Horace Lane: His Life Before and After Prison

In the nineteenth century, sailors represented a significant amount of the prison population. However, as Myra C. Glenn observed, most of the literature regarding nineteenth-century sailors focuses on their time at sea and neglects what their lives were like once they returned to land.[i] The writings of Horace Lane, a sailor from the age of eleven who spent time in the criminal justice system, provide details of his life at sea, in prison, and afterward as he attempted to rebuild it. This essay will examine his writings that pertain to his life before and after his stay in prison, from his birth in 1789 to his death in 1866.

Humble Beginnings

In 1789, Horace Lane was born in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. He was the son of a migrant farmer who, while “never a day out of employment,” often squandered what little money he had earned. Lane’s penchant for thievery began early in his life, as he recalled an instance when, at the age of six, he stole halfpence from the cash deposit of a town store. He described the experience as such:

While I was in this act, I had a mixture of feeling not easily described: if you could make a compound of joy, hope, fear, and dread, and feel it within you, you might be able to form some estimate of my sensations. This was the seed-time of my life; it was laying the corner-stone of the foundation of my character for years to come. Had I been detected in this act by some sincere, faithful friend, who would have…made me to understand the demerit and fatal consequences pending over such violations of the law, it might have been the means of saving me from many troubles by which my maturer years were embittered.[ii]

Unfortunately, Lane would suffer from a lack of suitable guidance throughout his life. His mother died in 1795, though Lane was “insensible of [his] loss as her lifeless corpse.” Unable to support his children, Lane’s father sent Lane and his younger brother and sister to live as domestics in other households. At different points in his childhood, he worked for a farmer, a cobbler, a doctor, and a clothier. Exposure to several different people during these experiences fueled a desire in Lane to travel the world. He mused that, “All I wanted was wings, and the knowledge and power to use them.”[iii]


Figure 1. “Cabin Boy, 1799.”

Life at Sea

In 1799, Lane traveled to New York City. Homeless and without money, he fell asleep on a docked ship and woke up the next morning to discover that the vessel had embarked on a journey to Hartford, Connecticut. Upon arrival, Lane heard that the U.S. ship Connecticut was actively recruiting deckhands. Within two hours, he was hired as a ship’s boy and would serve as on several different vessels during his adolescence. During this time, he was often whipped by captains for offenses as minor as swearing.[iv] In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, corporal punishment was extremely common on ships. The problem was so pervasive that naval surgeon Dr. Edward Cutbush published a book in 1808 condemning the practice and promoting less physical manners of discipline.[v]

Lane’s luck did not improve with time. In 1806, he was impressed on the British ship the Cormorant and forced to carry out grueling work. While docked at Simon’s Bay, South Africa, Lane shuttled sixty pounds of wood five miles to the ship every day. Though Lane was able to make an escape exactly one year into his ordeal, he was impressed yet again in 1811 on the British Prometheus. He contracted yellow fever soon after and was sent to a hospital on shore with several of the other crewmates. After spending a few nights in the hospital, he was able to break out of the locked room in which he was being kept and escape.[vi]


Figure 2. Engraving of the U.S.S. Boston (1802), a frigate in use during the early nineteenth-century.

He was eventually hired as a boatswain on a Holland-bound vessel called the Rufus King in 1815. In Holland, Lane and two of his crewmates became intoxicated and stole furniture from a yard. He was caught and imprisoned in Alkmaar for four months. Following his release, he was then hired on a ship that traveled to the Dutch East Indies. There he met a Malaysian woman named Samoorah and brought her with him when his boat set sail again. When Samoorah became pregnant, Lane left her with friends as he partook in voyages to Samarang and Batavia. Though their child was stillborn, Lane saw this as a “blessing” because his growing “intemperance” would have prevented him from being a suitable father. Soon after, his drinking habit spiraled out of control, which deeply distressed Samoorah. When he was offered a job opportunity as a second mate in 1820, he gave $40 of his advance to Samoorah, disembarked, and never saw her again. He claimed that despite the hardships he would endure later in his life, he would never be as despondent as the day he left Samoorah.[vii]

He arrived in Madagascar and soon found himself destitute. He became very ill, and though his entire body was covered in sores, the hospital would not see him because he was an American. He traveled back to the United States so in want of money that he had to sell his clothing to pay for lodging.[viii]


Figure 3. Austronesian town that was likely very similar to the Madagascar village where Lane found himself.

