Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates

Pronged collars, and escapes despite them

Wilson Chinn Wilson Chinn modeled a slave collar in 1863, after he was freed by the Union Army's occupation of New Orleans.Source.

August 10, 2015

By Toussaint Heywood Share on Facebook Share this on Twitter

Slave owners had surprisingly sadistic ways to punish or prevent repeated runaways. One consisted of a neck collar with protruding prongs that arced over the wearer's head, preventing him or her from lying down comfortably, and also alerting others to his or her recalcitrant nature. Sometimes the prongs had bells or loose jangling bits of iron at the top to prevent the wearer from moving stealthily. An alternate version had bars extended horizontally to accomplish the same purpose.

Though there were eyewitnesses to such collars used in the upper south, they seem to have been mentioned more commonly in the lower south.

slave collar A slave collar on display in 2015 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Source.
The collar at right, removed from an enslaved woman by members of the Third Massachusetts Cavalry in 1863, may be the same one illustrated in the letter below. Members of the cavalry found it upon an enslaved girl's neck on a plantation near New Orleans in the summer of 1862, removed it, and a year later presented it to the governor of Massachusetts as a relic.

While the soldiers' stories varied in the regimental history and the presentation about the exact circumstances of the discovery, they agreed the girl was locked in a dark room, had apparently been wearing the collar a while, and had light skin--further adding sympathy, as if it would matter less had she been dark.

From a further description of the collar's history in the Library of Virginia's newsletter:

Williams and Everett [art gallery] happily assented to Governor Andrew’s request, and even upped the ante: "Dear Sir;—In compliance with your wishes we have willingly placed on exhibition the specimen of Southern Art, received with your note. We have taken the liberty to call attention to it through the press and trust that the sight of such an instrument of torture may open more completely the eyes of our people to the barbarism of the peculiar institution of the South."

The firm’s desire to open eyes "more completely" speaks to the fact that not all viewers would be receptive, even in a city like Boston. The wives and daughters of Cotton Whigs, manufacturers, and merchants might still view slavery as benign and paternalistic—much as they viewed their husband’s control of industrial workers. "Instruments of torture" made for compelling evidence of slavery’s "barbarism," and became a staple of abolitionist propaganda before and during the war.

drawing of collar Source
The drawing at right was in a letter dated Oct. 8, 1863, a little after the collar was sent north by the Third Massachusetts cavalry, perhaps by someone who saw it on display. The drawing is similar, showing one empty slot and three equally spaced prongs. The letter-writer stated, "I have seen the Iron Ring taken from the slave girls neck. The ring itself is thick as my thumb. It is in two half circles which fasten, probably by padlock. This is the shape. There were four prongs originally. It is neither perfectly round, nor smooth, but a rough piece of blacksmithery. If this is not an argumentum ad homineum for the conversion of unbelievers, none can be devised for them. They must be willfully blind. “

The practice was not unique to the U.S., and its cruelty was recognized. Jamaica outlawed it in 1792: "And whereas a mischievous practice hath sometimes prevailed of punishing ill-disposed slaves, and such as are apt to abscond from their owners, by fixlng or causing to be fixed round the necks of such slaves, an iron collar with projecting bars or hooks to prevent the future desertion of such slaves, be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That such practice is hereby declared to be utterly unlawful..."

In 1819, Louisiana passed a law just the opposite, making the removal of such collars without permission unlawful, and the practice continued in the U.S.: "If any person or persons, &c. shall cut or break any iron collar which any master of slaves shall have used in order to prevent the running away or escape of any such slave or slaves, such persons so offending shall, on conviction, be fined not less than two hundred dollars, nor exceeding one thousand dollars; and suffer imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, nor less than six months."

John M. Nelson, Esq., who later moved to Highland County, Ohio, recalled, "In Staunton, Va., at the house of Mr. Robert M'Dowell, a merchant of that place, I once saw a colored woman, of intelligent and dignified appearance, who appeared to be attending to the business of the house, with an iron collar around her neck, with horns or prongs extending out on either side, and up, until they met at something like a foot above her head, at which point there was a bell attached. This yoke, as they called it, I understood was to prevent her from running away, or to punish her for having done so. I had frequently seen men with iron collars, but this was the first instance that I recollect to have seen a female thus degraded."

The following is from Slavery As It Is:

Major Horace Nye, an elder in the Presbyterian Church at Putnam, Muskingum county, Ohio, in a letter, dated Dec. 5, 1838, makes the following statement:— Mr. Wm. Armstrong, of this place, who is frequently employed by our citizens as captain and supercargo of descending boats, whose word maybe relied on, has just made tome the following statement:—

"While laying at Alexandria, on Red River, Louisiana, he saw a slave brought to a blacksmith's shop and a collar of iron fastened round his neck, with two pieces rivetted to the sides, meeting some distance above his head. At the top of the arch, thus formed, was attached a large cow-bell, the motion of which, while walking the streets, made it necessary for the slave to hold his hand to one of its sides, to steady it.

