Punishment–39 lashes–and Twelve Years a Slave.1–The Flogging of the Slave Patsey.

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The Staking Out and Flogging of the Girl Patsey - from 1859 publication of Twelve Years a Slave

“…being found guilty thereof, before any justice of the peace, shall receive not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, by order of such justice, well laid on his or her bare back.”2

“A fairly normal punishment: 39 lashes across the back. Not life-threatening, but extremely painful.” “Once they were cleaned up, a slave would be back at work within a week, you know.”3

“These are men, women, and families who owned a few slaves throughout their lives,” says Stacey. “The recession would hit and they’d have to sell off a few of their slaves. How did they treat their slaves? I suspect it’s just as uneven as their richer counterparts, but we don’t know that. My sense is that they’re ranges of extreme. Either they were very benevolent or they were very, very sadistic.”4

In about 1843, a slave named Platt was sold to Edwin Epps, a cruel small slaveholder who drove his slaves hard and punished  his slaves frequently and indiscriminately.  Platt had been born free as Solomon Northup who, two years earlier, had been abducted and sold into slavery. Northup later writes, in Twelve Years a Slave, that the sounds of whipping were heard every day and describes the brutal flogging of a slave named Patsey:

It was no uncommon thing with him (Eppes) to prostrate Aunt Phebe with a chair or stick of wood; but the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror —was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey.

It has been seen that the jealousy and hatred of Mistress Epps made the daily life of her young and agile slave completely miserable. I am happy in the belief that on numerous occasions I was the means of averting punishment from the inoffensive girl. In Epps’ absence the mistress often ordered me to whip her without the remotest provocation. I would refuse, saying that I feared my master’s displeasure, and several times ventured to remonstrate with her against the treatment Patsey received. I endeavored to impress her with the truth that the latter was not responsible for the acts of which she complained, but that she being a slave, and subject entirely to her master’s will, he alone was answerable.

At length “the green-eyed monster” crept into the soul of Epps also, and then it was that he joined with his wrathful wife in an infernal jubilee over the girl’s miseries.

On a Sabbath day in hoeing time, not long ago, we were on the bayou bank, washing our clothes, as was our usual custom. Presently Patsey was missing. Epps called aloud, but there was no answer. No one had observed her leaving the yard, and it was a wonder with us whither she had gone. In the course of a couple of hours she was seen approaching from the direction of Shaw’s. This man, as has been intimated, was a notorious profligate, and withal not on the most friendly terms with Epps. Harriet, his black wife, knowing Patsey’s troubles, was kind to her, in consequence of which the latter was in the habit of going over to see her every opportunity. Her visits were prompted by friendship merely, but the suspicion gradually entered the brain of Epps, that another and a baser passion led her thither—that it was not Harriet she desired to meet, but rather the unblushing libertine, his neighbor. Patsey found her master in a fearful rage on her return. His violence so alarmed her that at first she attempted to evade direct answers to his questions, which only served to increase his suspicions. She finally, however, drew herself up proudly, and in a spirit of indignation boldly denied his charges.

“Missus don’t give me soap to wash with, as she does the rest,” said Patsey, “and you know why. I went over to Harriet’s to get a piece,” and saying this, she drew it forth from a pocket in her dress and exhibited it to him. “That’s what I went to Shaw’s for, Massa Epps,” continued she; “the Lord knows that was all.”

“You lie, you black wench!” shouted Epps.

“I don’t lie, massa. If you kill me, I’ll stick to that.”

“Oh! I’ll fetch you down. I’ll learn you to go to Shaw’s. I’ll take the starch out of ye,” he muttered fiercely through his shut teeth.

Then turning to me, he ordered four stakes to be driven into the ground, pointing with the toe of his boot to the places where he wanted them. When the stakes were driven down, he ordered her to be stripped of every article of dress. Ropes were then brought, and the naked girl was laid upon her face, her wrists and feet each tied firmly to a stake. Stepping to the piazza, he took down a heavy whip, and placing it in my hands, commanded me to lash her. Unpleasant as it was, I was compelled to obey him. Nowhere that day, on the face of the whole earth, I venture to say, was there such a demoniac exhibition witnessed as then ensued.

