By Walter Mosley

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Master storyteller Walter Mosley deftly mixes speculative and historical fiction in this daring New York Times bestselling novel, reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

47 is a young slave boy living under the watchful eye of a brutal slave master. His life seems doomed until he meets a mysterious runaway slave, Tall John. 47 finds himself swept up in a struggle for his own liberation.


Copyright © 2005 by Walter Mosley

All rights reserved.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com

First eBook Edition: May 2005

ISBN: 978-0-316-05479-9

The Little, Brown and Company name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


For Sally McCartin



The story you are about to read concerns certain events that occurred in the early days of my life. It all happened over a hundred and seventy years ago. For many of you it might sound like a tall tale because I am no older today than I was back there in the year 1832. But this is no whopper I'm telling; it is a story about my boyhood as a slave and my fated encounter with the amazing Tall John from beyond Africa, who could read dreams, fly between galaxies, and make friends with any animal no matter how wild.

There are many things in the world that most people don't know about. For instance, when I was young nobody ever dreamed that there would be radios and televisions and powerful jet planes that could fly across the ocean in only a few hours. But all of those things were possible back then even though nobody knew it.

My story is like that. It's about science that seems like magic even today and about the barbaric practice of slavery that so many of our ancestors had to endure.

I'm putting down these words because I'm the only one left alive who remembers what it was like to be a slave in the land of the free, the United States, and I think that it is important for other people to understand what this experience was like.

I made an oath all those years ago not to inform the general population about the science I was exposed to back then, but I don't think that by telling this tale I will be breaking my vow because most people who read these words won't believe in the incredible inventions that were revealed to me by Tall John.

You have to have quite an imagination to believe in his Sun Ship or his power over dreams.

I hope that you will enjoy this tale of adventure and derring-do. But even as you thrill to the dangers and valiant trials of the heroes that lived back then, I hope you will get a little understanding of what it was like to live as a slave at that time. Slavery might be the most unbelievable part of this whole story but I assure you—it really happened.


I lived as a slave on the Corinthian Plantation my whole life up to the time that Tall John ran out of the back woods and into my life. I have no idea exactly how long the time before Tall John might have been, but I was most likely about fourteen years old at that time. Slaves didn't have birthday parties like the white children of Master or the white folk that either worked for Master or lived on the larder of his home.

Slaves didn't have birthday parties and so they didn't have ages like the white people did. Big Mama Flore always said that "White peoples gots as many ages as you can count but slaves on'y gots four ages. That's babychile, boy or girl, old boy or old girl, an' dead."

I loved Big Mama Flore. She was round and soft and always gave me a big hug in the morning. She was one of the only ones who ever showed me kindness when I was little.

My mother died when I was too young to remember her face. Big Mama told me that my mother, her name was Psalma, had a boyfriend over at the Williams Plantation but she would never tell anybody who he was because she didn't want him getting into trouble for sneaking out to see her in the big house at night.

Flore also told me that that man nobody knew was my father.

"She didn't even tell you his name, Big Mama?" I asked when she would tell me the sad story of Psalma Turner when I was still too little to have to work in the cotton fields.

"No, babychile," Big Mama said. "Master Tobias would'a give a Christmas ham to the nigger tole who had fathered his wife's favorite maid's baby. He'd walk through the slave quarters at night sayin' that he would give the man who looked like Psalma's baby to Mr. Stewart for punishment. So if some slave knew who it was that yo' mama was seein' he would'a done hisself a big favor by tellin' Master Tobias his name. An' onceit Tobias iknowed who that slave was he was sure to end up in Mr. Stewart's shack."

Tobias Turner was Master's name and Mr. Stewart was his overseer. The overseer made sure that all us slaves worked hard and didn't cause any ruckus or break the Rules. The Rules were that you did as you were told, didn't talk back, never complained, and stayed in your place.

Mr. Stewart had a shack that stood out in the middle of a stand of live oaks behind the slave quarters. And if you were ever unlucky enough to get sent back there then you were in serious trouble. Many a slave never returned from Mr. Stewart's killin' shack. And those that did come back were never the same.

