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The Branded Hand

July 2024
1min read

The highly unusual daguerreotype below reflects in its silver surface a grim symbol of the early tumult that eventually culminated in the Civil War.

Captain Jonathan Walker (1799-1878) was born on Cape Cod but operated out of Florida. He was strongly sympathetic to the abolitionist cause and in 1844 tried to help a group of seven slaves escape to the West Indies. The venture failed, and Walker was captured, fined six hundred dollars, and thrown into solitary confinement for a year. Before he was released, the letters S.S. were branded on the palm of his right hand.

Of course, Walker’s captors hoped to disgrace him with the stigma of “Slave Stealer,” but Walker did not bear his scar with shame. For years he delivered antislavery lectures, and he inspired John Greenleaf Whittier, himself an implacable foe of slavery, to write the following thundering stanzas:

Welcome home again, brave seaman! with thy thoughtful brow and gray, And the old heroic spirit of our earlier, better day,— With that front of calm endurance, on whose steady nerve in vain Pressed the iron of the prison, smote the fiery shafts of pain!

Is the tyrant’s brand upon thee? Did the brutal cravens aim To make God’s truth thy falsehood, his holiest work thy shame? When, all blood-quenched, from the torture the iron was withdrawn, How laughed their evil angel the baffled fools to scorn!

They change to wrong the duty which God hath written out On the great heart of humanity, too legible for doubt! They, the loathsome moral lepers, blotched from footsole up to crown, Give to shame what God hath given unto honor and renown!

Why, that brand is highest honor!—than its traces never yet Upon old armorial hatchments was a prouder blazon set; And thy unborn generations, as they tread our rocky strand, Shall tell with pride the story of their father’s BRANDED HAND !

Sometime shortly after his release Walker met Albert Southworth, a pioneer photographer who had learned the daguerreotype process from Samuel Morse and had recently gone into partnership with Josiah Hawes. Southworth and Hawes produced some of the finest early daguerrean images, and their skill and imagination are evident in this stark likeness of Walker’s hand. The image is among the earliest “conceptual” portraits ever made—that is, one in which a part of the body is made to symbolize the personality of the subject. Ironically, no full portrait of Walker is known to exist, but his memory is well enough served by the image of his strong, scarred hand.

The initials here are reversed, since the daguerrean process produced a mirror image. The picture will be included in a book entitled The Spirit of Fact: The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes, 1843-1862 , to be published by David R. Godine, Boston, and the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester.

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