What Happened When Anna Jumped from the Window: The Domestic Slave Trade in Antebellum Washington, D.C.
Candyce Carter, Stanford University
The woman known as Anna awakened at daybreak in November 1815 and jumped from a third floor window of the Washington, D.C. tavern where she was being held. In the arresting engraving that depicts her desperate act, Anna’s facial features are shadowy. However, her dark, tightly curled hair and the contrast of her skin against the simple white cotton muslin dress make her racial identity unmistakable (Fig. 1). The anguished leap put Anna’s picture and story in one of the earliest anti-slavery writings of the new United States. Anna’s picture put a face on the inhumanity of the domestic slave trade, and her story indirectly launched court cases, started the American Colonization Society, inspired congressional speeches, caused her tavern-prison to burn to the ground, and put her jailer out of business.
An outline of the events that set Ann’s life in motion and put her on the window ledge that morning reveals scant details. Born into slavery in Maryland, Anna later married an enslaved man from a nearby plantation and had two daughters. At some point, Anna and her children were sold by her “old master” to her husband’s owner as payment for debts. Anna was “treated unkindly” in this new setting, and her new master also had debts. After sending Anna’s husband to work at the plantation’s outer perimeter, the planter sold Anna and her daughters to “men from Georgia,” who took them to Washington, D.C. to await further transportation. It was in Washington D.C., while warehoused in the garret of George Miller’s tavern on F Street, that Anna jumped from the window. Miraculously, she survived, although she broke both arms and badly injured her back.
A few weeks before Anna’s leap from the window, Jesse Torrey, a Philadelphia doctor on a young man’s tour of Washington, D.C., experienced a ‘road-to-Damascus’ epiphany when he observed slave traders force-marching a sorrowful procession of enslaved men, women, and children past the Capitol building. Torrey recognized the irony of a parade of humans in chains in full view of the proud structures of a new republic founded on ideals of liberty and equality. The young doctor immediately canceled his Congressional visit and instead determined to create a “faithful copy of the impressions… which involuntarily pervaded my full heart and agitated my mind.” The story of Anna’s jump from an upper story window of a “slave tavern” came to Torrey’s attention as it circulated through Washington’s rumor mill. Torrey rushed to investigate and discover what motivated Anna’s hopeless and “frantic act.” Perhaps Torrey knew instinctively that the story of one mother’s desperation fully captured slavery’s brutal reality in ways that reduced other discussions to mere abstractions. Anna’s is the first of several accounts of Torrey’s interviews with enslaved persons, slaveholders, slave traders, and kidnapped free African-Americans in A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, a slim, 84-page leather-bound volume Torrey published within two years of Anna’s leap from the window (Figs. 2a, 2b, 2c).
When Torrey met with Anna, she was lucid but bedridden—and once again in the third-story garret of Miller’s Tavern. Miller had purchased her for the bargain price of $5, presumably enough to cover the cost of her care until she recovered. Torrey’s interview with Anna does not reveal whether she was trying to escape when she jumped, or whether she intended to take her life. Nevertheless, the reason Anna “did not want to go” echoes through slave memoirs and literature even today: the brutality and deprivation of the domestic slave trade and the deliberate dissolution of enslaved families. Anna was one of nearly one million slaves forcibly separated from their families and sold “down the river” during the first six decades of the nineteenth century. The narrative that accompanies the illustration quoted Anna directly: “They brought me away with two of my children, and wouldn’t let me see my husband—they didn’t sell my husband, and I didn’t want to go. I was so confused and ’istracted that I didn’t