Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.”
Jem, a “Mulattoe SLAVE,” made his escape during the night of July 15, 1772, liberating himself from Thomas May in Elk Forge, Maryland. In his efforts to capture Jem and return him to enslavement, May ran an advertisement in which he described Jem as a “cunning ingenious fellow” who “probably will endeavour to pass for a freeman.” Jem possessed several skills that may have helped him elude May, but those skills also made him even more valuable to the enslaver. In addition to being able to read “pretty well” and speak Dutch, Jem was a “good workman in a forge, either in finery or chafery, can do any kind of smith’s or carpenter’s work, necessary about a forge, [and] can also do any kind of farming business.” May also described the clothes that Jem wore when he liberated himself. No doubt Jem would have offered other details had he been given an opportunity to publish his own narrative. Even in Jem’s absence, May exerted control over his depiction in the public prints.
May also made decisions about how widely to disseminate advertisements describing Jem and offering “FIVE POUNDS REWARD” for capturing him. His advertisement appeared in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Pennsylvania Journal on August 5. Of the newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time, those had the longest publication history. That likely gave May confidence that those newspapers circulated to many readers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. Apparently, however, he did not consider that sufficient. May was so invested in capturing and returning Jem to enslavement at the forge that he also placed advertisements in the Pennsylvania Chronicle on August 8 and the Pennsylvania Packet on August 10. Considering the skills that Jem possessed, May probably thought it well worth the fees to place notices in all four English-language newspapers published in Philadelphia at the time. He even took advantage of the translation services that Henry Miller, printer of the Wochentliche Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, offered to advertisers in a nota bene that appeared at the bottom of the masthead. May’s advertisement describing Jem ran in that newspaper on August 4, further increasing the number of colonizers who might read it, carefully observe Black men they encountered, and participate in capturing the fugitive seeking freedom. Thomas May expended significant money and effort in attempting to re-enslave Jem, using the power of the press to overcome the various advantages Jem sought to use to his own benefit.