Ridgeway’s father was a blacksmith who had a “half-breed” friend called Tom Bird. When drunk, Tom would talk about the “Great Spirit” that connects everything on Earth. Ridgeway’s father was not religious, but felt that the spirit was present in metalwork, and would tell Ridgeway to “work that spirit.” Young Ridgeway felt disdainful of the other men in town and unsure of the kind of person he wanted to become. Ridgeway was only 14 when he joined the patrollers who rounded up runaway slaves, seeking to suppress any chance of a rebellion like those taking place in the West Indies and elsewhere in the South. Ridgeway idolizes a fierce and brutal patroller who is jailed more often than the people he persecutes. Patrolling is a simple task; they stop and harass every black person they see, and are always excited when news of a runaway comes out. They relish the chance to smash the possessions of freedmen and rape black women.
Here Whitehead explores a new moral question: how does a man like Ridgeway come to be so cruel and sadistic? Through exploring Ridgeway’s childhood, Whitehead illustrates the different factors that influenced Ridgeway to grow into a brutal agent of white supremacy. Crucially, it is not the case that Ridgeway was only surrounded by other white men who hated black people and had a thirst for violence. Rather, his father was a craftsman who took pleasure in his trade, and who was friends with a mixed-race man with an empathetic, spiritual view of the world. Ridgeway’s disdain for these men drew him to idolize the patrollers, even though they were prone to destructive, criminal behavior.
Ridgeway’s father is disapproving of his son’s chosen line of work, but Ridgeway—who is now 18—replies that both father and son are now “working for Mr. Eli Whitney.” The invention of the cotton gin means more profit, more slaves, and more iron required for tools, machines, and chains. The reward for a captured slave is anywhere from two to hundreds of dollars, depending on the slave’s condition and the master’s wealth. Ridgeway travels north to catch escaped slaves and is astonished by the size and variety of buildings there. He captures an enslaved woman who escaped to New Jersey via the underground railroad and who offers to sleep with him in exchange for her freedom. After Ridgeway loses his virginity to her, he shackles her and returns her to her former master’s mansion in Virginia. Ridgeway quickly learns the best methods for finding runaways, including collaborating with freemen and others such as dockhands and clerks. Ridgeway grows rich and builds a reputation as a vicious slave catcher.
Ridgeway’s comment about Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, emphasizes the idea that the brutality of slavery and white supremacy were governed by economic interests. Ridgeway’s father feels morally superior to his son because he is simply a craftsman rather than someone who personally profits from violence against African Americans. However, Ridgeway points out that this is false—his father makes money from constructing the chains in which slaves are held and the tools with which they are forced to labor. The description of Ridgeway’s emerging career as a slave catcher shows that his desire for profit and success erases any sense of morality. To Ridgeway, black people are nothing more than currency.
New York is teeming with abolitionist activity and has strict laws preventing freemen from being taken back into slavery; however, through quick action and bribery, Ridgeway is able to kidnap many freemen “before the abolitionists had even gotten out of bed.” Ridgeway watches immigrants from Europe arrive in ships and thinks that they are hardly better than black people, comparing them to garbage. However, he feels assured that the system of white supremacy will eventually bestow on these new arrivals the privileges and sense of ownership that he believes white people deserve. He feels that the true “Great Spirit” is the mandate of property ownership: “if you can keep it, it’s yours.” Ridgeway’s father dies and Ridgeway returns to the South, where many plantations have doubled in size. Here there is no underground railroad and there are far fewer lawyers and abolitionists to hinder Ridgeway’s hunt.
Ridgeway’s generally misanthropic personality is deeply entwined with his particular hatred of black people. His impression of the newly-arrived European immigrants aligns with theories about the emergence of whiteness as a racial category in the United States. Scholars have pointed out that, through much of American history, many European groups (such as Italian and Irish people) were not considered “white.” It was only through the racial hierarchy that placed black people at the bottom that European immigrants were eventually “assimilated” into whiteness in order to prevent them from allying with black people.
On his way back down south, Ridgeway and his gang, wearing the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, descend upon the house of an abolitionist named August Carter. They brutally beat Carter, rape his wife, and burn his house down. At this point Ridgeway has developed a fearsome reputation among slaves and slave owners alike. Ridgeway remains troubled for years over his inability to capture Mabel, and thus the chance to chase down Cora fills him with determination. He vows to find and destroy the part of the underground railroad that has somehow made it into Georgia.
Ridgeway seems to despise white abolitionists just as much as he hates black people. To Ridgeway, there is nothing worse than a “race traitor” who seeks to undermine the strict hierarchy of white supremacy. Note that although Ridgeway is motivated by a belief in property ownership and desire for financial gain, he also feels personally implicated in the successes and failures of his slave catching business.