The Branded Hand of Captain Jonathan Walker by Southworth and Hawes, 1845 

Jonathan Walker gained international fame in November 1844 when convicted by a Florida jury of “aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others.”  Walker was known in Pensacola for his unusual determination to treat the slaves and free blacks around him with respect. In June, he embarked on a more radical path, consenting to the request of seven enslaved men to sail them to freedom in the Bahamas. Unfortunately his small boat was discovered after fourteen days at sea by a passing American sloop suspicious of seven blacks sailing with one white man in a cramped boat. Walker was immediately arrested…

Abolitionists hailed Walker as a hero…but even for northerners less committed to the abolitionist struggle, Walker’s story was deemed remarkable for the cruelty of the punishment he endured. A Florida judge sentenced Walker “to be placed in the pillory for one hour; then brought into court, and branded in the right hand with the letters SS…which stood for “slave stealer,” intended as a punishment…and as a warning to like-minded whites not to act on their political convictions.

For several years after his release Walker was a sought-after speaker on the abolitionist lecture circuit who frequently shared the stage with former slaves…Sometime in 1845, he agreed to the request of a prominent Boston physician, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, to have a commemorative daguerreotype taken of his hand in the fashionable Boston studio of Southworth & Hawes…It became one of the best-known symbols of the American abolitionist movement. An engraving was printed in newspaper accounts of Walker’s ordeal, abolitionist pamphlets, Walker’s bestselling autobiography, and even carved into the imposing funerary obelisk erected to mark his grave upon his death in 1878.

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