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Meet America’s Cruelest, Richest Slave Traders, Notorious For Raping Enslaved African Women – Isaac Franklin And John Armfield

Meet Americas Cruelest Richest Slave Traders Notorious For Raping Enslaved African Women Isaac Franklin And John Armfield

The two most brutal domestic slave dealers in America used a code to communicate.

Slave trading was considered a “sport.” They were courageous “pirates” or “one-eyed men,” a metaphor for their penises, Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. The women they bought and sold were referred to as “fancy maids,” a term that connotes youth, attractiveness, and the possibility for sexual exploitation by either purchasers or sellers.

Rapes were common.

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“To my certain knowledge she has been used & that smartly by a one-eyed man about my size and age, excuse my foolishness,” Isaac Franklin’s nephew James — an employee and his uncle’s protege — wrote in typical business correspondence, referring to Caroline Brown, an enslaved woman who was repeatedly raped and abused by James for five months. She was 18 years old and stood a little over 5 feet tall at the time.

Franklin and Armfield, whose slave-trading operation was based in a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia, sold more enslaved persons, divided more families, and profited more from the trade than nearly anybody else in America. The two men were the “undisputed tycoons” of the domestic slave trade between the 1820s and 1830s, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Americans are being forced to confront the ugliness of slavery and the people who profited from it as the country commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown. Few people benefited more than the two slave dealers from Virginia.

According to Joshua Rothman, a history professor at the University of Alabama who is developing a book about Franklin and Armfield, the duo accumulated a fortune worth many billions in today’s currency and retired as two of the country’s wealthiest men. Several variables set the two apart, according to Rothman: For starters, their timing was flawless. They entered the domestic slave trade precisely as the cotton economy — and American demand for enslaved labor — boomed, and they exited just as the United States entered the 1837 financial collapse.

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Their location was particularly advantageous, as it allowed them to collect enslaved individuals from plantations across Virginia and Maryland and bring them to the Deep South on forced marches — known as “coffles” — or on tightly packed ships along the Atlantic Coast. While their business plan was not very unique, Rothman claims it was carried out on a scale “larger and better than anyone else.” According to Rothman, Franklin and Armfield transported an estimated 10,000 enslaved persons during their lifetimes.

“They’re the ones who turned the business of selling humans from one part of the United States to another into a very modern, organized business — no longer just one trader who might move a few people from one plantation to another,” said Maurie D. McInnis, an expert on the cultural history of slavery at the University of Texas at Austin. “They built contemporary apparatus to serve the people trafficking business.”

This was made feasible in part by the dealers’ propensity to be particularly cruel and ruthless — even in a business based on the selling of human beings — as they perpetrated atrocities they seemed to enjoy.

“They explicitly gloat about rapping captive persons who they’ve been processing through the firm in surviving correspondence,” said Calvin Schermerhorn, a history professor at Arizona State University. “This seemed to be as much a part of Franklin and Armfield’s culture of business as, say, going to the bar after a successful court case might be the culture of a successful law firm’s business.”

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Despite this, hardly anyone recognizes their names nowadays.

When Franklin and Armfield retired, they slipped into elite white society with ease, living to a respectable old age without raising an eyebrow. History, however, has generally “let them off the hook,” according to Schermerhorn. Few, if any, high school or college students in the United States are aware of the duo.

“I believe America is still uncomfortable talking about slavery’s original sin,” McInnis remarked. “And this is one of the most horrifying chapters of slavery.”

The slave trade was all Isaac Franklin ever knew and loved.

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According to Rothman, he was born in 1789 to a wealthy Tennessee planter family who held “a large number” of enslaved persons. Franklin and his older brothers became interested in the domestic version of the slave trade in their late teens, right around the time the United States passed a law prohibiting the transatlantic slave trade. They began transporting small groups of enslaved people between Virginia and the Deep South.

The exterior of the Franklin and Armfield Slave Office, today the Freedom House Museum, in Alexandria. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The exterior of the Franklin and Armfield Slave Office, today the Freedom House Museum, in Alexandria. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Franklin developed a liking for the trade and, after a brief hiatus to participate in the War of 1812, returned to full-time slave trading. He did nothing else for the rest of his professional life until he retired.

“His brothers never got back into the slave trade,” Rothman said, “but Isaac truly thinks this is going to be his game: he’s good at it, he enjoys it, he can make money at it, and he continues with it.”

Franklin collaborated with a number of people over the years, but it wasn’t until the early 1820s that he met his longest-serving collaborator — the man who would become his closest friend, confidant, and nephew by marriage. John Armfield lacked direction at the time: He had recently been chased out of a county in North Carolina for fathering a child out of wedlock, according to Rothman.

His road to the slave trade was not as straightforward as Franklin’s. Armfield spent his early adulthood pursuing a variety of unsuccessful ventures, including a small mercantile shop, which he was forced to abandon after his affair. Armfield was born in 1797 to lapsed Quakers who farmed several hundred acres in North Carolina and owned a small number of enslaved people.

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Armfield wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew what he didn’t want to do: farming. According to Rothman, after “floundering around” in the aftermath of the sex scandal, Armfield decided to “simply dabble in the slave trade.”

Franklin and Armfield met a few years later in the course of business and immediately struck up a friendship, according to Rothman, which lasted decades and propelled their success. When Armfield married Franklin’s niece is 1834, the two men became family.

An exhibit of business items belonging to Franklin and Armfield at the Freedom House Museum in 2017. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
An exhibit of business items belonging to Franklin and Armfield at the Freedom House Museum in 2017. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

“They are each other’s closest friends,” Rothman added, “and it is founded in their workplace connection.” “They’re successful in part because they work well together: each knows the other’s abilities, and they trust and appreciate each other.”