I hadn't seen Mr. Stewart's torture chamber at that time but I knew about it because I had heard stories from those few souls that survived his torments. They said that he had a pine table that was twice as long as a tall man is tall and that there were leather straps on both ends that he would tie to a slave's wrists and ankles. The straps were attached to baskets filled with heavy stones that would stretch a poor soul's legs and arms out so far from their sockets that afterward the slave could hardly even lift his feet off the ground to walk and he would have to use both of his hands just to get the food to his mouth to eat.

"Yes, sir," Big Mama Flore would say in the backyard under the big magnolia tree that Una Turner's great grandfather planted when he settled the land back before any living slave, even Mud Albert, could remember. "Yes indeedy. If Master Tobias knowed who your father was that man wouldn'ta stood a nigger's chance on the main road at midday."

I was brokenhearted when Big Mama would tell the story about my mother and her sad end. When Psalma died giving birth to me, Una Turner told Master Tobias that I was to remain on her family's plantation for as long as I lived as a remembrance to my mother.

Una loved my mother because of her voice. It was said that Psalma Turner had the most beautiful voice that anyone on Corinthian Plantation had ever heard. Miss Una had a weak constitution and bad nerves and when she would have an attack it was only my mother's singing that would keep her from despair.

Miss Una loved my mother so much, Big Mama Flore said, that she would have been sure to keep me up in the big house with her—if she had lived. But three years after my mother died Miss Una had one of her attacks and without Psalma's singing she succumbed to the malady and passed over to the Upper Level and back to the place that all life comes from.

Some time after Miss Una died Master Tobias named me Forty-seven and told Big Mama that when I was big enough I was meant to live out in the slave quarters and work in the cotton fields with all the other slaves. Master Tobias didn't like me because he blamed my mother for getting pregnant and stealing herself from his property by dying. But he didn't want to sell me off because it was Miss Una's dying wish to keep me on her plantation near my mother's grave.

Until I grew Master Tobias made me live in the barn, feeding and grooming the horses and running any errands that the house slaves had for me. I made myself pretty scarce out there because whenever Master saw me he'd remember my mother and then he'd get mad and look to see if I'd done something wrong. And if there was one straw out of place he would tell Big Mama Flore to get her razor strap and whip my backside. Big Mama didn't want to beat me but she did anyway because Tobias was watching.

After these beatings, when Master was gone, Big Mama would fold me in her arms and apologize.

"I sorry, babychile, but if'n I didn't make you cry he would'a took the strap," she'd say, "and whip you hard enough to draw blood."

"Why he hate me so much, Big Mama?" I'd whine.

"He blame you for his wife dyin'," she'd say. "He just hurt so much inside an' you the on'y one left alive that he could blame."

"But I din't do nuthin'."

"Shhh, baby. You just stay outta Tobias's way. Don't look up when he's around an' always do all your work an' more than that so you don't give him no reason to have me beat you."

We both knew that when I got big enough to work in the fields he'd give me over to Mr. Stewart when he got mad. And Mr. Stewart would use a bullwhip on my bare back. He might even stretch my bones until I was dead.

We both knew that I was safe from Mr. Stewart until I grew big enough to pick cotton, so Mama Flore didn't feed me meat or milk so that I'd stay small and not have to go to work in the cotton fields.

I wasn't allowed in the big house. The only times I was ever there was when Big Mama sneaked me in so I could see how grand the white peoples' lives were.

So I lived in the barn my whole life until just before Tall John came to the plantation. In that time Big Mama Flore made my acquaintance with Mud Albert and Champ Noland. Mud Albert was the oldest slave on the plantation and Champ was the strongest. Champ once carried a full-grown mule across the yard in front of the mansion. Albert and Champ loved Big Mama and so they told her that they would take me under their wings when I had to go out in the slave quarters and live with the rough element out there.

