Q. K. Philander Doesticks Attends A Slave Auction
On March 3, 1859, journalist Q. K. Philander Doesticks (Mortimer Thomson) attended an auction of 436 men, women, and children formerly held by Pierce M. Butler.
Butler's slaves were auctioned in order to pay debts incurred in gambling and the financial crash of 1857-58. Doesticks' account, What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?, includes vivid descriptions of the largest recorded slave auction in U.S. history. The grim sale, which took place over two rainy days on the eve of the Civil War, was referred to as "The Weeping Time."
Many of the slave families described in Doesticks' report were the subject of a series of letters, written twenty years earlier, by famous British actress and author Frances Ann Kemble. Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839, published in 1863 to galvanize English support of the North during the Civil War, is an unusual account of Southern planter culture from the perspective of an outspoken outsider who considered herself an abolitionist.
"The Great Auction Sale of Slaves, at Savannah, Georgia" (1859), a popular work by Mortimer Neal Thompson, an American humorist better known by his pseudonym, Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B. The book is one of the most readable, credibly authentic accounts of the abuses of slavery.
In the 1850s and early 1860s, Mortimer Thomson was the most celebrated comic writer of his day.
He exploded on the scene when friends of his submitted his humorous letters to a newspaper, and the public flocked to buy his whacky and irreverent writings.
He traveled around with illustrator Thomas Nast to write humorously slanted reports of events, he wrote daily police reports in rhyme, and he threw himself into everything he covered with a passion little seen before in a journalist.
In 1857 he disguised himself as a plantation owner, and wrote about the largest slave auction in American history on the train back to New York from Georgia.
His article, The Crying Time, was widely reprinted as a pamphlet by anti-slavery groups, and may have helped tip the balance in Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.
While covering the Civil War, the southern states had a price on his head, and he pretended to be a chaplain for the New York 26th Regiment.
Both of his young wives (his second wife was the daughter of Fanny Fern)
died not long after giving birth, and Thomson himself had his ribs shattered beyond repair taking a bullet for a popular officer.
After the war, he attempted to write humor again, but his heart was not in it, and he faded from public view.
Mortimer Thomson (1831-75), a reporter for the New York Tribune, travelled to Savannah and infiltrated the buyers, pretending to be interested in purchasing slaves. During the sale, Thomson made "cautious bids" to prevent being discovered. He wrote "Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d and 3d, 1859," published in the Tribune, on March 9 under his pseudonym, Q. K. Philander Doesticks. He described the expectant atmosphere in Savannah:
For several days before the sale every hotel in Savannah was crowded with negro speculators from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, who had been attracted hither by the prospects of making good bargains. Nothing was heard for days, in the bar-rooms and public rooms, but talk of the great sale . . .
According to Doesticks, the race course where the "Great Auction Sale of Slaves" took place was situated "about three miles from the city, in a pleasant spot, nearly surrounded by woods." The site adjoined the Central of Georgia railroad.