About Jonathan Walker
Jonathan Walker (1799 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts – May 1, 1878 near Norton Shores, Michigan), aka "The Man with the Branded Hand", was an American reformer who became a national hero in 1844 when he was tried and sentenced as a slave stealer following his attempt to help seven runaway slaves find freedom. He was branded on his hand by the United States Government with the markings S.S. for "Slave Stealer".
Portrait and signature: http://www.archive.org/stream/trialimprisonmen00walk#page/n3/mode/2up
In 1837, Jonathan Walker was a little-known New England tradesman and shipwright who had relocated to the sleepy territorial town of Pensacola, Florida. He gained international fame in November of 1844 when convicted by a Florida jury of “aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others.” A white man who had long been opposed to slavery, Walker was known in Pensacola for his unusual determination to treat the slaves and free blacks around him with respect. In June, Walker embarked on a more radical path, consenting to the request of seven enslaved men to sail them several hundred miles to freedom in the Bahamas. Once Parliament’s passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act initiated gradual emancipation in British possessions, Canada, to the north, and various Caribbean islands, to the south, became alluring destinations for American slaves. Unfortunately for Walker and his passengers, his small boat was discovered after fourteen days at sea by a passing American sloop; suspicious of seven blacks sailing with one white man in a cramped boat, the captain ordered Walker’s vessel towed back to a Florida port so that the men could explain themselves to authorities. Walker was immediately arrested and charged with aiding the escape of slaves.
Ardent abolitionists hailed Walker as a hero for putting his life and liberty at risk for the sake of American slaves. But even for northerners less committed to the abolitionist struggle, Walker’s story was deemed remarkable for the cruelty of the punishment he stoically endured. After a speedy trial, a Florida judge sentenced Walker “to be placed in the pillory for one hour; then brought into court, and branded in the right hand with the letters SS.; then remanded to prison for fifteen days, and remain there until the fine (one hundred and fifty dollars) and the costs of the prosecution should be paid.” The “SS” branding, which stood for “slave stealer,” was intended as a punishment for Walker and as a warning to like-minded whites not to act on their political convictions.
Walker was feted in the north as soon as he made his way to New York after the last of his court costs were paid by supporters and his release secured. The same abolitionists who raised funds to support Walker’s family during his imprisonment, paid a prominent lawyer to look into his case, and discharged his court fines and costs, now encouraged him to pen an account of his exploits and lecture on his experiences. For several years after his release Walker was a sought-after speaker on the abolitionist lecture circuit who frequently shared the stage with former slaves. Walker and the freemen would recount their harrowing experiences before audiences for the sake of raising concern and funds in the north for the abolitionist cause.
Sometime in 1845, Walker agreed to the request of a prominent Boston physician, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch (1808-1892), to have a commemorative daguerreotype taken of his hand in the fashionable Boston daguerreotype studio of Southworth & Hawes. The daguerreotype Bowditch commissioned—now in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society—shows Walker’s open right hand resting on a table with its palm facing toward the camera and thumb extended upward. The dark cuff of Walker’s jacket is evident at the left-hand side of the image and a hint of his white, stiffened shirtsleeve visible above and below his wrist. Just under the base of the thumb two raised white scars trace themselves across the lines and wrinkles of Walker’s palm, each of which forms a reversed “S.”
Because a daguerreotype’s image forms directly on the plate—without mediating negatives—each plate is a unique object from which duplicates are not easily created. The image of Walker’s hand was first and foremost a one-of-a-kind keepsake for a prominent Boston abolitionist who wished to possess a visual reminder of the shipwright’s exploits. The image was seen by small circles of sympathetic men and women who surely passed the image around at intimate gatherings in Bowditch’s home. And yet, despite the limited circulation of the daguerreotype itself, the image of Walker’s branded hand became one of the best-known symbols of the American abolitionist movement. An engraving of the daguerreotype was printed in newspaper accounts of Walker’s ordeal, abolitionist pamphlets, Walker’s bestselling autobiography, and even carved into the imposing funerary obelisk erected to mark his grave upon his death in 1878.
Walker moved to Michigan about 1850, where he lived near Muskegon until his death. A monument was erected to his memory on August 1, 1878.
Walker was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Man with the Branded Hand". Whittier heard about Walker's actions after reading a book about him called Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker. The poem praised Walker's actions.