I spent most of my time working hard and avoiding Master's angry attention. But it wasn't all hard work and beatings. The barn was very large and it had a little window at the very top for ventilation. When nobody was looking I used to climb up to that window and pretend that I was in the crow's nest of some great ship coming from Europe or Africa. I had heard about these ships from some of the slaves that had been brought in chains from across the seas and from some of the house slaves who had seen pictures of the great three-mast sailboats in books from Master's library.

I'd sit up there at the end of the day, watching while the slaves picked cotton in the fields, pretending that I was the lookout put up there to tell the captain when there was some island paradise where we could drop our anchor.

And sometimes, if I was very lucky, I would catch a glimpse of Miss Eloise—Tobias's daughter.

Eloise. She was dainty and white as a china plate. Her pale red hair and green eyes were startling. In my mind she was the most beautiful creature in all of Georgia.

When Eloise would come out to play I'd squeeze down behind the sill of the open window and watch. Even when she was alone she laughed while she played, swinging on her swing chair or eating sweets on the veranda.

Every time I saw her in the yard behind the Master's mansion I got a funny feeling all over. I wanted to go down there and be happy with her but I knew that a nigger* like me wasn't allowed even to look at someone like Miss Eloise.

One day, when Eloise was sitting in her swing chair alone, I stuck my head out to see what she was doing. But I didn't realize that the sun was at my back and that it cast the shadow of my head down into Miss Eloise's lap.

She looked up, squinting at the sun, and said, "Who's up there?"

I ducked down under the windowsill but that didn't stop her from calling.

"Who's up there spying on me?" she cried. "Come out right now or I'll call my daddy."

I knew that if Miss Eloise called her father I'd get more than a whipping from Big Mama's razor strap. He might whip me himself until I was knocked out and bleeding like the slaves I'd seen him bullwhip while they were tied to the big wagon wheel in the main yard.

I stood up and looked out.

"Yes'm, Miss Eloise?" I said. "I been workin' up here. Is it me you want?"

"You were spying on me," she said.

"No, ma'am," I assured her. "I's jes' workin'."

"Doin' what?"

If ever you tell a lie you should know where it's goin'. That's what Mud Albert would tell me. I should have heeded those words before telling Eloise that I was at work. Because there was no work for a groom like me up in the high part of the barn.

"Breshin' the horses," I said lamely.

"There ain't no horses in the top'a the barn," she said, pointing an accusing finger at me. "You're malingering up there, ain't you, boy?"

"I's sorry," I said, near tears from the fear in my heart.

"Come down here," Eloise said in a very serious tone.

I climbed down the ladder from the roof and ran through the barn and to the yard, where the young white girl stood. She wore a yellow bonnet held under her chin by a red ribbon, and a yellow dress with a flouncy slip underneath the skirt. She was eleven years old and pretty as a child can be.

I came up to her with my head hanging down and my eyes on the ground.

"Yes'm?" I said.

"Were you spyin' on me, boy?"

"I was jes lookin', Miss Eloise. I didn't know you was down here."

"Why you lookin' at your feet?" she asked. "You know it's rude not to look at someone when you're talkin' to 'em."

"I ain't s'posed to look at you, ma'am. You's a white lady an' niggers ain't s'posed to look at white ladies."

It was true. Even Fred Chocolate, Master Tobias's butler, was not supposed to look at a white woman straight on.

"You were lookin' at me from up in the barn," she said.

"No, ma'am," I lied. "I mean I looked out but I didn't know that you was there."

"That's not true," she said.

"I swear it is," I said, still looking at my feet.

"Look up at me this instant, you insolent boy," she said then.

I raised my head slowly. I had to look up because Eloise was elevated above me, on the porch. When I saw her face there was a big smile on it.

"Don't be scared," she said. "I won't tell."

My heart skipped at her kind words. I felt as if she were saving me even though it was her threats that I was afraid of.

"Do you want a molasses cookie?" she said.

"Yes, ma'am," I replied.

From a tin can on the swinging chair she brought out a big brown cookie. She knelt down in her pretty dress and handed it to me.

"Now run along," she said. "And don't worry, I won't tell that you were lookin'."