In 1828, the two men founded the slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield and relocated to the Alexandria townhouse, which is now a museum. They divided the job from the start according to each man’s abilities: According to Rothman, Armfield, who is based in Virginia, was in charge of the “purchasing side of things” as well as transportation. Meanwhile, Franklin stayed largely in Natchez, Miss., and was in charge of selling their human cargo to Deep South estates.

Armfield would pick up enslaved persons using a network of headhunters distributed across Virginia, Maryland, and the District, and imprison them in an open-air enclosure behind the house in Alexandria — or sometimes in the packed, filthy basement — until he had a sufficient number: generally between 100 and 200. Then he’d either send them on a 1,000-mile march to slave markets in Natchez or New Orleans or cram them aboard one of the company’s three large ships to make a trip by sea.

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According to historians, the two guys were transferring about 1,000 individuals every year at the height of their enterprise.

They advertised for enslaved individuals in local newspapers practically every day they stayed in business. They devised heinous schemes to enhance their profits, such as “designating less space per passenger [on their ships] than the trans-Atlantic slave trade vessels,” according to Schermerhorn.

While enslaved persons waited in Franklin and Armfield’s “holding pen” in Alexandria, McInnis believes the two men used practices used by slave dealers to increase the salability of enslaved people. According to McInnis, this included feeding their slaves large amounts of corn pone and pig to “fatten them up,” dyeing gray hair black “so they appeared younger,” and rubbing wax into the wounds of enslaved people “so they looked healthier.”

McInnis added, “The whole thing was so evil.”

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Throughout it all, they both raped the women they purchased and sold on a regular basis and joked about it in letters, a common practice that only strengthened their connection. According to Rothman, both Franklin and Armfield fathered at least one child with an enslaved woman. He believes the abuse was motivated by a desire for raw power rather than a financial motive: “They did it because they could, and they felt like it.”

Franklin had been “rapping the same enslaved woman” for about five years and had fathered a child with her when he married a wealthy socialite in 1839, according to Rothman. After his wedding, Franklin sold the enslaved woman and her child.

Her whereabouts are unknown.

‘There was no sign… they felt guilty.’

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The belief that the white upper class refused to engage with slave traffickers on principle is one of the most enduring myths regarding slavery in the United States, according to Rothman, a fallacy that the example of Franklin and Armfield disproves.

According to Rothman, even while actively trading slaves, the two men had a good reputation and traveled in upper-class social circles. Franklin socialized with other wealthy whites at the theater and hosted dinner parties, establishing a reputation as a “gregarious” host with “the best liquors,” according to Rothman.

Armfield was less extroverted, but he, too, was praised for his social skills. He always opened the door for visitors to the Alexandria townhouse, made sophisticated small conversation, and offered them something “good” to drink, according to McInnis.

Even a New England abolitionist who visited Alexandria in the 1830s was impressed by his smoothness. Despite knowing Armfield’s occupation, the abolitionist stated that he is “a man of great personal appearance, and of engaging and charming manners.”

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After they retired, their fine names stayed with them. Around 1837, Franklin and Armfield left the company. Franklin, who was in his fifties at the time, was “weary and didn’t want to do it anymore,” according to Rothman. Armfield had no desire to go on without his lifelong companion.

Franklin spent his retirement in a huge Tennessee mansion and many Louisiana estates he had acquired during the course of his career. He spent his last years maintaining his estates and spending time with his three children and wife, Adelicia Hayes, whom he reportedly cherished, according to archives. Franklin died of stomach problems in 1846.

Meanwhile, Armfield bought an old hotel in the Tennessee mountains and turned it into a posh summer retreat for the rich. According to Rothman, he ran it with great success in his latter years, receiving visits from “extremely famous individuals” such as archbishops and the mayor of Nashville. (Armfield’s hotel still stands and is utilized for occasions such as Methodist retreats.) In 1871, he died of old age.

According to Rothman, Armfield’s marriage produced no children, and Franklin’s children with Hayes all died without having children, therefore the two men have no direct white descendants surviving today. Rodney Williams, a direct black descendant of Armfield, submitted an essay for “Slavery’s Descendants,” published in May, on his heritage, which he said he uncovered through DNA testing.

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After learning of their ancestor’s connection to the slave trader a few years ago, a group of Franklin’s indirect white descendants gave money and memorabilia to the Alexandria museum where their ancestor’s company previously stood in 2018.

Neither Franklin nor Armfield received any rebuke from their peers during their lifetimes, and according to their documents, neither man felt any guilt.

“It never occurs to them that slavery would be bad: Slavery is what made their civilization operate, it made them rich, and it was assumed that black people were there for that,” Rothman said. “Nowhere in the evidence does it appear that they felt bad about what they did.”

Rothman is one of a small group of people fighting to recognize two individuals who were possibly the founding fathers of the domestic slave trade in America. He became interested in Franklin and Armfield after noticing a scarcity of books or articles about them, which he referred to as “a glaring void in all of the slave trade literature.”

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Rothman has been scouring old papers such as property transactions in Louisiana, court proceedings in Mississippi, and ship manifests in Alexandria for six years.

He finds it tough to keep going at times. He doesn’t want to spend another day studying Franklin and Armfield’s dark deeds and darker minds.

Then he recalls why he wanted to write the book in the first place.

“People still talk about how the slave trade was marginal, that slave traders were these despised scumbags, and that slaveholders only purchased and sold people when they had to,” Rothman said. “Those kinds of tenacious beliefs must be demolished.”

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