All we know for certain about Frank Johnson’s birthdate is that it preceded the passage of the 1799 Gradual Emancipation Act, thereby making him a “slave for life,” as he was called by the man who owned him according to the law. That man, Alexander Bryan Johnson, born in England in 1786, followed his father to Utica, New York arriving in 1801. There he became an important man, involved with the merchandising business, banking, writing, and gaining recognition as a public intellectual. There is still a park named after him in Utica.
In that gentleman’s unpublished autobiography, housed at Cornell University Library, he explained that Frank had been given to him shortly after he “attained his majority” in 1807. “My father had owned him from the boy’s infancy and we had always treated him kindly as if he had been white, and the boy was docile and kind. He was a full negro in colour, according to the custom of slaves he called himself Frank Johnson.” Frank would have been about ten or eleven years old.
Johnson liked to travel with Frank. He mentions, “I took him with me partly for convenience and partly for the éclat of being waited on by my own servant.” In the fall of 1811, he took the boy to New York City where he rented rooms in a fashionable house with an engaging view of The Battery and New York’s busy harbor.
Frank, who would have been thirteen or fourteen, bunked in the servants quarters, either in the attic or in the basement. There he must have met other domestics, some free and others enslaved. A young man might learn much from his fellows.
The possibility of war between the U.S. and Great Britain was on the lips of the residents. As Frank attended Johnson in the dining room, he would have been privy to many dinner-table-discussions about the growing tension.
In 1812 Johnson and Frank returned to Utica. Although he never says so, Johnson had to be aware that a possible British invasion of New York City could mean that Frank, as one of almost 1,500 enslaved people living there, might accept the Royal Crown’s offer of freedom. It was an opportunity that as many as 20,000 enslaved people took during the American Revolution.
Back to New York City
In the spring of 1813, Johnson and Frank traveled to Washington D.C. to see the opening of the U.S. Congress and the second inauguration of President James Madison. After, they returned to New York and stayed at the same place they boarded before.
According to Johnson, Frank’s tasks of polishing his “boots in the evening, attending to the fire in my room and in waiting on me at dinner,” meant that Frank had much free time. Johnson explains, “he made use of it by going into bad company, remaining out late at night and occasionally all night.”
When Johnson found out about the youth’s behavior, he became angry and “struck him on the back with a small rattan cane. … It was the first and only time I ever struck him, and I have no belief that I could have hurt him; but I have ever since regretted the occurrence. … His being my slave probably induced me to strike him, though it ought to have restrained me by reason of his helplessness.”
According to Johnson: “irregularity of his [Frank’s] life and of the late hours, produced a cold and eventually a cough.” The young man became so sick that he “kept to his bed.”
Johnson was advised by those sharing the lodgings to send him to a hospital. Frank was taken by carriage a mile north to New-York Hospital, which was on the west side of Broadway between Duane and Anthony (now Worth) Streets across from Pearl Street.
This engraving of New-York Hospital is from 1800.
Frank was most likely admitted to a ward that served only people of color. Johnson met with Dr. James S. Stringham and requested that the lad receive “special attention” and assured the doctor that all the expenses of the treatment would be paid.
Frank was diagnosed with consumption, now called tuberculosis. In the mid-nineteenth-century the death rate for Black sufferers ranged from 75 to 300% higher than whites. When it appeared in African American patients, the disease was often regarded as different from the strains that affected whites.
The risk factors for tuberculosis are overcrowding, malnutrition, being near a person with active TB who is coughing or sneezing, spitting, speaking, or singing. The bacillus that caused tuberculosis would not be discovered until 1882 by German researcher Dr. Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch. The treatment now involves several courses of antibiotics, but in the 18th and early 19th centuries such cures were not available.
