Book Review: The High Cost of the Peculiar Institution

A 62-year-old man in the antebellum South told a traveler from the North that he’d "give any man $20 to $30 down, if he could get me free."

His voice emerges insistently from the pages of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, by historian Daina Ramey Berry, with his urgent desire to die a free man after a lifetime of enslavement. He’s clear-eyed and familiar with the cash value placed on his own life, as well as the typical down payment required, if he were to be purchased. His sentiment is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of voices captured by painstaking research and presented by Berry in her riveting and essential work.

In the so-called "post-truth" era of Donald Trump’s America, this book is full of the real world, thoroughly and frankly illuminated.

Berry spent more than a decade scouring old records from slave auctions, plantation ledgers, insurance companies, medical schools, probate courts and appraisals. She built on and added to data collected in the 1970s by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman to amass a new database with 55,756 entries. She calls it the Berry Slave Value Database and enumerates its source material at length. It appears to be, from the detailed (and surprisingly fascinating) section on source materials at the end of the book, to be massively larger and more comprehensive than any other database of similar material.

It’s a rich trove of historical treasures, and it will break your heart. Berry uses the numbers to draw clear economic patterns, and she uses those figures alongside the words of enslaved people. The result is a compelling account. The figures have faces and names. Berry lays out the values placed on people before they were born, through life and even after death, as well as the way people felt about being commodified, about being bought and sold.

For many people, the trauma of being sold formed their sharpest and earliest memory. An oral history of formerly enslaved people includes this recollection by a man named Mingo White of Alabama: "I remember that I was took up on that stand, and a lot of people came around and felt my arms and legs and asked me a lot of questions."

He was four years old when he stood on the auction block. The boy’s enslaver had coached him on what to say and to lie about his health. That terrible memory remained with Mingo into his old age. On that day, the auctioneer sold away his mother and him. Mingo remembered his father begging and bargaining to keep them together. Mingo lost his family "just when I needed them most," he said.

The chapters echo with the cries of inconsolable babies, the sobs of young boys and girls, and the desperate pleas of parents.

Alongside the cash value placed on people, Berry considers what she calls "soul value." That’s the value a mother might place on her baby, or a community might place on a wise and elderly figure. It’s the value you might place on yourself, your own dignity and worth. It’s also a value Berry manages to document in creative ways.

The whole of Berry’s book is a straight accounting of the combined moral and dollar-and-cent cost of the practice of slavery. It’s a high, high cost, and not just to the enslaved. The book makes you wonder about the lasting trauma that slavery had on the soul value of those who perpetrated and witnessed it, and how all that trauma continues to play out on America’s social and political landscape to this day, as well as how it lurks in attics and storage bins.

Attics and bins? Absolutely. You see, the commodification of human bodies extended to the sick practice of fetishizing human remains. Berry relates how body parts of enslaved people—especially those who supposedly committed crimes or who rebelled against slavery—were and are collected, bought, sold and traded. These items include skulls, fingers and genitalia, as well as things like purses and other stuff made from human skin. These items are still around, passed from one generation to the next. Sometimes they’re still bought and sold, for instance in estate sales.

One of the great strengths of Berry’s narrative is her careful effort to quantify the full value of the bodies of the enslaved, and it’s often literally about bodies.

In recent decades, the American public has tangled with the issue of access to quality, affordable medical care. Some on right-wing of the political spectrum have derisively referred to former President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, as "reparations" for African Americans, as if that somehow makes it bad. It doesn’t and isn’t, but whatever. Still, Berry’s scholarship illuminates the debt the medical community owes to enslaved and free African Americans, and indeed to all poor people.

The idea of free access to medical care as a form of repayment for historic wrongs may have merit.

Consider this: For decades, a clandestine market of stolen corpses supplied medical schools with subjects for dissection all across the United States. It’s a practice that cannot be separated from chattel slavery, or the similarly gross way poor but nominally free people have been treated as commodities by wealthy elites. It’s a ghoulish history, and it was not necessary. Not every country obtained human subjects for dissection by stealing them. But that’s what happened in the United States.

In the 1800s and well into the 1900s, medical students and doctors used shovels and meat hooks to snag freshly buried bodies. They’d dig into a fresh gravesite at the head, break open the pine casket, lodge the meat hook under the jaw and drag the body up and out. Then they’d pop the body into a bag and be gone.

The trade may have been nightmarish and illegal, but it was well-documented in the journals kept by doctors and medical students and others. Berry’s meticulous data tracks the way bodies were harvested and shipped, often in barrels of whiskey or packed into crates of bran. Medical schools readily paid these grave robbers $12 for adults, $8 for children under 10, $15 for a mother and infant, and about $5 for a baby.

The general public gradually became aware of this horrific practice, and it was eventually outlawed, but poor folks and enslaved people knew it all along, and all too well. They lived in dread of it.

The general public should read this book. We should all hear its voices and think of ways to honor and redeem the soul value of a nation steeped in pain.