New York Times corrects 1853 story about subject of ‘12 Years a Slave’

He was 12 years a slave, but his name was misspelled for 161 years.

Newspaper corrections tend to fall into their own sub-genres of misheard quotes, misinterpreted arcana and horrible typographical errors for which we are all deeply, deeply sorry.

But the correction that the New York Times issued Tuesday probably belongs in a category of its own.

On Jan. 20, 1853, the Gray Lady published an outrageous account about a New Yorker named Solomon Northup -- a free man who was forced into Southern slavery during a trip to Washington, D.C. Of course, Northup’s memoir “12 Years a Slave” was turned into a movie that won the best-picture Oscar on Sunday.

The New York Times story detailed how Northup was beaten, sold, terrorized, humiliated -- or, as the article put it, “snatched so villainous from the land of freedom, and compelled to undergo sufferings almost inconceivable in this land of heathenism, where slavery exists with features more revolting than those described in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ ”


On this matter -- the buying and selling of human beings -- the New York Times was on the right side of history.

But on one thing, the paper was wrong: Northup’s name. In its correction Tuesday, the newspaper noted that its story in 1853 misspelled Northup’s name as “Northrop.”

“And the headline misspelled it as Northrup,” the correction added. “The errors came to light on Monday after a Twitter user pointed out the article in The Times archives.”

Nonetheless, the correction added, in slight defense of the 1853 story, that in publishing it, “The Times described the article as ‘a more complete and authentic record than has yet appeared.’ ”

The first draft of history, now slightly revised.

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