There's Something About Mary

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year. My friends in Singapore are eating reunion dinners at the opening of the year of the goat. Here in New Orleans, we are beginning Lent after our annual city-wide street party. Boston and New York are buried in snow. 

But today marks a quieter anniversary as well, the day that this child first stepped into the spotlight. On February 19, 1855 -- one hundred and sixty years ago -- Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner sent a letter to his supporters in Boston about Mary Mildred Williams, stating that this child would be joining him on the anti-slavery platform in April.

Sumner calls Mary “another Ida May,” after the kidnapped white heroine of that year’s best-selling antislavery novel by Mary Hayden Green Pike called Ida May: A Story of Things Actual and Possible (1854). The plot of Ida May is Twelve Years a Slave told from a girl’s perspective, and it fictionalizes a national fear: that under the Fugitive Slave Law, free and white children could be kidnapped and sold into slavery, just as Solomon Northup was.

He encloses a daguerreotype of Mary from the same sitting as the one you see here.  He jokes that her presence will outshine his speech.

The Boston Telegraph from March 1855 picked up the story, and Mary's picture went the nineteenth century equivalent of "going viral." From this moment her life would change, her image would pass hand-to-hand through the Capitol, she was described in dozens of newspapers, and she joined Solomon Northrup on the lecture circuit "as an illustration of Slavery." She was circulated as a symbol of America’s shameful traffic in sexual slaves; it is no wonder then that her story has been lost to history.

Unidentified Girl [Mary Mildred Botts Williams]. Daguerreotype by Julian Vannerson, 1855. Visible Oval Image 7 x 6 cm, sixth plate, in case, 9 1/2 x 8 cm. Photograph 1.256, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Unidentified Girl [Mary Mildred Botts Williams]. Daguerreotype by Julian Vannerson, 1855. Visible Oval Image 7 x 6 cm, sixth plate, in case, 9 1/2 x 8 cm. Photograph 1.256, Massachusetts Historical Society.

This photograph of Mary is of the first of its kind: one of the first images of photographic propaganda, one of the first portraits solely made to prove a political point. This daguerreotype marks a moment in media history:  when photography began to make its tenacious claim on our sympathies and our political point of view. 

Mary is America’s first poster child. 

It was while reading the Boston Telegraph in the archives (as one does) that I discovered her. I was in the early stages of researching a dissertation on daguerreotypes and the literature of abolition — so I dove in, and I dove hard.  

Archival work can be dangerous. It is full of stories and faces, and every now and again, a story touches you. As Jean Luc Nancy has said, images reach deep, and I became relentless in my search to learn all I could about her. 

“The image touches me, and, thus touched and drawn by it and into it, I get involved…” —Jean Luc-Nancy, The Ground of the Image, 2005

That was 8 years ago. 

But who was she? Mary Mildred Botts Williams was born into slavery in Virginia in 1847. As the grandchild of Prudence Nelson Bell, who had been enslaved by the Cornwells since 1806, Mary’s condition of enslavement—partus sequitur ventrem—followed from her mother and her mother’s mother. Her father Seth, freed name Henry Williams, escaped to Boston when she was 4, and through his remarkable charisma for fundraising, he saw his entire family freed: children Oscar, 10, Mary, 7, and Rebecca, 6, his wife Elizabeth, her mother Prudence, and four of Mary’s aunts and uncles. The book Girl in Black and White  relates their remarkable stories, as I tell:

About Mary’s time in the public eye as a stand-in for a fictional heroine, Ida May,

About her grandmother Prudence’s master John—a free man of mixed race—and the scandal that obscured his past and protracted the legal battle over his property in humans,

About her grandmother Prudence’s thirty-year wait in sexual slavery for liberty long promised, 

About her fugitive father Seth’s midnight flight, and of his hide-out in Concord, dodging slave catchers with the Henry David Thoreau,

About the sentimental novels that anti-slavery women wrote to win votes with tears, as fiction emerged as the remedy for all the rhetoric, politics, posturing, racism, and greed that accompanied the end of slavery,

About the public lives of antislavery men and women who adjudicated and organized on Mary's behalf: most notably, Charles Sumner, future governor John Albion Andrew,  Rev. and Capt. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Charles H. Brainard, Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, William Cooper Nell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,

About the West End of Boston where the Underground Railroad led Mary’s father to these valuable connections, and eventually to settle,

About the heartbreaking choices the family faced in order to survive and thrive. 

And about how, by the turn of the century, Mary earned her independence and escaped Jim Crow by becoming a white government clerk residing in Beacon Hill, living as with her female partner Mary Maynard.

For audiences in 1855, Mary was white and black, a child and a slave, a person and a person’s property, a real girl and a fictional heroine, an orphan and a loving daughter and granddaughter. How comfortably did these contrasting identities rest on her narrow shoulders? Without a doubt, to wear the mantle of this many roles suggests that she was quite the performer. But across all the documents where Mary, or “Little Ida May” is said to have made an appearance, not one fan mentions her performing or saying anything at all. To be all these things, she simply has to be silent. In person, she stands still as the crowd claims her as their own, while her photograph provides an opportunity to do privately what Mary’s public wanted so desperately to do: to stare. Sympathetic activists bought her picture, kept it safe. They passed it on to their children and their children’s children, but not her story.  

Even today, Mary’s story confronts our racial equilibrium. But what did her contemporaries feel? Did she prove that no one should be enslaved—or that only white people should not be? Did they recognize, with horror and sadness, the crucible of rape and labor borne by her mother Elizabeth, aunt Evelina, grandmother Prudence, and great-grandmother Letty? Did they believe that she was mistakenly “held” as a slave—a hoax, or a “bogus” slave—made up by Sumner to earn political capital?

More soon.

“Ah! What tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.”

—Walt Whitman, “A Visit to Plumbe’s Gallery,” 1846