It’s not known precisely what medical protocol would have been used by Dr. Stringham or if Frank received any treatment at all. The standard treatments for whites included: daily bleedings, the applications of “blisters” (a wet paste of ground mustard seeds meant to raise one’s temperature), a bowel treatment made from the senna tree, magnesia – a laxative, mercury to produce diarrhea, a concoction of opium and calomel (a mineral that forms near mercury deposits), or corrosive sublimates. Remedies were designed to bring about a “crisis” such as high fever or bowel purges. Once the physician-induced calamity had passed, the patient was expected to recover.
For the duration of Frank’s hospitalization, Johnson visited him in the mornings, anxious that the lad recover enough to travel. Frank said, “he should soon get well if he were once more at home.”
One morning, Frank was crying when Johnson entered the room. Apparently he had been “told that he must die, and that he had been very wicked.” After lodging a complaint and requesting that the doctor visit the poor discouraged child, Johnson went about his business. The next morning, he arrived at the hospital as early as visitors were allowed to enter. He discovered that Frank “had died during the night.”
Johnson would have known that he should hurry down to the dead-house because even in death an enslaved person’s body was not done serving. Medical schools and students had a particular interest in dead bodies. An earlier incident at New-York Hospital illustrated the point. Students who had been digging up corpses from Potter’s Field and the African Burial Ground (an accepted practice), moved on to private white cemeteries. When they displayed body parts at the window of the hospital, they sparked outrage which led to a mob. The rioters, both black and white, took the cadavers and reburied them. But the news spread and the next day a similar gathering became violent. In a confrontation with the militia in which Mayor John Jay was struck by a brickbat and Baron Von Steuben hit in the head by a stone, five people were shot dead and others injured. The whole debacle was called the “1788 Doctors’ Riot.”
According to Harriet A. Washington, author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, the use of the bodies of people of African descent in was the norm rather than the exception. Neither an enslaved person nor their family had any control over what happened to their remains. Many ended up in anatomical displays or on dissection tables.
Johnson proceeded down to the dead-house to see the poor lad. Unlike modern morgues, no refrigeration was available. He found young Frank’s body. Filled with remorse, Johnson stood over the remains of a person he might have chosen to release from enslavement, a human being who could have lived beyond the end of slavery in New York State in 1827. He looked into the open black coffin and saw that someone had put some wood “shavings under [Frank’s] head for a pillow.”
For a person of color there would be no burial in a white church’s cemetery. Just across Broadway there was an African Burial Grounds that held the remains of both enslaved and free people. In 1991 it was rediscovered. The site was expertly examined and investigated. They found “…widespread evidence of grave robbing, including missing coffins, as well as bodies and skulls that displayed anatomists’ marks.”
Frank may have been laid to rest in that same cemetery or his body could have been donated directly to the hospital.
Johnson was “greatly distressed and reproached” himself for “bringing him to New York.” Years later, even as he was writing his autobiography, he still felt a guilty pain for his hitting Frank. He admits that the fact that the boy was black and not white “prevented me from seeing that he was much unwell.”
In Johnson’s own experience the institution of slavery produced the motive (vanity) and opportunity (a slave for life) for him to enhance his image of himself by being waited on. His reasons seemed benign.
Links of iron didn’t hold Frank. It was the force of law. He was, by law, powerless and couldn’t refuse Johnson’s orders. He might have run, but it wasn’t until 1819, six years after Frank died, that the Attorney General of Upper Canada declared that any black person living in the country was free. He might have slipped away into the free black community in the City, but that was no easy life considering the lack of jobs available to African Americans and the danger of being caught.
Those nights, strolling anonymously around the streets in the glorious and dangerous jumble of New York City might have been the most freedom the teenaged Frank Johnson ever experienced. His story, though short, is a testament to the fact that slavery and oppression is never benign, no matter how kindly an owner believes himself to be.
Illustrations, from above: New-York Hospital circa 1800, from An Account of New-York Hospital, (1811). New York: Collins & Co.; and a partial page from the New York City’s Municipal Records, 1812 & 1813 for the letter “J.” from Vital Records (1795-1949) Death Records, Manhattan, microfilm.