The Sugar House: Background information when reading The Second Mrs. Hockaday

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The Second Mrs. Hockaday

by Susan Rivers

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers X
The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2017, 288 pages

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Beyond the Book:
The Sugar House

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The Sugar HouseIn The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Susan Rivers' historical novel about the Civil War, Mr. Hockaday says to his new wife: "... there's an Armory in Holland Crossroads. A market hall in Traveler's Joy. In Charleston, it's the Sugar House. It's where servants are sent to be corrected." This novel, of course, like all historical novels, is based on true events and Rivers did her research for it using a number of documents. One document is an 1838 article written by a slave who was detained for three months in the Sugar House, a part of the Charleston city jail, located in South Carolina. The article, titled "Recollections of a Runaway Slave", was published in an abolitionist newspaper based in Maine, the Advocate of Freedom.

The Sugar House – named because it had formerly been a sugar warehouse – was a notorious workhouse jail which, by some accounts, housed infamous criminals such as Lavinia Fisher who was supposedly the first female serial killer in the United States, as well as High Sea pirates and Civil War prisoners of war. It was also the place that captured slaves were sent to be punished, and where slave owners would go if they felt that one of their property was in need of a good whipping and didn't choose to do it themselves.

The Sugar House was known for its treadmill, housed inside, which was run by slave labor. Slaves were literally chained to the pedals and forced to walk for hours grinding corn. Many of them were maimed or even died while doing this grueling work.

Says Jim, the slave who recounted his experience in the Sugar House in "Recollections of a Runaway Slave":

I have heard a great deal said about hell, and wicked places, but I don't think there is any worse hell than that sugar house. It's as bad a place as can be. In getting to it you have to go through a gate, in a very high brick wall. On the top of the wall, both sides of the gate, there are sharp pointed iron bars sticking up, and all along the rest of the wall are broken glass bottles. These are to keep us from climbing over. After you get into the yard, you go through a gate into the entry, then through a door of wood and an iron door, chained and locked together, so as both to open at the same time. The lower story is built of stone of great thickness, – and above, brick. The building is ceiled inside with plank. Away down in the ground, under the house is a dungeon, very cold and so dark you can't tell the difference between day and night. There are six or seven long rooms, and six little cells above and six below. The room to do the whipping in is by itself. When you get in there, every way you look you can see paddles, and whips, and cowskins, and bluejays, and cat-o'-nine tails. The bluejay has two lashes, very heavy and full of knots. It is the worst thing to whip with of any thing they have. It makes a hole where it strikes, and when they have done it will be all bloody.

... Widow women, every week, brought their slaves to be whipped. Some went away and left them, and some went into the whipping room and stayed till it was over... Some of the women who were carried there, were very much frightened and fretted a great deal, and got down on their knees and begged "do massa, forgive this time, and I will serve missa well." Master would say, "you bitch, you've got the devil in you, and I'll get it out" I never knew one carried away without being whipped 20 or 30 lashes.

And later in "Recollections", Jim says:

I was in the sugar house about three months. All the time I was there, the rooms were so crowded at night, that the children had to lay on top of the others and sometimes the men. We laid on the floor in two rows, with our heads to the wall, leaving a path between our feet just wide enough to walk in. All the rooms were crowded in this way, and the cells were full too. A driver watched in each room, and three or four in the yard. It was so hot and close that we almost smothered. We sweat so, that in the morning the floor would be right wet, just as though water had been thrown on it.

Captured slaves were tortured so much at the Sugar House that when their owners finally retrieved them they were often unable to function ever again. Slave owners knew this and, and as a result, many never came to pick up their slaves. Slaves that remained for more than sixty days were sold to pay for their room and board at the Sugar House – as if they had chosen these horrific accommodations.

The Sugar House at the Charleston city jail, courtesy of The South Carolina Traveler.

This article was originally published in February 2017, and has been updated for the November 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

At once a love story, a history lesson and a beautifully written tale of forgiveness.

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