The book chronicles how Northup was tricked by two men in New York who said they wanted to hire him to play violin for a circus stationed in D.C. The three traveled to the District, where funeral observances for President William Harrison were taking place. According to his account, Northup was drugged and resting in the back room of a hotel when he was taken to a slave pen close to the National Mall:
It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects, save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there.
The building to which the yard was attached, was two stories high, fronting on one of the public streets of Washington. Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!
Northup was taken to Louisiana as a slave and wasn’t able to escape for another 12 years. A film about his journey is being welcomed by those panning the recent film “The Help” as another “Noble White Ladies Meet the Civil Rights Movement” movie, as Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress writes:
It would be so useful and powerful to tell a story… that explains that the direction from slavery to freedom wasn’t always a one-way journey, that demonstrates the reaches of the vast jaws of the market for slaves, that situates bondage not just in a vanished, Spanish moss-draped Deep South, but on Mall in Washington, DC where we inaugurated the first black president.