Note on American Slavery: Cat-hauling

Take a deep breath and brace yourself, before you read further. Or stop reading now if you do not want to subject yourself to this: in this post I describes a particular torture from antebellum slavery that is unimaginably cruel, one which Americans have collectively chosen to forget and to sanitize.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cat-haul” is U.S. English, and it is derived from a punishment that slavemasters inflicted on enslaved people, though I do not believe the usage cases in the dictionary acknowledge adequately its horrific cruelty.  The OED does not even give a formal definition and instead relies on the reader to infer the definition from a usage example. The quotation is from Arthur Singleton’s Letters from the South and West (1824):

The cat-haul; that is, to fasten a slave down flatwise..and then to take a huge fierce tom-cat by the tail backward, and haul him down along the..bare back, with his claws clinging into the quick all the way.

You could easily miss the phrase “into the quick,” which we use mostly today to refer to bleeding when clipping a pet’s nails. In this case, it might mean lodging so deeply into the flesh that the live part of the claw is embedded, though I think it means that claws are embedded into the person’s “quick,” into the flesh deeply enough to cause bleeding. That is the only sample usage for the noun form that the OED gives, and the lexicographer (this definition has not been revised since 1936) instead only offers a formal definition for the verb form: “to subject to this punishment; fig. to examine stringently.” Think about that for a second, that the figurative use has transformed claws puncturing and tearing through skin into a “stringent examination.” That’s how culture tells itself lies with language: there was no “examination” going on in the first place, just unmitigated cruelty.

To return to the OED, three usage examples follow, from 1840, 1851, and 1950. The noun form cat-hauling also receives a usage case, from Chambers’ Miscellany of Useful and Entertaining Tracts, 1844–7.

I saw a slave punished by cat-hauling. The cat was placed on the bare shoulders, and forcibly dragged by the tail down the back..of the prostrate slave.

Reread the title of source for quotation, note the phrase “useful and entertaining,” and go on. Read in dictionary context (with ellipsis dots to signal omissions), one might be excused for assuming cat-hauling meant a single pass, though “into the quick,” if it registered in the previous usage example, may have caused you to cringe. That notion of single pass, though, has become part of our contemporary definition. The  Merriam Webster Dictionary also defines cat-haul today in such a way that most readers would assume a single pass, a moderate punishment: “to punish by forcibly dragging a cat along the bare back <cat-haul a slave for a misdemeanor>.”  And look here, it’s a “misdemeanor,” which implies that the punishment was formal retribution for a criminal act instead of what it actually was, an act of ferocious cruelty by a monster, which happened to be legally sanctioned because the law offered protection to the enslaved persons only in cases that offended public sensibilities. In the early 19th century, public sensibilities about cruelty toward slaves were almost impossible to offend. Even when sensibilities were offended, punishment of the offender typically remained a higher offense to sensibility. For example, the testimony of black slaves, who were far more likely to witness cruelties, was banned in courts of law.

Theodore Dwight Weld’s American Slavery As It Is (1844) explains that cat-hauling was considered by many enslaved persons to be more cruel than lashing[1], and he gives two examples:

 “Mr. Brubecker, who had a number of slaves, among whom was one who would frequently avoid labor by hiding himself; for which he would get severe floggings without the desired effect, and that at last Mr. B. would tie large cats on his naked body and whip them to make them tear his back, in order to break him of his habit of hiding.”

Rev. HORACE MOULTON, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts, says:

“Some, when other modes of punishment will not subdue them, cat-haul them; that is, take a cat by the nape of the neck and tail, or by its hind legs, and drag the claws across the back until satisfied; this kind of punishment, as I have understood, poisons the flesh much worse than the whip, and is more dreaded by the slave.”

To summarize, cat-hauling was considered by many to be a worse ordeal than “severe floggings.” The word cat-haul has affinities to the naval punishment of keel-hauling, only a bit shy of execution (though death was possible), tying a sailor with a rope and passing him under the keel of a ship, side to side for a large ship, bow to stern for small. As with keel-hauling, cat-hauling is unlikely to have meant one pass with the claws of an abused tom-cat. It meant several repetitions, “until satisfied.” Or, as Brubecker did, tying several cats to the naked back and whipping the cats. The probability that infection would follow is high: that is what is meant by “poisons the flesh.” If the risk of infection was higher, this form of torture may well have led to death.

There are are two points here: One: American slavery was unimaginably cruel.[2]  Two: One reason is that American slavery’s cruelty is unimaginable to us today is that our public history and culture have failed to reckon with or have too often sanitized its cruelty. Weld’s American Slavery As It Is is almost unbearable to  read, not only because the descriptions are so horrific but because its documentation is fierce. The word cat-haul, today forgotten, is just one witness, though its usage (and the practice) is testified in American Slavery As It Is once by an Ohio woman who formerly resided in Kentucky and a second time by a Methodist minister. The subtitle of Weld’s book is Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, and the documentation is at standards that match present-day scholarly monographs.

I imagine a scholarly project in which we cross-reference all the names that appear in Weld and in Weld’s sources with links to genealogy records in Ancestry.com and open-source newspaper and book databases like Chronicling America or HathiTrust. Creating history should not be a process of sanitizing the past: we should be relearning it.

[1] Lashing typically meant tying down by hands and feet to stakes or suspending in the air with feet restrained; applying 50 or 100 or 400 strokes with the lash, lacerating the flesh so severely that the cowhide whip would become clotted with blood; and often included rubbing the flesh with salt or dousing it with salt or hot pepper brine: such tortures could be fatal, if not from initial loss of blood and shock then from ensuing infection.

[2] Cat-hauling is described in a subsection called Tortures of Slaves. Even a sampling of the subheads (paddles, head frames, collars, teeth mutilated) is enough to incite revulsion.

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