12 Years a Slave Writer: Killed as Union Spy?

Solomon Northup vanished from history, and theories abound

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 16, 2014 2:48 PM CDT

(Newser) – Solomon Northup led an incredible life that inspired an Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave—that much we know. But how Northup died remains a mystery that historians are still trying to solve, the AP reports. To recap, Northup was living with his family in upstate New York when two white men lured him to Washington, DC, in 1841, kidnapped him, and sold him into slavery in New Orleans. He survived 12 years on a Louisiana cotton plantation before friends sprung him, and he went on to publish a memoir and help escaped slaves attain freedom via the Underground Railroad.

But around 1863, he vanished. Was he killed as a Union Army spy? Did he hit the bottle and get kidnapped again? Or did he just die someplace where a black man wouldn't get a proper burial during the Civil War? Historians have heard or surmised such versions of Northup's death, and one author, David Fiske, checked cemeteries and death records but came up empty. "He may have just wandered around from place to place and died somewhere nobody knew who he was, and he was buried in a potter's field," said Fiske. But Northup's descendents tell USA Today that they're more focused on his accomplishments: "Every challenge and obstacle that I do have, is somewhat nothing compared to his, so there is no reason that I can't accomplish or get past it," says Northup's great-great-great-great-grandson.

This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from the film, 12 Years A Slave.
This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from the film, "12 Years A Slave."   (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk)
FILE- In this July 18, 2012, film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup in a scene from 12 Years A Slave.
FILE- In this July 18, 2012, film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight, Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup in a scene from "12 Years A Slave."   (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Films, Jaap Buitendijk, File)
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