In the cell over mine at night A step goes to and fro From barred door to iron wall— From wall to door I hear it go, Four paces, heavy and slow, In the heart of the sleeping jail: And the goad that drives, I know!
I never saw his face or heard him speak; He may be Dutchman, Dago, Yankee, Greek; But the language of that prisoned step Too well I know!
Unknown brother of the remorseless bars, Pent in your cage from earth and sky and stars, The hunger for lost life that goads you so, I also know!
Hour by hour, in the cell overhead, Four footfalls, to and fro 'Twixt iron wall and barred door— Back and forth I hear them go— Four footfalls come and go! I wake and listen in the night: Brother, I know!
(Written in Atlanta Penitentiary, May, 1913.)
THE SUBTERRANEAN BROTHERHOOD
By JULIAN HAWTHORNE
I INTRODUCTORY II THE DEVIL'S ANTECHAMBER III THE ROAD TO OBLIVION IV INITIATION V ROUTINE VI SOME PRISON FRIENDS OF MINE VII THE MEN ABOVE VIII FOR LIFE IX THE TOIL OF SLAVERY X OUR BROTHER'S KEEPER XI THE GRASP OF THE TENTACLES XII THE PRISON SILENCE XIII THE BANQUETS OF THE DAMNED XIV THE POLICY OF FALSEHOOD XV THE FRUIT OF PRISONS XVI IF NOT PRISONS—WHAT? APPENDIX
These chapters were begun the day after I got back to New York from the Atlanta penitentiary, and went on from day to day to the end. I did not know, at the start, what the thing would be like at the finish, and I made small effort to make it look shapely and smooth; but the inward impulse in me to write it, somehow, was irresistible, in spite of the other impulse to go off somewhere and rest and forget it all. But I felt that if it were not done then it might never be done at all; and done it must be at any cost. I had promised my mates in prison that I would do it, and I was under no less an obligation, though an unspoken one, to give the public an opportunity to learn at first hand what prison life is, and means. I had myself had no conception of the facts and their significance until I became myself a prisoner, though I had read as much in "prison literature" as most people, perhaps, and had for many years thought on the subject of penal imprisonment. Twenty odd years before, too, I had been struck by William Stead's saying, "Until a man has been in jail, he doesn't know what human life means." But one does not pay that price for knowledge voluntarily, and I had not expected to have the payment forced upon me. I imagined I could understand the feelings of a prisoner without being one. I was to live to acknowledge myself mistaken. And I conceive that other people are in the same deceived condition. So, with all the energy and goodwill of which I am capable, I set myself to do what I could to make them know the truth, and to ask themselves what should or could be done to end a situation so degrading to every one concerned in it, from one end of the line to the other. The situation, indeed, seems all but incredible. Your first thought on being told of it is, It must be an exaggeration or a fabrication. On the contrary, words cannot convey the whole horror and shamefulness of it.
I am conscious of having left out a great deal of it. I found as I went on with this writing that the things to be said were restricted to a few categories. First, the physical prison itself and the routine of life in it must be stated. That is the objective part. Then must be indicated the subjective conditions, those of the prisoner, and of his keepers—what the effect of prison was upon them. Next was to come a presentation of the consequences, deductions and inferences suggested by these conditions. Finally, we would be confronted with the question, What is to be done about it? Such are the main heads of the theme.
But I was tempted to run into detail. Here I will make a pertinent disclosure. During my imprisonment I was made the confidant of the life stories of many of my brethren in the cells. I am receiving through the mails, from day to day, up to the present time, other such tales from released convicts. The aim of them is not to get their tellers before the public and win personal sympathy, but to hold up my hands by supplying data—chapter and verse—in support of the assertions I have made. They do it abundantly; the stories bleed and groan before your eyes and ears, and smell to heaven; the bluntest, simplest, most formless stuff imaginable, but terrible in every fiber. Before I left prison I had accumulated a considerable number of these narratives, and had made many notes of things heard and seen—data and memoranda which I designed to use in the already projected book which is now in your hands. Such material, however, would have been confiscated by the Warden had its existence been known, and none of it would have been permitted to get outside the walls openly. The only thing to do, then, was to get it out secretly—by the "underground railroad."
There is an underground railroad in every penal institution. There is one at Atlanta. I attempted to use it, but my freight got in the wrong car. A prisoner whom I knew well and trusted came to me, and said he had found a man who would undertake to pass the packet through the barriers; he had already served such a need, and was anxious to do it in my case. This man was also a prisoner of several years' standing, and with several years yet to serve; he had recently applied for parole, but had been refused. I met and talked with him, found him intelligent and circumspect, and professedly eager to do his share toward helping me get my facts before the world. He intimated that he was on favorable terms with one of the guards or overseers who was inclined to help the prisoners, and would take the packet out in his pocket and mail it to its address. I addressed it to a friend of mine living near New York and on a certain prearranged day I handed it to my confederate. He hid it inside his shirt, and that was the last I saw of it.
The packet never turned up at its address, and it was only long after that I was told what had occurred. My confederate wanted his parole badly, and made a bargain with the Warden, by the terms of which his parole should be granted in return for his delivering to the Warden my bundle of memoranda. The terms were fulfilled on both sides, and my data are at this moment in the Warden's safe, I suppose, along with the letter that I wrote during my confinement to the Editor of the New York Journal (mentioned in the text of this book).
The Warden thought, perhaps, that the lack of my accumulated data would prevent or embarrass me in writing my book. I thought so myself at first, but had not long been at work before I found that the essential book needed no data other than those existing in my memory and supplied by the general theme; my material was not scant, but excessive. My knowledge of prison and my opinions and arguments based upon that knowledge were not subject to the Warden's confiscation, and they were quite enough to make a book of themselves, without need of dates, places, names and illustrations. Indeed, even of such supplementary and confirmatory matter I also found an adequate amount in my own unaided recollection—more than I cared to give space to; for it was my belief that such things were not required to secure confidence in the truth of what I had to say in the minds of persons whose confidence was worth my winning. They would believe me because they couldn't help it—because truth has a quality which compels belief. Moreover, of illustrations of my statements the public had of late had more than enough from other sources; what was now wanted was not so much instances of the facts, as a general presentation of the subject into which special and apposite cases could be fitted by the reader according to his previously acquired information. Finally, I reflected that the introduction of names, places and dates might injure the men thus pointed out; secret service men, post-office inspectors and other spies, and the prison authorities themselves, would be prompted and helped to give them trouble. Accordingly, I was sparing even of such data as I had; and I noticed, as the chapters appeared serially in the newspaper syndicate which published them, that they were criticised in certain quarters as of the "glittering generality" class of writings; I made assertions, but adduced no specific proof of them. The source of such criticisms was obvious enough, but they did no harm, and were not accompanied by denials of my facts. The only other form of attack brought against the book is comprised in the claim that I am a writer of fiction and as such incapable of telling the truth, about anything; that I was the dupe of designing persons who made me the mouthpiece for their factitious grievances or spites; and that I was myself animated by a spirit of revenge for the injury of my imprisonment, which must render anything I might allege against prisons and their conduct worthless.
I have touched upon the two latter counts of the indictment in the text of the book; of the assertion that fiction writers cannot stick to facts or convey truth, I will say that it is unreasonable upon its face. Fiction writers, in order to attain any measure of success in their calling, must above all things base their structures upon facts, and to seek and promulgate undeniable truth in their descriptions and analyses. The "fiction" part of their stories is the merest outside part; all within must be true, or it is nothing. A novelist or story writer, therefore, is more likely to give a true version of any event or condition he may be required to present, than a person trained in any other form of writing, with the exception, perhaps, of journalism. And I have been a journalist, as well as a story writer, for more than thirty years past, and what success I attained was due to the accuracy and veracity of the reports I sent to my papers. In short, I am a trained observer of facts if ever there were one; and no facts in my experience have been so thoroughly hammered into my mind, heart and soul, digested and appreciated, as were the facts of my prison life. Whatever else that I have written might be cavilled at on the plea of inaccuracy, certainly this book cannot be. Whether the statements which it contains be feebly or strongly put may properly be questioned, but none of them can be successfully denied.
