In 1863, the New York-based Harper’s Weekly newspaper published a special Fourth of July edition. Inside was an image known as the “scourged back” – an illustration of an escaped slave, identified in the Harper’s Weekly article as “Gordon” but also commonly called “Whipped Peter”. The man, with his back to the camera, showed a mass of sickening scars – the result, according to the article, of a severe whipping on the previous Christmas Day.
The illustration was based on a real photograph, which was widely circulated at what proved a critical moment in the American Civil War. The man in the photograph is now the basis for the new Will Smith film, Emancipation, in which Smith plays the escaped slave, Peter. Smith has resisted similar roles before. He declined the lead in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The scourged back photo, however, represents a hugely significant story.
“The photo is important because it depicts the horror of slavery in a very visceral way,” says David Silkenat, an American history lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. “It demonstrated quite clearly that slavery was brutal as the abolitionists said it was.”
More than 150 years on, the image of the scourged back remains immensely powerful – a defining, ubiquitous, frightening image from US slavery.
“If you go back to the 19th Century, you cannot escape that image,” says Mary Niall Mitchell, a history professor at the University of New Orleans. One of Mitchell’s research interests is imagery from slavery and emancipation, and how these images are used and circulated online today.
The scourged back image has become a “thumbnail for slavery”, says Mitchell. “But when the image comes into play, it raises these ethical issues that are hard to sort out, because the image itself has such a powerful presence.”
Indeed, the image of Gordon/Whipped Peter remains so powerful that the producer of Emancipation, Joey McFarland, caused some controversy when he brought the photo, a copy from 1863, to the US premiere last week and showed it on the red carpet. McFarland has since issued an apology on Instagram.
“My intent was to honor this remarkable man and to remind the general public that his image not only brought about change in 1863 but still resonates and promotes change today,” wrote McFarland. He explained that during research for Emancipation he had discovered various photographs of “overlooked and historically important individuals whose stories also needed to be told”. His plan is to donate the photographs to appropriate institutions.
The original Harper’s Weekly article – penned by an anonymous writer – was titled “A Typical Negro”. It told Gordon’s story: he escaped from his master in Mississippi, and raced for days and nights through swamps and bayous, pursued by his master, their neighbours, and a pack of bloodhounds. Emerging from creeks and swamps, he threw the bloodhounds off the scent by rubbing his body with onions taken from the plantation. Gordon displayed “unusual intelligence and energy,” according to the article. He arrived at Baton Rogue with his clothes torn, covered in mud and dirt.
It also described how he acted as a guide for Union troops in Louisiana, but was captured and beaten by Confederates. Gordon escaped once again and made it to Union lines at Baton Rogue, Louisiana. The photograph, which was credited to McPherson and Oliver, was apparently taken as part of a surgical examination, which Gordon underwent before enlisting into the Union army.
The scourged back image was in fact the centrepiece of a triptych – one of three illustrations included in the Harper’s Weekly article. It was flanked by two smaller images: to the left, a picture of escaped Gordon in rags (“Gordon as he entered our lines,” read the caption); and, to the right, a picture of Gordon after he’d enlisted (“Gordon in his uniform as a US soldier”).
The Harper’s Weekly article has been generally accepted as a true account of Gordon/Peter’s life. Emancipation follows the story to a degree, but fills in the blanks own version of the journey. Actually, very little is known about the man in the photograph. In a 2014 essay, Silkenat argued that the Harper’s Weekly article was largely fabricated – more a composite of escaped slave stories. The real man – even his true name – remains very much a mystery.
“There are a few things we can say with certainty,” says Silkenat. “He fled to freedom in Louisiana. He was present when the Union was occupying Baton Rogue. And he had a photo taken. What’s unclear is why he had his photo taken, and his role in having the photo taken. Is this a choice he made? What did he think about all this? What did he get out of it? What happened to him afterwards? There are a lot of questions there.”
The scourged back image arrived at a crucial time in the middle of the American Civil War. Some Northerners were questioning whether the war could be won. “The photograph was taken at a time when the war was not going particularly well for the Union,” says Silkenat. “They had lost a couple of battles at the end of 1892 and early 1863, and things were not looking promising. Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which was not universally popular [the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in rebel states would be freed]. The photo comes at a particular low point.”
By the time the illustrated version was published in Harper’s Weekly, the photograph had been widely circulated as a carte-de-visite – a small, cardboard-mounted photo. The carte-de-visite was invented in Paris and became hugely popular in the US in the 1860s. They were described as “social currency” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a future Supreme Court justice. Fathers and sons would be photographed before the son headed off to war, wearing his new uniform, while young lovers kept carte-de-visite of each other on their person. Cheap to produce and easy to distribute by mail, the carte-de-visite was the first mass-market photography – the Twitter or Instagram of their day, perhaps. In modern terms, Gordon’s photograph went viral.
Between April and July 1863, the photograph was circulated in Louisiana, as well as northern states that included New York, Washington, and Boston. Copies would even be made in Britain. The first account of the photograph was published in the pro-abolitionist Independent on May 28 1863.
“This was an interesting moment in the history of photography,” says Silkenat. “It was a very new discipline.”
Photography from the Civil War itself shocked people. Though not the first war to be photographed, the American Civil War was extensively documented by photography. Photographer Mathew Brady and his associates captured over 10,000 photographs of battlefields, camps, towns, and people. A book on Civil War photography, published by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes how the camera had an “exceptionally diverse and complex role” in the war.
