After Jourdon Anderson's letter to his ex-master P.H. Anderson appeared on Letters of Note, it's been making the Internet rounds. And for good reason. Southerners are experts at the cutting insult that doesn't seems like a cutting insult until you notice that you are lying in two pieces on the floor. As everyone here jokes, "Bless your heart" is Southern for, "Fuck you, you dumbass motherfucker." Means the same thing, but doesn't lead to fisticuffs usually.
Jourdon Anderson is a genius practitioner of the cutting insult couched in sweetness: "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." Or better still: "Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me." Indeed, the letter is full of indications that Jourdon Anderson sees P.H. Anderson's sins in full — and is intent on making P.H. aware of them too.
I've seen some doubts about just how much Jourdon Anderson could be said to be the composer of this letter — whether he "dictated" some facts about his life and the actual letter writer came up with the real content. But before we seize upon, "Oh, he didn't really write it," I would remind you that if he didn't, that means we think some Midwesterner came up with that level of "Bless your heart" sweetness concealing a knife of righteous fury. I've been a Midwesterner all my life and I can tell you that when we're angry, we don't do nice. Not our rhetorical style.
Now, had Jourdon had gotten the letter from P.H., cussed under his breath, and gone to sulk in the living room without saying a word to anyone? Yes, then we could say for sure a Midwesterner imagined it. But the letter's rhetorical strategy strikes me as pure Southern.
More importantly, we have evidence that Jourdon already knew how to make P.H. furious since P.H. tried to shoot him while Jourdon was his slave. You don't shoot someone in the prime of his working life who's worth thousands of dollars unless you're enormously pissed — because once he's dead, you're not getting any more out of him.
And who can blame Jourdon for pushing P.H.'s buttons as a means of protesting his circumstances?
Jason Kottke has done a great job of tracking down Jourdon Anderson and his family in Ohio. Turns out that P.H. Anderson is pretty easy to verify as a real person as well. I found him in five minutes by first going to the TSLA website of dead Tennessee post offices. There I discovered that there have been two "Big Springs, Tennessee"s — one in Meigs County and one in Wilson County.
Then I went to Ancestry.com to search the census records and there was a Patrick Henry Anderson in Wilson County in the 1860 census. He is, in fact, the only P.H. Anderson (except his son) in Tennessee at the time. Other things that fit?
Jourdon mentions "Miss Mary" and "Miss Martha." Patrick's wife is Mary and his eldest daughter is Martha. Jourdon says that Henry intended to shoot him and, as noted, Patrick Henry "Patrick" Anderson's son is Patrick Henry "Henry" Anderson. George Carter saved Jourdon from being shot and the census records show that John G. Carter was Patrick's neighbor. According to the slave schedule, Patrick owned 32 slaves.
Patrick did have one obvious redeeming quality I would be remiss in not noting — he gave two of his sons the most awesome literary names in the history of awesome literary names. One of his sons was Hard Times Anderson and another was Edgar Poe Anderson. This would be like me naming my kids "Unbearable Lightness of Being Phillips" and "Stephen King Phillips." It's hard not to imagine, really, that a man with that kind of literary bent must have appreciated the talent Jourdan's "fuck you" note exhibited — even as it was aimed at him.