But this aspect of the matter gives me small uneasiness. The important consideration is, will the book, assuming that it is accepted as the truth, do the work, or any large part of the work, which it was designed to do? Will readers be influenced by it to practical action; will it be an effective element in the forces that are now rising up to make wickedness and corruption less than they are? The proposal toward which the book points and in which it ultimates is so radical and astounding—nothing less than that Penal Imprisonment for Crime be Abolished—that the author can hardly escape the apprehension that the mass of the public will dismiss it as preposterous and impossible. And yet nothing is more certain in my opinion than that penal imprisonment for crime must cease, and if it be not abolished by statute, it will be by force. It must be abolished because, alarming or socially destructive though alternatives to it may appear, it is worse than any alternative, being not only dangerous, but wicked, and it breeds and multiplies the evils it pretends to heal or diminish. It is far more wicked and dangerous than it was a thousand or a hundred years ago, because society is more enlightened than it was then, and the multitude now exercise power which was then confined to the few. Whatever person or society knowingly and wilfully permits the existence of a wickedness which it might extirpate, makes itself a party thereto, and also inflames the wickedness itself. And the ignorance or the impotence which we could plead heretofore in history, we cannot plead to-day. We know, we have power, and we must act; if we shrink from acting, action will be taken against us by powers which cannot be estimated or controlled. This book is meant to confirm our knowledge and to stimulate and direct, in a measure, our action; and to avert, if possible, the consequences of not acting. Its individual power may be slight; but it should be the resolve of every honest and courageous man and woman to add to it the weight of their own power. Wonderful things have been accomplished before now by means which seemed, in their beginning, as inadequate and weak as this.
In the sixth chapter of the Book of Joshua you may read the great type and example of such achievements, the symbol of every victory of good over evil, the thing that could not be done by man's best power, skill and foresight, accomplished, with God to aid, by a breath. The defensive strength of Jericho was greater, compared with the means of attack then known, than that of Sebastopol in the fifties of the last century, or of Plevna in the seventies, or of Port Arthur a few years since. Those walls were too high to be scaled, too massive to be beaten down, and they were defended by a great king and his mighty men of valor. From any moral point of view, the enterprise of destroying the city was hopeless. Nor did the Lord add anything to such weapons of offense as Joshua already possessed. Seven trumpets of rams' horns were the sole agents of the destruction provided; and not the trumpets themselves, but the breath of the mouths of the seven priests who should blow through them, should overthrow those topless ramparts, and give the king and his army and his people into the hand of the men of Israel. Were such a proposition presented to our consideration to-day, we can imagine what would be the comments of the Army and Navy departments, of Congress, of the editors of newspapers, of witty paragraphers, and of the man on the street. Possibly the churches themselves might hesitate before giving their support to such a plan of war: "We must take the biblical stories in a figurative sense!" But stout Joshua had seen the angel of the Lord, with his sword drawn, the night before; and he knew nothing of figures of speech. He got the seven trumpets of rams' horns, and put them in the hands of the seven priests, and led the hosts of the Israelites round and round the walls of Jericho day after day for six days, the trumpets blowing amain, and the hosts silent. And on the seventh day, the hosts compassed the walls of the city seven times; "And at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city.... So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets; and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpets, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the walls fell down flat, so that every man went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was within the city."
Yes, the biblical stories are to be taken in a figurative sense; they stand as symbols for spiritual actions in the nature of man; though that is not to say that the events narrated did not actually take place as recorded. But Joshua had faith; and faith in the hearts of the champions of right begets fear in the hearts of supporters of wrong, and the defenses they have so laboriously built up tumble distractedly about their ears when the trumpets of the Lord blow and the people who believe in Him utter a mighty shout. Our jails are our Jericho; the evils which they encompass and protect are greater than the sins of that strong city; but a breath may shatter them into irretrievable ruin. Not compromises; not gradual and circumspect approaches; not prudent considerations of political economy, nor sound sociological principles; but simple faith in God and a blast on the ram's horn.
My business in this book was to show that penal imprisonment is an evil, and its perpetuation a crime; that it does not reform the criminal but destroys him body and soul; that it does not protect the community but exposes it to incalculable perils; and that the assumption that a criminal class exists among us separate and distinct from any and the best of the rest of us is Pharisaical, false and wicked. The "Subterranean Brotherhood" are our brothers—they are ourselves, unjustly and vainly condemned to serve as scapegoats for the rest. What the criminal instinct or propensity in a man needs is not seclusion, misery, pain and despotic control, but free air and sunlight, free and cheerful human companionship, free opportunity to play his part in human service, and the stimulus, on all sides of him, of the example of such service. Men enfeebled by crime are not cured by punishment, or by homilies and precepts, but by taking off our coats and showing them personally how honest and useful things are done. And let every lapse and failure on their part to follow the example, be counted not against them, but against ourselves who failed to convince them of the truth, and hold them up to the doing of good. Had we been sincere and hearty enough, we would have prevailed.
I do not underrate the difficulties; they are immeasurable; the hope seems as forlorn as that of the Israelites against the walls of Jericho. But they are forlorn and immeasurable only because, and so long as, we let our selfish personal interests govern and mold our public and social action. Altruism will not heal the inward sore, but at best only put on its surface a plausible plaster which leaves the inward still corrupt; for altruism is a policy and not an impulse, proceeding not from the heart but from the intelligence—the policy of enlightened selfishness. It has already been tried thoroughly, and proved thoroughly inefficient; it is the motive power behind charitable organization; it breeds a cold, impersonal, economic spirit in charity workers, and coldness, ingratitude and resentment in those who are worked upon. It will not do to speak of Tom, Dick and Harry as cases Nos. 1, 2 and 3. You must call them by name and think of them as flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood, to whom you owe more than they owe you, or than you can repay. Put a heart into them by giving them your own heart; do not look down on them and advise them, but at and into them and take counsel with them; or even up to them, and learn from them. They know and feel much that you have never felt or known.
The book is full of shortcomings, imperfections, omissions, and repetitions. But there is meaning and purpose in it, and I hope it may do its work.
Conspiracies of silence—it is a common phrase; but it has never been better illustrated than in regard to what goes on in prisons, here and in other parts of the world. The conspiracy has been attacked sometimes, and more of late than usual, and once in a while we have caught a glimpse of what is occurring behind those smug, well-fitting doors. But they have been mere glimpses, incoherent, obscure, often imaginative, or guesswork based on scanty, incorrect, at any rate secondhand information; never yet conclusive and complete. In England, Charles Dickens and Charles Reade have personally visited prisons, talked with prisoners, written stories that have stirred the world, and forced improvements. Great prisoners like Kropotkin have related their experiences in Russia, and our own George Kennan prompted us to congratulate ourselves, in our complacent ignorance, that our methods of generating virtue out of crime were not like those of the Russians. It was annoying, after this, to be assured by writers in some of our magazines—called muckrakers by some, pioneers by others—that after a sagacious, eager, well-equipped investigation into our own prison conditions, peering into depths, interrogating convicts, searching records, they had found little difference in principle between our way of handling offenses against law, and that of our Cossack neighbors. The latter are more sensational and red-blooded about it, that is all. These revelations compelled some removals and a few reforms; but they too failed to bring home livingly to public knowledge and imagination the whole ugly, sluggish, vicious truth.
Then, only yesterday, an amiable, naive and impressionable young gentleman underwent a week of amateur convictship in one of our jails, and came forth tremulous with indignation and astonishment; though, obviously and inevitably, he did not have to endure the one thing which, more than hardship or torture, is the main evil of penal imprisonment—the feeling of helplessness and outrage in the presence of a despotic and unrighteous power, from which there is no appeal or escape. The convict has no rights, no friends, and no future; the amateur may walk out whenever he pleases, and will be received by an admiring family and friends, and extolled by public opinion as a reformer who suffered martyrdom in the cause. Yet what he has experienced and learned falls as far short of what convicts endure, as the emotions of a theater-goer at a problem play (with a tango supper awaiting him in a neighboring restaurant) fall short of the long-drawn misery and humiliation of those who undergo in actuality what the play pretended.
