The Scourged Back

McPherson & Oliver (attributed), The Scourged Back, 1863

This searing image was widely circulated by Northern abolitionists to demonstrate the brutality of slavery. It represents the severe scars left by whipping on the back of Gordon, a former slave who escaped in Mississippi and joined the Union Army in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A woodcut derived from this image, titled “Gordon under Medical Inspection,” and two others that depict “Gordon as he entered our lines” and “Gordon in his uniform as a U.S. Soldier,” were reproduced in the July 4, 1863, edition of Harper’s Weekly along with an account of Gordon’s escape. There the photograph is ascribed to McPherson & Oliver in Baton Rouge. But McAllister & Brother of Philadelphia, Chandler Seaver, Jr., of Boston, and an unknown British publisher also distributed pirated versions of the image. This example has no backmark.

About erinbarnett

Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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1 Response to The Scourged Back

  1. Hi-
    I remember seeing this photograph for the first time–an image that truly sears itself into the brain.

    You might be interested to read one of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s click! photography changes everything stories, which addresses this photo. Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery discusses Brady’s photo above and how mass produced and widely distributed images helped the abolitionist movement:

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