September 7, 2015By Toussaint Heywood
No more, at morn or eve, shall drip
The warm blood from the driver's whip
--John Greenleaf Whittier, 1833
Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was as angry as a Quaker could be at slave-owners. He wrote anti-slavery poetry and worked for several anti-slavery societies or newspapers. At the American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Philadelphia in December of 1833, he heard speaker Amos A. Phelps tell how slaves were tortured by whipping and then having a cat scratch them.
Whittier wrote to Phelps on Jan. 30, 1834, suggesting a change before Phelps' speech was printed: "I allude to the description of the 5th mode of whipping. The feline instrument may have been made use of--but, I submit the question, whether most people will credit it?--Why not simply describe the whipping on the ladder, and the washing with salt water?"
An anonymous correspondent wrote in the March 9, 1838 Liberator: "When our friend Whittier afterward saw the same fact stated as undeniable on Page 130 of the Picture of Slavery, he doubted whereunto that thing would grow. After having heard [the slave] James Williams tell the same story, and after having recorded it in his own graphical painting, in the fifty-second page of his Narrative of James Williams, it is worthy of inquiry, whether the poet thinks the heart-rending tale is now fit to be told and meriting belief."
Though James Williams was an Alabama slave, he altered much information in his narrative, and there is no way of knowing if he told the truth in the story about the cat, but he did tell it and Whittier, who was taking dictation, wrote it down. Williams said: "[The runaway] was then fastened down to the ground by means of forked sticks of wood selected for the purpose, the longest fork being driven into the ground, the other closed down upon the neck, ankles, and wrists. The overseer then sent for two large cats belonging to the house. These he placed upon the naked shoulders of his victim, and dragged them suddenly by their tails downward. At first they did not scratch deeply. He then ordered me to strike them with a small stick after he had placed them once more upon the back of the sufferer. I did so; and the enraged animals extended their claws, and tore his back deeply and cruelly as they were dragged along it."
The 1834 Picture of Slavery described the procedure: "To complete the tortures of his writhing victim... the citizen-flayer caught a large cat, and so fastened the animal, that in endeavoring to get loose, the cat's talons continually tore the slave's already gory back."
Rev. Horace Moulton, a Massachusetts minister who spent 1817 to 1824 in Georgia wrote in 1839: "Others, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them, cat-haul them —that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by the hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied. This kind of punishment poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave."
Charles Ball also mentioned it in his narrative: "The second evening, after making inquiry of us respecting our health, cleanliness, and food, [the master] told us that we were now at liberty to run away if we chose; but that the attempt would subject us to the most terrible punishment. "I never flog," said he, "my practice is to cat-haul; and if you run away, and I catch you again—as I surely shall do —and give you one cat-hauling, you will never attempt it again." I did not then understand cat-hauling, but afterwards became well acquainted with its meaning."
As strange as the practice may have seemed to Whittier when he first heard of it, there seems no doubt it was done and he too finally became a believer.