A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

The Branded Hand


Abolitionists and antislavery advocates often struggle with a moral dilemma: what if doing the right thing means breaking the law? As Captain Jonathan W. Walker discovers in 1844, abolitionists who acted on their beliefs often found themselves in serious trouble. Although Walker is punished for his attempt to assist seven escaped slaves in Florida, abolitionists rally around Walker and use his story to promote their cause. 


Photo of an hand branded Selection from the Massachusetts Historical Society: “The Branded hand of Captain Jonathan Walker,” Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes, 1845.

Selection from the Library of Congress: John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Branded Hand," Philadelphia, ca. 1845.

Questions to Consider


  1. Whose hand was branded? Why? What does the "s s" stand for?
  2. To whom is Whittier referring in his third stanza? ("They change to wrong, the duty which God hath written out. They, the loathsome moral lepers...")


  1. How were other slave stealers punished during this period? Is Walker’s punishment typical? Extraordinary?
  2. Who is John Greenleaf Whittier? How does this poem compare to his other works?


  1. What is a daguerreotype? How were they created? Who paid for this daguerreotype's creation? Why?
  2. Where (or in what format) was this poem originally published? How would it have been distributed?


  1. Why might abolitionists choose to use a daguerreotype as a propaganda tool? What advantages/disadvantages might this medium provide?
  2. Why does Whittier call the brand the "highest honor"? Why would his audience agree with this claim?


  1. How does the image of the branded hand help you better understand the poem?
  2. What information can the poem provide that you cannot glean from the photograph?