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December 07, 2022
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History: Mrs. Willis Buys Freedom of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs in 1894
Harriet Jacobs in 1894
Wanted Poster for Jacobs
Wanted Poster for Jacobs
January 22, 2007

By Warren Mumford

This could have been the headline of a Cornwall-on-Hudson news story in the year 1852. As many know, Nathaniel Parker Willis was quite a literary celebrity in Cornwall during the 1850’s, coining the name “Storm King” in favor of the original Dutch “Butter Hill.” Willis founded a magazine called the Home Journal which he edited while a resident at his Idlewild estate in the village until his death in 1867. The Home Journal was renamed Town and Country in 1901 and is still published today.

But what is the connection between the Willis family and a fugitive slave girl?

In New York City circa 1842, the first Mrs. Willis, Mary Stace, hires a young black woman, Harriet Jacobs to watch over her new baby. Harriet does not tell Mrs. Willis that she is a fugitive slave, just escaped from North Carolina. Treated well in the Willis family, Harriet later moves to Boston and is reunited with her two children.

After living with abolitionists in Rochester, NY, she returns to NY City in 1850 but is hounded by her new owner (her rights had been sold to another slave holder) and fears she will be caught and returned to servitude, particularly in light of the new “Fugitive Slave Law.”

She returns to work with the Willis family, this time making friends with the new Mrs. Willis, Cornelia Grinnell. Mary Stace had passed away in 1845 and N.P. remarried in 1846. Cornelia learns of Hattie’s background and her great fear of being caught and returned to her new owner. Cornelia generously buys Hattie’s freedom in 1852 for $300.

Once free, Jacobs continues to live with the Willis family and while at their Idlewild estate in the early 1950s she publishes in the New York Tribune several letters depicting the ravages of slavery. She is also working on a manuscript recounting her days as a slave, unbeknownst to Mrs. Willis. Jacobs writes in a letter from Cornwall dated 1854, “ I have not written a single page by daylight Mrs W dont know from my lips that I am writing for a Book and has never seen a line of what I have written. (Full text)

When the book is published in 1861, in the form on an autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs becomes a literary celebrity in her own right. Her fame today rivals or even eclipses that of N.P.Willis. Her book is viewed by scholars as a classic in pre-Civil War black literature, describing persistent sexual harassment by her master, seven years of hiding in a garret of her grandmother’s house and her eventual escape to the north.

The next time you pass Idlewild Park Drive next to NY Military Academy in the village, you can picture Harriet, late at night, drafting the amazing story of her life at a writing table at the Willis Estate.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, 1861, written under the penname Linda Brent, edited by L. Maria Child.
Harriet Jacobs Papers Project, Pace University.
Julie R. Adams website.


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