"In New Orleans he saw several with iron collars, with horns attached to them. The first he saw had three prongs projecting from the collar ten or twelve inches, with the letter S on the end of each. He says iron collars are quite frequent there."

Some enslaved people still attempted escape while wearing such collars.

New Orleans Bee ad caption Source.
The ad at right from the October 28, 1837 New Orleans Bee reads in part, "had a collar on with one prong turned down... She is supposed to be in the third municipality, lurking round the wash houses, also has been seen several times seeking for day[']s work."

"Extract Of A Letter" in Slavery As It Is gave another example of a collar that arrived among anti-slavery advocates in the north: "From Mrs. Sophia Little, of Newport, Rhode Island, daughter of Hon. Asher Robbins, senator in Congress for that state: 'There was lately found, in the hold of a vessel engaged in the southern trade, by a person who was clearing it out, an iron collar, with three horns projecting from it. It seems that a young female slave, on whose slender neck was riveted this fiendish instrument of torture, ran away from her tyrant, and begged the captain to bring her off with him. This the captain refused to do; but unriveted the collar from her neck, and threw it away in the hold of the vessel. The collar is now at the anti-slavery office, Providence.'"

Another eyewitness story came from a former southerner moved north. "Rev. Thomas Savage, pastor of the Congregational Church at Bedford, New Hampshire, who was for some years a resident of Mississippi and Louisiana, gives the following fact, in a letter dated January 9, 1839. 'In 1819, while employed as an instructor at Second Creek, near Natchez, Mississippi, I resided on a plantation where I witnessed the following circumstance. One of the slaves was in the habit of running away. He had been repeatedly taken, and repeatedly whipped, with great severity, but to no purpose. He would still seize the first opportunity to escape from the plantation. At last his owner declared, I'll fix him, I'll put a stop to his running away. He accordingly took him to a blacksmith, and had an iron head-frame made for him, which may be called lock-jaw, from the use that was made of it. It had a lock and key, and was so constructed, that when on the head and locked, the slave could not open his mouth to take food, and the design was to prevent his running away. But the device proved unavailing. He was soon missing, and whether by his own desperate effort, or the aid of others, contrived to sustain himself with food; but he was at last taken, and if my memory serves me, his life was soon terminated by the cruel treatment to which he was subjected.'"

One of the most heart-wrenching--and unverifiable--stories about an enslaved man who escaped despite a similar collar was written by Charles Ball:

illustration An illustration of Ball's story in the American Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1838. Source.
This day, when I was three or four miles from home, in a very solitary part of the swamps, I heard the sound of bells, similar to those which wagoners place on the shoulders of their horses. At first, the noise of bells of this kind, in a place where they were so unexpected, alarmed me, as I could not imagine who or what it was that was causing these bells to ring. I was standing near a pond of water, and listening attentively; I thought the bells were moving in the woods, and coming toward me. I therefore crouched down upon the ground, under cover of a cluster of small bushes that were near me, and lay, not free from disquietude, to await the near approach of these mysterious bells.

Sometimes they were quite silent for a minute or more at a time, and then again would jingle quick, but not loud. They were evidently approaching me, and at length I heard footsteps distinctly in the leaves, which lay dry upon the ground. A feeling of horror seized me at this moment, for I now recollected that I was on the verge of the swamp, near which the vultures and carrion crows had mangled the living bodies of the two murderers; and my terror was not abated, when, a moment after, I saw come from behind a large tree, the form of a brawny, famished-looking black man, entirely naked, with his hair matted and shaggy, his eyes wild and rolling, and bearing over his head something in the form of an arch, elevated three feet above his hair, beneath the top of which were suspended the bells, three in number, whose sound had first attracted my attention. Upon a closer examination this frightful figure, I perceived that it wore a collar of iron about its neck, with a large padlock pendent from behind, and carried in its hand a long staff, with an iron spear in one end. The staff, like every thing else belonging to this strange spectre, was black. It slowly approached within ten paces of me, and stood still...

He told me his name was Paul; that he was a native of Congo, in Africa, and had been a slave five years; that he had left an aged mother, a widow, at home, as also a wife and four children; that it had been his misfortune to fall into the hands of a master, who was frequently drunk, and whose temper was so savage, that his chief delight appeared to consist in whipping and torturing his slaves, of whom he owned near twenty; but through some unaccountable caprice, he had contracted a particular dislike against Paul, whose life he now declared to me, was insupportable. He had then been wandering in the woods, more than three weeks, with no other subsistence than the land tortoises, frogs, and other reptiles that he had taken in the woods, and along the shores of the ponds, with the aid of his spear. He had not been able to take any of the turtles in the laying season, because the noise of his bells frightened them, and they always escaped to the water before he could catch them. He had found many eggs, which he had eaten raw, having no fire, nor any means of making fire, to cook his food. He had been afraid to travel much in the middle of the day, lest the sound of his bells should be heard by some one, who would make his master acquainted with the place of his concealment. The only periods when he ventured to go in search of food, were early in the morning, before people could have time to leave their homes and reach the swamp; or late in the evening, after those who were in pursuit of him had gone to their dwellings for the night.

