Twelve Years a Slave, The Book: Dramatizations, Illustrations, & Editions

Have you already picked your favorites for the Oscars this Sunday? Here in Worcester, American Hustle is a popular choice since scenes from it were shot on Worcester streets and in the Worcester Art Museum. Captain Phillips even shot a few scenes at the Worcester Airport (yes, there is a Worcester airport!). Here at the American Antiquarian Society, though, we probably have the closest connection to the film 12 Years a Slave, given its grounding in American history and publishing as described in an earlier post.

In a time before multiplexes and Netflix, the arenas for information and entertainment in the nineteenth century included books, illustrations, lectures, newspapers and periodicals, music and theatrical productions. Solomon Northup’s experience as a free black man sold into slavery was reproduced in all these forms during his lifetime, and often under his direction. Before turning to the book form, let’s investigate some of the other ways Northup’s experience was conveyed.


Worcester playbill [AAS catalog record]
Fitchburg playbill [AAS catalog record]
The recent Academy Award-nominated movie is not the first time Solomon Northup’s story was dramatized. For years after the book’s initial publication in 1853, Northup appeared on the anti-slavery lecture circuit. Perhaps most fascinating, Northup himself apparently wrote/produced the play “The Free Slave” based on his experience. The American Antiquarian Society has two playbills for “The Free Slave” as performed in Massachusetts towns: one from when it was performed in Worcester in October 1855 and another from Fitchburg. The date for the Fitchburg performance is not listed, but the cast is essentially the same, which would seem to indicate they were relatively contemporaneous. Interestingly, the content of the acts has shifted somewhat (click on the images to enlarge and compare for yourself).

Not only was No199111_0007rthup’s story available for a 19th century audience to watch and hear in dramatic form, they could even participate themselves, in some small part. At the end of the book Twelve Years a Slave is the tune to “Roaring River: a Refrain of the Red River Plantation,” appropriate since Northup was a renowned fiddler. Including the tune in his book invited his nineteenth-century readers into a more active form of participatory engagement. And it still does today: just see the YouTube video embedded below for an example of a recent movie-goer who was inspired to read the book and then couldn’t resist performing the tune at the end of Twelve Years a Slave.

Or for a more scholarly response, check out Mary Caton Lingold’s blog post, Fiddling to Freedom: Solomon Northup’s Musical Trade in 12 Years a Slave (bonus: she also has great audio recordings!).


Closeup of frontispiece titled “Solomon Northup in His Plantation Suit”

When preparing for his role playing Solomon Northup in the recent film, Academy Award-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor described being particularly moved by the frontispiece illustration of Northup:  “The look on his face is kind of strange, almost relaxed kind of way.” (CBS Sunday Morning, February 2, 2014) While it is uncertain how much control Solomon Northup would have had over his representation in visual form, what we do know for certain is who produced the images. The illustrations were drawn by Frederick M. Coffin and then produced as wood engravings by Nathaniel Orr. Both were in upstate New York and had worked with Northup’s publishers Derby, Miller & Co., illustrating other books.

Coffin’s signature appears on the left, Orr’s on the right

Frederick M. Coffin was a born on Nantucket in 1822 before moving with his parents to Auburn, NY in the 1840s. He moved between there and Buffalo and became closely associated with the publishers of Northup’s narrative, Derby, Miller & Co., after 1850, where he is described as spending “three subsequent years in designing and drawing on wood for the publishers.” He also drew for Harper’s Weekly. (History of Cayuga County, New York, 1879, p. 68)

Nathaniel Orr was also born in 1822 and became an engraver much in demand, working in Albany and later New York City. His firm, which eventually included his brother and his son also, cut steel and wood plates, usually from work of other artists. He retired in 1888 “with the reputation of having brought the art of wood engraving to the highest perfection, and the signature ‘Orr,’ cut in the block was always a sure guarantee of art excellence.” (National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 1901, p. 426)

One feature of the illustrations in Northup’s account is that they all refer to specific significant moments in the text rather than iconographic moments used to illustrate slavery generally. A contrasting example can be found in the illustrations titled “Life as a Slave” or “Life as a Freeman” that appeared in the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage, My Freedom (also done by Nathaniel Orr, and published in 1855 by the same firm that was publishing Northup’s narrative).

