From The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, a memoir by Austin Reed, published this month by Random House. Likely completed in 1858, the manuscript was discovered at an estate sale, acquired by Yale in 2009, and authenticated by Caleb Smith, a professor there. Reed was an African-American freeman born circa 1823 in Rochester, New York. The events described below took place when he was around ten years old.
I had been with Mr. Lad three days when he one morning, being a little angry, ask me if I was ready now to go to work and learn to be a farmer. I told him no, that I was goin’ to start for Home that very day, to which he said that I had been whining about Home long enough, and that if he seen any more of it that he would take me out to the barn and horse whip me. This made my passion rise a little, and I told him to raise a hand at me if he dared. At that he dragged me off to the barn, and taking a halter, he made both of my hands fast behind me and gave me a severe punishment with a black whip which he had hanging up in the barn, and ordered me into the House with my hands tied behind.
Oh, then was the hour that I thought of my beloved father who was sleeping in the grave. The old villain, would he dared to raise a hand on me if my father had been alive, or would he dared to given me a word of insult? Would he dared to ordered me to the field to work under the hot burning rays of the sun, if my father had been alive? No, or he would shivered the head from his shoulders.
There he kept me tied till twelve o’clock, when I was unloosed by the hands of one of the girls. No sooner had I been unloosed than I made my way to West Avon, and stopping in front of a large mansion I ask one of the hired servants who lived there. He said that Esq. Osborne live there and was the possessor of a large tract of land.
Presently Mrs. Osborne came to the door. She ask me where I lived and where I was goin’, to which I unfolded the whole riddle to her. I had sat there talking to her nearly two hours, when Mr. Osborne came in. I arose from the chair which I was sitting in, and spoke to him in the following manner:
That I had just lost my father, and that my mother was left a widow, with five young children to bring up and to support, and that I had in the company of some other boys cut down some fruit trees that belong to a farmer who lived not far from my mother House, for which deed my mother has sent me out here to live with one Mr. Lad, and that Mr. Lad without the authority of my mother or without her knowledge had taken me out to the barn and tied me up and whip me.
After I had related the truth to Esq. Osborne, he told me to sit there in his House during that day, and on the morrow he would go Home with me and see my mother and get her to let me come and live with him. I was glad to hear such welcome news fall upon my ears, and I went out into the garden where a man was weeding and pulled off my coat and went to work and made myself as useful as I could until the shades of evening prevailed.
I rose in the morning, and putting on my clothes I strolled out into the garden until breakfast time. It is now eight o’clock, and the stage was waiting at the door for me and Mr. Osborne. Everything being ready, the stage drove off, and at one o’clock I was seated in the cottage under the parental roof where my father gave me his dying blessing. My mother was not in.
About three o’clock my sister and me went over to the spot where laid my father, wrapped in the cold icicle hand of death. There we stood, between the living and the dead, hand in hand, gazing on the green sods that covered all that was once dear and near to us, while the voice of my father seemed to echo afresh to me from the cold spot where he now laid. Reader, could you told the feelings of my mind as I march Homeward from my father grave, and the tears coming from my eyes? Or did my beloved father know the heavy heave of my bosom, or could he tell the wrongs and sufferings which I was goin’ under through the means of my cruel-hearted mother? Did he know that I would one day or another grasp the pistol which he used to carry with him nights, and with a high and an uplifted hand seek my revenge for the wrong that had been imposed upon me? No, Reader, or he would took the deadly weapon and sunk it low in the deep.
It was now nearly sundown, and my mother had not yet made her return Home, so my sister and me walk out to the woods which stood but a few rods from the House. As I was walking along, I opened to her the riddle of the punishment which Mr. Lad gave me, and the cause of my returning Home, and how cruel my mother had been in banishing me from Home to be brought up in the hands of a cold, hard-hearted countryman.
“Curse that infernal woman,” said my sister. “She will be the ruin and overthrow of the whole family ere the age of manhood comes. Scoundrel,” echoed my sister after I had told her my riddle. “Scoundrel — had I the power of a god or had I the strength of a man, I would make you bow in blood beneath my feet.”
As she said these words, my blood began to run hot, and my temper began to hunger for revenge.
“Ere before the morrow sun shall set behind yon western cloud,” said my sister, “you shall leave the country hound dead upon the ground stained with his gore.”
The revenge which my sister still bore to Mr. Lad for whipping me still burned hotter and hotter in her bosom. One day, she came a-running up to me with something in her hand under her apron. On raising her apron, I found that she had been to my father old trunk and stolen his pistol and bowknife, and handed it to me, telling me to hide them and to be careful and not let mother know anything about them, and in the morning to rise before day and wake her up.
