RUMFORD — As a Valentine’s Day blaze whipped through a farmhouse in rural Maine, a volunteer firefighter ducked inside, grabbed a book off a shelf near the front door, and scooted down to avoid the flames as he carried the volume to safety.

Anne Morin shows off the memoir by former slave Josiah Henson that a firefighter rescued from her Rumford home during a Valentine’s Day blaze that destroyed all of her other possessions. Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times

Soon after, the two-century-old dwelling became a smoky “bunch of rubble,” with everything inside utterly ruined, said Anne Morin, one of the owners of the Mountain Spring Farm at 473 Andover Road.

The only thing that made it out was an old book.

Morin said that when she returned from lunch with her partner, Barry Allan, they found the wind howling and “flames whipping up to the heavens” as their old barn succumbed. The fate of her nearby house looked iffy at best.

She told firefighters who arrived on the scene there were “many things that I’m going to miss” if the house caught fire as well, but only one item she considered irreplaceable.

As it became clear nothing was going to survive the maelstrom, Morin told firefighters, “You’ve got to save this book or else I’m going in because it’s a historical document. It is a story of our America.”


“It’s been saved for 100 and whatever years,” she added, “and we need to continue saving it.”

“So one of the young guys said, ‘I’ll go in,’” Morin said.

Morin said she told him she hadn’t put the book away properly in the bookcase where it normally resided alongside a collection from Black American writers and the Harlem Renaissance.

Instead, she said, she had left it on top of the bookcase, just 6 inches around the corner of a bedroom door.

“If you just reach in, reach into the bedroom, put your hand out, you’re going to feel it,” Morin told him.

And in went Deputy Chief Mike Arsenault.


Fire Chief Chris Reed told the Rumford Falls Times that Arsenault had “kinda good visibility” when he entered the house, so he went in and grabbed the book.

“By the time he came out, he was army crawling underneath the flames because it was blowing out the door. But he got the book,” Reed said.

In the wake of the fire, Morin said she feels discombobulated and can’t quite believe what happened. But she’s happy her book survived.

Morin has cherished “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” since she bought it for $30 at a North Carolina bookshop in 1980.

“I’ve treasured that book my whole life,” she said. And for good reason, for the book is not just a story of a former slave. It became the foundation for a much more significant book that tells a story about America.



In 1849, a former slave named Josiah Henson told the story of his life to a Boston publisher who printed it with the sort of long title that was fashionable at the time.

It begins with a brief section titled “Advertisement” that asserts the memoir “was written from the dictation of Josiah Henson” and then revised slightly after it was read back to him.

The publisher said “the facts, the reflections and very often the words, are his” but apologizes that some of “the natural eloquence” of Henson is lost.

Still, it said, “The story has this advantage: that it is not fiction, but fact; and it will be found fruitful in instruction by those who attentively consider its lessons.”

It sold a modest 6,000 copies, mostly to abolitionists in New England who were working in fits and starts to bring slavery to an end in the United States.

The book itself is short, providing an overview of Henson’s life starting with his birth in Charles County, Maryland, six weeks after George Washington took his first presidential oath in 1789.



His mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McPherson while his father belonged to Francis Newman in nearby Port Tobacco. Henson was born into slavery.

In his autobiography, he recalled only one incident from his early days on Newman’s farm: seeing his father one day “with his head bloody and his back lacerated.”

“He was in a state of great excitement, and though it was all a mystery to me at the age of three or four years, it was explained at a later period, and I understood that he had been suffering the cruel penalty of the Maryland law for beating a white man,” Henson said in his memoirs.

“His right ear had been cut off close to his head, and he had received a hundred lashes on his back,” Henson said, punished for having “beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother.”

“Furious at such treatment, my father became a different man and was so morose, disobedient, and intractable” that Newman sold him to his son in Alabama. Neither mother nor son ever heard a word about what happened to him there.



What follows in Henson’s account remains even more startling.

In an 1878 interview with the Detroit Telegraph, Henson mentioned the highlights from his book and his life.

Henson said he was sold at age 7 and then again two years later to Isaac Riley, who called him “Uncle Si” and didn’t mind that he took up some preaching to other enslaved people nearby.

Henson said those held in bondage “had a horror of being sold by the sheriff,” which opened the door to unknown terrors, but one day Riley told him he’d lost a court case and would have to sell.

“Then he told me that he wanted me to run away clear to Kentucky. So I took my wife and children and 18 good slaves” and headed for the Bluegrass State with them, intent on delivering everyone to Riley’s brother there, dodging the sheriff in the process.


