Chapter VII “The Mother’s Struggle” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin showcases one of the most enduring episodes in American melodrama–a damsel in distress, an imperiled Pauline, the gentle heroine eluding a villain’s debauched snare. And, judging from the abundance of visualized retellings of runaway slave Eliza Harris’s race over the frozen Ohio, not to mention stage performances and filmed dramatizations with their many promotional advertisements, one would think the incident occupied more space in the novel. Yet, here it is. A mere six sentences (177 words) and the credulity-defying feat was accomplished.
Eliza’s harrowing escapade was not one of the engravings that illustrator
Hammatt Billings created for the original John P. Jewett publication of 1852. Readers first glimpse the young mulatto mother in his print for Chapter V, captioned “Eliza comes to tell Uncle Tom that he is sold and that she is running away to save her child.” (Fig. 1) Cloaked in head wrap with son Harry in her arms, the illustration aptly expresses the way Stowe described them in Chapter VII. “Her boy was old enough to have walked by her side,…but now the bare thought of putting him out of her arms made her shudder, and she strained him to her bosom with a convulsive grasp…” By cradling the young boy, Eliza’s pose recalls Madonna and child iconography in keeping with Stowe’s evangelical reverence for the Christian mother.
When Billings depicted Eliza’s flight across the river for publisher Jewett’s Christmas 1852 gift book version of the novel (publication date 1853), he reprised the figures of swaddled boy-child in the arms of his Madonna-like mother. (Fig. 2) By then, Eliza had made her icy splash on Broadway, the escape thrilling New York City theatergoers in three separate stage productions, and there was even a song, “Eliza’s Flight,” with an illustrated cover. Early artist renderings of that climactic moment correspond to the written text. For example, English George Cruikshank imagined the fraught Eliza in the central foreground, while the tiny forms of a hunting party, trader Haley with slaves Sam and Andy, flail their arms from the distant shore.
(Fig. 3) Once Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for theatre and scores of “Tom Shows” commenced touring the country, the scene was embellished. Actress Elizas teetered over deus ex machina stagecraft ice floes amid creaking pulleys as packs of snarling mastiffs nipped at their heels in pursuit. Theatre posters and playbills also went to the dogs, with illustrations emphasizing their ferocity. (Fig. 4) Book illustrators followed the lead, adding hounds where none had tread. (Fig. 5)
Audiences familiar with the story through late nineteenth century stage shows or early twentieth century motion pictures might marvel to learn that canine absence was pointedly noted in the novel. Slave trader Haley twice voiced his frustration at not having dogs to track Eliza. “Your master, I s’pose, don’t keep no dogs,” he asks Sam and Andy. With mocking seriousness they offer the monger the Shelby family pet, a lumbering Newfoundland named Bruno. “But your master don’t keep no dogs (I pretty much know he don’t) for trackin’ out niggers.”
The chapter ends with Sam and Andy, triumphant tricksters shouting in delight at Eliza’s success. “‘You laugh!’ said the trader with a growl,” his bestial eruption an impotent howl. Who needed dogs with that hellhound on the trail.