful of slave traders on board. Between them, they could easily overpower their captors.

Solomon agrees, and – along with a third man – they spend the next few days plotting the takeover of the ship. Every so often, one of the slave traders will come down to the cell to fling them a few scraps of moldy bread.

Solomon and the others plan to seize their moment, grab the slaver before he locks the door, and to use the knife he carries to overpower the rest of the crew.

But before they can put their plan into motion, the instigator of the plot, Robert, becomes sick with a terrible fever. And in a matter of days, he dies from smallpox. Solomon is forced to dump his friend’s lifeless body overboard, and, as Robert's corpse sinks beneath the churning wake, the hope of escape is dashed.


A few days later, the steamboat arrives in New Orleans.

Solomon and the rest are transported to an auction house by Birch's partner, the ironically named, Theophilus Freeman. There, Freeman forces the slaves to stand on wooden podiums as potential buyers judge their physical attributes, treating them like cattle.

The slave dealers have named Solomon "Platt Hamilton" to throw anyone who might be looking for him off the trail. So it's under that name that Solomon is sold to a Baptist preacher and landowner named William Ford.

Ford's farm is in northern Louisiana. In his memoir – which he will write in 1853, after regaining his freedom – Solomon describes Ford as "a kind and noble man... but blinded to the inherent wrong of slavery by the influences and associations that surrounded him."

When it becomes clear that Solomon is an educated man, with a sharp mind as well as musical talent, Ford treats him with respect. But Solomon is afraid of revealing his true identity to Ford. However fair-minded Ford might seem, he is still a slave-owner, and he views Solomon as property.

But then, in the winter of 1842, hard times befall Ford's farm. Ford is forced to sell Solomon to John M. Tibaut, a carpenter working for Ford. But Tibaut is unable to pay the full amount for Solomon, so Ford retains a mortgage for $400. Tibaut is not at all like Ford. He's a cruel and vindictive man, who whips Solomon for the slightest perceived offenses.

One day, while Solomon is working on the mill, Tibaut rebukes him for some made-up indiscretion. But when Tibaut tries to lash Solomon, Solomon resists. He wrestles the whip from Tibaut's hands and beats him instead.

Seething with rage, his skin burning from Solomon's lashes, Tibaut vows revenge. He recruits two other men, and together they drag Solomon to a tree and tie a noose around his neck.

But just as Solomon is about to be lynched, the plantation's overseer, Mr. Chapin, comes galloping to his aid. With his rifle raised, Chapin reminds Tibaut of his debt to Ford, and tells him not to lay a hand on Solomon. Tibaut is furious, but he can't argue with the muzzle of a rifle, or the remainder of his mortgage, so he scampers off.

Shortly after this incident, Tibaut sells Solomon to another plantation owner, a man named Edwin Epps.

Epps runs a small cotton plantation in the Red River region of eastern Louisiana, a marshy landscape of meandering bayous and moss-draped cypress trees.

Epps is a drunken brute who treats his slaves horrendously – handing out savage lashings whenever the mood strikes him, or if he deems the day's cotton yield to be unsatisfactory.

During his time under Epps' dominion, Solomon is subjected to dehumanizing treatment on a daily basis. It's a testament to Soloman’s incredible strength of character that he manages to keep himself from falling into complete despair.

But with each passing year, Solomon's resilience is put to the test. Until finally, after ten years on Epps’ plantation, Solomon will be presented with an opportunity to reclaim his freedom.

Act Three: Freedom Regained

It's 1852, twelve years after Solomon was sold into slavery.

An itinerant Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass is doing some work on Epps' plantation. Bass is an outspoken abolitionist. And upon learning this, Solomon decides to divulge to Bass his true identity.

He tells him everything: his real name is Solomon Northup. He is a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, and he was kidnapped and sold into slavery twelve years ago. When Solomon finishes speaking, Bass is visibly moved.

Solomon glances around to ensure Epps isn't within earshot. Then, with desperation flooding his voice, he asks Bass to ride into town and deliver letters, outlining his situation and whereabouts, to friends and contacts back in Saratoga Springs.

Bass considers what's being asked of him. Following the Fugitive Slaves Act of 1850, helping slaves escape is a federal crime. He will be risking a lot by agreeing to help Solomon; but in spite of all this, Bass agrees.

He writes several letters to Solomon's friends in Saratoga Springs, who forward the message to Solomon's wife, Anne. Anne contacts Henry B. Northup, the son of Solomon's father's former master, and a lawyer of considerable standing in New York.

It takes a few months for Henry to gather documents and sworn affidavits confirming Solomon's identity and free status. But once he has them, Henry Northup travels south to Louisiana, and enlists the help of the local sheriff, and – on January 4, 1853 – rides up to Epps' plantation.

Solomon is working the cotton fields when the sound of carriage wheels makes him look up. He doesn't recognize Henry Northup at first. But slowly, the realization dawns on him. He runs from the field and the two men embrace. Epps is apoplectic with rage when Henry shows him Solomon's free papers. But for once, Epps' fury cannot harm Solomon, who climbs up onto the carriage and leaves the plantation – and the hell of slavery – behind him.


Solomon Northup will be reunited with his family and live out the rest of his life as a free man. In 1853, he will write a memoir about his experience, called Twelve Years a Slave. In the years since, it has been read by millions, and adapted for television and film, helping to ensure that Solomon's experience – and the experience of countless others – will never be forgotten.


Next on History Daily. January 5th, 1939. The aviator Amelia Earhart is declared dead after disappearing in a presumed plane crash.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.