- Louisa Picquet c. 1829–1896
In May 1860, the Reverend Hiram Mattison, a native of the Herkimer County, New York, hamlet of Norway, was the pastor of Union Chapel on Mercer Street in lower Manhattan. At forty-nine years old, he was the author of a number of books and essays on topics as various as astronomy, spiritualism, hymn singing, and the Roman Catholic Church. He was also a well-known antislavery agitator who recently had been responsible for—in whole or in part—organizing the submission of 125,000 signatures from correspondents in New York state and Great Britain to the Annual General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church protesting the Church's tacit support of slavery and "praying that body to extirpate slavery" (Vansant 176 ff.).
On this day, the Reverend Mattison was awaiting a visitor from Cincinnati, a woman who had once been a slave in New Orleans and who was seeking help in redeeming her mother from bondage in Texas. Mattison had been in contact with fellow antislavery agitators in the city of Buffalo and had been notified of this woman's imminent arrival in New York City. However, he was not prepared for the woman who was ushered into his study. When she announced herself as "Mrs. Louisa Picquet," Mattison was struck by how indistinguishable she was from any other "white" person walking up and down Broadway. Mrs. Picquet was of only one-eighth African ancestry. Indeed, it appears that Mattison had some trouble resolving her story with her appearance—he simply found it hard to believe that she could ever have been a slave. In fact, it was such an issue that Mattison's cousin, a Buffalo businessman, wired the Cincinnati bank where Picquet's money was deposited in order to confirm her identity (Mattison 43–44). [End Page 294]
One result of that meeting was the slave narrative entitled Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon, A Tale of Southern Slave Life, which Mattison transcribed and commented upon in an attempt to help Picquet raise money to purchase her mother's freedom.1 Dion Boucicault's drama, The Octoroon, playing in New York at the same time Mrs. Picquet was in town, also exploited the idea that a person who appeared to be white but who had once been a slave was a slave for life. Although the stage was anathema to many religious people of the period, it is possible that to Mattison Louisa Picquet seemed to have stepped off the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre and into his study on Mercer Street—she had lived a life that only could be imagined, only could be staged. Indeed, Picquet's "whiteness" is the prevailing theme of the narrative that resulted from their meeting: a number of chapters involve former "white" slaves, who, having escaped from slavery, were living among whites, as whites. Mattison may have thought that the sensationalism of the topic, as implied by the title, could sell more pamphlets.2
As Mattison learned, Louisa Picquet had been born on a plantation in Lexington County, South Carolina, just outside the capital city of Columbia, sometime around 1829 or 1830.3 She was the daughter of a fifteen-year-old slave girl of mixed ancestry named Elizabeth Ramsey. Elizabeth was a house slave, a seamstress, who was evidently a quadroon, or of one-fourth African ancestry, and was lighter skinned than most slaves. As her daughter later observed, upon Mattison's prompting, "Yes, she pretty white; not white enough for white people. She have [sic] long hair, but it was kind a wavy" (8). Working indoors, Elizabeth was under the constant scrutiny of the owner, a man referred to in Louisa's narrative as "John" Randolph, but who was more likely James Hunter Randolph (1792–1869), a lawyer and planter of Columbia.4
According to Picquet's narrative, soon after the mistress of the house gave birth, she discovered that her husband had also fathered the child born in the slave quarters just two weeks before.5 She forced her husband to sell Elizabeth and her infant to a plantation owner in Georgia (6–7), David R. Cook, who...