“There are lots of pictures of Civil War dead in 1861 and 1862,” says Silkenat. “Look at the pictures now and they don’t look like much of anything. It was just dead bodies on the ground. But for the people for whom this was a new medium, it was immensely visceral. Photography was held to be true in a way that we don’t consider it to be now. Words in the newspaper could be made up, but photography was seen as true and real. There are accounts of people who would go and see photography shows in New York and run out screaming. They would respond to image in a very powerful way.”
Abolitionists recognised the power of photography. Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist leader, had his photo taken often. “In part, because he recognised that having an image of a black man in a respectable suit portrayed a certain kind of gravitas,” says Silkenat.
Southern slaveholders claim that abolition would destroy the economy in the South, which relied on slave-manned agriculture. They also maintained that slavery was a banal institution. Stories of brutality, claimed the slaveholders, were invented by abolitionists. As Mary Niall Mitchell notes, there was an argument that “most slaveholders are good slaveholders”.
“This image, and the brutality embedded within it, demonstrated that that’s a lie,” says Silkenat. “One of the reasons the Union was fighting was to destroy this evil institution. It really demonstrated what was at stake.”
The publication in Harper’s Weekly coincided with major victories that very same week – at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg. “It’s an interesting moment,” says Silkenat. “What does it mean to read that article at this time, when the war is shifting?”
“Among people who were abolitionists or anti-slavery, this image was very important in terms of activism,” says Mitchell. “[It was] a picture that could move people – which was important in getting people invested in ending slavery in the middle of the Civil War.”
There was a reaction from the Copperheads – anti-Lincoln Democrats and Northerners, named after the poisonous snake that strikes without warning.
The Copperhead press questioned the picture of Gordon: who was he? What was the context of this photo? What crime must he have committed to deserve the whipping? The Copperhead press was – to use another modern equivalent – the Fox News of its day. The Copperhead response had an air of “fake news” about it.
A letter appeared in the New York Tribune in December 1963, decrying the Copperheads – the “Rebel organs of the North” – and claiming that the illustrations were from photos that the anonymous letter writer, who called himself “Bostonian”, had bought in Louisiana.
In Bostonian’s version, four slaves had escaped in Louisiana, not Mississippi as Harper’s claimed, and reached Baton Rouge. Two of the slaves were named Peter and Gordon. Emancipation draws on this version of the tale too, with characters named both Peter and Gordon.
It was Peter, claimed Bostonian, whose scarred back was photographed. Gordon, however, was the man dressed in rags. A copy of the photo held in the National Archives seems to support some aspects of the Bostonian letter, though Silkenat doesn’t think it’s entirely reliable, he agrees that the pictures in Harper’s Weekly are all different men – not all “Gordon”. The first photo, on which the “Gordon as he entered our lines” illustration was based, was auctioned in 2008. The military uniform photo has never surfaced.
There is some evidence to suggest that the scourged back was indeed taken as part of a medical examination. But Silkenat doubts it was taken by the photographers credited in Harper’s Weekly, McPherson and Oliver (about whom very little is known, too). Silkenat has identified three different versions of the scourged back photo, with Gordon/Peter positioned slightly differently each time. The most famous version seems to have been taken at a later date – possibly to capture a more dramatic shot. “I’m basing this mostly on supposition,” he says. “I think the first two were taken on the same day, and they realised they had something and invited him back another day. I’m basing that on his hairstyle changing slightly between the second and third photos.”
The illustrations of Gordon published in Harper’s Weekly also played into a popular “redemptive narrative” – from an escaped slave in rags to a solider in full military regalia. “Those kinds of images were very common in the Civil War era,” says Silkenat. “The idea is that emancipation has transformed this enslaved person into a free man.”
The role of former slaves in the Civil War was very real and critical. “They basically forced emancipation into being, there’s no question,” says Mitchell. “Enslaved people running away during the war forced Lincoln’s hand. Once his hand was forced, you have black soldiers enlisting in incredible numbers. Certainly, it turned the tide in terms of the fighting. It wouldn’t have happened the same way, if they hadn’t fled to Union lines and enlisted.”
One of the key questions around the photo remains: who wrote the accompanying story in Harper’s Weekly? Silkenat is “98 per cent sure” it was the pro-abolitionist artist, Vincent Colyer, who Silkenat believes both illustrated the pictures and wrote the article.
Colyer had published the rags and military uniform illustrations in another publication, in which he named the freed slave as Furney Bryant. Colyer also wrote other accounts of escaped slaves that were strikingly similar to the Gordon story in Harper’s Weekly.
Harper’s Weekly was the most widely read periodical of the era, with a circulation of 100,000-plus. Selling news was a competitive business. It wasn’t beyond the newspapers to publish some conjecture – images of events that its illustrators had not witnessed first-hand. But why would Colyer fabricate the story? Was it pure sensationalism?
“Based on what I know of Vincent Colyer, he was a dedicated abolitionist,” says Silkenat. “He believed very strongly in black military service, black education, and black equality. He spent much of the previous year in North Carolina and had been responsible for black refugee community there. I think he’s not only drawing upon the photograph but his own experiences and people that he knew. I don’t think he was doing it for sensationalist reasons. I think he saw his skill as an artist as a way of doing what he could for the war effort.
“I think what he’s trying to say is, this is emblematic of the experience for all enslaved people – this is not an aberration but an example of the violence embedded in that institution – a representative man. Its title is ‘A Typical Negro’ – it’s meant to be a representative story, not necessarily individual.”
Whatever the truth behind the photograph of Gordon, or Whipped Peter, there’s one indisputable fact: the image has lost none of its power. “I’ve spent lots of hours looking at it,” says Silkenat. “It’s still horrific to look at. The thing you get when you look at it for a while is the dignity on his face. Especially in the last of the photos – he’s holding his head up. There’s a dignity and bravery that I see.”
Emancipation is on Apple TV+ now