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Simon Legree is the main antagonist of the classic anti-slavery book Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Stowe.
He is an extremely cruel plantation slave driver who not only sees "n---ers" as nothing more than objects and tools but openly enjoys beating them and breaking their spirits for fun and cares nothing of beating/working all his slaves to death as long as he can get more. He is "slightly" better to female slaves in that he enjoys raping them and would like to keep them alive; unless they are too resistant, in which case he will have no second thoughts of torturing, beating and possibly killing them just like any other slave.
He also employs two brutes named Quimbo and Sambo who help abuse his other slaves out of fear of Legree. It is revealed as a youth Simon took his mother's money and ran off to seek a fortune at sea. Later Simon Legree refused his dying mother's request to visit her on her deathbed. Simon believes his mother's ghost haunts him.
Simon Legree appears about midway through the story when he buys the main character, Uncle Tom, at a slave auction; Tom previously belonged to a much nicer master who was actually planning on setting him free eventually but was unfortunately murdered by loan sharks, causing Tom to be taken away from a relatively kind ownership and put up for sale where he could be bought by a monster such as Legree, illustrating another tragic injustice of the slave trade system.
On the plantation, Uncle Tom refuses to participate in the abuse of other slaves, firmly maintains his strong Christian ideals despite all Legree’s efforts to “break” him, and helps inspire hope in the other slaves, which Simon Legree will not accept. At the climax of the book, Legree orders Uncle Tom to help him track down two female slaves who he had witnessed escape, but Tom absolutely refuses to harm a woman.
As a result of Legree eventually, has Tom beaten and tortured so badly that he dies from his injuries, and even Quimbo and Sambo feel bad afterward. Shortly after the beating, George Shelby, a man from Tom’s previous family of owners arrives at Legree’s plantation in an attempt to take him back, having regained the ownership rights to him, only to find him dying.
Unfortunately he is too late, though he does free the repentant Sambo and Quimbo. Whilst Legree remains unpunished due to the laws technically making his atrocities not a crime, it is mentioned he later drinks himself to ruin and now believes Tom's ghost is haunting him.
In the 1987 film version, Legree then insults Tom again in front of George's son, Christopher, who responds by furiously throwing several punches, knocking him down into the mud before leaving.
Due to the book’s unprecedented depiction of slavery at its worst, which the character of Simon Legree fully embodied, it was extremely controversial for its time to the point that is is considered a major contributing factor to the American Civil War. Legree is remembered as one of the most despicable characters in all of the classic literature and has influenced many later stereotypes of villainy.
- He has also appeared in MGM's Uncle Tom's Cabana and a background cameo appearance in Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes. He even appeared in the 1937 Looney Tunes Censored 11 cartoon, "Uncle Tom's Bungalow".
- Whlist Legree was played seriously in the original novel, several stage plays lighten his crimes and play him in a more over the top fashion. It is also common for Legree to be arrested at the end of these versions.
- In the 1927 version, Legree's death is shown when he freaks after seeing the ghost of Tom (or his delusion of it) and has a fatal heart attack.
- Due to the christian themes of the novel as well as Legree's atrocities and rejection of any opportunities at penitence, it is certain Legree will be going straight to Hell.