An excerpt from John Waddill's diaries
"To day (sic) I was employed by Henry B. Northup Esq. of Sandy Hill, Washington County state of New York, to bring suit against Edwin Epps to reclaim from slavery a free negro named Soloman (sic) Northup who had been kidnapped in the City of Washington in 1841."
Liz Brazelton inherited four volumes of diaries kept by her great-great-grandfather between 1813 and 1855. “My mother died in 1988 and left them to me,” she said in a recent interview. “I stuck them on a sideboard and forgot about them.”
A resident of Alexandria who recently retired after thirty-three years with the state Department of Children and Family Services, Brazelton decided it was time to find a permanent home for the diaries of her ancestor, attorney John Pamplin Waddill of Marksville. “He was meticulous in writing about the cost of things,” she said. “He did successions for people, so there’s lots of information about families in Avoyelles Parish. With that kind of detail, I thought, ‘This needs to be available to the public.’
“The main thing I wanted was for them to be preserved.”
A lawyer and politician born in Tennessee, Waddill moved to Louisiana in 1838. He became a state senator in 1848 and was a delegate to the Louisiana Constitutional Convention in 1852. But Waddill is remembered today chiefly because he played an important role in securing the freedom of Solomon Northup—a process he documented in one of his diaries.
A free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup was lured in 1841 to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After being released in 1853 with Waddill’s help, Northup wrote an account of his ordeal, Twelve Years a Slave. Published just three months after his release, the book describes his ten years on the Bunkie plantation of Edwin Epps, whose many cruelties are vividly detailed in the book. Following, by a year, the publication of the fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Northup’s book was hailed as a remarkable first-person account of the horrors of slavery.
Waddill documented his work on the Northup case in the fourth volume of his diary. In late 1852, Northup enlisted the help of Samuel Bass, a carpenter hired by Epps, in obtaining his freedom. A resident of Canada, Bass was an abolitionist who vowed to help Solomon escape his unjust fate.
On January 1, 1853, Waddill wrote the first entry in the fourth volume of his diary: “To day (sic) I was employed by Henry B. Northup Esq. of Sandy Hill, Washington County state of New York, to bring suit against Edwin Epps to reclaim from slavery a free negro named Soloman (sic) Northup who had been kidnapped in the city of Washington in 1841.”
The second entry of 1853 follows: “January 4 – today the slave Solomon was released & I received fifty dollars for my services.”
The volume was displayed by The Historic New Orleans Collection in the exhibition Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865, along with such related items as a first edition of Twelve Years a Slave and a manifest from the brig Orleans, which took the kidnapped Solomon to New Orleans. He is listed by his slave name, “Platt Hamilton.”
The exhibit, which broke attendance records at HNOC, ran from March through July of 2015. It has since traveled to Alexandria, Louisiana, and is currently at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas, where it will remain through July 9.
In 2016, the Waddill diary documenting his work to free Solomon Northup traveled to Washington, D.C., where it is on exhibit at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Brazelton attended the opening of the museum on September 24, 2016. That day was declared “Solomon Northup Day” by Washington mayor Muriel Bowser in recognition of Northup’s inclusion in the museum and in commemoration of the 175th anniversary of his abduction on the streets of the city. (Interest in Northup has grown since the release of the movie version of his book, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.)
In Twelve Years a Slave, Northup praises Waddill as “a legal gentleman of distinction, and a man of fine genius and most noble impulses. After reading the letters and documents presented him, and listening to a representation of the circumstances under which I had been carried away into captivity, Mr. Waddill at once proffered his services, and entered into the affair with great zeal and earnestness. He … looked upon the kidnapper with abhorrence.” Northup added that Waddill “was a man in whose honorable heart emotions of indignation were aroused by such an instance of injustice.”
Brazelton donated the other three volumes of Waddill’s diaries to HNOC. Curator and historian Erin Greenwald, who has read them, said the first volume begins when Waddill was a law student at Augusta College in Kentucky and ends with his obtaining his law license and his subsequent move to Marksville, the parish seat of Avoyelles Parish. Waddill titled this volume “Diary of a Misanthrope.”
The second diary begins in May 1846 and ends in January 1852. It includes information about the involvement of central Louisiana troops in the Mexican-American war. It also documents Waddill’s nomination and election as state senator. Edwin Epps, the slave master whose brutality is documented in Twelve Years a Slave, is mentioned for the first time in this volume.
The third diary spans January 1848 to September 1853 and includes original poetry and an autobiographical sketch filled with details of his family history.
Waddill died of yellow fever at age 41 in 1855, according to Brazelton, who recalls her mother reading the diaries. Brazelton first learned about Solomon Northup as a teenager. “I knew Dr. Eakin. She and my mother were friends when I was about fifteen. She used the diaries as part of her research on Solomon. She used to say how accurate he was in recalling events. For twelve years he couldn’t write anything down.”
Northup added that Waddill “was a man in whose honorable heart emotions of indignation were aroused by such an instance of injustice.”
Sue Eakin, a scholar, educator, and preservationist who first read the book when she was a child, wrote her master’s thesis on it. She spent years researching the people and places named in the book and coedited a reprint edition in 1968. Shortly before her death, in 2009, she published an updated version with maps and photos of the area around Cheneyville and Bunkie where the book is set.
When Brazelton decided to deposit the diaries in a safe location, “I took them first to Mamie Gasperecz to see if she wanted to display them at the Hermann-Grima House or the Gallier House. [Gasperecz is executive director of both historic houses in New Orleans.] She told me they’d be better suited to The Historic New Orleans Collection. Later I drove to New Orleans with them.”
Brazelton met with Greenwald, who recalled, “She came in with all four volumes. Three were donated to us and the fourth was lent to us for the Purchased Lives exhibit. After our exhibit closed, she sent the fourth volume to the Smithsonian, which will keep it for ten years, after which it will be returned to HNOC.”
“HNOC was very easy to work with,” said Brazelton, who attended the opening of the Purchased Lives exhibit. “They are very organized. They estimated the value of the diaries at $50,000. It was shocking to me. But I can’t sell history.”
“He was 48 years of age and was born in upper Canada where he has a wife and four children. He had been separated from his wife for 12 or 15 years,” reads Waddill’s diary entry dated August 1853.
Besides the diaries, said Brazelton, she had inherited “boxes and boxes of things, including letters from the 1800s. My great-great-grandfather Overton settled the boundary between Louisiana and Texas. I have a letter from him to his son about it.”
Brazelton donated four boxes of materials to HNOC. “The papers range from 1841 to the 1980s,” said Greenwald, who visited Brazelton in Alexandria and took the boxes back to New Orleans. “They include scrapbooks, correspondence, photos, and ephemera on the Overton, Brazelton, and Dismukes families.”
Brazelton is happy to have consigned her treasures to a place where they will be archived and available to researchers. “I don’t have any children, and nobody in my family wanted these things,” she said. “It would all have been thrown out in the trash, but now it’s been preserved.”