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[Pywell, William Redish]
Albumen Photograph of Price, Birch & Co., Slave Dealers, Operators of the Largest Slave Pen in Alexandria, Virginia, 1862

[Alexandria, Virginia, 1862] uncredited, oversize albumen photograph street view of former slave pen, 9 x 7 on an 11 x 9 inch cardstock mount, circa 1861-1862, ink inscription on verso, “Slave Pen at Alexandria Va.” The mount is slightly foxed, else very good.

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      While uncredited, this photograph was taken by William Redish Pywell (1843-1886), in August 1862. The Library of Congress has two versions of this image, one a print from the negative printed between 1880-1889, and a smaller print measuring 10 x 7 cm., as well as a stereoscopic glass negative. Pywell’s negative of Price & Birch’s establishment was printed by Alexander Gardner and used in Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, 1866, vol. 1 number 2. Pywell made a number of photographs of sites in Alexandria connected with the Civil War, including a view of the location of Col. Ellsworth’s murder, also used by Gardner.

 

             William Redish Pywell (June 9, 1843 – 1887) was a 19th-century American photographer. He first worked for Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner making a photographic record of the American Civil War, this work was published by Gardner in 1866 as "Photographic Sketch Book of the War" Vols. 1 & 2. (Washington, DC. Philp & Solomons). After the war, he traveled with George Custer as the official photographer of the 1873 Yellowstone Expedition. He also accompanied Alexander Gardner on the Kansas Expedition. He also participated in the Transit of Venus Expedition, directed by the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

   

           Later images of these premises made in 1863, when they were converted, ironically, as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, show that the windows in the structure’s ell were bricked over. The building was an icon of infamy and was also photographed by Matthew Brady and Andrew Joseph Russell.

 

           The horror hidden in this otherwise innocuous street view does not manifest itself until one reads the words painted over the front door: Price, Birch & Co. Dealers in Slaves. Located in Alexandria, Virginia it was the successor firm of Franklin & Armfield. Franklin and Armfield was the most successful and infamous firm in the District of Columbia. Between 1830 and 1836, at the height of the American cotton market, the District of Columbia, which at the time included Alexandria, was considered the seat of the slave trade. Franklin & Armfield the most successful firm in the capital, operated in both Alexandria and New Orleans, it is their slave pen shown here, located at 1315 Duke Street, under their successor’s name.

 

           Franklin & Armfield was founded in Alexandria in 1828 by Isaac Franklin and his nephew by marriage, John Armfield. The partners, forming one company, operated out of two different cities. Armfield established his base of operations in Alexandria and Franklin established himself in New Orleans. These two inter-related outposts helped make Franklin and Armfield tycoons in the domestic slave industry. Their business model piled cruelty upon cruelty. In the deep South slaves from states such as Maryland and Virginia were highly prized because they were believed to be compliant, gentle, and unbroken by overwork as slaves from deeper South were believed to be. These stereotypes of slaves from the middle states helped Franklin & Armfield put more slaves on the market than anyone else. Armfield employed agents going door to door in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, asking people if they wanted to sell their slaves. Franklin & Armfield employed other innovations, they advertised in newspapers, and offered their Louisiana clients a money back guarantee. Their innovations allowed them to become one of the largest business operations in the South by the 1830s, just a few years after the firm was established.

 

           The transportation of slaves to the deep South was an important part of Franklin & Armfield’s business. This was done often by marching Slaves overland from Alexandria to New Orleans. The slaves were chained together in a “coffle” guarded by Armfield and other armed whites, halfway to New Orleans, he would hand over the coffle to Franklin. While auctions of slaves did occur in the premises shown here, Franklin & Armfield usually used the building as a “pen” or holding place prior to transport further south where auction prices were higher, and profits greater.

 

            For a slave one of the worst things that could happen was to be sold South. Families were torn apart and destroyed. The conditions in the deep South were worse, especially in Louisiana where Franklin & Armfield sent the majority of the men and women it handled. Picking cotton or cutting sugar cane was much harder than cultivating tobacco, the main cash crop in the middle states. Between  1810 and 1860 nearly 450,000 slaves were uprooted and sent to the deep South, Franklin and Armfield were responsible for a large portion of this movement.

 

           Late in the 1830s Franklin and Armfield, already millionaires from their slave trade profits, sold out to George Kephart, one of their former agents. The firm flourished in the 1840s and 50s and in 1859, Kephart joined William Birch, J.C. Cook, and C. M. Price, and conducted business under the name of Price, Birch & Co. The partnership was dissolved in 1859, but Kephart continued operating the slave pen until Union troops seized the city in May 1861.

 

           Price and Birch were associated with two infamous episodes in the salve trade. Solomon Northup, author of Twelve years a Slave, upon which the recent movie was based, was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery by a notorious trafficker from Washington D.C. Northup, in his book, records his kidnapper as “Burch”, but it was actually- the Birch who would later preside over the slave pen in the photograph.

 

           One component of Franklin & Armfield, and Price and Birch’s business was supplying the infamous New Orleans “fancy trade”. The sale of light skinned slave girls and women to brothels in New Orleans. Two sisters, Emily and Mary Edmonson were held in this Alexandria slave pen in 1848. The Edmonson sisters, two of these would be “fancy girls”, along with 75 other slaves, attempted to escape slavery, they boarded a boat named the Pearl, but were soon recaptured. However, the sisters managed to avoid being sold to a brothel, their story attracted the attention among abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother. Stowe and her brother raised money and purchased the sisters’ freedom. Stowe later used their story as part of her research for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A statue of the sisters now stands outside the slave pen building which still stands in Alexandria.