I ran back into the barn and up to my crow's nest. Mama Flore had let me taste the crumbs from cookies before but I never had a whole one, or even a proper piece. I sat up next to the window and ate my cookie, thinking of young Eloise.

I was hoping that somehow she would remember me and make me her page. That way I could always be near her and eat sugary cookies every night of the week.

That was all before I met Tall John and learned that no man or woman should serve another because that made them a slave.


Time went by and I stayed pretty small. But even still Master Tobias one day told Flore that he reckoned I was old enough to begin the lifelong chore of picking cotton.

"Maybe a few months out workin' will make him grow into a man," I heard him say to Flore.

He told her that the next day he would send Mr. Stewart up to the barn with orders to drag me out to the slave quarters. I knew that I had to go, and Big Mama Flore had spent the night before talking and singing to me so that I wouldn't be so scared. But when that mean-eyed, rat-faced, red-necked Mr. Stewart came to take me I went into a fit of kicking and screaming. The whole time I kicked and shouted I worried that Mr. Stewart was going to take me out to the killin' shack for being so unruly. But as much as I was afraid to be stretched I was even more scared of the slave quarters.

Nothing I had ever heard about the slave quarters sounded good. It smelled bad in there and it was too hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. And every night they chained your feet to an eyebolt in the floor. The men out there were mostly angry and so they were always fighting or crying or just plain sad. But the worst thing they said about the slave quarters was that once you were there you stayed there for the rest of your life. You either worked in the field or you stayed chained in your bunk. And so I knew that once I went out there I'd never spend any time with Mama Flore again.

Mr. Stewart would get hold of my wrist and drag me half the way across the yard and then I'd twist one way or t'other until I slipped from his grasp. Then I made a bee-line back for the big house, screaming bloody murder and for Big Mama Flore to come and save me.

Three times the evil overseer dragged me into the yard and three times I broke away and tried to make it back to Big Mama Flore's skirts. The white men who worked for the plantation were all around the pigsty laughing at Mr. Stewart, which made him start to curse me.

He grabbed me by the shoulder and shouted, "You little nigger, you better com'on like I say or I'll whip you until you're so bloody red that they'll call you injun!"

I knew he was trying to scare me into being tame but between the pain in my shoulder and his reputation as a slave-killer I couldn't help but bolt again. That time I was so scared that I outpaced the overseer and made it all the way to the side door of the big house. The door was open and I could see Mama Flore standing there. I ran as fast as a wild pig but just as I got to the door Mama Flore slammed it in my face. I could still see her through the little window, but then she pulled curtains closed.

All I could do was to look up at the fancy cloth and cry out her name.

"Big Mama, help!"

I pulled at the door handle but it was latched. As I grabbed onto that knob I could feel Mr. Stewart's grip on my shoulder again. He dragged me off while I was yelling for Big Mama Flore to come save me. I didn't fight any more. I just let him drag me. I was still yelling but the pain in my heart was no longer fear of the slave quarters; I was hurting because Mama Flore had abandoned me like Judas in the story Mud Albert once told me about the man who became like the plantation master of the whole world.

My first moments in the slave quarters might have been frightening if it wasn't for my broken heart over Big Mama slamming that door on me. I had run to her my whole life. When I'd fall and skin my knee or when the thunderstorms would rage in our valley. If I woke up from a nightmare in the barn I could always run to Mama Flore's bed in the small alcove next to the kitchen.

I was an inconsolable soul as Tall John once told me that all of mankind was.

"Human beings," John said, "are lost in the needs of their bodies. Most of the time they're hungry or hurting or sleepy or looking for something to satisfy those needs. They're so busy taking care of bodily things that they don't see the world all around them."

But John, and all of his big words, came into my life a little later on—after my early experiences in the slave quarters.

It was afternoon when Mr. Stewart tossed me into the man-slaves' cabin.

"Not one more peep outta you, Nigger Forty-seven," he said, "or I will take you back to my cabin and drive knives into your spine."

This threat cut off my crying for the few seconds that the brutal overseer stared at me. I held back until he stamped out of the room.

