House of Numbers

Jill was in New York City, researching elections in the gaslight era, when the candidates were Slippery Dick Connelly, Brains Sweeney, George Washington Plunkett. Common thieves who stole only money, not lives. Hopper had disappeared again, which only reinforced Vance’s propensity to sit alone in the library, thinking. The slavery debate, he knew, had ricocheted up and down the county, pitting Columbian against Columbian, whites, even free black Columbians. Family fought family, household fought household. And yet the Hopper family’s prosperity had been built by what? Immaculate conception?

Perhaps as punishment for these heretical thoughts, Hopper had tasked him with studying state legislative races in the exact years when slavery was dying its slow death. New York seethed with savage battles over Jefferson’s concept of limited government as well as the first rumblings of the renters’ war against the Rensselaers, who still held scandalously large slabs of land along the Hudson in their feudal grip. Bucktail Democrats fought for control of the legislature, led by the wily Martin Van Buren, who again and again outthought, out-schemed and out-organized the federalists under the hapless Dewitt Clinton. Factions formed, re-formed, squabbled themselves out of existence. Democrat Ten Broeck won a seat in the Assembly in 1801, lost in 1802, won again in 1803, lost in 1804. Federalist Warner was seated in 1804, out by 1806, reseated in 1807, gone for good a year later. All the while, the underground railroad was busily ferrying fugitives right through Columbia County on their way to Canada, sometimes in broad daylight. Missing from the newspapers’ political coverage, the runaways sometimes emerged in ads:

Escaped from his rightful owners Stephen Tremain and Jacobus van Deusen, one negro, Alexander, since the 19th instant, medium height, last seen wearing a green flannel shirt and leather breeches. Any person returning the said negro twenty miles from his master’s house in Kinderhook New York shall be entitled to a reward of ten dollars or twenty dollars if returned from any place from beyond twenty miles. Speaks English and Dutch both, with slight lisp.

Vance’s imagination filled out what the ads didn’t. In the margins of his notes he scribbled down feverish speculations about runaways pursued through the woods by hastily assembled slave patrols, the horror bleeding through the vote totals. Town of Canaan: 240 votes. Chatham, 167 votes. Claverack, 219. They chased them with guns and dogs. New York State Assembly, County of Columbia, 1801: Samuel Ten Broeck: 1687 votes. Peter Van Alstyne: 1597. Hounds gaining on desperate fugitives as they leapt over moss-covered logs and splashed through shallow creeks. Gunshots echoing in the forest, dogs wild with excitement. Meanwhile, in town, men who chased the runaways laughed and downed shots of whiskey while waiting to cast ballots in elections whose results Vance could see in the rows and columns of print. There had to be connections at a subsonic level he couldn’t comprehend, some way the roughhouse young democracy was entangled with the piling up of enslaved bodies. Reading the ads was a kind of moral pornography, attention somehow owing to those who could no longer benefit from his pity.

Run-away, on Sunday the 23rd ultimo, from Moses and Mordecai Hopper, of the Town of Sophronia, and Province of New-York, the following Negros, viz. a Negro Fellow, named Livingston, between 30 and 40 Years of Age. Another Negro Fellow, about 35, named Ephraim...

There were six runaways in all. Not knowing what happened to those fleeing the sawmill or the foundry, Vance still wondered how the recaptured property was handled. His first thought: gallows or gibbeting for the ringleaders, flogging for the others or letting the hounds have their way with them. But what if the Hoppers suppressed their rage and fear and administered only mild discipline—ears cropped, say—then returned one and all to the sawmill? Slave societies were orderly and efficient profit-generating machines, slaves a form of capital, like a complicated and expensive piece of machinery. Depreciate over so many years, discard when no longer cost effective. The ledger showed how six months later, when the logging trade declined, the Hoppers dismissed the paid workers and retained the recaptured slaves another seventeen months in a further effort to turn a profit. That failed to materialize; all fifteen slaves shipped to the West Indian sugar plantations.

What did the brothers think about the fate of their human cargo? No need to ask; every American slaveholder knew West Indian overseers believed it was cheaper to work slaves to death than to feed them till old age. Original purchase price of five slaves survives in a ledger as does the sale price of those who were sold after a ten hour journey by train to the wharves of lower Manhattan. A dead loss for the Hoppers.


Name Original
Sale Price
Charivoy 3150 2100
Ebenezer 2250 1500
Elias   1500
Ephraim   975
Harvey   1650
Little Zeph (One
lame foot)
975 100
Peter 2400 1900
Robert   1200
Romeo   no sale
Samuel   2800
Shagticoke   2300
Skiff 3100 2300
Will   1175
Zephaniah   1000
TOTAL 11875 21375
11875 X 3
purchase price
15 slaves)
NET LOSS -14250  


How do you like those numbers, Professor?

Former mill co-owner Mordecai Hopper invested his remaining capital in farmland around Claverack which, being thin, stony soil, turned only a meager profit. The unsuccessful slaveholder and disappointed farmer hung himself in the attic of Hopper House in 1845, age 58.




Tony Van Witsen

Tony Van Witsen is a seven-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately fifteen years, specializing in short stories.  In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004.  His published stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including Spellbinder, Ray’s Road Review, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory and Valparaiso Fiction Review. Tony recommends Becky Tuch's Substack.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Sunday, June 5, 2022 - 09:20