From 1800 until 1977, ex-convicts published over four hundred works describing the experience of prison. Cultural historian Bruce Franklin argued that the compendium of prison narratives could be divided into two types—“confessional” and “institutional.” In a confessional narrative, the prisoner describes his own imprudent choices and recounts his reformation, usually of a religious nature. Generally, confessional narratives do not question the worth of the prison institution itself. Institutional narratives, conversely, emphasize the damaging effects of imprisonment on the psyche of the imprisoned. [i]
In one such institutional narrative, Five Years in State’s Prison, Horace Lane recalled his two years in Sing Sing prison during the 1830s as being so taxing that on several occasions he was “very near putting an end to [his] mortal existence.”[ii]
Institutional narratives often reveal a desire of the imprisoned to affirm their individual identity in spite of the oppressive deindividuation imposed on them by the prison system.[iii] Jodi Schorb argued that writing itself was often a tool that helped prisoners endure the dehumanizing effect of imprisonment. John Maroney, who spent a decade in Auburn Prison from 1821 until 1831, lamented Auburn’s ban on paper and writing utensils, stating that he “could not make notes or memorandums of my thoughts and feelings, let alone the keeping of a journal of my experience.”[iv] Thus, an ex-convict’s decision to write a memoir or exposé on the prison experience was essentially an act of resistance. This essay will describe the struggles of nineteenth-century American prisoners to publish, the literary landscape in which a number of their books met moderate success, and the questions surrounding the veracity of their accounts.
From Prisoners to Authors
It is remarkable that a bibliography of prisoner accounts from the nineteenth century exists when one considers the myriad of obstacles their authors must have faced. Marginalized people who produced autobiographies in the nineteenth century often had no formal schooling.[v] In addition to this, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, prison libraries that exposed prisoners to writing were a subject of contentious debate. Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn Prison from 1821 until 1835, forbid a library on the grounds that it would make prisoners “more capable villains when discharged.”[vi]
Left to the prison chaplains was the task of advocating for the additional expenditures associated with a prison library. J. Green, chaplain of Sing Sing prison in 1850, wrote that “the advantage that [a prison library] will accrue to [prisoners] and the community by their mental and moral improvement, will more than compensate for the expenditure that provides the means for it.”[vii]
In 1841, the Governor of New York William Seward displayed solidarity with the chaplains advocating for education of criminals, stating, “I would have the school-room, in the Prison, fitted as carefully as the solitary cell and the workshop.” Eventually, Seward’s term ended and the prison system reverted to its prior ways. Elam Lynds, the chief disciplinary officer of Sing-Sing, confiscated all books and banned letter writing.[viii]
Historically, American prisons had suppressed not only letter writing, but also any writing in general. In 1799, Patrick Lyon published his account of being held at Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia for his suspected involvement in a bank robbery. He recalled that the prison actively “stopt my writings” by rarely giving him any paper on which to write, even though he needed it to prepare a defense. The guards would also confiscate his writings, and upon his release he had to fight for their return. He was ultimately successful and his notes formed the basis for his narrative.[ix] For American prisoners in the nineteenth century, it was extremely difficult to acquire the skills necessary to write and publish a memoir. However, the efforts of these prisoners was often rewarded by the considerable success these memoirs enjoyed in the nineteenth-century literary market.
Accounts of the prison experience fit seamlessly into the literary milieu of the post-Revolutionary era. Tales of adventure with historical basis were in high demand. History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark (1814) was composed mainly of the original journals of Meriwether Lewis. During the nineteenth century, it was published in over twenty editions and in several languages.
Memoirs that revealed details regarding the lives of the marginal were also common, as evidenced by the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), a freed slave’s own account of his life.[x]
The topic of criminality itself was also a subject of interest in America and throughout the western world. In England, one-page broadsides that described a criminal—his crime, condemnation, and execution—were very popular. The 1819 broadside depicting the execution of W.M. Talbot and John Thorn used cartoons and sensational language that likely appealed to the general public. It described their walk to the gallows as such: “The fatal moment came, / When they were brought forth, / To breath the fresh air for the last time.”[xi] Broadsides written by the prisoners themselves, like those of the ex-sailor and convict Horace Lane, circulated in America.[xii] In this literary landscape, Horace Lane’s self-published expose on his prison experience, Five Years in State’s Prison (1835) sold an impressive 11,000 copies.[xiii]
In a phenomenon identified by Jodi Schorb known as the “congregate literary effect,” the publication of prisoner accounts encouraged other prisoners to publish their own accounts. Coffey’s Inside Out (1823) inspired Maroney to write the Narrative of the Imprisonment of John Maroney (1832). Coffey and Maroney’s accounts similarly inspired fellow released inmates to write their own memoirs. Thus, a genre was born.[xiv]
Can the Words of Criminals be Trusted?
