Most of us are familiar with the expression “sold down the river” as a metaphor for betrayal. An utterly treacherous man with no conscience “would sell his own mother down the river.”
I’d never thought about the etymology, until recently I saw a rebroadcast of a TV adaptation of Mark Twain’s story “Puddin’head Wilson” (Ken “The White Shadow” Howard played the title role).
The plot of the story revolves around a light-skinned mulatto slave woman who wanted her even paler baby to have a better life. Her master had a baby boy who was the same age as hers, so she switched the babies. Her own son was raised in luxury, while her master’s son was raised as a slave.
Her son grew up to be a rotter, a spoiled brat with a major sense of entitlement. He gambled away a fortune, and was desperate for money. Only then did his mother tell him the truth. But even so, his mother loved him, and would do anything for him. So she offered him a way to make some money: she told him that that he could sell her. All she asked was that he sell her to a nice family UP the Mississippi River, in Missouri, where she’d probably be used as cook or housekeeper. Instead… he sold her DOWN the river, where she’d probably be worked to death in a Mississippi cotton field.
So, we have a truly evil character, a man so cruel and so duplicitous that he sold his own mother down the river.
My question is… did Mark Twain coin that phrase? Is his story the reason that expression became popular? Or was Twain just creating a LITERAL example of a phrase that was already in wide use?