In 1844, Florida slave-holders believed Jonathan Walker deserved the punishment of a branded hand. Walker, after all, had tried to steal seven of their able-bodied workers.
One slave-holder watched with delight as a federal marshal pressed a red-hot branding iron into the palm of Walker’s hand. For 15 seconds it made a spattering sound, like salt in a fire.
But the slave-holders’ cruelty toward Jonathan Walker only backfired. He took his branded hand on the road, where it created a sensation. Walker would wade into the audience with his callused seaman’s palm outstretched. People could see the letters “SS” – for slave stealer.
A daguerreotype of Jonathan Walker’s branded hand was also reproduced many times in books, broadsides and newspapers. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about it, proclaiming “SS” stood for ‘Salvation to the Slave.’
Walker suffered other atrocities at the hand of the slave-holders. But when he died in 1878, Frederick Douglass remembered the branded hand. “It was one of the few atrocities of slavery that roused the justice and humanity of the North to a death struggle with slavery,” he wrote.
On June 4, 1844, Jonathan Walker sailed into Pensacola, Fla., in a little green sloop. He immediately aroused suspicion. A Cape Cod native, he had lived in Pensacola before with his wife and many children. The community leaders remembered how he’d befriended the colored people. Some had even cautioned him about it.
Though Pensacola was a backwater, it had a cosmopolitan, interracial population. As a port city on the Gulf of Mexico, it offered plenty of jobs for free black and white fishermen, mariners, lumberjacks, stevedores, shipwrights and carpenters. People of different ethnicities and racial makeups competed for jobs, but they also cooperated.
That caused a problem for the slave-holders of Pensacola. They knew the Underground Railroad ran south as well as north. Fugitives from slavery in the Deep South often fled to Pensacola for refuge – and passage aboard a ship to freedom.
The reappearance of Jonathan Walker therefore aroused some concern. A circular later described him as ‘a man of large frame, about six feet high, with dark hair and dark complexion, a suspicious countenance, slouchy person, stooping shoulders and a swinging, rolling gait–is lame in one arm from a gunshot wound.’
He had boarded with a colored woman, and he worked on his boat in her yard. “He seems to have had no reasonable or proper business here,” the circular read.
Actually, Jonathan Walker did have business there. He intended to raise a sunken wreck for its copper.
The gunshot wound? He’d been sailing along the Gulf coast, carrying cargo, when he ran aground and robbers shot him. During that time he had also carried fugitives from slavery to Mexico.
He was born in Harwich, Mass., on March 22, 1799, to Seth and Marcy Walker. He went to sea at 17, and continued for 19 years, sometimes staying on land and working in a shipyard. He built his own boat, so people called him captain.
Along the way he met and married Jane Gage, and together they had nine children. They named each after a famous abolitionist of the day: Lloyd Garrison Walker, George Fox Walker, Nancy Child Walker.
By 1844 he had moved his family back to Cape Cod.
While in Pensacola, three men approached him and asked him to take them to the Bahamas.
One day Jonathan Walker laid in bread, pork, molasses, cheese and water. On June 22, he set sail before daybreak one day. Two fishermen asked him where he was headed, and he said to Mobile – but headed in a different direction.
That same day, seven black men, all enslaved, disappeared with nearly all of their clothing.
“The belief exists that Jonathan Walker has carried these slaves off in his boat,” read the circular. Slave -holders R.C. Caldwell and George Willis offered a reward of $1,000 for his capture and conviction.
One rainy July day, Jonathan Walker returned to Pensacola on the steamboat General Taylor – under arrest. Despite the downpour, a large, noisy crowd greeted him at the dock. He could barely walk.
He had taken ill from sunstroke on the voyage to the Bahamas, and his boat drifted until a salvage sloop overtook him. The captain of the sloop arrested them and sent them back to Pensacola.
The courtroom overflowed with onlookers as a magistrate charged Jonathan Walker with stealing four slaves. He set bail at $10,000, which Walker couldn’t pay. He collapsed on the way to jail and had to be carried in a cart. The jailer bound his legs in irons. For days he slept and ate on the hard floor.
Jonathan Walker would spend four months in prison. His jailer put him in heavy irons, made him sit and lie on the hard floor and charged him $25 rent.
His sickness and severe treatment reduced him to a skeleton. “Many a time I have grasped round my leg above the knee joint, over my pants, with one hand so as to meet thumb and finger,” he wrote.
He could see into the filthy kitchen, where the dogs licked the cooking utensils and cats walked on the cutting boards. The cook was enslaved, and the jailer’s wife beat her frequently with a rawhide whip, from 20 to 50 strokes at a time.
Though sick and starving, the screams of the children bothered him most. The cook had a child, the jailer had three, and they all screamed for six hours at a time, causing him severe headaches. “There is a vast difference between crying naturally and occasionally, and screaming at the top of one’s voice with rage and passion,” he wrote.
After a while he moved to another cell, where fresh blood stained the door. One of the men he had tried to take to the Bahamas killed himself by cutting his throat and belly with a razor. He’d been falsely accused of stealing; the item turned up after someone else had moved it. The man who committed suicide hadn’t done anything wrong.
Sentenced to a Branded Hand
In November, Jonathan Walker went to trial in federal court for stealing Anthony Catlett, Silas Scott, Charles Johnson and his brother Moses. He was found guilty, to no one’s surprise. The judge sentenced him to the pillory, the branded hand, a fine and more prison time.
A silent crowd watched as Jonathan Walker stood in the pillory. Then George Willis, one of the slave-holders, snatched a handkerchief from Walker’s head, where it shielded him from the sun. He took two rotten eggs from his pocket and, wrote Walker, “He hurled them very spitefully at my head.” That ‘excited a burst of indignation from the bystanders.’
After his hour was up he washed his head with water, then went to the courtroom. The marshal tied his hand to the railing. A blacksmith had made a special branding iron for Walker after two had refused to do it. The marshal pressed the brand against his hand firmly for 15 or 20 seconds. The pain was severe, wrote Walker. Only a few watched, but George Willis ‘feasted his eyes upon it.’
His ordeal didn’t end there. While still in prison, he was charged with stealing the other three fugitives. A jury found him guilty. Jonathan Walker finally received some mercy, though. The jurors assessed him a fine of $5 for each offense.
Finally, after a year of suffering in prison, Jonathan Walker went home to Plymouth, Mass., with his branded hand. He endured it all, he wrote, for ‘an act of kindness towards some of the down-trodden of some of my own countrymen.’
The Man With the Branded Hand
Walker continued his fight against slavery, traveling the abolitionist lecture circuit. He wasn’t much of a speaker, though, so after speaking for a few moments he held up his branded hand. He called it, ‘the seal, the coat of arms of the United States.’ Then he walked into the crowd to show them his hand.
His abolitionist activities kept him in poverty, though. Once, when two fugitives from slavery and their small children arrived in Plymouth, Walker was furious that his neighbors did little to help them. He invited them to stay in his small cabin, but he had little food or heat and they soon left.
Eventually the Walker family moved west. He died on May 1, 1878 in Muskegon, Mich. A monument was erected on his grave at Evergreen Cemetery. The Harwich Historical Society erected a plaque in front of Brooks Academy commemorating Jonathan Walker.
With thanks to Matthew Clavin for his book, Aiming for Pensacola. Also to A Short Sketch of the Life and Services of Jonathan Walker: The Man with a Branded Hand with a Poem by John G. Whittier and an Address by Hon. Parker Pillsbury, One of Walker’s Anti-slavery Friends, and a Funeral Oration by Rev. F.E. Kittredge and Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, at Pensacola. This story was updated in 2022.