Meanwhile, scores of animated humanitarians, penologists, criminologists, theorists and idealists have consulted, resolved, recommended, and agitated, striking hard but in the dark, and most of their blows going wide. Commissioners and inspectors have appeared menacingly at prison gates, loudly heralded, equipped with plenipotentiary powers; and the gates have been thrown wide by smiling wardens and sympathetic guards—tender hearted, big brained, gentle mannered people, their mouths overflowing with honeyed words and bland assurances, their clubs and steel bracelets snugly stowed away in unobtrusive pockets—who have personally and assiduously conducted their honored visitors through marble corridors, clean swept cells, spacious dining saloons, sanctimonious chapels, studious libraries and sunny yards; and have stood helpfully by while happy felons told their tales of cheerful hours of industry alternating with long periods of refreshing exercise and peaceful repose; nay, these officials will sometimes quite turn their backs upon the confidences between prisoner and investigator, lest there should seem to be even a shadow of restraint in the outpourings. "Is all well?"—"All is well!"—"No complaints?"—"No complaints!" What, then, could inspectors and commissioners do except bid a friendly and apologetic adieu to their ingenuous entertainers, and go forth bearing in each hand a pail of freshest whitewash? And if, during the colloquies, any malignant prisoner had happened, in a burst of reckless despair, to venture on an indiscreet disclosure, the visitors were allowed to get well out of earshot before the thud of clubs on heads was heard, and the groans of victims chained to bars in dark cells of airless stench, underneath the self same polished floors which had but an hour before resounded to paeans of eulogy and contentment.
This is not a fancy picture—no, not even of what is known to judges and attorneys (but not to prisoners) as "The model penitentiary of America," down in sunny Georgia. Fancy is not needed to round out the tale to be told of conditions existing and of things done and suffered in this age and country, behind walls which shut in fellow creatures of ours whom facile jurors and autocratic courts have sent to living death and to worse than death in accordance with laws passed by legislatures for the benefit of—What, or Whom?—Of the community?—Of social order and security?—Of outraged morality?—Of the reform of convicts themselves?—These questions may be considered as we go along. Meanwhile we may take notice that a number of persons, more or less deserving, gain their livelihood by the detection, indictment, arrest, conviction and imprisonment of other persons more or less undeserving; and whether or not these proceedings or any of them are rash or prudent, straight or crooked, just or tyrannous, lenient or cruel, honest or corrupt—is of secondary importance. What is of first importance is to supply fuel for the furnace of this unwieldy machine which operates our criminal system. Our costly courts must have occupation, our expensive jails must be kept full. We have succumbed to the disease which has been called legalism—the persuasion that the craving for individual initiative born of the unsettling of old faiths and the opening of new horizons, as well as the consequences of poverty, misery, ignorance, and hereditary incompetence—that this vast turning of the human tide, manifesting itself in many forms, some benign, many evil—that this broad and profound phenomenon can be met and controlled only by force, suppression, punishment, the infliction of physical pain and moral humiliation.
This disease perverts that beautiful and ideal impulse toward mutual order and self-restraint, which is Law, into lust for arbitrary and impudent power to control the acts and even the thoughts of men down to petty personal details; so that human life, at this very moment when it most needs and aspires to enlightened liberty, is crushed back into mechanical conformity with statutory regulations to which no common assent has been or can be obtained, and the logical consequences of which are as yet but obscurely recognized, even by the limited portion of the community which has been active in establishing them. To give it its most favorable interpretation, it is a sort of crazy counsel of perfection, incompatible with the healthy tenor and contents of human nature, and sure in the end to involve in its errant tentacles not only those who are the avowed objects of its pursuit, but likewise the lawmakers and enforcers themselves. Like all abuses, in its own entrails are the seeds of its destruction. Laws now on our books, if radically applied, would land almost every mother's son of us behind prison bars. And no doubt, when the murderer, forger, swindler, or white slaver, in his cell, begins to recognize in his new cell mate the judge who sentenced him, the attorney who prosecuted him, the juryman who convicted him, or the plaintiff who accused him, we shall find it expedient to subject our legal nostrums to a system of purgation, and our fever of legalism will abate. But if we will take thought betimes we may meet the trouble half way, and thus avert, perhaps, the danger that the fever will be checked only by the overturning of all law, sane or insane. The following chapters are designed to help in defeating a catastrophe so unlovely.
Be it observed, first, that the only persons competent to reveal prison life as it is are persons who have been sentenced to prisons and lived in them as prisoners. Such showings might have been made long ago and often but that those who knew the facts were afraid to speak, or could not win belief, or had not education and capacity for expression requisite to get their facts printed. Others, exhausted or unmanned by their sufferings, wished only to hide themselves and forget and be forgotten; others have indictments still hanging over them, to be pressed should they betray a disposition to loquacity. Seldom, at any rate, has a man trained as a writer lived out a prison sentence and emerged with the ability and determination to throw the prison doors ajar and expose what has hitherto been invisible, unknown, and unsuspected.
Such a story has importance, because there is no group of persons anywhere but has some relation near or remote to what goes on in prisons. And the constant output of new laws, creating new crimes (so that one might say a man goes to bed innocent and wakes guilty)—this delirious industry must goad us all into feeling a personal interest in the administration of our penal machinery. You saw your friend tried and sentenced yesterday; you may yourself stand in the dock to-morrow, knowing yourself morally innocent, astounded at finding yourself technically guilty. Yet you yourself by your civic neglect or ignorance contributed to the enactment of the statute which now catches you tripping. You had better search into these matters, and find out what the authorities whom you helped to office are doing with their authority.
I have served my term in prison. The strain of that experience has not sharpened my appetite to bear testimony; my desire, as evening falls, is for rest and tranquillity. But I owe it to my American birth, parentage and posterity, which connect me with what is honorable in my country, and to my individual manhood, to do what I hold to be a duty. Especially am I sensible of the claim upon me of those voiceless fellow men of mine still behind the bars, who cannot help themselves, who have honored me with their tragic confidences, who have believed that I would do my utmost to let the truth be known and show the world what penal imprisonment really means. I will keep faith with them.
I do not know that my attempt will succeed. Not every reader has imagination or sympathy enough to step into another's shoes—especially into the sorry shoes of a convict—and to realize facts which, even if we credit them, are disquieting and unpleasant. They make us uncomfortable and keep us awake at night. It is pleasanter to ignore or forget them, to say that they must be exaggerated, or that their purveyor has some ax of his own to grind; besides, do not abuses cure themselves in time?—and there is always time enough!
Three or four men, while I was spending my months in jail, had time to die of broken health and broken hearts, due to physical assaults or neglect, combined with a system of mental torture yet more effective and barbarous. Hundreds more are in similar plight, in Atlanta jail alone, who might be saved by timely attention and common humanity. Of this, more anon. I wish now to say that I undertake this work with a purpose as serious as I am capable of; and that among the inducements that move me, personal grudge and grievance are not included. Individual enmities are foolish and sterile for the individuals, and a bore for everybody else. Individuals are never so much to be hated as are the conditions which prompt them to act hatefully. Improve the environment which produced the murderer, robber, corrupt judge, rascally attorney, cruel warden, brutal guard, and you are likely to get a creature quite humane and tolerable. On the other hand, however, in the process of opposing evil conditions, one cannot avoid contact with the human products of them—sometimes in a stern and conclusive manner. Without going the length of the Spanish Inquisition, which tortured the body on earth in order to save the soul for heaven, it is not to be denied that punishment for evil deeds is latent in the bowels of the evil doer and will make him suffer in one way or another. We cannot strike a bad condition without hitting somebody who is carrying it out; and I am in the position of the Quaker who went to war: "Friend," he admonished his foe-man, "thee is standing just where I am going to shoot!"
I am not disposed to present here, in the way of credentials, any account of the circumstances that landed me in prison; still less to plead anything in the way of extenuation. The District Attorney, in his address, described me as a member of one of the most dangerous band of crooks and swindlers that ever infested New York. The government of this country authorized his statement; the news was bruited afar, wherever men read and write and invest money on the planet, and it appealed to every city editor and scandal-monger. Julian Hawthorne, son of the author of "The Scarlet Letter," a pickpocket. Well, what next!
If ever I cherished the notion that the charge was too preposterous to be believed, I was abundantly undeceived. To jail I went, and there served out my time to the uttermost limit allowed by the law. But in this connection I must touch on a matter which caused me some annoyance at the time.
In June of 1913 an editorial appeared in a New York newspaper endorsing some petitions which had been circulated asking the President of the United States to pardon me, mainly on the ground that in my ignorance of business I had been more of an innocent dupe than a deliberate malefactor. I had known nothing of these petitions; had I known of them, I would have omitted no effort to prevent them.
