Harriet A. Jacobs

Harriet A. Jacobs (1823-1897) was a slave who decided she must run away in order to protect her children from harsh treatment by their owners.

Delilah Horniblow was a slave to Margaret Horniblow in the town of Edenton, North Carolina, just as Delilah's mother, Molly, had been for much of her life. In the early 1800s, slaves could not be officially married without the permission of their masters, so the marriage of Delilah to the carpenter Daniel Jacobs, a slave on a neighboring plantation owned by Dr. Andrew Knox, is not recorded. Nevertheless, Daniel and Delilah had two children together. In the autumn of 1813, Harriet Ann was born, followed two years later by John.

Harriet was just six years old when her mother died. There must have been no thought of sending her to live with her father; he was, after all, the property of another master. So Harriet went to live in the home of her late mother's (and therefore her own) master. Margaret Horniblow was a kind master—so kind that Harriet did not realize until her mother died that she herself had been born into slavery. For a few years, Harriet stayed with Horniblow, who taught her to sew, read, and spell.

Property of the Norcoms

In 1825, twelve-year-old Harriet's life took a turn for the worse. Margaret Horniblow died and left Harriet and her brother to her niece, Mary Norcom. Because Mary was a child and still lived at home, this essentially made Harriet the property of Mary's father, Dr. James Norcom. Harriet and her brother became house slaves for the doctor.

Grandmother Molly

Harriet's grandmother, Molly, was more fortunate. When her owner, Elizabeth Horniblow, died, Molly, along with her son Mark, was sold to Hannah Pritchard, an aunt of the Horniblows. Just four months later, Mrs. Pritchard gave Molly her freedom. In a short time, Jacobs's grandmother had earned enough from her cooking to buy the freedom of her son. Fortunately for Jacobs and her brother, the two free relatives moved into a house not far from that of the Norcoms. Jacobs could sometimes visit her grandmother, and the family remained in contact.

Unwanted advances

The Norcom house was not a pleasant one. Mrs. Norcom distrusted her husband, and for good reason. Dr. Norcom pursued other women, and soon began to make advances toward Jacobs. Suspicious, Mrs. Norcom took out her fears in threats and abuses on the innocent slaves. By the time Jacobs was sixteen, Norcom's advances and the abuse from his wife had become unbearable. Perhaps thinking that Norcom would leave her alone if she began having an affair with another man, Jacobs took up with one of the doctor's white neighbors, Samuel Sawyer, and became pregnant. When the suspicious Mrs. Norcom learned the news, she threatened Jacobs, prompting the doctor to send her off to live with her grandmother. It was there that Jacobs's son, Joseph, was born.

The Nat Turner affair

Jacobs and her son were living with Molly when the Nat Turner incident took place in Virginia in 1831. Turner and some other slaves had staged a rebellion in which white slave owners and their families were killed. More than fifty slaves joined the rampage. By the time white farmers could gather a militia to stop the uprising, the rebels had killed fifty-five whites.

The event alarmed the white southerners, who armed themselves and proceeded to terrorize blacks, free or slave. The news of the Nat Turner Rebellion reached Edenton early in 1832, just after white men had held their annual muster, a yearly show of the militia to demonstrate its strength. Now it was announced that a second muster would be held and men came into town from all over the territory. Poor whites who were hired to search for signs of rebellion among the blacks tore through black family homes looking for weapons or signs that the blacks might join Turner's Rebellion. A band broke into Molly's house, threatened Jacobs and the others, and tore up everything in the house in search of any sign that the residents should be punished.

For two weeks whites roved the streets and spread into the farmland outside the town. Blacks suspected of plotting to join the rebellion were whipped and otherwise tortured. A black minister was taken off to be shot after a few bits of gunshot were found in his house. Black men from the farmlands were bound and tied to the saddles of horsemen who forced them to run to the jail yard in town. Black homes and black churches were destroyed. Eventually, calmer whites restored peace and innocent blacks who had been held in prison were released. Black slaves were returned to their owners, and the black community began to recover.

"Breaking" Jacobs

In 1833, Jacobs was still carrying on an affair with Samuel Sawyer and her daughter Louisa was born. Soon after, Dr. Norcom again began making sexual demands on Jacobs. By 1835, the doctor had become so aggravated by her refusals that he sent her to be a slave on his nearby plantation. Forced to leave her son with her grandmother so that he could recover from an illness, Jacobs joined about fifty other slaves on the estate. Norcom planned to send her son to the plantation as soon as possible. In the meantime, however, Jacobs was to be punished for her failure to submit to his advances. Norcom's son, who was master at the new plantation, would "break her" and train her son and daughter to be slaves worthy of being sold. In Jacobs's words: "I heard Mr. [Norcom] say to a neighbor, "I've got her down here, and I'll soon take the town notions out of her head. My father is partly to blame for her nonsense. He ought to have broke her in long ago."

