I got an email a while back from a fellow by the name of David Lester, who asked if I wanted to read his graphic novel biography of "an 18th-century dwarf and hunchback who fought a lonely, heroic fight for the abolition of slavery."
If you ever want to get my attention, this is how you do it.
Prophet Against Slavery is written and illustrated by Lester, based on the text from Marcus Rediker's biography, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist. It's the wild, true story of an historical figure I had certainly never heard about, even though Benjamin Franklin himself would publish Lay's abolitionist treatise. Though Lay was indeed small in stature, he was quite bold and strong in every other way.
Born in 1682 to a humble Quaker family in Essex, England, Lay was a forceful and prescient visionary. Understanding the fundamental evil that slavery represented, he would unflinchingly use guerrilla theatre tactics and direct action to shame slave owners and traders in his community. The prejudice that Lay suffered as a dwarf and a hunchback, as well as his devout faith, informed his passion for human and animal liberation. Exhibiting stamina, fortitude, and integrity in the face of the cruelties practiced against what he called his "fellow creatures," he was often a lonely voice that spoke truth to power.
The opening scene of the graphic novel captures Lay's personality perfectly: he interrupts a Meeting of the Friends to scold his entire Quaker assembly for their hypocrisy in allowing slavery to persist. To make his point, he draws a sword and stabs it through an abolitionist text, which spills blood across the church floor. Later, Lay admits with a chuckle that it was actually just red pokeberry juice.
Even Smithsonian Magazine has a story about this fascinating moment in American history:
Beneath his coat Lay carried a hollowed-out book with a secret compartment, into which he had tucked a tied-off animal bladder ﬁlled with bright red pokeberry juice. Because Quakers had no formal minister or church ceremony, people spoke as the spirit moved them. Lay, a Quaker himself, waited his turn.
He ﬁnally rose to address this gathering of "weighty Quakers." Many Friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey had grown rich on Atlantic commerce, and many bought human property. To them Lay announced in a booming voice that God Almighty respects all peoples equally, rich and poor, men and women, white and black alike. He said that slave keeping was the greatest sin in the world and asked, How can a people who profess the golden rule keep slaves? He then threw off his great coat, revealing the military garb, the book and the blade.
A murmur ﬁlled the hall as the prophet thundered his judgment: "Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures." He pulled out the sword, raised the book above his head, and plunged the sword through it. People gasped as the red liquid gushed down his arm; women swooned. To the shock of all, he spattered "blood" on the slave keepers. He prophesied a dark, violent future: Quakers who failed to heed the prophet's call must expect physical, moral and spiritual death.
The room exploded into chaos, but Lay stood quiet and still, "like a statue," a witness remarked. Several Quakers quickly surrounded the armed soldier of God and carried him from the building. He did not resist. He had made his point.
In other words: this dude was a certified badass. Lay was born with some sort of birth defects, and those physical deformities made it unfortunately easy for historians to dismiss his life and work. (The Smithsonian article notes that leading abolitionist historian David Brion Davis wrote him off as a "mentally deranged, obsessive little hunchback.") While Lay is often referred to as a "dwarf," it's not clear that he actually had dwarfism, though he was only about four feet tall, with an extreme spinal curvature caused by a condition kyphosis. One of his fellow Quakers described him physically as such:
His head was large in proportion to his body; the features of his face were remarkable, and boldly delineated, and his countenance was grave and benignant. …His legs were so slender, as to appear almost unequal to the purpose of supporting him, diminutive as his frame.
Lester's graphic novel does a tremendous job capturing this visual, and the fiery empathy with which the man carried himself despite his stature. And I am grateful for that: Prophet Against Slavery has exposed me to a truly fascinating bit of undertold American history.
Prophet Against Slavery [David Lester with Paul Buhle and Marcus Rediker / Beacon Press]
Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist [Marcus Rediker / Beacon Press]
The "Quaker Comet" Was the Greatest Abolitionist You've Never Heard Of [Marcus Rediker / Smithsonian Magazine]
All slave-keepers that keep the innocent in bondage [Benjamin Lay / Library of Congress]