Mistress Epps stood on the piazza among her children, gazing on the scene with an air of heartless satisfaction. The slaves were huddled together at a little distance, their countenances indicating the sorrow of their hearts. Poor Patsey prayed piteously for mercy, but her prayers were vain. Epps ground his teeth, and stamped upon the ground, screaming at me, like a mad fiend, to strike harder.

“Strike harder, or your turn will come next, you scoundrel,” he yelled.

“Oh, mercy, massa! —oh! have mercy, do. Oh, God! pity me,” Patsey exclaimed continually, struggling fruitlessly, and the flesh quivering at every stroke.

When I had struck her as many as thirty times, I stopped, and turned round toward Epps, hoping he was satisfied; but with bitter oaths and threats, he ordered me to continue. I inflicted ten or fifteen blows more. By this time her back was covered with long welts, intersecting each other like net work. Epps was yet furious and savage as ever, demanding if she would like to go to Shaw’s again, and swearing he would flog her until she wished she was in h—l.

Throwing down the whip, I declared I could punish her no more. He ordered me to go on, threatening me with a severer flogging than she had received, in case of refusal. My heart revolted at the inhuman scene, and risking the consequences, I absolutely refused to raise the whip. He then seized it himself, and applied it with ten-fold greater force than I had. The painful cries and shrieks of the tortured Patsey, mingling with the loud and angry curses of Epps, loaded the air. She was terribly lacerated — I may say, without exaggeration, literally flayed. The lash was wet with blood, which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground. At length she ceased struggling. Her head sank listlessly on the ground. Her screams and supplications gradually decreased and died away into a low moan. She no longer writhed and shrank beneath the lash when it bit out small pieces of her flesh. I thought that she was dying.

It was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight —the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees —peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him. The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day. I could look on Epps only with unutterable loathing and abhorrence, and thought within myself—” Thou devil, sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin!”

Finally, he ceased whipping from mere exhaustion, and ordered Phebe to bring a bucket of salt and water. After washing her thoroughly with this, I was told to take her to her cabin. Untying the ropes, I raised her in my arms. She was unable to stand, and as her head rested on my shoulder, she repeated many times, in a faint voice scarcely perceptible, “Oh, Platt —oh, Platt!” but nothing further. Her dress was replaced, but it clung to her back, and was soon stiff with blood. We laid her on some boards in the hut, where she remained a long time, with eyes closed and groaning in agony. At night Phebe applied melted tallow to her wounds, and so far as we were able, all endeavored to assist and console her. Day after day she lay in her cabin upon her face, the sores preventing her resting in any other position.


  1. I started this researching for this post searching on the word punishment.  From there, since I am interested in the civil war and what led to it, I progressed to searching on slave punishment. In the 1840s statutes of the State of Mississippi, I repeatedly saw the penalty “shall receive not exceeding shall receive not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, by order of such justice, well laid on his or her bare back.thirty-nine lashes, by order of such justice, well laid on his or her bare back.”  A search on thirty-nine lashes led to an article on the movie Twelve Years a Slave and, ultimately, to the flogging of the slave Patsey.
  2. The Statutes of the State of Mississippi of a Public and General Nature, with the Constitutions of the United States and of this State; 1840
  3. 39 lashes was a normal punishment, The historic reality of 12 years a slave under expert scrutiny; March 5, 2014; by Esha Metiary. Leiden University Weekly Mare. http://www.mareonline.nl/archive/2014/03/05/39-lashes-was-a-normal-punishment (Accessed August 18, 2016.)
  4. “What’ll Become of Me?” Finding the Real Patsey of 12 Years a Slave; March 2, 2014 by Katie Calautti; Vanity Fair http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2014/03/patsey-12-years-a-slave (Accessed August 18, 2016.)
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