I retired to bed that night, a-wondering in my mind what it was my sister wanted, and what under the heavens she was goin’ to do with them deadly weapons of my father. Was it to destroy the life of my mother? No, for on the morrow I arose from my bed and went to hers, and shaking her fickle form from a dull sleep, she rose and unraveled the whole sequel of the matter to me.
“Take them,” said she, “and this little bundle, and before (pointing with her finger at the sun) before that sun sinks in the west, disguise yourself in that dress of mine which is in the bundle, and under the cover of darkness take the life of that infernal villain that had the boldness to horse whip you. Be careful as you enter the village that no human eye see you. Keep on the outskirts of the town until the dark curtains of the night appears, and let that pistol which I have loaded burst his brain, and let that knife with one stroke finish the work, and send that cursed infernal villain to his long Home, where trouble and cares will pierce his mind no more.”
My hand shivered as she put the little bundle into my hand, but still I thought that I was doing no more than justice if I left him a cold corpse on the ground. Stuffing my pockets full of crackers and cheese, I began my march, with my little bundle in under my arm. About ten o’clock I found that I had traveled thirteen miles, and had seven miles yet to trample. I sat down under the fence and began to eat some crackers which my sister had given me, and oh, my God, can you tell the feelings of my mind as I sat there eating my crackers? In loud peals of thunder I heard my father’s prayer, playing in the flashes of lightning from beneath the ground where he laid.
But all of these sad reflections had no effect on my mind. I got up and began my journey again, and just as the hotel bell was ringing for dinner, I came in sight of the barn where I was tied up like a slave and thrash by the rough hand of a farmer who had no business nor no right nor authority to lay a hand on me, and as such reflection came rolling across my mind, my temper burned with rage and anger, and under an old tree I laid me down and slept till the moon throwed her silvery beams in my face.
I then arose from my lurking place, and untying the bundle I took my sister’s dress and hood and slipped it on. I wrapped the knife in my handkerchief and the pistol in my pocket and made my way to the House. Giving a rap on the door with my finger, a girl came to the door and ask me to step in. I told her that I was in a hurry and could not stay.
“Is Mr. L in?” said I in a low voice.
“No,” said the girl. “We expect him every minute.”
As she said these, I rose from my seat and went out and stood listening at the door.
“Wonder who that little colored girl is,” said the hired girl to one of the old man’s daughters.
“Don’t know. She must be some strange girl in the place that wants hire out.”
By this time I heard the rumbling noise of a wagon a-coming up the street. I knew that this must be none other than that marbled hearted man that lashed me in the barn. Throwing my sister dress from off me, I folded it up, and mounting the fence I cocked the pistol, and with an uplifted hand of revenge, I let fire and missed my shot. It was a dark night. I could hardly see my hands before my face. The old man hollered “Murder! Murder!” but before any aid could get to him, I drew the knife across his shoulders, which left a deep wound for months afterwards. By this time the country people had gather thick around, and the dogs a-barking loud. I was taken and made fast by my hand and feet and taken to the constable house, where he made a bed on the floor for me and untied me for the night.
I was in a room by myself, with the door left open and the window made fast. I heard a loud snoring, and getting up from my bed, I walk out through the room where the constable and his family slept and open the door and walk out. I went up to Mr. L — ’s House, where the family was all sunk in sleep. I ascended the top of the kitchen roof, and taking a match from my pocket, I started a blaze. I then went to the barn, and putting a match to the hay, I soon brought it to the ground. The light of the flames brought the neighbors together. By this time the House was nearly level with the ground. The dawn of morning was just breaking forth, and I struck off into the road and walk some seven miles, when on looking behind me I saw a couple of horsemen come galloping up the road on full speed, with a rope in their hands. I mounted the fence and jump over into a large field. The horsemen dismounted, and letting down the fence came on a full gallop after me and made me their prisoner.
The sun was throwing her golden rays on the fields, when the irons was put around my wrists to be sent off to New York. I had become so harden that my father advice and my mother prayer couldn’t make me shed a tear, which the Reader shall plainly see, that when the stage drove up to the door for me to see my mother, perhaps for the last time in this world, I never shed a tear, while on the other hand my mother and sister was crying like a little infant. After hearing what my mother said to me and receiving a little testament from her, and they both imprinted a kiss on my cheek, and the stage drove off, and Thursday at eleven o’clock, five days after I started, I found myself within the walls of the House of Refuge.