But I did get hold of the editorial; and found myself placed in the position of admitting myself guilty of the crime charged against me, but cowering under the pitiful excuse of having been bamboozled by others. What was even less tolerable, it presented me as entreating pardon of a government from which I would in fact have accepted nothing short of an unconditional apology. The Government had done me an injury under forms of law; I am only one man, and the Government stands for a hundred millions; but justice has no concern with numbers. My mining company and I were ruined; the iron and silver which we tried to put on the market will enrich others after we are gone; but I knew that what I and my partners had said of them was true. What had I to do with "pardons"? Pardon for what?
I lost no time in writing a letter to the editor of the paper, defining my attitude in the matter; but it never reached him. It is in the private safe of Warden Moyer, of Atlanta—or so I was informed by the Deputy Warden, when I was released in October—and for aught I know or care it may remain there forevermore.
Whether my respect for Law is higher or lower than is that of those persons who are responsible for my being sent to prison and kept there, may appear hereafter. But if crime be the result of anti-social impulses, then I hold that our present statutes fail to include under their categories, numerous and inquisitive though they be, a class of criminals who do, or intend, quite as much harm as was ever perpetrated by any man now under lock and key. Many of these persons occupy high places; most of them are respectable. We meet them and greet them in society. I know them, and also the murderers, highwaymen and yeggs of the penitentiary; and when I want sincere, charitable, generous human companionship, my choice is for the latter.
THE DEVIL'S ANTECHAMBER
The judge pronounced our several prison sentences; that they were not also sentences of death was due to circumstances which developed later. The jury had previously dispersed, clothed in the sanctity of duties discreetly performed, knowing why they did them, and enjoying whatever consolation or advantage appertained thereto. Marshal Henkel cast upon us the look of the turkey buzzard as he swoops upon his prey, and we found ourselves being hustled down the familiar corridors, and into a room which we had not visited before; a few assistant marshals were there, and ere long a knot of newspaper men entered, observant and sympathetic, ready to receive and record the last words of the condemned.
It was about six o'clock of a dark and rainy March evening. "Any statement you would like to make?" One stands upon the brink of the living world, facing the darkness and silence, and hears that question.
Here is an end of things, a nothing, a sort of death. The support and countenance of one's fellow creatures are withdrawn; you are no longer a part of organized social existence. The rights, privileges and courtesies of manhood are stripped from you. You are adjudged unfit to touch the hand of an honest man in greeting; you are made impotent, disgraced, consigned to the refuse heap. The helpless shame put upon you is borne tenfold by those who bear your name, those you love and who love you. All that touches you henceforth shall be sordid, base and foul.
The prison officials who stand near you meet your eye with a leer of familiarity; they have handled thousands of men in your situation; they will have a grin or a growl for any remonstrance or protest you may make; power over you has been given to them; in you there is no power. You cannot blame them; their authority was deputed to them by men above them, who in turn received it from others; they are parts of the great machine, working irresistibly and automatically.
The judge is blameless; he had said, "The verdict of the jury makes it my painful duty to sentence you!" The jury is not to blame; they had decided upon the evidence, in accordance with their oath. The witnesses who bore testimony against you—did they not testify upon a solemn adjuration to utter nothing but the truth, at the peril of their immortal souls? The indictments to whose truth they bore witness—were they not made and brought by officers appointed by law to seek only impartial justice, and sworn to seek it without fear or favor?
Go back yet another step if you will, and consider the inspectors and detectives who gathered the complaints against you—is the beginning with them? No: they did but act for the protection of the community against a crime of which you were suspected, which was resolved to be a crime by the representatives of the nation in Congress assembled—that is, by the nation itself. You yourself, therefore, as part of the nation, share with the rest the responsibility for your present predicament. Then, whether the verdict against you were right or wrong—whether you be innocent or guilty—the blame at last comes home to you.
Such is the reductio ad absurdum—the lawyers' argument, technically flawless, though proceeding upon a transparent fallacy. That fallacy I shall consider hereafter; the question of the moment is the reporters'—"Have you any statement to make?"
Of what avail to answer? Has not enough been said during the trial of the past four months, and in vain? The young fellow stands there, courteously inquisitive, not unsympathetic perhaps, his pencil suspended. Have I any last words for the world which I am leaving? Shall I declaim of injustice, outrage, perjury? Shall I threaten revenge, or entreat mercy? Shall I "break down," or shall I "maintain an appearance of bravado"—he is ready to record either.
No, I will do none of these futile things. In such extremities, a man's manhood and dignity come to his support. I am helpless, to be sure, but only physically so. All this portentous paraphernalia of court and prison can touch nothing more than my body—my spirit is unscathed. It is the ancient consolation, coming down through poetry and history even to me. The Government—the Nation—can destroy my life, separate me from my people, throw mud on my name; but they cannot take away one atom of my consciousness of the truth. And it is better to have that consciousness than to retain all the rest without it. Blessed ethical truisms, which come to our succor when all else falls away!
Accordingly, the reporters were supplied with a few grave, not sensational words, suggested by the spur of the moment; they receded into the background, and Marshal Henkel, zealous to do his whole duty, and prevent the escape of an elderly gentleman through locked doors, echoing corridors, and the resistance of half a dozen lusty guards, advanced to the front of the stage and gave the order, "Handcuffs!" Knowing my marshal as I did, I was prepared for him, and extended my arm, till I felt the steel close round it with a solid snap. I was a manacled convict, and the community was saved.
But no time was to be lost; it was already after hours for the city prison; and the stout party of the other part of the handcuff and I passed out through the opening door promptly. As we turned the corner of the corridor, I suddenly saw the face of one of my sons-in-law, pale in the electric light; he forced a smile to his lips, and threw up one hand in greeting and farewell. Ah, those who are left behind! who can compensate them, and how can the injury done them be forgiven? I smiled a moment to myself as I thought of the ready answer of the august purveyor of the law—"You should have thought of that when you committed your crime!" That answer is also a part of the automatic machinery, and comes out, when the button is pressed, as inevitably as the package of chewing-gum from its receptacle—even more so!
I felt the rain on my face as we emerged from the old postoffice building, and saw the slanting drops as we passed through the rays of the street lamp on the corner. It was a memorable journey for me, short in its material aspect, long otherwise; and I noticed the particulars. Newspaper Row loomed on the right, strange in its familiarity, my work-place of many years. Here was the Third Avenue terminal, whence, a few hours before, I had confidently expected to take the train homeward, a free and vindicated man. There were glimpses, in the wet glare, of black headlines of newspapers, and the shrill professional cries of the gamins, "Hawthorne convicted!" It was like living in a detective story—but this was real!
But then came the thought that had often visited me in the past months, as I sat in the dingy courtroom, and listened perfunctorily to the legal wrangle, the abuse and defense, the long-drawn testimony of witnesses, the comment of the precise and genial judge, and contemplated idly the jaded, uncomfortable jury, the covert whispering of Assistant District Attorneys and postoffice inspectors, the dangling maps and the piles of documents—when I had asked myself, "Is all this real, or are they transient symbols importing a concealed significance?" Then, to my imagination, the empty walls would seem to melt away, and I saw a great, benign face and figure above the bench of the judge, holding a trial of those who labored so busily—a trial not entered in the books, and alien from that which occupied us; and recording judgments, unheard here, but eternal.
Was that the reality? Then let come what might on this plane of foolish contention, where we strive to cover the Immutable with the petty mask of our mutabilities. We sweat and toil for ends which we know not, and our paltry and blind decisions, our triumphs and failures, determine nothing but the degree of our own ignorance and impotence. The Lord's aims and issues are not ours, and ours do but measure our spiritual stature, and direct our immortal destiny, in His sight.
Yes, but this palpable world has its place and function nevertheless, to be accepted and used while time lasts. If those who tried me were on trial, I had no personal concern in the matter. My business, now, was to keep pace with my companion, who obligingly allowed his arm to swing with mine, so that passers-by, even if they could afford to divert their attention from their own footing on the muddy pavements, and from the management of their umbrellas, would not have noticed the bond uniting him and me. For this courtesy—the only possible one in the circumstances—I took occasion to express my recognition, to which he responded with easy friendliness. "We don't never make no trouble for them as don't go to hunt none," was his remark.
