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January 31, 2012

Pulling a Tooth for Mandy

This 1865 letter from Jourdan Anderson to his former owner in Tennessee has been circulating online for a while, but I just saw it yesterday. It seems too beautiful to be real, but apparently it's genuine. If I were editing an anthology of the funniest writing in U.S. history, I'd definitely include it. This is the section that made me laugh the hardest, as Anderson explains the conditions on which he'll take up his owner's invitation to return to Tennessee and work for him:

Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.

Sure, dunning your former owner for back wages is funny enough on its own. But what makes it is the sentence about deducting his owner's expenses (especially the perfect specificity of "pulling a tooth for Mandy"). You wouldn't want to be unfair to the guy who enslaved you.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at January 31, 2012 07:39 PM

He was an honest man, more than can be said for the Colonel.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 31, 2012 11:26 PM

Did the guy end up paying him? And if he did, would it no longer be considered slavery?

Posted by: Happy Jack at February 1, 2012 01:08 AM

Yup. We white folk got here all by ourselves, blood, sweat, and tears....the Liberty Ron Paul so dearly years for.

Posted by: bobbyp at February 1, 2012 01:38 AM

Sounds like the Stolen Wages issue in Australia - a shameful history and although there has actually been a compensation fund set up the amounts are pretty laughable:

Still, the idea of compensation for the victims of US slavery still seems a long way away...

Posted by: floopmeister at February 1, 2012 04:06 AM

This was written by a white abolitionist.

Posted by: Tony Smith at February 1, 2012 07:16 AM

I bet Mr Anderson's OLD MASTER fainted before he even finished reading the whole letter.

ps Reminds me of the moment.."Jordan can read!"

Posted by: Rupa Shah at February 1, 2012 09:37 AM

Definitely sarcastic humor there. Also worth reading

When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection

available as a Dover Thrift Edition paperback, $2.50 - if you ever were buying books from an online retailer and were still under the $25 free shipping threshold, you might have bought this as a way to bring the order above that amount to reduce total expenditure while getting an extra book

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at February 1, 2012 11:46 AM

>This was written by a white abolitionist.

Others have made this claim - do you have any evidence?

Posted by: saurabh at February 1, 2012 01:57 PM

For anyone interested, the letter is in the following Google eBook.....with writings by other Freed men..


Posted by: Rupa Shah at February 1, 2012 05:48 PM

Professor David Blight of Yale mentions it at the end of this lecture.

I'd be curious to know how this letter survived. Did Mr Anderson write it and not send it? Did he make a copy?

It seems incredible that the colonel would receive it and keep it. He must have been furious. I bet even his great-great-great grandkids get angry whenever reparations are mentioned.

Posted by: Carl at February 2, 2012 08:08 AM

According to the discussion Jon linked, the letter survives because it was printed in a contemporary newspaper. The man it's attributed to was a real person, listed in the census. We'll never know for sure if he wrote it, but it's not impossible, and the letter is certainly from 1865 or earlier.

Posted by: Duncan at February 2, 2012 12:11 PM

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Facing South (blog for the Institute of Southern Studies) have run that letter for several years. It's nice to see it get more exposure.

Posted by: Batocchio at February 4, 2012 03:41 PM

No one pointed out that a male slave's labor was worth more than ten times a woman's? Do you suppose it bothered Mandy?

Posted by: tejanojim at February 6, 2012 12:25 AM