The illustrations in Twelve199111_0003 Years a Slave were specific to Northup’s narrative, but they also drew on a larger visual vocabulary of slavery and antislavery images — an area many scholars come to AAS to study. This visual vocabulary could be utiilized by publishers to help market and sell the book. As a possible example, one of the seven illustrations in Twelve Years a Slave, “Separation of Eliza and her last child,” is particularly reminiscent of similar illustrations in the international bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Eliza crossing the river in that story, reinforcing the connection between the two books. “Separation of Eliza and her last child” had not been listed among the illustrations in early advertisements while the book was in press. This last minute addition was perhaps meant to capitalize on the recognition a slave mother named Eliza being separated from her child would undoubtedly spark in the minds of a reading public who just the year before made Uncle Tom’s Cabin so popular.

Think about a world with no TV or movies, where even still photography is a newfangled invention, and you begin to realize the power book illustrations had to their 1850s audience. An example of the power of slavery images in particular comes from the end of Northup’s own narrative. Reunited with his family, they discuss what the past twelve years without him had been like and his wife, Anne, recounts how one day the children returned from school “weeping bitterly” because:

While studying geography, their attention had been attracted to the picture of slaves working in the cotton-field, and an overseer following them with his whip. It reminded them of the sufferings their father might be, and, as it happened, actually was, enduring in the South. (p. 321)

With this last anecdote in his book, Northup emphasizes the power of pictures comes from the realities lying behind them, a lesson that could be extended perhaps to the illustrations in his own book (see directly below) which depict the most dramatic and horrific moments in his narrative.



Publishing History

Things moved quickly after Solomon Northup was reunited with his family on Jan. 23, 1853. Within three months, Northup had produced the text of his narrative with the help of his editor, David Wilson, and in less than six months the book was available for sale. Twelve Years a Slave was advertised as “Now in press” between April 15 and July 2. By August 1, 1853, it was described as “Just published.” Such a tight turn around was certainly helped by the fact that the entire production crew for the original 1853 publication of Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave — the illustrator, engraver, publisher, editor, and author — all lived and worked basically along a straight line from Buffalo to Auburn to Albany (and Glen Falls, just north of Albany).

Early ads for the book in these first few months claimed “A large portion of the net price secured to Solomon,” but this promise was dropped from later ads. Northup did receive $3,000 for the copyright of his book, which he used to buy land in Glen Falls next to his now married daughter. Over the next few years, he also received some compensation from the lectures he gave at anti-slavery events, but his attempts to capitalize on his story as a play ultimately proved to be financially unsuccessful.

This despite the fact that his book was quite successful, at least according to the publishers. By way of contrast, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was published in 1845, and within four months it sold 5,000 copies. Twelve Years a Slave sold 5,000 copies within weeks of the initial printing. Similarly, while it took 15 years to sell almost 30,000 copies of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Twelve Years a Slave was printing its 25,000th copy in the first year and had reached almost 30,000 copies printed in four years time. (Frederick Douglass sales reported in “The Autobiographies of Frederick Douglass” in Phylon by James Matlack, March 1979).


Early Editions, 1850s 

The original edition of Twelve Years a Slave, published by Derby & Miller in 1853, was reprinted from stereotyped plates by their successor publishing company Miller, Orton & Mulligan from 1854-1857 and their successor C.M. Saxon in 1859, with a self-reported 30,000 copies printed in all printed in the 1850s.

[Copies not held at AAS are in brackets; those at AAS have links to their catalog records.]

1853 (July)    First edition, first printing includes Auburn, Buffalo, and Cincinnati

Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. Auburn [NY]: Derby and Miller; Buffalo: Derby, Orton and Mulligan; Cincinnati: Henry W. Derby, 1853. [AAS catalog record]

1853  Later printings drop Cincinnati but add London’s Sampson Low, Son & Co.

Auburn [NY]: Derby and Miller; Buffalo: Derby, Orton and Mulligan; London: Sampson Low, Son & Company, 1853.  (“Entered at London in Stationer’s Hall” added to copyright statement on verso of title page.)

– [Fifth thousand; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill copy digitized in Documenting the American South]

– Eighth thousand; [AAS catalog record]

– Thirteenth thousand; [AAS catalog record]

[1853     London: Sampson Low, Son. & Co.; Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853 (no copyright statement); Johns Hopkins University copy digitized in Internet Archive]

1854       Publisher name changes when Derby leaves, firm now Miller, Orton & Mulligan

Twenty-fifth thousand. Auburn & Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan; London: Sampson Low, Son & Company, 1854. [AAS catalog record]

[1855    Twenty-eighth thousand; New York Public Library copy digitized in Google Books]

[1856    Twenty-ninth thousand; University of Toronto copy digitized in Internet Archive]

[1859    New York: C.M. Saxton, 25 Park Row; Library of Congress copy digitized in Internet Archive]


Disappearance #1, 1860s-1870s

Solomon Northup himself had disappeared at this point, and so did his story. The book doesn’t appear to have been printed or advertised at all during the 1860s and 1870s. During these decades, the Civil War and Reconstruction evaporated the market for antislavery publications.


