William Dunsinberre on the Weeping Time
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Q: Can you give me a sense of how wealthy the Butler family was, and how much of a fortune Pierce Butler lost?
A: You've got to figure that money went a long way in those days. If you were an overseer, you got about $700 a year as your salary. And that's a skilled job and a dangerous job, because you might get malaria. But you got about $700 a year. If you are a the wealthiest lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, your maximum income is about $9,000 a year at that time. If you are the wealthiest merchant in Charleston, South Carolina, your maximum income is about $16,000 a year. But in this plantation, they were making about $30,000 a year. So this is really big money. And the two brothers in Philadelphia were fabulously wealthy from the income that they were drawing from the slaves' labor.
Now, the way they spent that money. John Butler, five years after [Fanny] Kemble was down there, went to a fancy dress ball in Newport, Rhode Island. That was where all the rich people went at that time. And he got himself a medieval costume made for himself in London, which was shipped across the ocean, for one and only appearance, which was this grand ball in Newport. It had real steel and, [and these] kind of plumes, and he looked like a medieval knight. And it stunned the people at the ball. And he spent on that [costume] something like $400 or $500. And it was used once. Now, it cost him about $12 a year to feed and clothe a slave. So he was spending something like 40 times that amount of money for one appearance at a ball. And meanwhile, his brother was wasting money at cards, and his brother eventually practically went bankrupt. He had lost a huge fortune on gambling on the stock market.
And so finally, in 1859, they had to auction all of Pierce Butler's slaves. They auctioned four hundred and thirty-some slaves. It was the biggest recorded slave auction in United States history. And it was because this young man, even though he was getting this huge income, was so irresponsible with his money that he had to auction off all of his slaves. And Pierce Butler went down, and after the four hundred and some slaves had been sold, he went to each one and he put in the hands of each adult slave four new silver quarters of conscience money, for the fact that he was breaking up an established community through his own irresponsibility. That's the kind of money that was involved.
Professor of History
University of Warwick
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