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countenance of one's fellow creatures are withdrawn; you are no longer a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
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
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
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
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
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
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.