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Kindle Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Updated on February 4, 2013

Picture of Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs in 1894, three years prior to her death.
Harriet Jacobs in 1894, three years prior to her death. | Source

A Happy Childhood Gives Way to Horror

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in rural North Carolina, and was shielded from the knowledge of slavery by her devoted mother. When Harriet's mother died, she was taken in by her mistress, and though a slave, was taught to read, write, and sew.

In a terrible turn of events, Harriet's mistress died when Harriet was 12 years old. The terrible truth of slavery took its toll on young Harriet's life: she was given to the mistress' niece, who was only three years old. Harriet was placed into the household of a cruel and hateful doctor, who constantly sexually harassed and beat her.

The horrible experiences in the house of her master caused Harriet to use her gift for writing to contact abolitionists. After a harrowing escape to the north, Harriet's letters were published as an autobiography with the help of Mary A. Childs, an abolitionist (Childs had little to do with the text, as Harriet was an amazing young writer). Harriet changed her name to Linda Brent in the narrative, and assigned pseudonyms all other individuals involved in the incidents.

Harriet's narrative is available on the Kindle, and is a riveting read. The apparent genteel nature of Southern Plantations hid untold horrors of the age: slaves were whipped until pools of blood formed around their feet, screwed into cotton gins, and chased by hounds trained to kill.

At the tender age of fifteen, Harriet found herself the object of the doctor's sexual advances. Dr. James Norcom, the father of Harriet's three year old owner, constantly pursued Harriet. When Harriet fell in love with a free black man, Norcom refused to allow his purchase of Harriet's freedom. Instead, he hounded her and isolated her, jealous of the man she loved. In desperation, Harriet became pregnant with another white man's children, in the hope she would be sold to a slave trader and then purchased by the would-be lawyer. Norcom refused to let this happen, claiming he could not sell her because she belonged to his daughter.

A series of events leads up to Harriet's placement on the plantation, and Norcom planned to send her preschool-aged children there as well. In a last ditch attempt, Harriet fled to the North in search of help and a rescue for her young children.

Harriet Jacob's House

Harriet Jacob's house in Cambridge: once free, she operated a boarding house in the late 19th century.
Harriet Jacob's house in Cambridge: once free, she operated a boarding house in the late 19th century. | Source

After escaping to the state of New York, Harriet Jacobs discovered she was not really safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 legislated the return of all fugitive slaves to their owners. Enacted by congress, this law was also known as the "Bloodhound Law," because the dogs were often used to find the escaped slaves.

Still, Harriet's courage and ingenuity led her to successful employment as a nanny for the children of Nathaniel Willis Parker. She traveled with the family from New York to Boston, while Norcom stalked her in a futile attempt to recapture and re-enslave her. Finally, in 1852, Harriet's abolitionist employer purchased her freedom.

Harriet subsequently wrote the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and worked for a relief agency to help recently freed slaves. She ran a boarding house in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a short period of time prior to moving to Washington, D.C.

Harriet Jacobs died on March 7, 1867 in Washington, D.C. and was buried in Massachusetts in a grave alongside her brother.

Wanted: One Young Girl

The wanted poster for Harriet Jacobs: $100 for a life (click to enlarge).
The wanted poster for Harriet Jacobs: $100 for a life (click to enlarge). | Source

Timothy McCarthy Lecture on Harriet Jacobs: Part 1

Timothy McCarthy Lecture on Harriet Jacobs: Part 2


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