Critically-acclaimed film has local connection

The new film “12 Years a Slave,” which is based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup and is earning universal praise by critics, has a close tie to Fulton County, local historians say.

The story is about a free black man from Saratoga Springs who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C. He worked on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before he was finally released.

The story goes like this: Northup, who was the son of a free black man, was approached by two men, Alexander Merrill of Broadalbin and Joseph Russell, a captain on the Erie Canal.

The two approached Northup in 1841 with an offer, said former Fulton County historian Peter Betz. Merrill and Russell offered Northup a position as a fiddler in a circus for $1 a day. They convinced Solomon to go farther south into Washington D.C., and after drinking together one night, Northup woke up in a slave pen.

He worked as slave for 12 years, but one day, while working in the fields, Northup was called out by a local sheriff who arrived at the site with another man, and the sheriff told Northup he was free, according to Northup’s book.

According to old newspaper stories, Northup then told authorities about Merrill, who in turn was arrested at his mother’s home and brought to Gloversville for court proceedings.

“Merrill has long been recognized as a desperate fellow. They found him asleep with a Bowie knife and brace of pistols on the floor by his bed,” The Syracuse Wesleyan reported.

Betz said some feared Merrill would be lynched by anti-slavery mobs in Gloversville, so the man was taken to Saratoga County for his trial.

According to Saratoga County Historian Lauren Roberts, the kidnappers were identified in court records as having lived in Saratoga Springs at the time of the kidnapping, but during the time of Solomon Northup’s slavery, they lived “outside of New York state.”

The kidnappers were indicted in 1854 on charges related to the kidnapping and selling a free man into slavery in Washington.

“After a ruling and an appeal, it was determined that the court did not have jurisdiction to try the men for the actual sale into slavery, an event that happened in Washington D.C.,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the trial for the original count of kidnapping never happened, after many delays, possibly because Northup had either disappeared or did not show up for the trial as he was touring around the state lecturing and selling his book.

The case against Merrill and Russell was discharged on May 26, 1857.

According to Betz, Merrill died Dec. 5, 1902, in Broadalbin.

Gordon Cornell, the Broadalbin town historian, said he could not find any burial marker or a residence for Merrill. He said Woods Hollow, where Merrill was said to live, was submerged during the creation of the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Betz said he could not confirm where Russell came from nor where he went off to after the trial.

Roberts said nobody knows too much about the later life of Northup. Neither the date of his death or place of burial is known, he said.

In the movie, directed by Steve McQueen, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Northup. Other members of the cast include Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, among others.