Plantation slavery

Jacobs was committed to making the best of the situation. Assigned the task of getting the house ready for young Mr. Norcom's new bride, she performed her assignments faithfully even when daughter Louisa had to remain unattended in the kitchen for long periods of time. Still, Jacobs worried about Louisa each time she saw a child of one of the slaves knocked out of the way or beaten for being too near the master. She worried also about her own well being when she saw that the mothers of these children had been so thoroughly whipped, physically and in spirit, that they raised no protest over the brutality to their children.

One day about noon, Louisa, who was feeling ill, disappeared from her place near a window of the room in which her mother was working. Jacobs went in search of the child and found her sound asleep in the cool space below the house, where earlier that day a large snake had been seen. The worried mother decided to send her child away for safe keeping. The next day, Louisa was put in a cart carrying shingles to town. She would remain with her great-grandmother until she was strong again. Norcom protested that he should have been asked for permission to do this, but he allowed Louisa to leave. At two years old, she was of no use to him.

The treatment of slaves

Jacobs was treated differently from most slaves on the plantation. During the first six weeks of her stay, as she prepared every room and every bit of furniture for the coming of the new Mrs. Norcom, she saw other slaves being treated much more harshly than she. In the fields, men, women, and children frequently were beaten for the slightest offense—beaten until, as Jacobs described it, pools of blood surrounded their feet. Because permanently scarred slaves brought lower prices on the trading block, brine, or salted water, often would be poured over the open flesh to make the wounds heal more rapidly.

Slave managers controlled every action on the plantation. On the Norcom plantation these overseers gave each male slave a weekly allotment of three pounds of meat, a peck (about eight quarts) of corn, and some herring. Women received half as much meat, and children over twelve and a half received half the allowance of the women.

Jacobs did not sleep in the huts arranged for the slaves, but rather, in the "great house." The young Mr. Norcom was beginning to have ideas like those of his father. Mrs. Norcom agreed to have Jacobs in the house but refused to allow her a bed. Instead, Jacobs had to sleep on the floor. She was willing to endure this treatment for the safety of her children. But when she learned that the owners were planning to bring her children back to the plantation to be "broken in" with the idea of selling them, Jacobs realized she had to take action. Her own children were being used to force her to submit to Norcom and his son. She felt she had no choice but to run away.

Jacobs knew the risks she would encounter as a runaway slave. Her uncle Joseph had been so mistreated by his owner that he had knocked the man down and run away. Upon his capture, he was chained, jailed for six months, and then sold to an owner in far-off New York. Other runaways who had been captured had not fared so well as her uncle. Yet Jacobs reasoned that her children would be of less interest to the Norcoms if she was not there. So one dark night in 1835, she fled from the plantation and hid in the home of a friend.

The search begins

When the Norcoms learned of Jacobs's disappearance, they started a search. Unable to find her, Dr. Norcom took his anger out on Jacobs's relatives. Jacobs's Aunt Berry, her brother, and her children were all put in jail. Samuel Sawyer, perhaps troubled by the thought of his young children chained up in jail, arranged through a slave trader to buy the children and John. Sawyer then sent the children to live with Jacobs's grandmother, Molly.

Meanwhile, the Norcoms continued searching through the homes of Jacobs's friends. Her hiding place became unsafe for her and for the friend who sheltered her, so Jacobs's uncle arranged for her to steal out of the house at night and hide in a swamp. It was infested with mosquitos and snakes, but Jacobs judged it the better of two evils and bravely stayed there. For the moment, she was free of the Norcoms.

Her freedom was threatened, however, when a snake bit her. With her leg swollen and infected and with no way to treat the bite, it became necessary for Jacobs to move to another hiding place. Fortunately, Harriet's uncle Mark had been preparing for this. He had cut a carefully hidden hole in the ceiling of Molly's pantry. Above the hole was a small space between the pantry ceiling and the shingles of the roof.

Jacobs's family waited until dark one night to help Jacobs escape the swamp and take up permanent residence in the attic of Molly's house. Equipped with only a blanket and water, Jacobs settled into the cramped space, which allowed for neither sitting nor standing, nor for stretching out and rolling over comfortably.

The seven-year exile

Jacobs remained in this small space below the roof for seven years. Mark and Molly brought her food and talked with her at night when everyone else was asleep. On a few occasions Jacobs was lowered to sit with them in the dark pantry for brief moments, but all the while, the air was tense with the fear that Norcom would discover her hiding place. His home was just around the corner and his office a short distance away in the next block. He often passed by Molly's house on his way to work.

Jacobs sometimes saw Norcom through a small hole she had carved out between the rafters with a piece of metal. This tiny opening to the outside world brought a little air into the sometimes hot, sometimes cold and damp space. She could see a little of the street and Molly's yard through this hole. To make matters worse, she could see Joseph and Louisa playing in the yard and hear the grumblings and threats of the doctor as he passed them. Jacobs did not dare let her children know where she was; if she did, the truth might be forced out of them and everyone would suffer. (Later, Joseph remarked that he knew that she was there but did not dare tell anyone about it.)

Years passed with Jacobs stuck in her prison. Conditions in the small cell were nearly unbearable. Mosquitos pestered her, mice scurried around her, and rain drenched her, but Mark was afraid to fix the holes in the roof lest she be seen from the street. Cramped into her small cell, she began to lose strength in her legs. Still she felt that she was better off here than living as Dr. Norcom's slave. Finally, in 1842, after seven years, an opportunity came to leave her hiding place. One of her uncle's friends found a sea captain who was willing, for a fee, to take Jacobs to New York.