The slave cabins were long and narrow like the barracks for soldiers in the army. The one that was to be my new home was made all of wood with twenty-three two-tiered bunks down each side and one feather bed with a pitted brass frame up front.

There were, I knew, ninety-three slaves in the men's slave cabin at any one time. When a man-slave died or got too old to work or ran away or was sold off for one reason or another there would always be a new slave to take his place. It was the same with the women field slaves. The women had one extra rule that the men didn't have—that was female slaves were not allowed to get pregnant. If one did, without Master's permission, then she was punished and sometimes killed. Master Tobias didn't want to care for a slave if she was pregnant and could not work. And he didn't want worthless little pickaninnies running around eating and taking up the women's attention.

Sometimes Tobias would want to have his strongest male slaves reproduce and other times he might want to take some comely slave woman to his bed. But other than that there was no unauthorized congress between slaves or between the white workers and slaves. And so the women had their separate cabin and numbered eighty-nine.

The stench of the slave cabin was unbearable to my spoiled nose. There were the odors of sweat and urine and vomit and general rot. And it was hot in there too. Between the heat, the thick air, and my broken heart I felt that I might die right then and there.

"Well, well, well, what have we got here?" said Pritchard, man-slave Number Twenty-five.

He was the only other soul in the cabin. That's because Pritchard had broken his leg three years earlier and it had healed badly. Him and the slave Holland and some others were helping Master Tobias move a big flat stone from out of the backyard so that Miss Eloise could grow a dozen rose bushes in memory of her mother, the late Una Turner.

Holland and Pritchard, with the help of six or seven other slaves and a mule, had dragged that boulder to the edge of the garden and stood it up so they could let it fall down the side of the small slope there. It was Master Tobias's opinion that when the granite stone fell on the smaller rocks down the hill that it would shatter and make for smaller pieces that would have been easier to remove.

But they used the mule Lacto with a grappling hook to stand the stone up and Lacto must have seen a snake or something down the hill and bucked and ran before Holland and Pritchard could make it clear of the falling flat boulder. Pritchard tried to run but Holland was frozen with fright. So Pritchard just got his leg busted while Holland was crushed underneath the giant rock. You couldn't even see his body the stone was so big.

Master Tobias had been wrong about the stone shattering. It stayed in one piece and so Tobias said that they'd just leave it there for Holland's gravestone.

They called the horse doctor for Pritchard. After he surveyed the damage to the screaming slave's leg the veterinarian advised Tobias to put Pritchard down.

"That nigger's never gonna walk right again, Tobias," he said. "It's no different than I would tell you about a plow animal."

But slave Number Twenty-five cried and begged the Master not to kill him. He said that he could do carpentry work around the cabins and on the house.

"I's still useful, Mastah," I remember the miserable man crying. "Don't do me like a dawg. I's still a useful nigger, you'll see."

Tobias told Pritchard that he would think about it on the ride to Atlanta. He said that he'd be gone for nine days and when he came back he would make the decision of whether or not to put Twenty-five to sleep.

Before Tobias left that rat-faced Mr. Stewart asked what he should do about replacing Holland.

"What was his number?" Tobias asked.

"Forty-seven, sir."

"Save that number and give it to Psalma's bastard when he's ready."

It was the custom on the Corinthian Plantation to give all field slaves numbers. If they got a name along the way that was fine but they would be known to Master and the overseer by number in all of their record-keeping books.

For the first years of my life the only name I knew was babychile because that was all Mama Flore ever called me. Her friends in the big house all called me Baby for short, and if Master Tobias referred to me all he ever said was


On Sale
Nov 1, 2006
Page Count
272 pages

Walter Mosley

About the Author

WALTER MOSLEY is one of America’s most celebrated writers. He was given the National Book Award’s 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and honored with the Anisfield-Wolf Award, a Grammy, a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award, the Robert Kirsch Award, numerous Edgars and several NAACP Image Awards. His work is translated into 25 languages.  He has published fiction and nonfiction in The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Nation. As an executive producer, he adapted his novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, for AppleTV+ and serves as a writer and executive producer for FX’s “Snowfall.” 

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