Horace Lane: His Motivations for Writing

In the nineteenth century, convicts on death row for sensational crimes authored the majority of published prisoner accounts. The body of literature concerning the experiences of prisoners serving for petty crimes against property, like horse-stealing, petit larceny, and burglary, is sorely lacking by comparison.[1]

The writings of Horace Lane provide a rare opportunity to learn about one such prisoner. After serving a handful of different sentences for larceny in various prisons throughout the northeastern United States, Lane attempted to provide for himself by writing sensationalized accounts of his experiences as a prisoner and seaman. In 1835, Lane self-published a pamphlet called Five Years in State’s Prison, which was written in the format of a dialogue between two ex-convicts. Known only as “Auburn” and “Sing-Sing,” these released prisoners compare their prison experiences. Lane’s time at Auburn (1827-1830) and Sing Sing (1830-1833) allowed him to infuse these narratives with personal and convincing details. In 1839, Lane self-published an autobiography, The Wandering Boy, that described his life as a seaman during the turn of the nineteenth century. Following The Wandering Boy, Lane published several broadsides; however, none of them survive to this day.[2]


Figure 1. A printing press.

In Lane’s writings, it is clear that his conversion to Christianity and his desire to prevent others from repeating his mistakes were two of his motivations to write. Chief among them, however, was his aspiration to financially provide for himself after spending so many years in the penitentiary system.

Conversion and Religious Perspective

Throughout his life, Lane suffered from severe alcoholism. While intoxicated, he stole a mattress and left it on the fence of the hotel where he was staying. The owner of the hotel identified the mattress as her neighbor’s. During his arrest, Lane had a revelation:

I had chance enough to get away; but it was not to be so: I had run my race, and had made work enough for repentance. I was apprehended and sent to jail half drunk, But Oh! When I had taken a knap on the floor, and awoke up sober, then began my repentance; and how thankful I feel that the Lord granted me that repentance, which I believe is unto Life.[3]

Such references to religion are frequent in Lane’s writings. Lane acknowledged God as the reason for his moral conversion following prison and blamed his missteps on the work of the devil. He credited frequent prayer and scriptural meditation as the aspects of his life that allowed him to endure his punishment at Sing Sing. Lane encouraged each reader to “prove your faith by works,” “read the Bible diligently and prayerfully, following its directions,” and to practice humility.[4]


Figure 2. The Sing Sing quarries where Lane worked.

In the closing remarks of Five Years in State’s Prison, Lane attributed his deepened spirituality to the mistakes he learned from and the adversities he endured. Lane compared himself to David of the Bible, who sinned against God and was forgiven.[5] He viewed the trajectory of his own life as proof of the saving power of Scripture and God’s capacity to forgive.

Reader, you may rejoice that you have not been so desperate a violator of God’s commandments as I have. But I think that I also have reason to rejoice, not that I have sinned, but that the Lord has not cut me down in my sins….I have been a great sinner, my Lord is a great Savior, he came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance….I never knew God until I was detected, bound in fetters, and laid sore.[6]


Figure 3. Sing Sing interior.

Dissuading Future Criminals

Lane not only wrote to encourage others to find forgiveness in God, but also to dissuade them from making choices that would require redemption in the first place. As a young man, Lane lacked stable parental figures that encouraged him to make good choices. At the age of six, he lost his mother to illness and his father was unable to care for him. Lane was sent on several work assignments that lasted for short periods of time. At the age of eleven, he began his career as a seaman.[7] By writing about how his own poor choices led to a life spent in prison, Lane could provide the guidance to others that he had lacked as a child. In the preface of Five Years in State’s Prison, Lane described his “wish that some human beings who are careless about their present and eternal welfare, may take warning, and be benefitted” by his story.[8]

Alcoholism and Money Troubles


Figure 4. A beer garden in New York City, 1859.

Lane suffered perennially from alcoholism, and following his time at Sing Sing his health had deteriorated and his medical problems plagued his search for work as a seaman. While staying in boarding houses, he acquired German ducks (lice) and as a result “the captains of ships that wanted hands would not look at me.” Lane noted in his writings that if his works did not receive “fame or applause, I am in hopes of getting a few shillings, or dimes, or cents.”[9]

Lane crafted his stories in order to make them appealing to the widest possible audience. Myra Glenn argues that Lane intentionally “titillated his readers” with his descriptions of his exotic life at sea unchained from the moors of western social standards, offering them a “seductive alternative to middle-class society with its incessant calls for restraint.”

Despite his attempts to increase the mass appeal of his books, Lane failed in his endeavor to become a self-supporting writer. Five Years in State’s Prison failed to provide him sufficient funds and his autobiography earned him even less. In a final effort to secure enough money on which to live, Lane petitioned Congress for a pension on account of his having served on the General Armstrong. In 1855, his request was denied and Lane spent the last few years of his life in homes for elderly and infirm sailors. In 1866 at the age of seventy-seven, Lane died and left behind savings of $4.85.[10]

-Catherine Imossi

[1] Jodi Schorb, Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700-1845 (n.p.: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 94.

[2] 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), 60.

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

[4] Ibid.,11, 13-14.

[5] Ibid.,20.

[6] Ibid.,23.

[7] Horace Lane, The Wandering Boy, Careless Sailor, and Result of Inconsideration: A True Narrative (Skaneatles: Printed for the Author by Luther A. Pratt, 1839), 10-14, 19.

[8] Lane, Five Years in State’s Prison, 4.

[9] Ibid., 19, 4.

[10] Glenn, “Troubled Manhood,” 88, 60, 92-93. For quote, see 88.


Figure 1: “Caxton’s printing press.” Digital image. George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library.  Accessed October 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-5852-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 2: “Marble Quarries of the Prison, with Convicts at work.” Digital image. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.  Accessed October 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e6b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 3: “Sing Sing Prison, interior view.” Digital image. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e5d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 4: “A German Beer Garden In New York City On Sunday Evening.” Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. 1859. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d68f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99