I was just reading the first edition of the The Emancipator on Gale's Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Database. One way to get access is through a Houston Public Library E-Card, which are available to out-of-state holders. They say it's a $40 annual fee, but I was never charged anything. They have tons of awesome online databases you may be interested in, check it out. Initially published weekly as the Manumission Intelligencer from March of 1819 to April of 1820, the paper was renamed The Emancipator and changed to being published monthly. Published by Elihu Embree, the paper was the first abolitionist newspaper in America.

On page 5, at the top of the second column, an unnamed correspondent makes the following claim:

"I shall here take the liberty of presenting to you an anecdote, which I have lately heard, and which seems well adapted to the subject:—A certain preacher, of recent date in one of the states, was addressing his congregation on the analogy that exists between the Temple of God that was built at Jerusalem, in the time of king Solomon, and the spiritual Temple or Church, under the Gospel dispensation; it necessarily led him to speak of the workmen employed in preparing the materials for the buildings; observed to his auditory, that certain modern workmen had been busily employed in hewing and squaring a stone, which they were aiming for one of the corners of the spiritual house, and having completed it, as they thought, brought it to the place and threw it down, when it suddenly bursted open at a flaw that was init, which they had not discovered, and out tumbled a negro! Curious as the comparison may be, I am afraid that there is a great many such stones, with all their flaws, put into the building, who, if they were emboweled, their contents would be as equally antichristian, as the one above described; and it would be well if even some of the builders themselves were clear of the flaws of slavery, but alas! it is not the case."

Before I ask my question, I want to make sure I understand what is being said. The correspondent is claiming that some stonemasons finished the final touches of a stone block before being placed. Then, they placed the stone, but upon setting it down it burst open, and out popped a dead slave. Do I have this correct?

Onto the claim... In one of my classes for the Army, I learned that gases that escape from a corpse as it decomposes can cause cavities in concrete, and weaknesses. So, I guess it's possible if the "skin" of the stone was thin enough, it could crumble upon being lifted and put into place. Plus, it seems plausible, given the treatment of slaves that a cold-hearted overseer could push one into a curing pit while the blocks formed, maybe as a warning to others or maybe out of sadism. But I am skeptical of this claim because they are claiming this all went down during a church service. Hewing and squaring a block would be loud, wouldn't it? I suppose it's possible the hewing and squaring occurred distantly from the church, then the rock was brought to the church to be set, but this was no later than 30 April 1820, which is about 18 years before modern cranes were invented. So, I do not know.

The question is, are there any records of slaves being found in old masonry? Were any checks for this sort of thing ever performed? Is there any truth to this claim.

I try Googling this, but all I get are times when slave remains are found, none (at least on the first few pages) mention a slave being found in masonry. I also tried a bunch of searches of Newspapers.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and Genealogy Bank. While they turned up some interesting stories, there was nothing along the lines of this claim. can someone help me out? Thanks.

Here's the full citation to that quote according to the page: FULL CITATION Title THE EMANCIPATOR Date Sunday, Apr. 30, 1820 Volume 1 Issue Number 1 Page Number [1] Place of Publication Nashville, TN, United States Language English Document Type Front matter Publication Section Preliminary and Supplementary Material Source Library Oberlin College Library Gale Document Number GALE|GB2500020659

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    I think you are taking this too literally. Think along the line of the cornerstone of society has been built (in a very unchristian manner) upon the bodies of dead slaves.
    – justCal
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 2:51
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    Citation: BROOKS, S., Chr'm., & DOAN, T., Cl'rk. (1820, April 30). To the "Modern Listner". Emancipator, 5+.
    – shoover
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 3:12
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    @justCal I thought that was possible, but it seems unlikely just because of how this was set up. You could be correct, though. But when I read all the stuff before and after, I think this slightly less likely. The unnamed correspondent is talking about the horrors of slavery. I also thought it was possible he meant this story literally, but the other ones were figuratively. I can't tell, though. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 4:21
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    @justCal I think you are correct. I don't know how I missed the part where he says it's an anecdote. Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 4:28
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    The issues I have with this are: 1) Killing your slave wasn't considered murder, so why bother hiding the body? 2) Cement blocks used in building construction aren't typically anywhere near that large. 3) When blocks were that large, I'm pretty sure they were usually quarried limestone (not manufactured or limestone cement).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 13:52

2 Answers 2


I believe the question has taken literally what was meant in a more metaphoric manner. The moral I see represented in this anecdote would be along the lines of (my interpretation)

the foundations of American society has been built (in a very antichristian manner) upon the bodies of dead slaves.

Concerning actual construction techniques, there is no way for a person to end up inside a solid cornerstone, (one of the corners of the spiritual house), and if one were hollowed out to hold a person it would loose the structural integrity needed to support a building.

Comments and the question bring up cavities in concrete, but construction utilizing concrete in the US wont become common until much later in the 19th century. Portland cement, the main component in modern concrete, wasn't patented in England until 1824 (after the 'no later than 1820' time frame of the story).

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    I highly suspect an expanded quote from the article would completely clarify this. If "spiritual house" was meant metaphorically (rather than as some quaint way of referring to a church), then it should be quite clear from earlier (omitted) context in the article.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 20:18
  • Give me some time and I will include an expanded quote. As for slaves not being able to fit inside a cornerstone. if it were a large concrete block and a slave fell, or was pushed in while still wet the body could end up inside, as you mention this would make the block structurally unsound, which is exactly why it "bursted" open when being set. The bodily gases would be trying to seep out. So, while I do tend to agree that it was meant metaphorically, there is still the possibility of truth in this story. I'll get a bigger quote. Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 1:25
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    Concrete would not have been a common building material in early 19th century US. Masons work with stone or brick.
    – justCal
    Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 1:42
  • If the narrator is really suggesting this was an actual occurrence, I suspect he misunderstood the preacher's illustration. Comparing the Church (the Christian congregation) to a building with a cornerstone is a well known Biblical idea. The message is that one cannot build a sound Christian community on unchristian practices even if these are hidden from view.
    – David42
    Commented May 29 at 17:59

Not the United States, but to my astonishment I did find a reference to this exact practice:

Tibet Human sacrifice was practiced in Tibet prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century.[c] Historical practices such as burying bodies under the cornerstones of houses may have been practiced during the medieval era, but few concrete instances have been recorded or verified.[86]

It says 'few instances' which presumably means that some have been verified. I haven't looked at the book it's cited to. It could be that the author had heard these stories and decided to borrow them in his attack on US slavery.

Cornerstone or no, retainer sacrifices are a known phenomenon in some slave societies. This often meant burying them or walling them up alive in the tomb of their dead master.

Probably not the US, but you never know.

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    The quote in the OP, if I understand correctly, is about a person being inside a stone rather than under it.
    – Jan
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 12:10
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    Ah ok. If OP finds this answer useful I'll keep it, but will otherwise delete.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 12:33
  • There are also examples of babies embedded in bricks at Çatalhöyük (link). Jewish sources also state that the Egyptians did the same to Israelites who couldn't meet their quota of bricks.
    – Meir
    Commented Jun 14, 2023 at 20:59
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    Please keep this answer. While I hope for another answer to possibly include an American source, But, this is still useful in locating historical precedent for the practice. Thank you. Commented Jun 15, 2023 at 1:19

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