Later Editions, 1880s-1890s

The copyright period of 28 years had lapsed in 1881, which may explain the timing of this small trickle of late-nineteenth century editions. A new publisher’s preface in these later editions also attempts to distance their present-day from slavery in the past. Differences in subtitles between the first editions and these later ones also reflect the changed cultural climate. Rather than a factual narrative of an individual citizen who is given a name, the story is framed in sensational and racial terms and the unnamed “colored man” is described as “reclaimed” like property rather than rescued as a person. Solomon Northup’s full name is not even included on the title page.

Wording in the first edition:        Wording in this later edition:

Narrative                                        thrilling story

Solomon Northup                         [later on title page: “S. Northup”]

a citizen of New-York                    a free colored man

rescued                                            reclaimed by state authority


1881 New subtitle, preface, and publisher. Printed from same stereotyped plates, degraded, no illustrations.

Twelve Years a Slave: the thrilling story of a free colored man, kidnapped in Washington in 1841, sold into slavery, and after a twelve years’ bondage, reclaimed by state authority from a cotton plantation in Louisiana. By S. Northup. Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company, [undated but advertised in Publishers Weekly, Sep. 12, 1881] [AAS catalog record]

1891-2  Another new publisher. Same stereotyped plates, further degraded, no illustrations.

New York: International Book Co., 17 & 19 Waverley Place [undated but moved to this address in 1891 and had moved to Worth Street by Jan. 1893] No AAS catalog record yet, as we just found this title on eBay!

1880s-1890s     Uncertain or unexamined later editions with new publishers/titles:  

[Philadelphia, PA : Keystone Pub., 1880s-1890s?]

[Dallas, Tex.: Talty & Wiley, 1890]

[Solomon Northup. A freeman in bondage or twelve years a slave. (Companion story to “Uncle Tom’s cabin.”) A true tale of slavery days. Columbian library, no. 6. Philadelphia, Columbian Pub. Co. 1890.] Advertised in Publisher’s Weekly Aug. 16, 1890 for 25 cents.]


Disappearance #2, 1900-1968

Northup’s narrative then disappears entirely for a second time. It wasn’t until generations later that Northup’s story was revived in an era of Civil Rights protest, black power politics, and efforts to recover African American history and literature, when a 1968 scholarly edition was published  (and vindicated for its historical accuracy). Since that time, Twelve Years a Slave has remained in print, although largely in the domain of academics, college classrooms, and PBS (see their 1980s film Solomon Northup’s Odyssey).



Which brings us up to the present, when Solomon Northup’s story has once again come to prominence during a period of historic change along racial lines in the United States. First it was the decade of the Fugitive Slave Law and lead up to the Civil War, then the tensions following Reconstruction, then the Civil Rights movement, and now his story is once again at the fore of popular culture during the historic term of the first black president of the U.S. (who just yesterday unveiled his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative designed to focus attention on issues facing young black men).

Hopefully taking this journey along the winding path Solomon Northup’s story has wended it way through more than a century and a half of American history will add historical drama to your Oscar party this weekend. But even after all the hype of the Hollywood machinery dies down, it’s worth considering if the actor portraying Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor, wasn’t exactly right when he said:

“The look on his face is kind of strange, almost relaxed kind of way,” Ejiofor said. “To come out of that experience, and to write about it with such kind of gentility and poetry and absolute grace was something that really stunned me, and I realized that this was a person who had something to teach.” (CBS Sunday Morning, February 2, 2014)

Is there something more his story has to say to us today?


P.S.: For the next couple weeks, you can still see a display of original items related to Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years a Slave on display in the AAS reading room in person during our regularly scheduled free public tours of the building every Wednesday at 3pm.


Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

6 thoughts on “Twelve Years a Slave, The Book: Dramatizations, Illustrations, & Editions”

  1. Dear Madam,

    I have read your excellent commentary regarding 12 years a slave and would like to find out what the procedure is for citing or quoting various elements of this commentary… With regards


    1. Glad you find it helpful! Please feel free to use the information presented here, citing the blog post as you would any other online source.

  2. Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for including my YouTube posting of “Roaring River” in your article.

    Paul Draper

  3. Thanks for putting your performance up online, Paul! That multi-media element really adds to the experience of Northup’s narrative.

  4. What a movie this is. I’ve watched this movie more a couple of times and there’s no one time that I have’nt become sensitive after watching it. great wall

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