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Frederick Douglass to Ruth Cox, May 16, 1846


FREDERICK DOUGLASS TO RUTH COX1Ruth Cox (1818–1900), an escaped slave from Congressman John Leeds Kerr’s home in Easton, Talbot County, Maryland, assumed the name Harriet Bailey as a fugitive. In 1842 Cox escaped to West Chester, Pennsylvania, where the Quaker community protected and employed her. While on a speaking tour of Pennsylvania in 1843, Douglass mistakenly identified Cox as his youngest sister, Harriet, and invited her to live with his family in Lynn, Massachusetts. Cox stayed with the Douglass family, using the name Harriet Bailey as protection from slave catchers, and assisted Anna in running the household and taking in piecework. In 1847 Cox married Perry Frank Adams and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where they had three children, Matilda Ann, Ebby, and Perry Frank, Jr., and adopted a fourth, Samuel Hall. The Adamses were involved in the antislavery movement in Springfield, with Perry, Sr., a member of the African American Massachusetts State Council in 1854 and connected to John Brown’s secretive League of Gileadites in 1852. In 1861 the family migrated to Haiti under the sponsorship of the Haitian Emigration Bureau, but returned to Springfield sometime around the mid-1860s, as many other emigrants connected with that organization did. After Perry’s death in 1868, Harriet earned her living as a seamstress in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island until migrating to Nebraska with her daughter and son-in-law, minister William Vanderzee. Aaron Anthony Slave Distribution, 22 October 1827, Talbot County Distributions, V.JP#D, 58–59, MdTCH; Norfolk Weekly News, 7 March 1894; Wyuka Cemetery Burial Permit No. 1785, 23 April 1900, Wyuka Cemetery, Lincoln, Neb.; William H. Vanderzee, “John Brown in Springfield, Massachusetts,” 31 October 1918, KHi; Alice V. Coffee, “Lest We Forget” (n.p., n.d.), Alyce McWilliams Hall Collection, NbHi; Ellen Ginzburg Migliorino and Giorgio G. Campanaro, “Frederick Douglass’s More Intimate Nature as Revealed in Some of His Unpublished Letters,” Southern Studies, 18:480–87 (Winter 1979).

[n.p.] 16 May 1846.

A few loving words to my own Dear Sister Harriet. You will observe that I commence to write very plain. I don’t know how I shall hold out—at any rate I think you will be able to read it. I’ll try to make it so that you can without much trouble. I write not because I have much to say, but because I geuss you will be pleased to get a word direct from your Brothers pen. Do I guess right? Now having introduced my letter, let me say a word about my health. It is only tolerable. I never feel very well in the Spring. I however think I feel as well this Spring as I remember to have felt at any time in the Spring during the last five years. Harriet I got real low spirits a few days—ago—quite down at the mouth. I felt worse than "get out."2“Get-out” or “all get-out” is a regional phrase that indicates an extreme or high degree. Although the origin of the idiom varies, Joseph C. Neal popularized it when he used the expression in Charcoal Sketches in 1838. Frederick G. Cassidy, ed., Dictionary of American Regional English, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1985–2001), 1:41, 2:655. My under lip hung like that of a motherless colt[.] I looked so ugly that I hated to see myself in a glass.

There was no living for me. I was snappish. I would have kicked my grand ‘dadda’! I was in a terrible mood—‘dats a fac! ole missus—is you got any ting for poor nigger to eat!!![’] Oh, Harriet could I have seen you then. How soon would I have been releived from that Horrible feeling. You would have been so kind to me. You would not have looked cross at me. I know you would not. Instead of looking cross at me, you would have with your own Dear Sisterly hand smoothed, and stroked down my feverish fore head—and spoken so kindly as to make me forget my sadness.


