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Was a Mobile bookstore closed for selling a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, was one of the books that got Strickland & Co. in hot water with Mobile’s Vigilance Committee.

 

Actually, in the fall of 1856, two men lost their bookstore over the dispute. A Northern newspaper account exaggerated the situation when it reported that “their place of business was broken up by violence and they were compelled to leave the state.” The incident made newspapers across the nation, including The New York Times.

The passage by Congress of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters, enraged many and led to a growing abolitionist movement. The majority of Americans had never encountered a slave, however, and had no set opinion on the matter until a popular book was published in 1852. Based on a series of newspaper articles appearing in 1851, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would become the top-selling book for the remainder of the century.

As the novel’s popularity soared, so did anti-slavery views. Critics argued that the book was pure fiction and that its Connecticut-born author had never set foot in a Southern state. By the middle of the decade, tempers were flaring and efforts were underway to ban the book across the South.

Strickland & Co. — Printers, Bookbinders & Stationers

Located in Mobile, Strickland & Company was the largest bookstore south of Baltimore. It stood on the northeast corner of Dauphin and Water Streets and catered to local readers as well as residents up and down the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers. Its owners were British-born William Strickland and his partner Edwin Upson, a native of Connecticut whose wife was born in Tuscaloosa.

An organization known as the “Vigilance Committee” was set up in Mobile to keep an eye out for anyone espousing an abolitionist point of view. Alabama’s port city was full of northern-born residents, and those opposed to “the peculiar institution” had learned to keep their mouths shut and hire Irish immigrants. Rumors abounded that there were individuals who were assisting runaway slaves to board northern-bound vessels in the harbor.

In the summer of 1856, a stranger entered the busy Dauphin Street bookstore and browsed the shelves. He picked up a copy of former slave Frederick Douglass’ “Autographs of Freedom” and asked a sales clerk about it. The harried salesman said he was unfamiliar with the book, and his customer responded, “Well, in New Orleans such books are not permitted.”

A day or so later, another man walked into the shop and headed straight to the shelf holding the Douglass book and, after paying cash for his purchase, departed.

The Vigilance Committee

It was not long before Mr. Strickland and his partner found themselves being interrogated by members of the Vigilance Committee, who suspected them of being abolitionists or speculators ready to make a quick dime with no regard as to what they were letting loose on the public.

The store’s records had been seized, and when Mr. Strickland responded that he had never sold a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, his interrogators pounced. He was shown a receipt, showing Strickland & Co. had purchased 50 copies of the novel. The bookseller responded that he had purchased them as gifts for many of his up-river customers who were curious and wanted to read the best-seller. He vigorously denied being an abolitionist and said that the books were never sold from his shop.

And the Douglass book? Strickland had ordered it for a customer who never picked it up. He said he had forgotten it was even in the store. From the looks of their accusers, it was obvious their minds were already made up.

The shop owners left the room in a state of shock. Strickland was soon visited by three men who explained that the committee found him and Upson to be “dangerous to the community” and that, unless they and their families left within five days, their safety could not be guaranteed.

Banished

Upson and his family left first. Mr. Strickland stayed a day or two longer. One morning, he casually walked from his Government Street home and headed to his shop, well aware that he was being watched. He passed his bookstore and headed to the waterfront, where a boat took him to Point Clear where his family had been summering. They quickly packed and ultimately ended up in Wisconsin.

A $40,000 Loss

With the discovery that both men were gone, the Mobile Register praised the work of the committee, noting that a painter down on Dauphin Street was at work “erasing the very name of the abolitionist agents from the sign boards hanging over the elegant store.”

William Strickland returned to Mobile several months later to try and salvage his investment and was told he “could not remain in the city” and “had better leave.” Soon, a $250 price had been placed on his head, and no hotel would allow him to register for fear of arson.

Strickland returned to his new home of Milwaukee and estimated that his loss had been in excess of $40,000 (about $1.1 million today). He and Edwin Upson began a new bookstore in Wisconsin and would deny the charges lodged against them until their dying days.

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