Whipped Peter and Emancipation

We all know the image:

Library of Congress

Look closely. The image has become so ubiquitous that we usually forget to actually look.

Known as “Whipped Peter,” this self-emancipated slave made it into Federal lines near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in March 1863. Following a medical examination, he agreed to have his lacerated back photographed. Details of the image itself can be found at the Library of Congress; additional information can be found at the National Archives.

The image was widely circulated throughout the North that spring and summer, making it one of the most famous—and influential—photos of its time. The image did much to strengthen Abolitionist sentiment. According to a caption on the back:

Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me. I was two months in bed sore from the whipping. My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer. The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture. Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The story of “Whipped Peter” has been conflated with the story of another self-emancipated slave, Gordon, because a woodcut made from the photo appeared in a July 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly along with an account of Gordon’s experience. The account and the photo were presented as being the same person, although some evidence suggests otherwise.

The image is about to get new life thanks to director Antoine Fuqua, screenwriter William Collage, and actor Will Smith. Emancipation, a dramatized version of “Whipped Peter’s” life, with Smith as Peter, will show in select theaters this weekend and begin streaming on Apple TV+ on December 9.

7 Responses to Whipped Peter and Emancipation

  1. The right picture could be so powerful—especially before PhotoShop.

    I would be curious about HOW this picture was circulated in 1863—since there was no photo-reproduction and no way to make copies except laboriously, one by one, in the darkroom.
    I suspect it became much more famous AFTER the war, once photo reproduction in publications became possible. Anyone know?

    1. The article mentions it was published in Harper’s Weekly Magazine. The photos could not be reproduced like how we imagine today but studio artists laboriously and faithfully reproduced photographic prints as woodcuts, closely matching the original, and these were able to be printed. Usually the caption would say something like ‘from a photograph by [artist].’ It’s how many of Mathew Brady’s photographs and those of other photographers or the work of sketch artists then ended up in wide circulation.

  2. A significant part of the dramatic impact of Peter’s skin is due to keloid formation. Keloid is an unhealthy proliferation of scar tissue found much more commonly in black than white skin. It typically develops after injury to the skin and usually continues for the life of the patient, sometimes causing substantial pain, not to mention the psychologic burden when on exposed skin. Treatment success is limited. Peter’s scaring and suffering became a lifelong testimonial to his abuse. But ironically, by his disfigurement, many others who viewed this became even more impassioned in their fight for emancipation.

  3. I’m rather excited for this movie. I trust they had a good team of historians to do the necessary research to do justice to his story.

  4. One of my paternal ancestors was listed as an overseer on a plantation in East Baton Rouge Parish in the 1860 census. The plantation had 27 slaves per the 1860 census. The planter had a German surname and had been born In Illinois, apparently migrating to Louisiana with his family when he was young. My ancestor’s name wasn’t Carrier, a Creole name, so it wasn’t him that beat Peter, but it makes you wonder what his employment entailed. My ancestor, a Meades, was actually a farmer from England who immigrated to the US, I think by 1850. The planter died during the Civil War. Meades married the planter’s widow. They had a child. Meades then left the widow and disappeared. He doesn’t turn up on a census again until 1880 and is in San Francisco. Meades had enlisted in a local East Baton Rouge Parish partisan unit in 1862.

  5. I know how photos were reproduced back then—actually, they weren’t. An engraving had to be made and no matter how carefully done, it was not a photo. Therefore, if this famous photo was actually widely reproduced as an engraving, where are the examples of it? I haven’t seen any.
    So i still wonder—how did people in the 1860s see this image? And if it was so widely reproduced back then, during the war, where are the examples of it?
    So I’m back to my original point, that this picture was probably widely circulated AFTER the war, and became an icon then.

    And I am looking forward to the movie. Hope it’s good!

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