Crimes at Home

Out of desperation, Lane attempted to rob clothing from a home. He was caught and sent to the Simsbury mines for fifteen months. He later went to prison again for assaulting a man who had woken him up from a deep sleep. In 1827, Lane found himself in trouble with the law yet again for attempting to steal a few rolls of satinet from a wool factory. Upon his release, he became religious and resolved to never go to prison again. He traveled to Troy, New York and got married in a “hasty bargain.” He soon found that his wife was also an alcoholic. After a night of drinking, Lane stole a feather mattress and was sentenced to two years at Sing Sing prison.[ix] For a description of Lane’s prison experiences, click here.


Figure 4. Troy, New York in 1861.

 After Prison

 After leaving Sing Sing in 1832, Lane sought to return to his previous career, “but when [he] solicited any captain, they would turn from [him] in disdain.”[x] In an effort to make money, Lane wrote about his experiences in Five Years in State’s Prison, which sold 11,000 copies. Ultimately, Lane’s income from the sales of this pamphlet did not provide him enough money on which to live. Lane’s autobiography, The Wandering Boy, was met with less success. Lane spent the last years of his life at Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a home for infirmed former sailors in Staten Island. He was disciplined and discharged multiple times for mistreating his caregivers. On June 6, 1866, Lane died with $4.85 to his name.[xi]

A Crisis of Masculinity?

Lane is a case study for those men in the nineteenth century whose lives were incompatible with traditional roles of masculinity and virtually destined to existences spent vacillating between poverty and the prison system. In Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, Mark E. Kann argues that post-Revolutionary lawmakers designed the prison system in order to segregate the “underclass,” of which sailors were included, from the rest of the law-abiding populace.[xii] As noted by Myra Glenn, Lane’s decision to refer to himself as a “wandering boy” indicates his own belief that he had failed in his life to achieve manhood.[xiii] However, Lane’s lack of a father figure during his early life, abuse at the hands of cruel captains during his adolescence, and alcoholism during his adult life were likely key factors that prevented him from becoming a traditional male figure with a steady job and family. While Lane’s own choices were obviously the prevailing reason he often found himself in prison, Lane himself might have been the victim of a system that was more focused on ghettoizing an unappealing class of individuals rather than reforming those individuals so that they might participate in society.

-Catherine Imossi

[i] Myra C. Glenn, “Troubled Manhood in the Early Republic: The Life and Autobiography of Sailor Horace Lane,” Journal of the Early Republic 59, no. 1 (2006), 61.

[ii] Horace Lane, The Wandering Boy, Careless Sailor, and Result of Inconsideration: A True Narrative (Skaneatles: Printed for the Author by Luther A. Pratt, 1839), 9.

[iii] Ibid., 7-14. For quote, see 11.

[iv] Ibid., 19, 33.

[v] Myra C. Glenn, Campaigns against Corporal Punishment: Prisoners, Sailors, Women, and Children in Antebellum America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 11.

[vi] Lane, The Wandering Boy, 83-84, 111-113.

[vii] Ibid., 119-121, 149, 156-162. For quote, see 162.

[viii] Ibid., 169. 178-179.

[ix] Horace Lane, Five Years in State’s Prison (New York: Printed for the Author by Luther Pratt & Son, 1835), 8-9.

[x] Lane, The Wandering Boy, 203.

[xi] Glenn, “Troubled Manhood,” 60, 91-93.

[xii] Kann, Mark E.. Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early Republic. (New York, US: NYU Press, 2005), 5.

[xiii] Glenn, “Troubled Manhood,” 62.


Figure 1- Thomas, Rowlandson. “Cabin Boy, 1799.” Digital image. Wikipedia. 1799. Accessed October 3, 2016.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cabin_boy_ou_mousse_1799.jpg.

Figure 2- Baugean, Jean-Jerome. “U.S.S. Boston (1799).” Digital image. Wikipedia. December 31, 1801. Accessed October 3, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Boston_(1799)#/media/File:USS_Boston_(1799).jpg.

Figure 3- “De Batang Rawas bij Bingin-Telok.” Digital image. Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, via Wikipedia. 1893. Accessed October 3, 2016.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_De_Batang_Rawas_bij_Bingin-Telok_TMnr_3219-14.jpg.

Figure 4- Emerson, Rev. Edwin. “Troy, before the fire of 1862.” Digital image. Wikipedia. November 17, 1861. Accessed October 3. 2016.https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Troy,_NY_Before_the_fire_of_1862.jpg.