Part of the journey took Henson and his entourage through Ohio, a free state, where people advised him to run away to freedom.

“I promised to take these (enslaved people) to Kentucky,” Henson responded, “and by the help of the good Lord, I’m going there.” And so he did.

In Kentucky, he saved a little white girl from drowning in Blackford’s Creek when she fell in the water after a canoe rocked.

“I jumped after her, and I can’t swim either, but the Lord helped me just as he always has,” Henson said.

Even so, Amos Riley Jr. decided to sell Henson. He took him down the river to New Orleans to get the best price.

But Riley fell ill with yellow fever. Henson took him home and nursed him back to health.


In the process, he said, he realized the Lord helps those who help themselves. He took his wife and four children and fled for freedom in 1830, after four decades as the property of other men.

“We packed up a few provisions,” Henson said and put his two littlest children in a bag that he slung over his back.

A fellow rowed them across the Ohio River, he said, “and we trudged through a swamp and on to liberty.”


Novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” after talking with former slave Josiah Henson, is pictured in an engraving in an early edition of Henson’s memoirs. The Life of Josiah Henson

The fate of Henson’s little book almost immediately took an unexpected turn.

It turned out that one of his readers was a novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who relied on it in part to capture the character of slavery in her 1852 bestseller, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which ignited a firestorm of criticism in Southern states determined to maintain and expand the cruel institution she assailed.


Henson said in the 1878 interview that he also met with Stowe several times to tell her his story directly.

Through his book and the talk with Stowe, Henson became a model for Uncle Tom, ensuring him a lasting place in American letters.

The fame of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” assured the republication of Henson’s own book in many editions over the years. New copies are still available from at least a couple of publishers.

Stowe wrote an introduction that appeared in many of the later editions of Henson’s narrative.

In her preface, Stowe wrote that “among all the singular and interesting records to which the institution of American slavery have given rise, we know of none more striking, more characteristic and instructive than that of Josiah Henson.”

She marveled at Henson’s ability to forgive enemies and return good for evil, becoming a faithful witness of “circumstances that try men’s souls.”


Stowe said in later years that Henson wasn’t the sole model for Uncle Tom.

The Portland Press Herald in 1877 said she’d responded to a letter about the issue by declaring “no one person is described as in biography” and that “traits and incidents of various people are combined.”

“The life of Rev. J. Henson furnished many of these but not all. He was not Uncle Tom, neither was any other one person.”

But the original Uncle Tom, captured in Henson’s memoirs and Stowe’s immortal novel, was a wholly admirable figure, the savior of 118 former slaves and an advocate for liberty in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Morin said she’d like to show her book and talk about Henson at the Rumford Library or some other suitable location so more people will learn about him.



After his flight to freedom, Henson and his family settled in Canada, where they helped create a farming settlement that ultimately included at least 500 former slaves, a fifth of them achieving freedom through Henson’s own efforts to raise the necessary cash.

He toured the North speaking about his experiences and pleading for help from sympathetic Americans.

The Bangor Daily Whig and Courier mentioned in 1856 that Henson raised $156 for his cause when he spoke that year in Bangor.

In 1851, before Stowe’s novel went to press, Henson traveled to London for a world exposition that included the famed Crystal Palace. The British prime minister feted him on the occasion.

During a later tour of England, Henson met Queen Victoria and received a signed photograph in a gold frame from her, a sign of her admiration for him.

In 1879, the Lewiston Evening Journal reported that Henson had, for the first time, watched one of the myriad theater productions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that included many scenes drawn from his life. What he thought of it is unknown.


Henson died at age 94 in 1883 in his home near Dresden, Ontario, still a “large, sinewy, compactly-built man,” as an obituary in the Journal noted.

His large, free family was at his side.


Firefighters battle flames on Valentine’s Day at the home of Anne Morin in Rumford. Peru Fire Department

The book that Morin saved isn’t one of the first 6,000 printed in Boston, which are rare.

It is, though, an early and tough-to-come-by edition, published in 1858 with Stowe’s introduction and the tagline “Truth Stranger Than Fiction.”

It has an engraving of Henson, wearing a suit from the era and appearing, as Morin put, statuesque.


Today, the term “Uncle Tom” is a cruel slur that imagines a cowardly slave always ready to do the white man’s bidding, one of the many lingering effects of the Jim Crow era.

Booksellers say her volume, saved from the flames, is probably worth no more than $500 today, but its value isn’t what someone might pay for it.

It’s in the words found on its pages from a largely forgotten hero.

“The Life of Josiah Henson” is a key part of the American story — still and always worth rescuing.

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