We were now in Centre Street, and the Tombs was close at hand; and I drew into my lungs full draughts of the open air, murky though it was, reflecting that my opportunities of doing so in future would be limited.
Here were the steps supporting the tall steel gate, through which, in former days, I had seen many a poor devil pass; it was now others' turn to commiserate, or to jeer, the poor devil that was myself. There was no delay—we seemed to be awaited; and in the next minute I had felt what it is to be locked into a prison. I was behind bars, and could not get out at my own will—nor at any one else's, for that matter; only at the impersonal fiat of the machine.
My marshal chatted and laughed a moment with the keeper, then gave me his buxom paw in farewell. I was led through stone passages, past rows of barred cells from which peered visages of fellow prisoners, incurious and preoccupied, or truculent and reckless—men under indictment and without bail, convicts making appeal, and culprits jailed for minor offenses. Such men were to be my comrades for the future. Some were out in the corridors, pacing up and down or chatting with friends; for the laws of the Tombs are unsearchable.
It is a unique place, a Devil's Antechamber, where almost anything except what is decent and orderly may happen. It is not so much a prison or penitentiary as a human pound, where every variety of waif and stray turns up and sojourns for a while; murderers, pickpockets, political scapegoats, confidence men, old professionals, first-time offenders, even suspects afterwards to be proved innocent. There is nothing that I know of to prevent thorough-going convicts from getting in here permanently; the Tombs is of catholic hospitality. But they do not properly belong here; it is but their halfway house—the antechamber.
And discrimination must be observed in classifying the inmates; no one here likes to be regarded as beyond hope of bettering or escaping from his restricted condition. He wears his own clothes, for one thing—and no small thing; he is not known by a number; it is not, I believe, en regle to club him into insensibility at will and with impunity, or to starve him to death, or so much as to hang him up by the wrists in a dark cell. The guards or keepers do not go about visibly armed with revolvers or rifles; talking and smoking are not prohibited; the grotesque assemblage is let out into the corridors occasionally, where they shamble up and down and exchange observations and confidences; and they have an hour outdoors in the stone paved, high-walled yard.
Moreover, extraordinary liberties can be obtained, if you know how to go about it, and possess the means of bandaging inconvenient eyes. Not only are we permitted to stampede our quotas of bedbugs, but leave may be had to decorate our cells with souvenirs of art and domesticity, to soften our sitting-down appliances with cushions, to drape the curtain of modesty before the grating of restriction, to carpet our stone flooring, to supply our leisure hours with literary nourishment, to secrete stealthy cakes and apples for bodily solace, to enjoy surreptitious and not over-hazardous corridor outings when others are locked up, to write and receive any sort of letters at any times, without having them first read and stamped by licensed letter-ghouls.
More, there was at least one man among my companions there who contrived, by devices which I never sought to fathom, to pass the immitigable outer gates themselves every day, attend to his business in the outer world for as many hours as might serve, returning quietly in time for last roll-call. He took a keeper with him, of course, but only in order to assuage possible anxiety on the part of those responsible for his security; and one cannot help suspecting that as soon as the two found themselves under the free sky, the keeper betook himself to some friendly saloon, moving-picture palace, or other inviting retreat, and only saw the other again when they met by appointment in their trysting place.
It was safe enough no doubt; the prisoner would hardly think it worth his while to attempt actual disimprisonment; he was content to sleep at night in his cosy and comfortable cell. But the Moral Powers who live in white waistcoats and saintly collars might have been restless in their innocent sleep, had they known what things are practicable under the austere name of incarceration in the City Prison.
Revolving these matters, I could only come to the conclusion that they pointed in one direction, namely, toward the anachronism and absurdity of our whole theory of punishment by imprisonment. As I shall have plenty of cause to give full discussion to this subject later on, I will only touch it here; but the fact is that we imprison malefactors or law-breakers (not always synonymous by any means, since there are a score of artificial crimes for one real one) not because we believe that to be the right thing for them, but simply by reason of our inability to imagine anything more suitable and sane. Moreover, there are the steel and stone jail buildings themselves, which cost much in money and more in graft; what shall be done with them? The wardens and guards, too—all the fantastic appanages of these institutions—are they to be cast incontinently upon a frigid world?
The law, in short, lags leagues and ages behind the moral sense of the community, so encumbered with its baggage train that it can never fetch up lost ground. We know perfectly well that the only punishments that can improve men are punishments of conscience from within, and of love from without—which is practically the same thing; and that punishment by imprisonment is punishment by hate in fact, whatever it may be in theory, and therefore diabolical and destructive. It can only inflame and multiply the evils it pretends to heal; and this is no theory, but a certified and established truth. Everybody who has been through it, knows it, everybody who dares to think may know it.
The whole thing is ridiculous, a huge and clumsy absurdity, stepping on its own feet and smelling to heaven. And here in our America it is to-day worse than in Italy or Russia, in some respects, because we know better that it is wrong, and therefore try to hide its enormities from open daylight. We lie and dissimulate about it, investigators whitewash it, conservative citizens deprecate exaggeration about it, wardens and guards—some of them, not all—are more wicked in their secret practises with convicts than they would be if they did not know that they would be stopped if the community knew of them. And it was inevitable that only a low type of men would accept positions as guards and wardens, because no honest man worth his salt could afford to work for the pay that these officials get; and the latter themselves would not work for it, did they not depend upon stealing twice as much, or more, by the graft.
But the system, inwardly rotten, crumbles; and in the interval remaining before it falls, the devil is getting in some of his most strenuous work. I know, and rejoice, that enlightened and magnanimous methods are obtaining in some places; hearty and brave men, here and there, are making themselves wardens of the good in men instead of exploiters of the evil. But in most prisons—among them, in that one down in Atlanta, whence I come—the devil is laboring overtime, conscious that his time is short.
The worst criminals there—as God sees criminals—are not the men in branded attire who sit in their cells and slouch about their sterile tasks, but men who walk the ranges in uniform, and who sit in the rooms of managers; for the crimes of the former are crimes of poverty or of passion, but those of the latter are voluntary, unforced, spontaneous crimes against human nature itself. They are upheld in high places; they are fortified by difficulty of "technical proof"; they are guarded by the menace of the spy system, and of criminal libel; but there is some reason to think that their term is near.
But let us return to that queer Antechamber of the Devil at the corner of Centre and Franklin Streets.
There is a picture by that strange and unmatchable English artist of the Eighteenth Century, William Hogarth, of the mad house in London know as Bedlam. If he were here, he might draw a companion picture of the Tombs. The one is as much as the other a crazy, incoherent, irrational, futile place, yet embodying very accurately a certain aspect of the civic attitude toward the insanity of vice and crime of the day. There is nothing intelligent, purposeful, trenchant or radical about it; it is planted in ignorance and grows by neglect.
The keepers of it are good natured people enough, with a sense of humor, and free from trammels of principle, official or ethical. Their greatest severity is exercised toward those who stand outside the gates and crave permission to visit their friends within; these find the way arduous and beset with pitfalls of "orders," hours, and other mystic rites, except where they blow in miraculously, enforced by some breath from on high.
The inmates themselves, meantime, get on quite prosperously, so long at least as their money or money's worth holds out. There is no license or aptitude on their guardians' part to club them for relaxation's sake, or to kick them into underground dungeons for "observation" (you will understand that term by and by), or in any manner to hold a carnival of wanton brutality with them. The general idea is merely to keep them somewhere inside the building for the appointed or convenient time; beyond that, a liberal view is adopted of the conditions of their sojourn. They can buy eats to suit themselves, and have them served to them in their cells; they can hold communication with one another and with the outer world; I suppose they might wear evening dress after six o'clock if they wanted to. They are not victims of despotic and irresponsible power, and this is not only good for them, but also for the keepers, who are not led into the degradation and monstrous inhumanities which the possession of such power breeds in regular prisons.
Most of these prisoners expect to get out before long, either to go on to more permanent quarters, or to be liberated altogether; many of them emerge with comparatively small loss of social standing; for, indeed, highly respectable persons occasionally stray in here. The Tombs is not regarded as a final or fatal misfortune in a man's career. Yet it has its drawbacks.