Though the public was fascinated with accounts of the marginalized, they were not so enamored with the thought of associating with or trusting criminals. Ann Carson’s The History of the Celebrated Mrs. Ann Carson…and of her Sufferings in the Several Prisons of that State…Written by Herself (1822) was actually ghostwritten by struggling Philadelphia author Mary Clarke. When Carson approached Clarke with the task, Clarke agreed to split the profits so long as Clarke would not “appear in the affair” in order to protect her own reputation.[xv] In the courts of law, the words of prisoners were similarly viewed with suspicion. In the year 1824, an assemblyman named McClure read aloud ex-convict Coffey’s memoir during testimony. The Legislator Morss dismissed McClure’s testimony, claiming that Coffey, “having been a tenant of the prison, was not competent to give testimony on the subject before any Court.”[xvi]
Post-Revolutionary perspectives on the veracity of criminal writings were likely influenced by the commonly-held prejudices against convicts during this era. However, as with all personal accounts, prison memoirs should not be viewed as objective and infallible sources of information. Prisoners may have exaggerated aspects of the experience in order to contend with the sensational crime fiction common to the post-Revolutionary era. For instance, in Five Years in State’s Prison, Horace Lane contended that the keepers would “give [Lane] five or six raps with his cudgel every half hour” during his daily labor task.[xvii] It is hard to imagine that beatings so often would not severely limit the amount of work that could be accomplished by the prisoners. With regard to Horace Lane’s memoir of life at sea, Myra Glenn claims that he intentionally “titillated his readers” with sensationalized descriptions of brothels.[xviii]
Though certain elements of a prisoner account might be questionable in their authenticity, these writings still provide an essential look into the experience of the imprisoned during the nineteenth century. Unlike ledgers or inspection reports, prison memoirs reveal the humanity of those punished by the law.
[i] Sean O’Toole and Simon Eyland, Corrections Criminology (Annandale, N.S.W.: Hawkins Press, 2005), 33.
[ii] Horace Lane, Five Years in State’s Prison (New York: Printed for the Author by Luther Pratt & Son, 1835), 12.
[iii] Sean O’Toole and Simon Eyland, Corrections Criminology, 33.
[iv] John Maroney, Narrative of the Imprisonment of John Maroney: In the Prisons of New-York and Auburn, from 1821 until 1831; Or, Maroney’s Meditations, While in the School of Wisdom (Newburgh (N.Y.): Printed by Charles U. Cushman, 1832), 32. Quoted in Jodi Schorb, Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700-1845 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 165.
[v] 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), 65.
[vi] Jodi Schorb, Reading Prisoners, 160.
[vii] Sing Sing Third Annual Report, vol. 3 (New York, 1850), 252, accessed November 7, 2016.
[viii] Jodi Schorb, Reading Prisoners, 168-169.
[ix] Ibid., 90.
[x] “Books That Shaped America (1800 to 1850),” Library of Congress: Books That Shaped America Exhibit, accessed November 14, 2016, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/books-that-shaped-america/1800-to-1850.html.
[xi] An Account of the Execution of W.M. Talbot and John Thorn, August 23, 1819, Leicester, in Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides, accessed November 14, 2016, http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu/browse.php.
[xii] Myra C. Glenn, “Troubled Manhood in the Early Republic,” 60.
[xiii] Ibid., 59-60.
[xiv] Jodi Schorb, Reading Prisoners, 177-178.
[xv] Ibid., 91-92.
[xvi] Ibid., 179.
[xvii] Horace Lane, Five Years in State’s Prison (New York: Printed for the Author by Luther Pratt & Son, 1835), 11.
[xviii] Myra C. Glenn, “Troubled Manhood in the Early Republic,” 88.
Figure 1: Lane, Horace. Five Years in State’s Prison, Or, Interesting Truths Showing the Manner of Discipline in the State Prisons at Singsing and Auburn, Exhibiting the Great Contrast between the Two Institutions, in the Treatment of the Unhappy Inmates, Represented in a Dialogue between Singsing and Auburn. New York: By L. Pratt & Son, 1835. Accessed September 14, 2016. Making of Modern Law.
Figure 2: “Elam Lynds.” In Penal and Reformatory Institutions. 8th ed. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Press of WM. F. Fell, 1910. 32.
Figure 3: In Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809). History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark.Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep; New York: Abm. H. Inskeep, 1814. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (012.01.00)
Figure 4: “The Prison Library At The Tombs, New York City, Established By Miss Linda Gilbert.” Digital image. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. Accessed November 14, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-279f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99