Sweet Taste of Liberty by W. Caleb McDaniel – Review
By Victoria Holdsworth
In a case that achieved notoriety in its time, Henrietta Wood sued and won damages for her abduction into the colonial South from freedom in Cincinnati. Here is an extraordinary personal history, supported by a comprehensive foundation in the culture and history of Civil War-era America. Thoroughly researched and documented, author W. Caleb McDaniel explains the circumstances that make the almost unbelievable story of Henrietta Woods thoroughly credible.
Her story began almost two centuries ago with her birth in northern Kentucky. The first chapters of this book give you the basics of the story: “I can’t quite tell my age,” Wood recalls in a newspaper interview in 1876, however she knew she was born enslaved to a family called Tousey, some time between 1818 and 1820. In 1834, the teenage Henrietta was bought by a merchant in Louisville and taken from her family. She was soon sold again, to a French immigrant, William Cirode, who then took her with him to New Orleans.
In 1844, William Cirode returned to France, after abandoning his wife Jane, who eventually took Henrietta with her to Ohio, which was a free state. It was four years later when Jane Cirode went to a county courthouse, and registered Henrietta as a free woman. “My mistress gave me my freedom,” Henrietta recounted, “and my papers were recorded.” Henrietta spent the next several years working domestic jobs around Cincinnati, recalling that period of her life as the book title’s “sweet taste of liberty”.
But her freedom was not to last long.
It transpires that the daughter and son-in-law of her former mistress did not agree with her actions, as they viewed this lady as their inheritance. Some time in the 1850s they enlisted the help of a man called Zebulon Ward, a deputy sheriff to whom they had promised $300 if he would help them capture her, with the help of his gang. This resulted in Henrietta being tricked into a waiting ambush. Here was just the start of her fight to regain her freedom once more – and the beginning of a remarkable, brutal, unforgettable true story of survival, fortitude and an almost unprecedented force of will and courage lasting over 20 years.
Though this story is engaging and the narrative flows beautifully, it is not an easy read. This is an incredibly emotive tale, filled with fascinating details and concise explanations of complicated legal issues and historical background, but the story nevertheless stays focused on Henrietta Wood and the injustices that she was served. In fact, these atrocities were not only perpetrated, but in too many cases, celebrated.
In a time when a black woman was considered by many to be a lesser human being than most, and deemed as expendable property, Henrietta fought back. And whether she ends up a ‘winner’ in this scenario is a moot point, because ultimately her fight itself passed on something invaluable to her descendants, and is something which has never been forgotten or taken for granted.
Whilst I will never personally feel proper restitution is paid for the atrocities of slavery, her legacy continues to inspire and goes some way towards ensuring that one day white privilege will be a thing of the past. This book is a brilliant tribute to that legacy.
‘Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America’ by W. Caleb McDaniel is published by Oxford University Press, hardback £20