The Streets of Baltimore

Peter Linebaugh

Edgar Allan Poe died on the streets of Baltimore in 1849. Years earlier he was court martialled from West Point at a time when its graduates became officers in the U.S. Army, commanding poor white slobs to kill Indians or back up planters, landlords, and speculators as the Cotton Kingdom expanded and slaves became restless. Poe couldn’t hack it, so he drifted around before inventing detective fiction and police mysteries, the literary ancestors to the TV series The Wire, which is set in Baltimore.

He did not write directly about slavery but all his mystery, all the macabre and the gothic horror of his poetry and prose reflects the reality surrounding him: the terror and inhumanity of the labor camps, the rapes, the forced breeding, the forced separation of children from parents, and the inevitable destiny of forced labor. Baltimore was the capital of the domestic slave trade. Drugs and alcohol provided him with some relief. In 1842 Poe wrote “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Toni Morrison taught us how to read white American literature in her lecture “Playing in the Dark.” Poe’s story seems to be about the 13th-century Spanish Inquisition, but actually its terrifying atmosphere arises from the moral miasma of Baltimore.

The story begins, “I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence—the dread sentence of death—was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.” Maryland, it is true, has abolished the death penalty, but civil and economic death remain dread sentences even while the One Percent fly the globe in private jets and lay back plush in their million-dollar yachts.

Back in Poe’s day the clipper ship sailed the seven seas. The three-masted, square-rigged, narrow-hulled vessel was designed for speed rather than bulk. Originating in the port of Baltimore, its design became the very acme of grace, a grace put to the service of merchant capitalism between Asia and America. With speed as fast as the wind and carrying a vast spread of sail, clipper ships were the very wings of global capitalism, bringing tremendous profit to their Ahab-like merchants. Baltimore was the center both of the domestic slave trade and of that imperial rush bringing those total non-commodities, misnamed “goods”—gold, opium, and tea—to the slave society of the USA. The caffeine jacked up avaricious traders, the opium tranquillized potential rebels, and the gold…. Well, the gold turned everything into its opposite, for is not money the source of all evil?

But it was an ill wind that blows no good; voices of freedom could be heard and deeds of emancipation could be seen. Frederick Douglass ran away from slavery and got help in the port of Baltimore from Irish sailors. (Had they sailed before the mast of a clipper ship?) Benjamin Lundy edited the first newspaper to call for the unconditional abolition of slavery. Then in Baltimore he edited The Genius of Universal Emancipation. He listened to African American men such as William Watkins and Jacob Greener who hung around the print shop to talk. Lundy taught William Lloyd Garrison how to set type as well as how to write abolition.

“The Pit and the Pendulum” continues. After the “accentuation” of the sentence of death: “After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution—perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more.”

And now? What now is conveyed to our soul beside a dreamy hum? What is revolution? Merely the boring turn of the wheel, or is it the process of abolition, the process that abolishes slavery and the social structures of its cause? These structures remain—the police are well-paid to preserve them—and their cause, capitalism, incarcerates the young, the foolish, and the bold in the modern day enslavement of divide and rule.

Edward E. Baptist, whose book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism was published last year, shows that “the expansion of slavery … shaped the story of everything.” Furthermore, “enslaved African Americans built the modern United States and indeed the entire modern world.” The trans-Atlantic slave trade was terminated in 1807 by acts of Congress (USA) and Parliament (UK). Thenceforth, slavery became a self-reproducing system, coffle-chains rattling from east to west, the whip producing, from the welts on the backs of cotton pickers, fantastic wealth for cotton patricians.

Here’s Baptist again: “Baltimore was the biggest center of the domestic slave trade on the East Coast. African Americans left behind there had much to say about the trade that had taken so many of their kinfolk. Their conversations with Lundy agitated him into confrontation with powerful pro-slavery interests. Soon, Lundy was charging in the pages of The Genius that all slaveholders were “disgraceful whoremongers” who bred human beings for the market. He saved his greatest fury for the Woolfolks, describing the family as a set of lawless “pirates” whose “heartrending cruelty” caused “fatal corruption in the body politic.” The truth of his charge is conveyed by the fact that of the top ten American counties purchasing slaves for re-sale in the South between 1829 and 1831, four were in Maryland.

Woolfolk was a Baltimore entrepreneur of slavery who created efficient market conditions between the old states and the slave frontier. His corporate organization controlled barges in the Chesapeake Bay and offices in New Orleans. A multi-state enterprise with vertical integration, it rented vessels which might carry a hundred folks for sale. Its principles of economics are still lauded by business schools and passed on as neo-liberalism to devotees of selfishness and Atlas Shrugged.

On January 9, 1827, Austin Woolfolk approached Lundy as the editor was locking up his print shop for the day. Woolfolk threw the Quaker to the ground and beat him severely, then walked away. Lundy pressed assault charges against Woolfolk. But when the case came to trial, the judge declared that the editor deserved “chastisement.” He fined the slave trader one whole dollar and then gave a speech praising the slave trade’s economic benefits to the state of Maryland. He added that Woolfolk also had removed a “great many rogues and vagabonds who were a nuisance to the state.”

Rogues and vagabonds!? This was old terminology for the unemployed—Shakespeare talk—going back to the origin of capitalism in the 16th century, when the working class lost its commons and subsistence was criminalized.

Edgar Allan Poe understood the forces behind police violence. He continues, “Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white—whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words—and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness—of immoveable resolution—of stern contempt of human torture.” This surely is the very picture, if not of Officer Ried who shot Aura Rosser in the heart in Ann Arbor on 10 November 2014, then of the county prosecutor, Brian Mackie, who with thin-lipped, white contempt refused to indict him with homicide. Grotesque indeed! Let the horrors of the pit and the pendulum befall him and the cronies he serves unless, until justice is served!

William Lloyd Garrison was Lundy’s apprentice. He left Baltimore and moved to the relative safety of Boston, setting up shop near to David Walker. David Walker’s An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World appeared in 1829. “Freedom is your natural right,” he wrote, so “act like a human being.” Theirs was an alternative to the fate of Edgar Allan Poe of Baltimore: collective, international, upright.

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