Dirt is one of the more obvious of these; I might call it filth, but it depends on how one has been brought up. The impurity, at any rate, is not confined to the surfaces of the cells, floors and walls, but it creeps into the current language, and permeates the atmosphere. I am convinced that there never has been or could be a houseful of people who hear or use fouler and more unremitting obscenities than are those which flow sewer-wise and unhindered from the lips of many of this population.
It dribbles and exgurgitates, black and noisome, at the slightest provocation—nay, at none whatever, but with the delight of the past master and artist in verbal nastiness, anxious to display his erudition. It is a corruption of thought and expression so foul and concentrated, and withal so limited in its vocabulary and scope, that it fastens itself in the ear by a damnable iteration which no diverting of the attention can overcome; and it announces a depth of moral and mental debasement which seems as far from human as from merely animal possibilities; it is of the uttermost soundings of Tophet, and would probably be modified by fresh-heated gridirons even there.
This speech, or verbosity rather—for it has none of the logic or continuity of mortal utterances—does not continue uninterruptedly during the day, but observes special hours, when the guards are paying even less than their usual attention to the vagaries of their charges. Of these periods, the hours of early dawn are the most fertile.
When I dwelt in the environs of the city, it was my fortunate habit, in summer, to awake at dawn, just before sunrise, when the wide pasture outside my window was still obscure with the shadows of night, but the sky had begun to kindle with the splendors of day. In a group of darksome trees beside a little stream two hundred paces distant a song thrush was wont to trill forth the holy soul of awakening nature in such a paean of deathless Pan as inspired John Keats to utter the melodies of his magic ode. It consecrated the footsteps of the approaching sun, and the hearer was borne back on its swelling current to those pure early aeons of the human race, when love was the lord of life and innocence went forth crowned with rapture.
For this hymn of the primal gods was now substituted the hideous strophes and antistrophes of the grimy spirits of darkest New York. As one performer after another took up the strain, to and fro and from upper to lower tiers of cells, one awaited some seismic cataclysm to put an end to it and them; and the pauses of it were punctuated by bursts of dreary laughter, applausive of the incredible gushings of blighting depravity. They were the heralds of the prison day—the tune to which its steps were set. After it was over—when the yawning keeper had rattled the bars and threatened a twelve-hour close confinement to the perpetrators—one was amazed to identify with the latter persons outwardly in human shape, instead of malformed and sooty fiends from the bottomless abyss. I doubt whether anything to range with this occurs in any other criminal cauldron in the world; and therefore, with stopped nostrils, have I tried to give some faint adumbration of its character.
The head keeper of the menagerie I saw but once or twice; he was of Falstaffian proportions, with a clear and steady masculine eye and a demeanor of genial and complacent authority. He knew what and when to see and not to see, and had his own measure of the legalities and the proprieties. Little gusts of investigations and reforms passed by him as the eddying dust of the street sweeps by granite skyscrapers. "J'y suis—J'y reste!" was his motto. The subordinates had a general Irish complexion to my feeling; they were there to gather tips under the humorous guise of marshals of order. They were affable and easy, going as far as they could with only so much show of resistance as might lend more value to their yielding.
The prisoners were as heterogeneous as the contents of a rag-picker's auction. Yet they associated with little friction, herding uniformly kind with kind, only rarely lending themselves to transient ructions. They played little jokes on each other; a fat and serious captive was sitting of an evening at his cell door, absorbed in the perusal of a wide-spread newspaper; a gnome-like passerby in the corridor lit an unsuspected match, and suddenly the newspaper was a sheet of flame.
There were uglier spectacles; we had among us a fresh murderer, who after killing his wife had retained grudge enough against her to hack off her head. He kept darkly to his cell, sitting hour after hour with his head leaning on his hand, and eyes unswervingly downcast. His crime was not popular in that company, and none sought his companionship. At the other end of the scale were dazed, foreign creatures, guilty of they knew not what, gropingly and vainly striving to understand and to make themselves understood. There was the scum of the gutters; and there were men of intellect and high breeding, arming their hearts to resist shame and despair, and bending to soften the plight of children of misery below them.
The soul of the new comer blenches and shivers occasionally as he contemplates the grisly, crazy scene, and thinks of all that menaces the women at home. And when, in the visiting hours, the women come and stare palely at the faces of those they love between the bars, wishing to cheer them, but appalled and made giddy by the abject and sordid horror of the solid fact, those who stare back at them and try to smile feel the grating of the wheels of life on the harsh bottom of things. But a man's manhood must not give way; there must be no triumph over him of these assaults and underminings of the enemy. Soul gazes at soul; but the talk is superficial and trivial. He is drowning in the gulf, and she stands yearning on the brink, but there shall be no vain outcries or outstretched arms. It is a condition wrought by men, not countenanced by God, and the spirit must command the flesh to endure.
Punch the button and listen once more to the refrain—"You should have thought of that before!" But can our posterity ever be induced to believe that such inhumanities could have been committed in the divine name of Law!
I am not qualified to write the epic of the Devil's Antechamber; I abode there but ten days, as we reckon time. On a cool and clear Easter Sunday morning the summons came to go forth to further adventures. Accompanied by three deputies, but free of the Henkel handcuffs, we passed the gates and trod the sunny pavements. Not a cloud in the blue sky, nor a taint upon the pure wings of the free air. None that saw us pass suspected our invisible fetters. Yet to me at least the thought that had ministered to me in the actual courtroom and prison, that the fetters were a dream and freedom the reality, was not accessible then. The absence of physical bonds seemed to render the imprisonment more, not less undeniable.
But we stepped out briskly, and breathed while we might.
THE ROAD TO OBLIVION
Five of us stood on the platform of the Pennsylvania station; one stayed behind as the train moved out. He was the answer to the question, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"—"Who shall watch the watchman?" Our two marshals were to see that we did not escape; he was to see that they saw. But his function ended when the departing whistle blew. He was a lean, pale, taciturn personage in black; Marshal Henkel had perhaps substituted him for the handcuffs. There was nothing between us and freedom now but our brace of tipstaves, the train crew, the public in and out of the train, the train itself moving at a fifty mile an hour pace, the law, and our own common sense. Moreover, we had decided to see the adventure through. Something more than nine hundred miles, and twenty-six hours, lay between us and Atlanta.
The elder of our two guardians was a short but wide gentleman of forty-five, of respectable attire and aspect, as of one who had seen the world and had formed no flattering opinion of its quality, yet had not permitted its imperfections to overcome his native amiable tolerance. He was prepared to take things and men easy while they came that way, but could harden and insist upon due occasion. Human nature—those varieties of it, at least, which are not incompatible with criminal tendencies—was his "middle name" (as he might have phrased it), so that in his proper social environment he was not apt to make social mistakes. This environment, however, could not but be constituted, in the main, of convicts either actual or potential; and there was probably no citizen, however high his standing or spotless his ostensible record, who in this official's estimate might not have prison gates either before him or behind him, or both. To be able to maintain, under the shadow of convictions so harsh, a disposition so sunny, was surely an admirable trait of character.
His assistant in the present job was still in the morning stage of his career; a big, red-headed, rosy-cheeked, and obtrusively brawny youth of five and twenty. He might be regarded as the hand of steel in the glove of velvet of the combination. He may have carried bracelets of steel in his rear pockets; but his associate earnestly assured me that such was far from being the case. "I don't mind telling you the truth, Mr. Hawthorne," he confided to me with a companionable twist of the near corner of his mouth, "I'd as soon think of cuffs, for gentlemen like you two, as nothin' in the world! Why, it's like this—as far as I'm concerned, I'd just put a postage-stamp on you and ship you off by yourselves—I'd know you'd turn up all right of yourselves at the other end! That's me; but of course, we has to foller the regulations; so there you are!" And the ruddy youngster stretched his herculean limbs and grinned, as who should say, "Cuffs! Hell! What d'yer know about that? Ain't I good for ten of yer?"
As the comely Pennsylvania landscape slid by, my friend of a lifetime and I looked out on it with eyes that felt good-by. For us, the broad earth, bright sunshine and fresh air were a phantasmagoria—we had no further part in them. From college days onward, through just fifty years of life, we had traveled almost side by side, giving the world the best that was in us, not without honor; and now our country had stamped us as felons and was sending us to jail. It had suddenly discovered in us a social and moral menace to its own integrity and order, and had put upon us the stigma of rats who would gnaw the timbers of the ship of state and corrupt its cargo. The end of it all was to be a penitentiary cell, and disgrace forever, to us and to ours.
