black talk, 1825

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jul 2 13:41:44 UTC 2009

I submit this to those interested, and for what it's worth.

        When the newspapers of the 1820s & 1830s reported the direct speech of a black person, they usually distorted it grotesquely, from incompetence at rendering dialect and a desire to be funny, so that it's impossible to sort out the actual from the embellishments.
        Here we have the courtroom reporter of the New-York American giving us a specimen.  He hasn't tried to represent the speaker's pronunciation, but seems to be giving her speech otherwise.  I note the fact that he shows her saying "telled" where "told" would be standard, as well as her use of flourishes like "but Lord bless you" and surmise that they show that he was trying to write down what he heard.
        If so, what is remarkable about her way of speaking is that there was very little remarkable about it.

        The setting of this episode is the trial of a woman, an inmate of the city poor house (the "Alms House") for beating and kicking her 18 month old baby to death.  Another inmate witnessed the killing.  Susan Lewis lived in a different ward of the house -- I know it was segregated by gender, and undoubtedly it was segregated by race, also.

        [Susan Lewis, also an inmate, testified:]  I saw the mother sitting on the hearth about to feed the child; the child seemed over anxious to get it, and she d----d it, and swore she'd kill it if it did'nt be still.  . . . the child was really the crossest child I ever saw, and the mother was not fit to take care of it.  The fact is, she was most barbarously used there.  She came there gentlemen, her breasts were burnt clear to the ribs, and they tell'd she [sic] that she went three days without dressing; the nurse would'nt dress it for her.  I telled them to send her to me and I would dress it for her.  I had the care of the child, and it was the crossest little thing I ever saw.  I've had children and grand children, but I never saw so ugly a child before.
        The recorder [i. e., the judge] here wished to know of Mrs. Lewis whether Mr. Burtus knew of the prisoner's ill-treatment.
        Witness.  No, gentlemen, I blamed them for not telling him.  Mr. Burtus is as kind as a man can be; he gives them every thing they want, but Lord bless you, he can't be everywhere.  O no, he knew nothing about it.
        The witness delivered her testimony with such sincerity and simplicity, as left no room for doubt.  She was a venerable coloured woman, about 60 years of age, and herself labouring under infirmity, well knew how to pity the sufferings of others.
        ***  [not guilty]
        N-Y American, August 3, 1825, p. 2, col. 4

        The warm sympathy the reporter shows this "venerable coloured woman" isn't unparalleled in the newspapers of the time, but it is pretty damned unusual, and refreshing to come upon.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

The American Dialect Society -

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