Verso Stories: Supporting Actors

Recto and Verso

The stories behind 19th century American portraits on this blog have so far spoken to the lives of people on the front of the canvas.  The front of an artwork is referred to formally as “recto.” Verso” is the term for the back.  The back of a painting is literally a support system. Beginning with this blog, I will occasionally tell verso stories: the stories of the supporting players behind the portrait sitters. Those supporting players usually were their slaves.


On January 7, 1849, George, a slave of Mary Rollins, wife of James Sidney Rollins, George Caleb Bingham’s best friend, was rented to a Mr. Lewis for one year for $125, an amount worth over  $3,000 today. Mary Rollins stipulated in the contract that Mr. Lewis would “furnish said boy with all suitable necessary clothing adapted to the different seasons, pay his taxes and doctor’s bills during the year 1849 and treat him humanely.”((Letter from Mary Rollins to James Rollins, January 7, 1849, Rollins, James S. (1812-1888), Papers, 1546-1968, C 1026, Folder 14,State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia; Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Consumer Price Index (Estimate) 1800 -, , accessed April 2018.))


Two years earlier, in 1847, Leona Hardeman Cordell, the woman who would become the second wife of William Franklin Dunnica  rented her eight-year-old slave girl, Sara, to an Edwin Tanner.  Leona was a 25-year-old woman with two small children who had been abandoned by her husband, Richard L. Cordell. She and the children had moved into the St. Louis home of her mother, Nancy Knox Hardeman Dunnica and her stepfather, James Dunnica, uncle of her future second husband. Judge Dunnica owned the equivalent of $3 million in real estate. Why was it necessary to rent out Sara?((United States Census Bureau, Seventh Census of the United States, “Household of James Dunnica,” St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, August 17, 1850, page 47, lines 44-48.))

Warning: graphic violent details

It is not known how long Tanner possessed Sara, but in August 1847, he returned her to Leona. “The flesh on the back and limbs were beaten to a jelly – one shoulder bone was laid bare – there were several cuts from a club, on the head and around the neck was the indentation of a cord, by which it was supposed she had been confined to a tree…After coming home, her constant request until her death was for bread, by which it would seem that she had been starved as well as unmercifully whipped.”((Harriet C. Frazier, Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773-1865 (McFarland & Co. 2001), 141-142. Union (St. Louis, Missouri) August 16, 1847, 3:1; Missouri Republican, August 16, 1847, 2:2; Inquest: Slave Sarah, Coroner’s Report of Inquests, 1838-48, Missouri Historical Society.))

The coroner called six men to James Dunnica’s home to view the dead girl’s body. They unanimously swore under oath that Sara “came to her death by violence inflicted on her person.” The coroner wrote, “the above-named Sarah was evidently whipped to death, probably and almost certainly by Edwin Tanner or some of his family or by himself and family.” The coroner then added this highly personal note, ‘Of all the inquests that I have held, numbering 317, and having seen, as I thought, the work of death in almost all its horrors, the above crime far surpasses anything I have ever seen of human depravity and cruelty.”((Ibid.))

Tanner may have been fined. He was not hanged or imprisoned

Charlie and Stephen; William and Telly

Leona’s older half-brother, John Locke Hardeman lived in Saline County, Missouri. In 1855 or 1856, George Caleb Bingham painted his portrait, which is now owned by the State Historical Society of Missouri. In 1857, Hardeman died. He was 48. In his will, he wrote that his slaves “Charlie and Steven, and their families, not be broken up.” To his half-brother, Glen Owen Hardeman, he left many possessions, including his “old faithful servants,” William, 63, and Telly, 60. Locke also provided $1,000 (about $12,000 today) to ensure their comfort for the rest of their lives.  Why not free all his slaves as another portrait sitter did Lewis Penn Witherspoon Balch? Why not give William and Telly the $12,000?  In 1858, in Missouri’s Little Dixie, such a thought was probably unthinkable. Indeed, in 1858, Hardeman’s actions may have been radically liberal.((“Will of John Locke Hardeman of Saline County, August 3, 1858,” Glen O. Hardeman Papers, 8, Boone County Probate Records, Boone County Courthouse, Columbia, Missouri, in  Jeffrey C. Stone, Slavery, Southern Culture, and Education in Little Dixie, Missouri, 1820-1860 (Routledge, 2013), 33.))


What are we to make of these verso stories of the lives of people who survive in name only, but whose labor earned the wealth that allowed the recto subjects to afford a painted portrait?  If I have learned anything in studying 19th century American portraits for over twenty years, it is that just as each artist is unique so is each individual.  The range of interactions between individual slave owners and slaves ranged from “dental insurance,”  “clothing allowances,” and “life-long pensions” to reprehensible torture and death. The past cannot be painted with a broad brush.