This man spoke our language imperfectly, but possessed a sound and vigorous understanding; and reasoned with me upon the propriety of destroying a life which was doomed to continual distress. He informed me that he had first run away from his master more than two years ago, after being whipped, with long hickory switches, until he fainted. That he concealed himself in a swamp, at that time, ten or fifteen miles from this place, for more than six months, but was finally betrayed by a woman who he sometimes visited; that when taken, he was again whipped until he was not able to stand, an had a heavy block of wood chained to one foot, which he was obliged to drag after him at his daily labour, for more than three months, when he found an old file, with which he cut the irons from his ancle, and again escaped to the woods, but was retaken within little more than a week after his flight, by two men who were looking for their cattle, and came upon him in the woods where he was asleep.

On being returned to his master, he was again whipped; and then the iron collar that he now wore with the iron rod, extending from one shoulder over his head to the other, with the bells fastened at the top of the arch, were put upon him. Of these irons he could not divest himself, and wore them constantly from that time to the present...

I advised Paul to bear his misfortunes as well as he could, until the next Sunday, when I would return and bring with me a file, and other things necessary to the removal of his fetters...

On the following Sunday, having provided myself with a large file, which I procured from the blacksmith shop, belonging to the plantation, I again repaired to the place, at the side of the swamp, where I had first seen the figure of this ill-fated man. I expected that he would be in waiting for me at the appointed place, as I had promised him that I would certainly come again, at this time; but on arriving at the spot where I had left him, I saw no sign of any person. The remains of the fire that I had kindled were here, and it seemed that the fire had been kept up for several days, by the quantity of ashes that lay in a heap, surrounded by numerous small brands. The impressions of human feet, were thickly disposed around this decayed fire: and the bones of the terrapins that I had given to Paul, as well as the skeletons of many frogs, were scattered upon the ground; but there was nothing that showed that any one had visited this spot, since the fall of the last rain, which I now recollected had taken place on the previous Thursday. From this circumstance I concluded that Paul had relieved himself of his irons, and gone to seek concealment in some other place; or that his master had discovered his retreat, and carried him back to the plantation.

Whilst standing at the ashes I heard the croaking of ravens at some distance in the woods, and immediately afterwards a turkey-buzzard passed over me pursued by an eagle, coming from the quarter in which I had just heard the ravens. I knew that the eagle never pursued the buzzard for the purpose of preying upon him, but only to compel him to disgorge himself of his own prey for the benefit of the king of birds. I therefore concluded that there was some dead animal in my neighbourhood that had called all these ravenous fowls together. It might be that Paul had killed a cow by knocking her down with a pine knot, and that he had removed his residence to this slaughtered animal. Curiosity was aroused in me, and I proceeded to examine the woods.

I had not advanced more than two hundred yards when I felt oppressed by a most sickening stench, and saw the trees swarming with birds of prey, buzzards perched upon their branches, ravens sailing their boughs, and clouds of carrion crows flitting about, and poising themselves in the air in a stationary position, after the manner of that most nauseous of all birds, when it perceives, or thinks it perceives, some object of prey. Proceeding onward, I came in view of a large sassafras tree, around the top of which was congregated a cloud of crows, some on the boughs and others on the wing, whilst numerous buzzards were sailing low and nearly skimming the ground. This sassafras tree had many low horizontal branches, attached to one of which I now saw the cause of so vast an assembly of the obscene fowls of the air. The lifeless and putrid body of the unhappy Paul hung suspended by a cord made of twisted hickory bark, passed in the form of a halter round the neck, and firmly bound to a limb of the tree.

It was manifest that he had climbed the tree, fastened the cord to the branch, and then sprung off. The smell that assailed my nostrils was too overwhelming to permit me to remain long in view of the dead body, which was much mangled and torn, though its identity was beyond question, for the iron collar, and the bells with the arch that bore them, were still in their place. The bells had preserved the corpse from being devoured; for whilst I looked at it I observed a crow descend upon it, and make a stroke at the face with its beak, but the motion that this gave to the bells caused them to rattle, and the bird took to flight...

The body of Paul was never taken down, but remained hanging where I had seen it until the flesh fell from the bones, or was torn off by the birds. I saw the bones hanging in the sassafras tree more than two months afterwards, and the last time that I was ever in these swamps.

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