Steve McQueen’s Golden Globe-winning 12 Years a Slave portrays the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man-turned-slave who wrote of his experiences in a best-selling 1853 memoir. (Some spoilers ahead…)
As the narratives show, Solomon was a second-generation free black man from New York who accepted two white men’s offer to give a violin performance in Washington D.C. in 1841. When he departed, his wife, Anne, was away on a short business trip. Their three children were also away with caretakers. As he later recounted in his memoir, Solomon made the fateful decision not to let his family know of his travel plans: “Thinking my absence would be brief, I did not deem it necessary to write to Anne whither I had gone.”
While in Washington D.C., he was drugged and shackled by his two traveling companions and subsequently sold into slavery. During that time, he was unable to communicate with his family — leaving them clueless about his fate.
After a decade of suffering, Solomon opened up to a traveling carpenter from Canada and convinced the kindly man to write to the Northup family. Finally aware of what unfolded, a white storekeeper from Solomon’s New York hometown traveled to the plantation where Solomon was enslaved and presented Solomon’s free papers.
When Solomon returned to his family in 1853, he quickly got to work on his memoir. The best-selling book immediately gave Solomon a high-profile. With that fame, Solomon was able to get some semblance of justice against his two kidnappers, who were jailed for seven months before the case collapsed. (The trail was held in Washington, where Solomon was rightfully hesitant to travel.) Solomon was also an active abolitionist, who traveled throughout the Northeast to speak about his experiences.
Then he disappeared without a trace in 1857.
“The last I heard of him, Sol was lecturing in Boston to help sell his book. All at once, he disappeared. We believe that he was kidnapped and taken away or killed,” said a relative of the man who helped free Solomon.
Still, there are other possibilities about Solomon’s fate. Despite earning $3,000 for his memoir, Solomon faced money problems. The Wall Street Journal recently noted there is evidence Solomon could have “given up, resorted to drink, or sunk below the surface.”
It seems that if it was all left up to Solomon, he preferred the very last option. As he concluded his memoir: “I hope henceforward to lead an upright though lowly life, and rest at last in the church yard where my father sleeps.”