You will be anxcious to know how I got out of this predicament. Well, I will tell you[.] I went down the street and saw in the window of a large store—and old fiddle. The thought struck me—it has been so long since I played any that it might do me some good—you know when I get hungry at home I always play. Well I bought the fiddle[.] [G]ave a trifle for it—brought it to the Hotel, and struck up the 'Camels a coming[.]'3Douglass probably refers to the Scottish jig “The Campbells Are Coming,” adapted by Robert Burns. The song was reputedly first written upon the imprisonment of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, in 1567. Burns, Poems and Songs, 432. I had not played ten minutes before I began to feel better and—gradually I came to myself again and was as lively as a crikit and as loving as a lamb.4The simile is actually “gentle as a lamb,” attributed to Chaucer in “The Second Nonnes Tale,” in The Canterbury Tales, written in 1389. Stevenson, Book of Proverbs, 1559. But Hatta. It is a terrible feeling and I advise every body to keep clear of it who can—and those who can[’]t to buy a fiddle. They say music is good for insane people, and I beleive every body are more or less in sane—at times. I feel very foolish when I come out of my fits of insanity[.] I mean my fits of melancholy—all the same, you know. Do you even have them Dear Harriet. If you do just take down my old fiddle. I am sure it will do you good.

Harriet you were always Dear to me, but never so Dear as now. Your devotion to my little boys5Douglass’s three sons, Lewis Henry Douglass (1840–1908), Frederick Douglass, Jr. (1842–92), and Charles Remond Douglass (1844–1920). Lewis was born in New Bedford and his brothers in Lynn. All three attended school in Rochester, where they also worked in their father’s newspaper office. During the Civil War, Lewis and Charles enlisted in the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, both rising to the rank of sergeant. Lewis and Frederick, Jr., eventually became printers, although they suffered racial discrimination. Lewis was only able to find employment at the Government Printing Office through his father’s connections. Frederick, Jr., became an editor and writer. Charles, named for Charles Lenox Remond, also worked for the federal government as a clerk in the Freedmen’s Bureau, Treasury Department, and as consul for Santo Domingo. NASS, 22 May 1869; Rochester Union and Advertiser, 6 August 1869; Rochester Democrat and American, 5 November 1870; Detroit Plaindealer, 12 August 1892; William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York, 1991), 81, 97, 103, 230, 235, 239, 248–49, 257–58, 271–72, 306, 342, 372. your attention to Dear Anna,6Anna Douglass. your smartness in learning to read and write and your loving letters to me has made you doubly Dear to me. I will not forget you. What you do for My Anna and my children I shall consider as done to myself, and will reward you with a brothers love, and a fathers care. I am going on bravely with my Antislavery work[.] [M]y book is selling slowly but surely. I have fourteen hundred copies to dispose of before I come home[.] I wish I could see any way clear to come home in July, with my old friend & Brother James7James N. Buffum.—with whom you may confidently expect to shake hands on the 18th of July.8Buffum returned to Boston, Massachusetts, on the Cambria on 17 July 1846. Lib., 24 July 1846. If I could sell what books I have on hand by that time, I would come but this I do not expect so I submit to my fate, and will try to make my self contented The right way when we can do no better. Read the enclosed letter which I send to my Dear Anna9The enclosed letter from Douglass to his wife has not been located. over and over again till she can fully understand its contents[.] Remember me very affectionately to all who make friendly enquiries after me[.] Speak kindly of me to our mutually Dear Friend Mrs. Fletcher[.]10Mrs. Fletcher of Lynn, Massachusetts, could have been one of two women. Emma Allison of Boston married John D. Fletcher of Lynn, on May 29, 1837. Mary Fletcher (1816–?) was the wife of Jeremy Fletcher (1815–?), a confectioner in Lynn in 1850 and a peddler in 1851. 1850 U.S. Census, Massachusetts, Essex County, Lynn, 289; Alonzo Lewis, Directory of the City of Lynn (Lynn, Mass., 1851), 79; Vital Records of Lynn, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849, 2 vols. (Salem, Mass., 1905–06), 1:138. Take care of all the papers which I send[.] [L]ook after my Little trees. Kiss all my Dear boys for me, and beleive me always yours

Your Brother


ALS: Correspondence File, Additions II, FD Papers, DLC.



May 16, 1846


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