Written and compiled by Anna Tobin


Included in an undated edition of the text in possession of the Library Company of Philadelphia, an autobiographical introduction to Chloe Russel’s life explains how she acquired her “great powers of prediction” (Gardner 269). Russel, arriving in Virginia after being kidnapped from her home in Africa, is wracked by her traumatic experience and, on the verge of suicide, is visited by the spirit of her father, who begs her not to take her life. Russel listens to the words of her father, and the next night the spirit returns, reassuring Russel that her “mother and brother dwell with [him]” (Gardner 272). Accompanying the vision of her father is “another bright spirit, clad in purple” who grants Russel “with power to interpret dreams of others, and by signs, moles and tokens, to foretell the most remarkable events of lives” (Gardner 272). Included in these bestowed powers to predict the future is the coveted knowledge of how best to attract a spouse, referenced outright in the subtitle of other editions of the text, pictured on the right.

This anecdote of Russel’s life is a symbolic reinforcement of the prevalent ideals of family, love, and marriage that were crucial and in flux in Antebellum America. In Russel’s text, the focus on the ultimate goal of finding a spouse as a “remarkable event” of one’s life and a selling point important enough to include in the subtitle positions Russel’s text within the complex and developing understanding of marriage during the 19th century in New England. Living in Boston’s West End, Russel was part of a thriving Black community, where her text detailing her fortune telling abilities and directions to attract a spouse would have been circulated and read widely, especially due to the affordable nature of the published chapbook (Gardner 259).

In order to further understand why a text offering love advice like Chloe Russel’s would be valuable to readers and deemed worthy of publication, this exhibit aims to provide further historical context to the nature and stakes of Black marriage in 19th century Boston. And, from this information, it can be further analyzed how Chloe Russel and her text fit into — or perhaps go against — the dominate ideals circulating around love and marriage at that time.

The title page of an edition of the Chloe Russel text — guaranteeing both men and women the opportunity to attract the spouse "they most desire."

Black Marriage in Antebellum New England

Leading up to the Civil War, the legal right for African Americans to marry varied widely, dependent on the laws and practices of each colony or state. In the South, Black marriages were not legitimized under the law since slave codes prohibited bondmen and bondwomen from entering into marriage contracts, while the colonies in New England, however, allowed Black slaves to legally wed, “[defining] them as both persons and property before the law” (Adams and Pleck 104).

Despite the disparities in legality, familial bonds and marriage were important and present parts in Black lives in both the North and South. In her article expanding on Tera Hunter’s expansive study on Black love in pre-Civil War America, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century, Vanessa M. Holden summarizes eloquently the complex cultural role that marriage played for both free and enslaved African Americans during this period:

Kinship was essential to Black people and many free and enslaved people valued marriage as a way to signify commitment and love. Marriage was a way to codify intimate relationships. However, it was also an expression of humanity. It was a right that could confer other rights, and it was an instrument of social control. Marriage was not a failsafe institution with the ability to right racism’s wrongs… Marriage was important, not perfect (Holden).

In the North, the effort to legally recognize marriage, even for enslaved peoples, can be cited to the Puritan moral strictures that heavily influenced colonial New England. Overall, “family was the fundamental unit of Puritan society and the primary vehicle for preserving and perpetuating Puritan ideals” (duCille 23). So, to that effect, legally binding unions that discouraged extramarital relations and encouraged the formation of families that could maintain Puritan morality were applied to both white and Black residents, enslaved or otherwise. Within this system, although still enslaved, bondmen and bondwomen were able to seize a semblance of personhood and equality to whites through the institution of marriage.

Venture Smith's autobiography, published in 1798

And, in cases where one partner was free and their spouse was still enslaved, marriage became a tool through which freedom could be achieved for both parties. One historical example of this situation is the story of Venture Smith and his wife. Taken from West Africa and enslaved in Rhode Island at age eight, Venture met and married Marget (Meg), another of his master’s slaves, by age 22. The two had children together, but Venture was sold to another master and two were separated. Venture, however, was incredibly opportunistic and was able to negotiate with his master to keep a portion of his wages. Then, “through his industry and entrepreneurship, he was able to purchase first his freedom, then that of his two oldest sons, Solomon and Cuff, and eventually—through their labor as well as his—his then pregnant wife Meg and their daughter Hannah” (duCille 23). This extremely impressive dedication to preserving his family unit, in his own words, was what he considered his greatest achievement (duCille 24).

The headstones for Meg and Venture Smith, buried in the graveyard of the First Congregational Church in East Haddam.

After Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, marriage still persisted as an institution that humanized and legitimized African American citizens under the law. African Americans living in New England sought out Boston as a center of commerce where they could establish themselves and their families. And, as laws enacted as early as the 1830s began to grant property rights to married women, the economic benefit of marriage started to seem more balanced than the traditional patriarchal model (Way 14).

Drawing Conclusions About Chloe Russel

Considering the historical context within which the text circulated, Chloe Russel and her advice contained in The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book offer an incredibly interesting perspective on the institution of marriage. Overall, it definitely reinforces how important and culturally valuable marriage and finding a spouse was to people of that time. Readers would have been invested in determining whether or not they were to be wed, and if that union would have been happy or otherwise. Yet, the depiction of Chloe Russel is antithesis to the benefits of marriage; the opening autobiography of the text paints her as a single woman who was able to earn her own freedom and gain property despite not taking part within the institution of marriage.

In addition, Russel’s emphasis on “desire” and fate within a marriage union and the involvement of fortune and spirituality within determining one’s partner seems counter to the perhaps more practical and religious aspects of matrimony in New England. The Russell text seems to separate any notion of the Church or Christianity from matrimony, framing it as a “fated” event of life based within fortune and a less rigid understanding of spirituality. This is particularly surprising, considering how Puritan ideals were ingrained within Boston’s founding and New England sentimentalities as a whole. Going against this religious norm could have added a sensational aspect to the text, aiding in its readership and circulation. Equating love to elements of divination — as opposed to God or Christianity — works to remove the concept of marriage from the often oppressive and exclusionary nature of the Church, and instead lets it exist as a connection to spirituality, the body, and African practices of witchcraft. In this way, Russel’s text can work as a way through which Black authorship and readership sought to reclaim a practice that had been heavily entrenched in Western, white oppression.

Works Cited

Adams, Catherine, and Elizabeth H. Pleck. “Marriage and the Family.” Love of Freedom: Black Women in Colonial and Revolutionary New England. Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2010.

duCille, Ann. “Blacks of the Marrying Kind: Marriage Rites and the Right to Marry in the Time of Slavery.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2. Brown University, 2018.

Gardner, Eric. “‘The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book’: An Antebellum Text ‘By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.’” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 2. The New England Quarterly, 2005.

Holden, Vanessa M. “Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.” Black Perspectives, aaihs.org. 2018.

Way, Megan McDonald. Family Economics and Public Policy, 1800s–Present: How Laws, Incentives, and Social Programs Drive Family Decision-Making and the US Economy. Babson College, 2018.