When Jacobs was 21, she once again adamantly rejected Dr. Norcom’s offer to become his concubine. He punished her by sending her out to do fieldwork on a local plantation, leaving her children in the care of her grandmother. When she learned that Dr. Norcom planned to send them to work at the plantation as well, she decided to run away. Skilled in the implacable logic of slavery, Jacobs assumed correctly, as it turned out, that Dr. Norcom would sell her children if she fled. Therefore, she made arrangements with Sawyer to purchase them. Working through a surrogate, a speculator in the slave market, Sawyer did so and returned the children to the care of Jacobs’s grandmother. In the meantime, Jacobs hid in town, concealed by sympathetic friends and neighbors. Dr. Norcom became consumed by his zealous, increasingly frenetic, and obsessive efforts to find her. For the next seven years, Jacobs adopted various ruses to throw him off her trail. During this entire period, she remained hidden in a cramped crawl space under the roof of her grandmother’s house, an experience that would leave her physically impaired for the rest of her life.
In 1842, Jacobs finally managed to escape north, making her way to New York City, where she found work in the home of Nathaniel Parker Willis. In New York she was reunited with her daughter, Louisa (who had previously been sent to Brooklyn by Sawyer), and arranged for her son, Joseph, to live with her brother, John, who had escaped from slavery and now lectured on the abolitionist circuit. Jacobs joined her brother in 1849, moving to Rochester, New York, where she ran the Anti-Slavery Reading Room. She also became actively involved with a group of antislavery feminists, including a woman who became a close friend, Amy Post, who had attended the historic 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. It was Post who urged Jacobs to write her life story, as so many former slaves had as a weapon in the escalating struggle against chattel slavery. After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Jacobs returned to New York to work for the Willis family. Although Dr. Norcom had died, his descendants continued their efforts to find and capture her. In 1852, Mrs. Willis purchased Jacobs’s freedom, freeing her as well of the burden of secrecy she had carried for many years. As Jacobs confided to Post, she had long been weighed down by feelings of guilt and shame. To write a narrative that graphically exposed and politicized the sexual exploitation of women slaves would mean revisiting her own personal history. Jacobs solved this problem by creating fictitious names and locations and, most important, by creating an alter ego, Linda Brent. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was privately printed early in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War, one of the few full-length slave narratives written by a woman. After the Civil War broke out, Jacobs left New York to do relief work among the slaves who escaped to the Union Army, raising funds for them and working in Washington, D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia. After 1868 she returned north, spending her last years with her daughter in Boston and Washington, D.C. She died in 1897. -J.A.M.