In the 1850s, a fugitive slave penned a fictionalized autobiography that would somehow end up collecting dust in an attic in New Jersey. Nearly a century later, an African-American librarian bought it from a New York City bookseller for $85. In 2001, famed scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. bought the manuscript at auction for $8,500. The next year, the novel "The Bondwoman's Narrative" was published and became a bestseller.
Though the book - believed to be the first written by an African-American woman - was signed by Hannah Crafts, the real identity of the author has remained an enigma. Now a professor in South Carolina says he has solved the mystery.
According to the New York Times, Gregg Hecimovich, the chairman of the English department at Winthrop University, has identified the author as Hannah Bond, a slave on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler.
Hecimovich, a scholar of Victorian literature, uncovered the author's identity after a 10-year quest interviewing relatives of the Wheeler family and sifting through wills, diaries and public records, according to the newspaper.
The Times reports that Hecimovich discovered that Bond might have been able to flee slavery thanks to a sympathetic member of the Wheeler family who helped disguise her as a man.
The research also gives a possible explanation to the Charles Dickens influences prevalent in the book. According to Hecimovich, Bond was enslaved on a plantation that housed school girls who were required to read Dickens' "Bleak House."
Gates said he was excited by the findings and told the Times that the new research "revolutionizes our understanding of the canon of black women's literature."
"Words cannot express how meaningful this is to African-American literary studies," he told the newspaper.