Occasional Blog

This is where I say things that I need to say that I haven’t said elsewhere.

Letter from freed slave Jordan Anderson to his former master

I didn’t write this. It’s a by a man named Jordan Anderson, who with one letter achieved more for blistering satire than an entire bookshelf of Hitchens or Vidal. It’s a blast of sarcasm so well-contained it could give you goose bumps. I love it.

It’s a simple setup. Former slave owner Colonel Patrick Henry Anderson returned to his farm after the Civil War and found, like so all the other farmers in the devastated South, that everything was destroyed, his livestock was dead, and his 32 pieces of human “property” had gained independence and made hasty use of it.

The clueless P. H. Anderson, like so many Southern farmers, had no Plan B if he lost the war. Without slaves to make the economy run, the South was a ravaged backwater. All he could think to do was write his former prize slave, Jordan, who had decamped to Ohio.

Jordan received the plea, and he sat down to dictate his response to a friend. This friend, gigglingly named Valentine, instantly recognized the brilliance of the answer—few letters by former slaves to their masters were so slyly chastising—and so he gave a copy of the Cleveland newspaper, which published it. It became a national sensation. I can only imagine what Colonel P. H. Anderson did with the original.

Different versions of the letter bear various spellings of the writer’s name, which at the time was new to pen and ink. Until he was a Freedman, Jordan’s name was never recorded in the slave schedule—just his gender and age. He was about 40 when he wrote this, the prime of his life having been spent in bondage, and his name being both borrowed and new.


Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy — the folks call her Mrs. Anderson — and the children — Milly, Jane, and Grundy — go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson


The letter was reprinted across the country.

The letter was reprinted across the country.


Jordan Anderson spent the second half of his life in Dayton and died in 1907. Today, Big Spring, Tennessee, where he was kept, is a ghost town near Lebanon, southwest of Nashville.

Jordan’s letter is taught in history books. Colonel Anderson had to sell the estate for far less than it was worth just to get out of debt, and died just two years later at age 44.

I love when small, throwaway moments become big history. Did you do something today that might accidentally illuminate an age?

‘Cabaret’: The Menace is Fading Because Berlin’s So Cool Now

Sally is Under There: Nollendorfplatz, Shöneberg, Berlin, in 1946

Sally is Under There: Nollendorfplatz, Shöneberg, Berlin, in 1946

The current revival of Cabaret on Broadway is a perfect copy of the revival that opened in 1998. Back then, a mostly unknown actor named Alan Cumming instantly made his career by emerging from darkness to play the Emcee, and Natasha Richardson was his Sally Bowles. The show played in a ruined theatre, the Henry Miller’s, and as directed by Sam Mendes, was suffused with the sleazy, perverted atmosphere of a country slumming before the dawn of certain destruction.

Now it’s back. Same old sleaze, same old impending doom. Alan Cumming seems not to have gained a pound in 16 years. The script is still brilliant, the songs unimpeachable.

If you had hit me on the head during intermission in March, 1998, and I had woken up for the second act last week, I may not have noticed the difference.

Yet the way we receive the show in 2015 is completely different. Because Berlin is different. We are different.

Cabaret is basically a two-and-a-half-hour suicide note by its characters. Sally Bowles would rather dissolve in gin, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz want to hide. Fraulein Kost wants to screw and salute her captors. The Emcee wants to get high and hump things. In a subtle bit of cultural arrogance, only the American seems to see the truth. Like him, the audience knows they’re doomed because we knew Berlin was doomed.

At least, audiences used to know that. No one under 30 remembers the Berlin Wall when it stood. In fact, no one under 30 thinks Berlin is a bad place to be anymore. No use mourning Berlin when you’d love to live there yourself.

A while ago, I wrote about how audiences of 1949 interpreted South Pacific in a different way than we do today because they perceived so many things that were going unsaid. Cabaret is the same way.

Cabaret was devastating when it premiered in 1966. The Wall was just a few years old and the city was known for its ignoble rubble and for being the nerve center for Hell. It was interminably lost. That original production catered to post-Eisenhower sensibilities—the hairstyles were kewpie beehive, the sexuality muffled, the menace of racism flattened into innuendo—but for people who had lived through the cataclysm, it was horrifying to watch characters blithely booze and drink as the architects of the Final Solution crept in.

She's really good. Like spectacular good. The show's former star, Berlin, must be jealous.

She’s really good. Like spectacular good. But ‘Cabaret’ is now more about the changing stars, and the original star used to be that faded starlet Berlin

Cabaret‘s main characters live on Nollendorfplatz. They talk about it throughout the show. Past audiences would have known that by 1945, Nollendorfplatz would be blasted to oblivion, so when Fraulein Schenider says she’s going to hang on to her boarding house for security, the audience of years past knew she’d be a refugee very soon. Today, Nollendorfplatz just a name. In Berlin, it’s wholly rebuilt, trendy, and a center of Berlin’s all-night gay culture.

When we sat in the theatre watching Cabaret in 1998, we had a faint sense of all that had been lost, though not nearly as much as our parents did in 1966. In 1998, the Wall was only 9 years down. There was still a sense of wasted decades, of a teetering security, of an unknown future. Berlin wasn’t a sure thing.

Today, though, although the show is identical, this generation doesn’t see Berlin’s position in the world as worth a kyrie. It’s the party center of Europe, the place everyone wants to be, where art and sex are embraced and understood. In fact, it’s a lot like Berlin in the 1920s again. Why cry? Things bounce back. Life really is a you-know-what.

Even Berlin has erased what was so terrifying about Berlin, as I discovered when I tried to find remnants of its Wall on a recent trip.

Cabaret is now mostly about something else. It’s about celebrity. The Emcee was once a sinewy, shadowy figure, a slithering androgynous question mark who seduced those around him into a vortex of capitulation.

Now he’s a rascal! Alan Cumming is an eccentric pro, like Zero Mostel with a meth look. His appearances on the stage elicit not malaise borne of historical context but appreciative giggles. At one point, he asks an audience member what they think of his “1920s spaceman costume.” He’s less Emcee than Puck, a goth drinking buddy, a Will Rogers with glittery nipples. His Sally Bowles is filled by a rotating roster of capable young movie actresses testing their mettle, and people come to see how well they handle the songs. With the specter of a raped Berlin no longer the ghost in the room, Cabaret is now as much about modern American box office stars as it is about the warnings of societal complacency.

That’s how it goes. The show has always been a starmaker. Joel Grey was a nobody, too, when he created the Emcee. He became a star, too, playing him for two decades, but I’ll bet he didn’t give the ball game scores to the audience in between numbers, as I half expected Cumming to do.

Life is a you-know-what, old chum

Life is a you-know-what, old chum

You could argue that the Cabaret of today still presents stronger stakes for its Jewish character, Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein) than it does for its Christian and heterosexual characters. Many of us have forgotten about Berlin The Lost City, but few of us forget what happened to the Jews.

When, at the end, director Sam Mendes visually references the Holocaust, the audience sobers up a little, but that’s a modern embellishment, a dutiful coda. It’s worth noting that Joe Masteroff’s book never mentions the Holocaust. Instead, it runs on foreboding and depends on us to supply the context. Which may be why Mendes needed to remind us of the Holocaust at all—Berlin’s too cool to feel sorry for anymore.

This revival of Cabaret is closing after a year. The prior revival lasted nearly six years. Alan Cumming can be seen each week on The Good Wife. There’s a deeper, more worrying point to make about our memory of history, but I won’t make it. Berlin’s a blast. Why cry?