But was the disgrace ours and theirs? When you kick a mongrel cur it lies down on its back and holds up its paws, whining. But the thoroughbred acts quite otherwise; you may kill it, but you cannot conquer it. We would not lie supine under the assault of the blundering bully. Disgrace cannot be inflicted from without,—it can only come to a man from within. And the disgrace which is attempted unjustly must sooner or later be turned back on those who attempted it; the men whom our country had deputed to handle the machinery of law had blundered, and had convicted and condemned those who had done no wrong. I had never felt or expressed anything stronger than contempt for any particular persons actively concerned in our indictment and trial—the pack that had snapped and snarled so busily at our heels. Till the last I had believed that their purpose could not be accomplished,—that the nation would awake to what was being done in the nation's court, under sanction of the nation's laws. The public must at last realize the moral impossibility that men who had all that is dearest to men to lose, should throw it away for such motives as were ascribed to us—ascribed, but, as we felt, not established. And when the public realized that, thought I, they would perceive that the shame which the incompetent handling of the legal machinery aimed to fix on us must finally root itself not in us but in the public; since the world and posterity, which, more for our names' sake than for our own, would note what was being done, would not distinguish between the employee and the master—the country and the country's attorneys, and would hold the former and not the latter accountant.
I was mistaken; the public took the thing resignedly to say the least. And though I consented to no individual animosities—for individuals in such transactions are but creatures of their trade, subdued to what they work in, like the dyer's hand—I could not so easily absolve the impersonal master. The fault inhered of course not in any grudge of the community against us, but in the prevalent civic neglect (in which, in my time, I had participated with the rest) of duties to the state, theoretically impersonal, but which cannot proceed otherwise than on personal accounts.
Man is frail; but, next to sincere religious conviction, no principle exists so strong to control him as noblesse oblige—the impulse to keep faith and to deal honestly imposed not by his individual conscience alone, but by the pure traditions of his inheritance. The man who has the honor of his forefathers to preserve—an honor which may be a part of the nation's honor—is a hundred-fold better fortified against base action than is the son of thieves, or even of nobodies. The latter may find heroism enough to resist temptation, but the former is not tempted; he dismisses the thing at the start as preposterous. It is no credit to him to put such temptation aside, but it is black infamy and treachery to make terms with it. If he do make terms with it, no punishment can be too severe—though I take leave to say that the external penalties which state or nation can inflict are trivial compared with those deadly ones which torture him from within; but before crediting him with having yielded, the state or nation should not merely assume his innocence—a stipulation which our law indeed makes, but which is notoriously disregarded by prosecuting attorneys—but should weigh and sift with the most anxious and jealous scrutiny anything and everything which might appear inconsistent therewith. A son of a thief who steals does but follow his inborn instinct; but a thief whose ancestors were gentlemen is a monster, and monsters are rare.
In England and the other older countries, the principle of noblesse oblige still has weight with the public as well as with the individual; here, the welter of democracy, which has not evolved into distinct human form, uniformly ignores it; leveling down, not up, it is quick to see a scoundrel in any man. Meanwhile, instead of taking thought to abate the public mania for success in the form of concrete wealth which multiplies inducements to crime, it creates shallow statutes to punish acceptance of such inducements, with the result that while in its practical life it rushes in one direction, it erects in its courts a fantastic counsel of perfection which points in a direction precisely opposite. Our law tends not merely to the penalizing of real crimes, but to the manufacture of artificial ones; and the simple standard of natural or intuitive morals is bewilderingly complicated with a regimen of patent nostrums, conceived in error and administered in folly.
Sitting in the car window with my friend, I revolved these things, while the sunny landscape wheeled past outside, and our guardians chewed gum in the adjoining section. After all was said and done, amid whatever was strange and improbable, he and I were going to the penitentiary in the guise of common swindlers. A pioneer on the western plains, in the old days, riding homeward after several hours' absence, found his cabin a charred ruin, his property destroyed, his wife lying outraged with her throat cut, his children huddled among the debris with their brains dashed out. Sitting on his bronco, he contemplated the immeasurable horror of the catastrophe, and finally muttered, "This is ridiculous!"
"This is ridiculous!" I remarked to my companion; and he consented with a smile; when language goes bankrupt, the simple phrase is least inadequate. "We may as well have lunch," he said; and we rose and journeyed to the rear of the train, sedulously attended by our deputies. The spontaneous routine of the physical life is often a valuable support to the spiritual, reminding the latter that we exist from one moment to another, and do wisely to be economical of forecasts or retrospects. We journeyed back, through innocent scenes of traveling life, to the smoking compartment, which happened to be vacant; and under the consoling influence of tobacco our elder companion sought to lighten the shadows of destiny.
"You gentlemen," he said, uttering smoke enjoyingly through mouth and nostrils, "don't need to worry none. It's like this: the judge figured to let you off easy. He's bound, of course, to play up to the statute by handin' you your bit, but, to start with, he cuts it down all he can, and then what does he do but date you back four months to the openin' of the trial! All right! After four months you're eligible for parole on a year and a day's sentence, ain't yer? Your trial began on November 25th, and to-day is the 24th of March. That means, don't it, that you make your application the very next thing after they gets you on the penitentiary register to-morrer! Why, look-a-here," he continued, warming to his theme, and becoming, like Gladstone as depicted by Beaconsfield, intoxicated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, "it wouldn't surprise me, not a bit, sir, if you and your mate was to slip back with us on the train to-morrer evenin', and the whole bunch of us be back in little old New York along about Wednesday! That's right! An' what I says is, that ain't no punishment—that's no more'n takin' a pleasure trip down South, at the suitable time o' year! An' I guess I been on the job long enough to know what I'm talkin' about!"
We guessed he knew that he was talking benevolent fictions; and yet there was plausibility in his argument. The law did not allow parole on sentences of a year or under, but on anything over one year, a convict was eligible, and our sentence of twenty-four hours over the twelvemonth therefore brought us within this provision. In imposing that extra day, the judge could hardly have been motived by anything except the intention to open this door to us; and although the regular meeting of the parole board at the prison was not due just then, we were informed that an extra meeting might be summoned at any time. The board consisted of the warden of the prison, the doctor, and the official who presided at all parole board meetings at the various federal penitentiaries throughout the country,—Robert LaDow. The law declares that a majority of the board decides the applications that come before it; and as two members of the board make a quorum, it seemed obvious that the warden and the doctor of Atlanta Penitentiary would serve our turn—if they wanted to. Mr. LaDow, of course, might be appealed to by telegraph if expedient.
Turning the thing over, therefore, with the cozening rogue in front of us drawing our attention to the buttered side as often as it appeared, we could hardly avoid the conclusion that there was a possibility of his being right. We might be required to remain in Atlanta barely long enough to don a suit of prison clothing and to have our bertillons made, and forthwith make a triumphal return home, with our scarlet sins washed white as snow. Of such an imprisonment it might be said, as wrote the poet of the baby that died at birth,
"If it so soon was to be done for, One wonders what it was begun for,"
but it would not be the first thing that we had noticed in Federal administration of justice which might have been similarly criticized.
My allusion to this subject here is only by way of leit-motif for a thorough discussion hereafter. The juggling with the parole law, by the Department of Justice and the parole boards, is one of the most indefensible and cruel practical jokes that "the authorities" play upon prisoners. It caused two deaths by slow torture while I was at Atlanta, as shall be shown in the proper place; and there is no reason to suppose that the percentage at other prisons was not as large or larger. The sufferings short of death that are due to it cannot be calculated. A practical joke?—yes; but there is a practical purpose back of it. The miserable men who are practised upon by this means, helpless but hoping, are led to believe that they may buy freedom at the price of treachery to their fellows. Can it be credited that a convict in his cell, with perhaps years of living death before him,—you do not yet know what that means, but if I live to tell this story, you will be able to guess at its significance before we part—will refuse the opportunity offered to end it at once in return for merely speaking one or two names?—a convict—a creature outlawed, crushed, damned, dehumanized, despised,—can we look from him for a heroism, a martyrdom, which might shed fresh honor on the highest name in the community? I confess that I would not have looked for it a year ago, and I doubt whether you look for it now. But, I have to report, with joy in the goodness and selflessness in men whom you and I have presumed to look down upon, that in very few instances that I have heard of, and in almost none that I know, has a convict thus terribly tempted even hesitated to answer—NO! But many an old and cherished prejudice will begin painfully to gnaw its way out of your complacent mind before we are done.
