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Journalists Go Undercover

 to Report on Slavery

By Brooke Kroeger

Telling true stories about slavery often requires the use of surreptitious techniques. Today, we talk of reporters going “undercover.” Though some news organizations do not allow their reporters to use these techniques, undercover reporting holds a venerable place in journalism history, especially with coverage of challenging topics such as slavery. Investigative journalists have gone undercover to tell these stories for as long as slavery has been a story that needed to be told. And their work—then and now—is collected in an online database, thanks to New York University’s libraries. This means that for the first time people can find and read in one place some of the best historical and current examples of this reporting from the mid-1800s to our day at

This unique collection grew out of research for my book "Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception" (Northwestern University Press, 2012), in which I mined this remarkably vast historical record to develop my argument in favor of reporters using controversial journalistic methods to get stories otherwise unattainable.

At present, the database contains well over 2,000 pieces in all media that were curated by hand into 150 themed clusters. Each cluster focuses on a specific subject, and various exposés in our collection align with subject matter that highlights the Schuster Institute’s social justice agenda. Among these are some extraordinary assignments undertaken to hasten the abolition of slavery; to investigate blackbirding, in which Pacific Islanders were transported into indentured servitude on plantations throughout the world; and to illuminate the horrors of human trafficking from the late 1800s to the present.

In 1950, journalist Marvel Cooke went undercover for the New York Compass. She posed as a domestic day laborer, part of what she called the "Bronx Slave Market." She wrote in this article, "Twice I was hired by the hour at less than the wage asked by the women of the market. Both times I went home mad-mad for all the Negro women down through the ages who have been lashed by the stinging whip of economic oppression." ​

19th Century Child Sex Trafficking Expose: "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon​" (far left) is an 1885 account of child sex trafficking in England. It was written by W. T. Stead, pictured next, who went undercover to report the story.

Civil War Era Slavery Reportage: James Redpath is shown to the right of Stead. He wrote "The Facts of Slavery" for the New York Tribune, which laid the way for the Tribune's founder and editor Horace Greeley and writer Mortimer Thomson to publish "Aunt Sally Come Up," firsthand accounts of slave auctions which Thomson gained by going undercover as a slave buyer.

Post Civil War: Pictured far right is Marvel Cooke. She went undercover in 1950 for the New York Compass, posing as a day laborer in what she called the "Bronx Slave Market." 

The Undercover Reporting Database includes current examples, like this 2005 investigation by CBS 48 Hours where journalists posed as sex traffickers in Romania to investigate the sex industry there. Watch their report>

"Aunt Sally Come Up or The Nigger's Sale" was published by Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune. It is based on firsthand accounts by Mortimer Thomson, who posed as a slave buyer in order to report the story.

"What became of the slaves?" was one of several accounts of slave auctions witnessed by Mortimer Thomson, who went undercover as a slave buyer for the New York Tribune.

"Facts of Slavery" was a regular column by James Redpath for the New York Tribune. Redpath took jobs at Southern newspapers and surreptitiously sent reports back to the Tribune via letters to relatives living in Minnesota.

What follows are some historic highlights:

Start with James Redpath’s deadpanned “Facts of Slavery” columns from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune of 1855, culled second-hand from items in Southern newspapers. The columns report the prices fetched in slave sales or incidents such as a wealthy Kentucky family’s indictment for torturing two family slaves. Even though there is nothing undercover about Redpath’s early columns, they warranted inclusion because the act of clipping these items for aggregation beckoned him “south on an anti-slavery errand,” a place where Northern reporters had become welcome only in tar and feathers. Once on location, he supported himself with newspaper jobs secured in his own name in several towns. In secret, however, he sent coded, pseudonymous pro-abolition correspondence to editors in New York by roundabout way of relatives in Minnesota.

Oh, that Tribune. It also sponsored Mortimer Thomson in his stealth pose as a slave buyer—a ruse used more than once. Thomson’s assignment was to get inside the great auction of the Butler family slaves in Savannah in March of 1859. His buyer impersonation yielded “American Civilization Illustrated,” considered, despite its flaws, one of the most significant anti-slavery narratives of the pre-Civil War period. Being a slave-buyer was a clever masquerade: Imagine the utility for a reporter of being able to take notes undetected in the pages of a slave sale catalogue as he efficiently interviews both slaves and slave owners, all in one place, and without raising suspicion.

And what of Henry S. Olcott’s decision to volunteer with the Petersburg Gray regiment sent down to Charles Town, also in 1859, to guard John Brown before, during and immediately after his execution, and then to be able to telegraph his report to the Tribune as soon as he fled town? Two years later, another Tribune journalist, Albert D. Richardson, the last Northern reporter undercover in the South, developed system of code and ciphers even more elaborate than Redpath’s to get his reports back to his New York editors. He also wrote in the fictional persona of an elderly native of New Orleans to help avoid suspicion.

In the realm of child abduction and prostitution, W. T. Stead’s 1885 “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” for London’s Pall Mall Gazette is a classic. Stead went so far as to buy a 13-year-old girl from her parents, and though he immediately had her hustled away to safety in France, he even submitted without protest to serving a prison sentence for procurement and abduction.

And for The Age and The Argus in Melbourne, Australia and for the San Francisco Chronicle, reporters signed on as sailors in 1883 and 1892 for long “blackbirding” journeys to investigate the system that developed for recruiting Pacific Islanders for indentured work on the world’s plantations.

During the past 15 years, hidden cameras have been heavily used in award-winning work of U.S. television networks in exposing child enslavement rings and sexual predators in the United States and abroad.

We like to think of as 21st century end notes—an easily searchable compendium with full citations, excerpts, and links or pdfs to actual stories, when possible. Unlike notes in a book (or e-books), our database has the added advantage of being updated immediately when worthy new material surfaces.

My hope is that this database of undercover reporting—which brings together for the first time numerous undercover investigations about slavery since the mid-1800s—serves to illuminate how critical the efforts by reporters have been through history in focusing public awareness on slavery, and also makes clear why journalists must continue to tell this story.


Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, author of four books, and professor of journalism at the New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In 2012, she joined the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism as a senior fellow.

"The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" was W. T. Stead's firsthand account of the child sex trade in England. It was published in 1885 by Pall Mall Gazette.

W.T. Stead went to prison for his undercover reporting activities that brought to light child sex trafficking in England in the late 1800s. 

Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, supported and encouraged undercover reporting.

James Redpath's "Facts of Slavery" column at the New York Tribune. While working in the South, he sent coded messages through relatives to editors in New York.

Henry S. Olcott volunteered with the Petersburg Gray regiment that was guarding John Brown. He telegraphed reports to the Tribune.

Mortimer Thomson was a humorist writer who wrote under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks.

Albert D. Richardson was the last Tribune journalist who went undercover to report on slavery in the South. His reporting is featured, together with Redpath, Thomson, and Olcott in "Secret Service: The Field, Dungeon and Escape." 

"The Blackbirder: Captain Crowell Hatch" is part of the WGBH 'Hit and Run History' series. Hatch, a Patriot from Marshfield, Mass., is said to have been "one of the most notorious 'Blackbirders.'" Watch the video>

"Blackbirding" is 1998 pen on paper work by artist Michael Busai. 

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