Brand on lower left of hand.
Walker monument in Michigan.

The Man with the Branded Hand

“…but I was too young to appreciate the ideas that were being advanced, that were afterwards the occasion of national dissension and civil war.  I was more interested when a man arose on the platform and showed branded in the palm of his uplifted hand the letters SS.  He had labored among the slaves to aid them to escape from slavery and as a punishment was burned SS for Slave Stealer.  He afterwards married Dr. Emily Gay’s sister and lived in Hopedale.” Anna Thwing Field, Hopedale Reminiscences

Anna Thwing Field’s lines from a chapter in Hopedale Reminiscences titled Anti-slavery and Other Visitors to the Community was all I knew abouts “the man with the branded hand” until I ran across Rachel Day’s account at the Bancroft Library recently. Here it is.

In the pageant commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Hopedale, the appearance of the man with the letters SS burned into the palm of his right hand revealed the days of anti-slavery agitation. “Slave stealer” was the stigma intended by the henchmen of slave-owners, but John Greenleaf Whittier in his poem dedicated to this martyr to the Abolitionist cause, titled “The Branded Hand,” called this a “brand of the highest honor,” standing for the noble words, “Salvation to the Slave.”

Captain Jonathan Walker, born in 1799 in Harwich, Massachusetts, and master of a sailing vessel, become well-known before the Civil War as “the man with the branded hand.” Aroused by the wrongs suffered by the slaves, he was one of the many lesser known workers who prepared the way for their freedom. While on the coast of Florida in the year 1844, Captain Walker attempted to help a party of slaves escape to one of the Bahama islands in an open boat. He suffered sunstroke, his party was overtaken by pursuers, and he was made a prisoner and put in the pillory. His right hand was then branded and a heavy fine and long term of imprisonment imposed. After two years friends in the North secured his release. His return from Florida was the occasion of great anti-slavery excitement, a large meeting in his honor being held in Providence, Rhode Island.

Thereafter Jonathan Walker devoted his time to Underground Railway activities in New England and also was one of the most fervent abolitionist speakers. At anti-slavery meetings, stanzas from Whittier’s poem about the “brave seaman,” set to music and sung with thrilling effect, intensified the interest in Walker’s personal appearance. A young girl who listened to him lecture in Hopedale was afterward to write of the great impression he made upon her. An old engraved portrait testifies to the zeal that burned in his eyes while his wide firmly set mouth suggests strong human sympathy.

Captain Walker lived in Hopedale during the years 1858-59, marrying the sister of Dr. Emily Gay, a well-known character of early day. An undated newspaper clipping records the death of Captain Walker, once so well known as “the man with the branded hand,” in Muskegon, Michigan, “in great poverty.”  Rachel C. Day

Well, that seemed rather interesting when I first found it. Whittier wrote a poem about a man who had lived in Hopedale. However, as I started looking for more on Walker, there were things that didn’t add up. I don’t know where Rachel Day found that he was living in Hopedale in 1858-59, but I haven’t found that anywhere else. A number of online sources say that he moved to Michigan in 1850 and remained there until he died in 1878. Here’s one:

From Rootsweb – JONATHAN WALKER born Mar. 22, 1799, Harwich, MA, Died Apr. 30, 1878, Lake Harbor, MI. Married JANE GAGE May 2, 1878, Harwich, MA. Jane Gage born Jun. 28, 1803, Dennis, MA. Died Sept. 28, 1871, Lake Harbor, MI. Jane was the daughter of Mayo Gage and Zerviah Ellis.

Evidently there was a typo on the marriage date. Here’s more from Rootsweb. “His wife, Jane Gage Walker, died in Lake Harbor in 1871, and according to some family tradition, he remarried, but unable to substantiate it.” So it’s possible that he married Emily Gay’s sister after Jane died, but that doesn’t really fit with the other information given on him. There was a Richard Walker who lived in Hopedale during the Community days. I’m wondering if, writing about those days more than fifty years later, Anna Thwing Field remembered seeing Jonathan Walker at an antislavery meeting, remembered that Emily’s sister married a Walker and put the two things together and came up with the wrong conclusion. I’d say that we can be sure that Jonathan Walker spoke in Hopedale, but beyond that, who knows?

“Then lift that manly right hand, bold ploughman of the wave,Its branded palm shall prophesy ‘Salvation to the Slave.’Hold up its fire-wrought language that whoso reads may feel His heart swell strong within him, his sinews change to steel.”John Greenleaf Whittier.

Anti-slavery and other Visitors to the Community, Anna Thwing Field

Wilbur Henry Siebert’s history of the Underground Railway – a source cited by Rachel Day. The old paper version, of course.

Jonathan Walker, Wikipedia 


Underground Railroad in Hopedale                      UGRR House   

    Prominent visitors to the Community   

   Abolition Activities in Hopedale, Milford and Mendon  

   Abolitionism in the Hopedale Community by Ernest Dalton  

   Meeting at Milford Methodist Church  

    Abolitionist Plaque                  Escaped Slave, Rosetta Hall   

  Hopedale Community Menu             Abolitionism Menu               HOME      

Here is some of the story of the branding from the Pensapedia site.

On November 16, his sentence was carried out. Walker was pilloried for one hour, during which time locals (and specifically George Willis) pelted him with rotten eggs. U.S. Marshal and Escambia County Sheriff Ebenezer Dorr IV ordered a fire built within the antebellum courthouse to heat the brand. Walker later recounted the experience:

When about to be branded, I was placed in the prisoner’s box. Dorr … proceded to tie my hand to a part of the railing in front. I remarked that there was no need of tying it, for I would hold still. He observed that it was best to make sure, and tied it firmly to the post, in fair view; he then took from the fire the branding-iron, of a slight red heat, and applied it to the ball of my hand, and pressed it on firmly, for fifteen or twenty seconds. It made a spattering noise, like a handful of salt in the fire, as the skin seared and gave way to the hot iron. The pain was severe while the iron was on, and for some time afterwards.

After the branding, Walker was returned to the jail. Dorr served him three writs for trespass and damages totaling $106,000. He remained imprisoned for several more months, and on May 9 was arraigned on three more indictments. Walker was defended by W. W. J. Kelly, but again the jury (which included Mayor Charles Evans) returned guilty verdicts on all counts, with a sentence of $5 for each count. After a group of Northern abolitionists paid the bill of costs against him, totaling $596.05, Walker was released from jail on June 16, 1845.

For five years after his release, Walker lectured on slavery in the northern and western states. He moved to Michigan about 1850, where he lived near Muskegon until his death on May 1, 1878. A monument was erected to his memory on August 1, 1878. He was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier‘s poem “The Branded Hand.”

For the rest of the story on the Pensapedia site, click here.