The City of Brotherly Love flickered by and was left behind, like the sentiment which it once stood for. We were headed for Washington, where the will and conscience of the nation take form and pass into effect. Government of the people by lawyers, for lawyers; did they know what they were doing? The Constitution, bulwark of our liberties; the letter of the law, technicalities, precedents, procedure, the right of the individual merged in the public right, and lost there! The House—five hundred turbulent broncos, each neighing for his own bin; the Senate—four score portentous clubmen, adjusting the conservative shirt-front of dignity and moderation over the license of privilege and "the interests"; the Executive—dillydallying between nonentity and the Big Stick; the Supreme Court—a handful of citizens and participators in our common human nature, magically transmuted into omniscient and omnipotent gods by certificates of appointment! And the rest of our hundred millions, in this era of new discoveries and profound upheavals, on this battlefield of Armageddon between Hell and Heaven, in this crumbling of the old deities and the looming of the Unknown,—are we to lie down content and docile and suffer this hybrid monster of Frankenstein, under guise of governing, to squat on our necks, bind our Titan limbs, bandage our awakening eyes, gag our free voices, sterilize our civic manhood, and debase us from sons of divine liberty into the underpinning of an oligarchy?
My friend and I—while our licensed proprietors napped with one eye open—smiled to each other perhaps, recognizing how the prick of personal injury and injustice will arouse far-reaching rebellion against human wrongs and imperfections in general. But our famous American sense of humor may be worked overtime, and, from a perception of the incongruity and relative importance of things, be insensibly degraded into pusillanimous indifference to everything, good or bad. The soberest observer may concede that there is a spiritual energy and movement behind visible phenomena, whose purport and aim it is the province of the wise to understand. The peril of Armageddon lies in the fact that evil never fights fair, but ever masks itself in the armor of good. Not only so, but good may be changed into evil by hasty and misdirected application, and do more harm—because unsuspected—than premeditated evil itself. Public endowment of chosen persons with power is good and necessary in our form of civilization, and the chosen ones may accept it in good faith. But in a community where everybody has business of his own to mind, and is put to it so to conduct it as to keep off the poor rates, deputed powers, designed to be limited, always tend to become absolute. It is heady wine, too, and intoxicates those who partake of it. And it is only a seeming paradox that absolute and irresponsible power is more apt to develop in a democracy than under any other form of human association. Holders of it, moreover, instead of fighting for supremacy among themselves, and thus annulling their own mischievousness, as would at a first glance seem likely, soon learn the expediency of agreeing together; each keeps to his own area of despotism, cooperating, not interfering with the rest. But the system inevitably takes the form of rings within rings, each interior one possessing progressively superior dominion. At last we come to a central and small group of men who are truly absolute, and are supported and defended in their stronghold by the self-interested loyalty of the rest. But they do not proclaim their supremacy; on the contrary, they hide it under clever interpretations of law, and, at need, by securing the enactment of other laws fitted to the exigency of the occasion. If there is remonstrance or revolt among their subjects, they subdue it partly by pointing out that it is the law, and not themselves, that is responsible; and partly by employing other legal forms to put down the resistance. You cannot catch them; they vanish under your grasp as principles, not men. Their voice is never heard saying, "I will!" but always, "The law requires." And these autocrats—this oligarchy—are only men like ourselves, with like passions, limitations and sinful inheritance. They were not born to the purple—they just happened to get to it. But being possessed of it—and apart of course from any crude and obvious malfeasance in office—they cannot be "legally" dislodged; and if they step aside, it is only to let alter egos take their place. The King of England—the Emperor of Germany—can be deposed by the people, and his head cut off; but the free and independent—but law-abiding—citizens of the United States cannot throw off this subtle tyranny, because it is identified with legal provisions which we have insensibly allowed to creep into the inmost and most personal fibers of our lives. As for modifying or abolishing the law itself—that would be anarchy!
It would be foolish to contend that our rulers are actuated by any personal malevolence or even, at first, by unlawful personal ambition; they are, as I have said, for the most part lawyers, and law is their fetish—their magical cure-all and philosopher's stone. They almost persuade themselves, perhaps, that we the people make the laws; whereas not more than one man in ten thousand—even of lawyers—knows what the law in any given case is, nor would the majority of us approve any particular law, if we were afforded the chance. Any one of us will support the law against his enemy, but not, in behalf of his enemy, against himself. But our legalized sultans and satraps, Councils of Ten and Grand Inquisitors, keep an easy conscience; the Law is King and can do no wrong. A few centuries ago it was law in England to kill a man for taking any personal liberties; there was not much harm in that, for most of the persons that counted were above the law, being nobles or gentlemen. But our way is far more injurious; if a man takes a personal liberty, the cry is, Put him in jail! Death is a penalty which only disposes of a man forever; but jail is poisonous; the man survives, but he becomes criminal, and an enemy of society. And this cry for jail does not appear to emanate from legal tribunals merely, but we the people ourselves have caught it up, and invoke cells and chains for the lightest infraction of public or personal convenience; nay, we clamor for more laws to supplement our already overburdened statute-books. Thus do we thoughtlessly strengthen the hands of our masters. The nostrum which they manufactured to govern us withal, and which at first had to be administered to us willy-nilly, has now become like that notorious patent medicine for which the children cry. We kiss the rod—as long as it is laid across our fellows' backs and not our own. And the rule of Law, by lawyers, for lawyers, shows no signs of vanishing from our earth. Only convicts and ex-convicts dissent; for they know what they dissent from. As an unidentified friend wrote to me of late, "No thief ere felt the halter draw, With good opinion of the law"; but the thief had reason on his side. And it may yet come to pass that his reasons may be listened to.
Darkness set in as we entered the sacred soil of Virginia; night lay before us—our next night would be spent inside penitentiary walls. Was it a dream, or would some cosmic cataclysm occur in season to prevent it? No: the ancient routine of one fact after another, of cause and effect, would keep on with no regard for our sensibilities; however important we might appear to ourselves, we were but specks infinitesimal in the vast scheme of things. Miracles and special providences are for story books; if you are the victim of abuses, be sure that the remedy will come not through averting them, but by carrying them out to the finish. On the morning of his execution, it seemed incredible that Charles I should be beheaded; but he mounted the scaffold, laid his head upon the block, and the masked man lifted his sword and cut it off. All that is left for you is not to falter—to keep down that tremor and sickening of the heart; when Danton of the French Revolution reached the guillotine, he was heard to mutter, "Danton, no weakness!" And many an unrecorded Danton, on the night before his appointed death, has lain down and slept soundly. It recurred to my memory that my father, shortly before his death, had said to an old friend of his, "I trust in Julian." On the day following his death, that friend had journeyed to Concord to tell me those words—returning to Boston immediately. My father's son had lived to be proclaimed a felon; but I slept sound that night.
All next day we were passing through the raw red soil of the South, with its cotton plantations, forlorn at this season, its omnipresent idle negroes, and its white folks, lean and solemn, standing guard over what fate had left to them. At stopping places we would step out for a few minutes on the platform of the observation-car, to breathe the air and feel the sunshine,—the affectionate deputies close at our elbows. Some of our fellow passengers were bound for Florida or Cuba, to escape the crudity of the northern March; "May be we'll meet up again there!" some of them said, innocently unsuspicious of what sort of characters they were addressing. Paradise and the Pit travel side by side on this earth, and find each other very tolerable company.
Into Atlanta station the train at last rolled; the journey to oblivion was all but finished. The restless little city, turmoiling in its boom, swarmed around us; we had to wait half an hour, our gripsacks in our hands, for the surface-car to the prison, three miles or more beyond the town. We awaited it with some impatience—such is the unreasonableness of our mortal nature. At last we were rumbling off on our trip of twenty minutes, sitting unnoticed in the midway seats, our considerate but careful guardians on the watch at the front and rear platforms. The car took its time; it stopped, started again, stopped, started, after the manner of ordinary cars; oh, for a magic carpet or pneumatic tube, to make an end of this! or for a thousand years! It was as if the headsman were making preliminary flourishes with his sword, ere delivering his blow. These were difficult minutes.