Earlier this month, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave took home Academy Awards in the categories of Best Supporting Actress; Best Adapted Screenplay; and Best Picture. Critics and audience members saw how Solomon Northup went from being a free man in New York to a slave in pre-Civil War Louisiana for 12 years of his life, before he was reunited with his family. But there’s one thing that still remains a mystery to historians, and that is his death.
ABC News reports that 12 Years a Slave was published in 1853. But around 1863, as the Civil War was about to begin, his whereabouts became unknown. Even the final credits of 12 Years a Slave note that there is no evidence of when, where, or how he died, nor is there evidence on the location of his burial.
Rachel Seligman, a museum curator at Skidmore College, is one of the authors of Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave. She said his death is “sort of a big blank spot” in his story, but it is a mystery that still fascinates her and others.
“It’s what keeps historians going,” Seligman said. “It’s just a puzzle to be solved.”
Dave Fisk, one of Seligman’s co-authors, said Northup may have died in an area where nobody knew him.
“He may have just wandered around from place to place and died somewhere nobody knew who he was, and he was buried in a potter’s field,” Fisk said.
Union College professor Clifford Brown, another co-author, added that the 12 Years a Slave author didn’t have a “paper trail” after 1863.
A few other theories have been floating around, concerning the 12 Years a Slave author’s death. One is that he was serving as a spy for the Union Army and was captured and killed. Another is that he might have become a heavy drinker and was kidnapped again.
It’s a mystery that even Northup’s descendants can’t solve, Fiske said. Without any hard evidence, Fiske has followed several threads that could help in the discovery of the 12 Years a Slave author’s burial location. Fiske has checked Saratoga and other areas, where Northup’s family lived, but he hasn’t had any luck. There is no death record on file, since New York didn’t have those kept in a “systematic form” until the 1880s.
And while many were unaware of this story until the release of McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, it is not the first time the account has been told in cinematic form. Al Jazeera reports that, in 1984, Shaft director Gordon Parks helmed an episode of America’s Playhouse titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,” with Avery Brooks as Northup.
A recent report from The Inquisitr mentioned that after 12 Years a Slave took home its Oscars, The New York Times issued a correction on its original article about Northup, first published in 1853, which had misspelled his name twice. One, in the sub-headline, was “Northrup,” while the other, “Northrop,” was in the body of the article.