Moral Complications (Ivory part 2)
Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2012
The father of Deep River was a man acutely attuned to moral complications. George Read was six feet tall, blue-eyed, clean shaven, and with a quiet, self-effacing manner. As a young man at the beginning of the nineteenth century, he built a dam on the village’s namesake river, with a waterwheel to drive the saws in a small shop. There a couple of men cut ivory into hair combs and other knickknacks. Working with elephant tusks was already a local industry, probably through trade between the Connecticut River’s coastal sea captains, and the trans-Atlantic merchants in New York, Boston, or the Caribbean Islands. But Read found a way to build his business into a major company, and it would eventually employ hundreds of local residents.
He was a deeply scrupulous man on the familiar New England model, a careful steward of time and money, practical and relentlessly industrious. At a time when a fortune of $100,000 made a man rich, he believed that “no Christian man ought to accumulate over $25,000,” and he was apparently generous enough to live and die by this rule. He made the rounds of the village several times a day to keep tabs on its progress, and he founded the Baptist church, the local bank, and the town cemetery. At one point, his wife mentioned to him that the townspeople were gossiping about some transgression he had supposedly committed, and Read replied with a characteristic blend of reticence and quick conscience, “No, I did not do that, but I do worse things.”
Read’s strong sense of moral responsibility led him to become an abolitionist, at a time when it was still dangerous to do so. There was a risk that Southern customers might shift their business to ivory companies in England, and even in Connecticut itself, where slavery was not entirely abolished until
1848, riots sometimes broke out when anti-slavery activists spoke. But Read was already an active stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in 1828, when a fugitive slave from the Carolinas showed up at his door seeking refuge. Billy Winters, a name given to protect him from recapture, remained in the Read family home for the next 20 years and went to work in the ivory business. Read founded the local branch of the Anti-Slavery Society, which had more members in the backwater village of Deep River than in New Haven. He seems never to have recognized a horrible irony: His own business depended entirely on slave caravans to carry the tusks from the African interior down to the coast.
(to be continued)