Two dreaded terms in the 19th century about travel on rivers!

In the 19th century, two American terms meant something horrible happening to human beings, and both involved being forced to go either up one river or down another. In my soon-to-be-released book, Most Comprehensive Origins of Cliches, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions these appear in sequence. on pp 348 and 349. I have included them both here:

Sell down the river

This means to betray, disappoint or hurt someone who trusted you. It derived from slave trading in the Southern U.S. prior to the Civil War. Selling a slave down the Mississippi River was typically a method of getting rid of one who was seen as rebellious, thus uprooting the person and separating families, and was a great betrayal to all of the family members. The more Southern plantations were noted for harsher treatment of slaves. The earliest known reference to the phrase in print is from The Ohio Repository (later The Canton Repository) in May, 1837:

“One man, in Franklin County has lately realized thirty thousand dollars, in a speculation on slaves, which he bought in Virginia, and sold down the river.”

After this, numerous other citations appeared in books and periodicals about selling slaves down the river. Mark Twain showed a strong understanding of the meaning of such a practice in Pudd’nhead Wilson, first serialized in The Century Magazine in 1894:

“‘If at the end of that time you have not confessed, I will not only sell all four of you, but— I will sell you Down THE RIVER!’ It was equivalent to condemning them to hell! No Missouri negro doubted this.”

It wasn’t long before the saying was being used figuratively, as in this early example from Small Bachelor by P.G. Wodenhouse, published in both the U.K. and U.S. in 1927:

“When Sigsbee Waddington married for the second time, he to all intents   and purposes sold himself down the river.”

Send someone up the river

In the 19th century, a person who was convicted of a very serious. crime in New York City was sent up the Hudson River to Ossining, to the infamous ‘Sing Sing prison.’ This separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill (see in first volume) petty thieves and pick pockets. Eventually this term began to apply to anyone sent to maximum security prisons. The earliest available reference in print is from The New York Supplement, Volume 46, 1897, in the case of Dunn et el v. Wehle, Supreme Court, Appellate Term, July 29, 1897:

“…he told the plaintiff that ‘if he recovered a judgment he must be very careful because he had sworn in supplemental proceedings he had nothing, and they might examine him again, and he must be very careful, or they might send him up the river.’”

A citation in quotes is found in Popular Science, August, 1932, page 16, in ‘New Prisons are Proof Against Riot and Outbreak,’ indicating that the saying had become a colloquialism:

“Pallister, once a mason, had been ‘sent up the river’ before on a burglary charge and at that time he had actually helped in the construction of the death house in which he was confined.”

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