Slave catcher Coswell Tims brought to life by veteran teacher, novelist

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Jan. 20, 2014
Jim Littlefield portrays Civil War-era slave catcher Coswell Tims at the New London Civil War Round Table. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Jim Littlefield portrays Civil War-era slave catcher Coswell Tims at the New London Civil War Round Table. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

How can a man who earns his living returning escaped slaves to their masters justify his actions? That’s the question explored in the story of Coswell Tims, a fictional “slave catcher” created by longtime teacher and living history enthusiast Jim Littlefield, who brought Tims to life for the New London Civil War Round Table at Norwich Free Academy on Jan. 13.

Tims is the central character in Littlefield’s recently published novel, “The Slave Catcher’s Woman.” As Tims, nattily dressed in a fine waistcoat and trousers, Littlefield described his view of the War Between the States, which he said left “over 600,000 American men lying prematurely in their graves.”

In Tims’ Southern drawl, Littlefield called the North to task for its role in the institution of slavery. “The North brought the Negro to America as a slave, not the South,” he said. The Brown plantation in Salem, Conn., he said, was “a plantation of whips and chains and bloodhounds that provided food for the West Indies,” food that was needed to feed the slaves who worked there. New Englanders held slaves until it “became unprofitable,” according to him, and slave-tended cotton came to New England’s mills for processing. “You turned a blind eye, but you reaped the profits. Ain’t that the height of hi-pocricy?” he asked.

The money involved in the trade was a big draw for Tims, said Littlefield in his own voice. “People are economic animals. People have an unbelievable capacity for rationalization. They used the Bible to justify slavery,” he said. Littlefield explained that Tims’ trade was  lucrative – slave owners would typically pay a bounty hunter five percent of the slave’s value as a fee. Littlefield said while some might call his portrayal revisionist, he is simply trying to portray “someone who’s making an honest attempt at the truth as he sees it. He’s for talking. He’s for trying to understand. I want his message to be real.”

To enhance the reality, Littlefield has connected with friends south of the Mason-Dixon Line to help him with his Southern accent and with the geography and history of Milledgeville, Tims’ base of operations. He’s spent time exploring the town, including the slave quarters of a plantation. “That will raise the hairs on your arm,” he said.

The discovery of what looked like newspapers in a decaying former mansion sparked the idea of writing the book in journal format, he said. But slave catchers were not, as a rule, literate or educated, so Littlefield “had to fudge that a bit” to create a scenario in which Tims could keep a journal. “There was almost no public education in the South to speak of until after the Civil War,” he said.

Littlefield has taught history in East Lyme schools for the past 47 years. Rather than “preach to the choir” of history buffs with a nonfiction book, Littlefield felt he could engage a wider audience by writing a novel. Three-quarters of the characters in the book are based on real people, some of whom he “visited” in the Milledgeville cemetery. “I had to tip my hat to Phoebe, the prostitute, as I passed by,” he said.

Tims’ next incarnation may be on the big screen. Littlefield said he was approached just before Christmas by someone from Hollywood who told me “this book would make a fabulous movie.” But, he added, “I don’t care if it’s ever a movie. I just want to continue on as a steward of history, and pass it on in a way that someone can get something out of it.”

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