12 Years a Slave: Trek From Slave to Screen

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Long before Solomon Northup’s ordeal hit screens, he wrote about it.

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Spoiler alert: This section of the column—and only this section—contains some information also covered in the film.

Solomon Northup spent his first 33 years as a free man in upstate New York. He was born in the Adirondack town of Schroon (later Minerva) July 10, 1807 (his memoir says 1808, but the evidence suggests otherwise). As a child, he learned to read and write while assisting his father Mintus, a former slave who eventually bought enough farm land in Fort Edward to qualify for the vote (a right that in many states, during the early days of the Republic, was reserved for landowners). Solomon's mother, Susannah, was a "quadroon," who may have been born free herself. Solomon's "ruling passion," he said, was "playing on the violin."

Married at 21, Northup and his wife Anne Hampton (the daughter of a free black man who was also part white and Native American) had three children: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo. In 1834, they settled in Saratoga Springs, where Solomon toiled at various seasonal jobs, including rafting, woodcutting, railroad construction, canal maintenance and repairs, farming and, in resort season, staffing area hotels (for a time, he and his wife both lived and worked at the United States Hotel). His "ruling passion," the violin, also became a way of earning money, and his reputation grew.

In March 1841, Northup was lured from his home by two white men, using the aliases Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, who claimed to be members of a Washington, D.C.-based circus in need of musicians for their sightseeing tour. While in New York City, Brown and Hamilton convinced Northup to journey further South with them, and arriving in Washington, D.C., on April 6, 1841, the trio lodged at Gadsby's Hotel. The next day, the two men got Northup so drunk (he implied they drugged him) that, in the middle of the night, he was roused from his room by several men urging him to follow them to a doctor. Instead, when Northup came to, he found himself "in chains," he said, at Williams' Slave Pen with his money and free papers nowhere to be found. Attempting to plead his case to the notorious slave trader James H. Birch (also spelled "Burch"), Northup was beaten and told he was really a runaway slave from Georgia. The price Birch paid Brown and Hamilton for their catch: $250.

Shipped by Birch on the Orleans under the name "Plat Hamilton" (also spelled "Platt"), Northup arrived in New Orleans on May 24, 1841, and after a bout of smallpox, was sold by Birch's associate, Theophilus Freeman, for $900. Northup was to spend his 12 years in slavery (actually it was 11 years, 8 months and 26 days) in Louisiana's Bayou Boeuf region. He had three principal owners: the paternal planter William Prince Ford (1841-1842), the belligerent carpenter John Tibaut (also spelled "Tibeats") (1842-1843) and the former overseer-turned-small cotton planter Edwin Epps (1843-1853).

Ford gave Northup the widest latitude, working at his mills. Twice Northup and Tibaut came to blows over work, the second time Northup coming so close to choking Tibaut to death (Tibaut had come at him with an ax) that Northup fled into the Great Cocodrie Swamp. Though prone to drink, Edwin Epps was brutally efficient with the lash whenever Northup was late getting to the fields, inexact in his work (Northup had many skills; picking cotton wasn't one of them), unwilling to whip the other slaves as Epps' driver or too high on his own talents as a fiddler after Epps purchased him a violin to placate his wife, Mary Epps.

In 1852, Epps hired a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass to work on his house. An opponent of slavery, Bass agreed to help Northup by mailing three letters on his behalf to various contacts in New York. Upon receiving theirs, the Saratoga shopkeepers William Perry and Cephas Parker notified Solomon's wife and attorney Henry Bliss Northup, a relative of Solomon's father's former master. With bipartisan support, including a petition and six affidavits, Henry Northup successfully petitioned New York Gov. Washington Hunt to appoint him an agent of rescue. On Jan. 3, 1853, Henry Northup arrived at Epps' plantation with the sheriff of Avoyelles Parish, La. There was no need for questioning. A local attorney, John Pamplin Waddill, had connected Henry Northup to Bass, and Bass had led him to the slave "Platt." The proof was in their embrace.

Traveling home, Henry and Solomon Northup stopped in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 1853, to have the slave trader James Birch arrested on kidnapping charges, but because Solomon had no right to testify against a white man, Birch went free. Solomon Northup was reunited with his family in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Jan. 21, 1853.

Over the next three months, he and his white editor, David Wilson, an attorney from Whitehall, N.Y., wrote Northup's memoir, 12 Years a Slave. It was published July 15, 1853, and sold 17,000 copies in the first four months (almost 30,000 by January 1855). "While abolitionist journals had previously warned of slavery's dangers to free African-American citizens and published brief accounts of kidnappings, Northup's narrative was the first to document such a case in book-length detail," Brad S. Born writes in The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. With its emphasis on authenticity, 12 Years a Slave gave contemporary readers an up-close account of slavery in the South, including the violent tactics owners and overseers used to force slaves to work, and the sexual advances and jealous cruelties slave women faced from their masters and masters' wives.

Since then, it has been "authentic[ated]" by "[a] number of scholars [who] have investigated judicial proceedings, manuscript census returns, diaries and letters of whites, local records, newspapers and city directories," wrote the ultimate authority on the authenticity of the slave narratives, the late Yale historian John W. Blassingame, in his definitive 1975 essay, "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems," in the Journal of Southern History.