Although Molly knew the conditions were gradually taking her granddaughter's health and strength, she urged Jacobs not to go. North Carolina runaways were subject to severe punishment if caught—chains, whippings (as many as 100 lashes or more), and even branding. One North Carolina owner ran an advertisement for his runaway, describing her as "burnt … with a hot iron on the left side of her face; I tried to make the letter M" (Stampp, p. 188). Some disgruntled owners offered a reward for the capture of a runaway, and would add more to that reward if the slave was returned dead. It was not uncommon to track runaways with dogs, which were sometimes not restrained from mauling the slave when he or she was found.

Jacobs knew that Norcom had already hired slave hunters to search for her in the North. While in the attic, Jacobs had written some letters to Norcom, and the family arranged for their delivery from New York. Her purpose was to distract the doctor from too close a search of the Horniblow house. Norcom had followed up on these letters at least once with a trip to New York to find her. If she really fled to the North, she would face the threat of slave hunters as well. Besides the constant threat of being caught, she would have to figure out a way to earn a living there. Knowing that she would be hunted, Jacobs still decided to go, convinced that her children would be better off if she could be free of Dr. Norcom. At the last minute she disguised herself and went with her new friend to meet the boat.

Northward bound

Just before she left, Jacobs finally spoke to Joseph and Louisa, whom she had peeped at and heard below her for those long years but had not dared to involve in her criminal act of running away from slavery. It was during their brief meeting that she learned that Joseph had known her whereabouts for several years. He had heard her cough but had carefully kept the secret, often leading visitors away from his mother's corner of the house for fear that another cough would expose her hiding place.

New York

Jacobs arrived in New York in 1842 and was fortunate in her search for a job. She found work with the Willis family as nurse to their new baby daughter. She continued even after the death of Mary Willis and traveled with the family to England as caretaker of the Willises young daughter. All the while, Jacobs was sure that Sawyer, the father of her children, would free them now that he was their owner. He never did. John gained his freedom by running away, but her own children remained slaves.

Meanwhile, the younger Norcom died and his wife remarried. She wanted the slave property she believed she owned and made repeated attempts to capture Jacobs and her children, who had by that time joined her in New York. Whenever she heard a rumor about slave hunters or one of Mrs. Norcom's visits to New York, Jacobs would move to Boston, Massachusetts or some other distant place until the crisis passed. She was always on her guard.

Hunted or freed?

The year 1850 was an eventful one. The new Fugitive Slave Law encouraged bounty hunters to search northern cities for runaways, so it was more dangerous than ever for an escaped slave in the North. Meanwhile, Jacobs's family support was fading. She had not dared to contact her grandmother or John, and Joseph had headed out to the California gold mines. John and Joseph left her life forever, later moving to Australia to pursue their search for gold. Fortunately, her former employer, Mr. Willis, remarried and now he and his wife, Cornelia, wanted Jacobs to care for their baby. Cornelia proved to be as kind as the first Mrs. Willis.

At the end of the year, old Dr. Norcom died. His daughter, Mary Matilda, now had official legal ownership of Jacobs and the two children. She and her husband, Daniel Messmore, made several attempts to capture the family. In 1852, Messmore again returned to New York to find Jacobs, but without success. Cornelia had arranged for her to escape to Massachusetts once again. Frustrated, Messmore put the capture and disposal of Jacobs into the hands of a slave hunter.

Cornelia had often spoken of buying Jacobs's freedom, and Jacobs had as often protested being bought. But, with a slave hunter on the chase, Cornelia felt she had to act. She offered the slave hunter $300 for Jacobs and her two children. It was a small sum, but better than nothing, and the slave hunter grudgingly accepted. In late 1852, Jacobs and her children were finally set free.

Antislavery work

For the rest of her life, Jacobs and Louisa worked actively in the antilavery movement. This work resulted in Jacobs writing her autobiography, which was published in England under the title The Deeper Wrong. In 1862 and 1863 Jacobs was in Washington, D.C., to help with relief work for runaway slaves.

When the Emancipation Act was passed in 1863, Jacobs and Louisa were living in Alexandria, Virginia, where they were distributing clothing and teaching health care. Then, with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee in 1865, Jacobs at last was free to return to Edenton, carrying relief supplies to the place where she had been imprisoned in a house that was now her own.

After a trip to England to raise money for an orphanage in Savannah, Georgia, Jacobs settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to operate a boarding house. She lived to see Louisa help organze the National Association of Colored Women in Washington. There, on March 7, 1897, Harriet Jacobs died.

Further Reading on Harriet A. Jacobs

Holland, Patricia G., and Milton Meltzer, eds., The Collected Correspondence of Lydia Maria Child, 1817-1880, Millwood, New York: Kraus Microform, 1980.

Jacobs, Harriet A., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, Self-published, 1862. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in Ante-Bellum South, New York: Vintage Books, 1964.