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Chapter 8


When a man hears rumors that his application for parole is likely to be
acted upon favorably, a guard pauses at his cell door some morning, and
tells him to go to the clothing shop at a certain hour. The prisoner,
unless he has been forewarned, accepts this as proof positive that he
will really be set at liberty, and presents himself before the head
tailor with a smiling countenance. He is solemnly and specifically
measured for a suit, looks over the material out of which it is to be
made, perhaps ventures to mention some predilections as to the cut, and
takes his departure with a light heart. The fact that the cloth is
cheap, unshrunken goods, which will shrivel up at the first shower or
severe humidity, and will, at all events, get wrinkled out of shape in a
few days, does not dash the hopeful prisoner's jocundity; nor even the
consideration that the "prison cut" will be instantly recognized all
over the country, by every detective, private or federal, and acted upon
as circumstances may indicate. It is not the clothes, good or bad, that
makes his long-tried heart glad; it is the assurance of freedom. He
would be more than content with a simple loin-cloth, if only freedom
might go with it.

As a matter of fact, this measuring commonly means little, and
guarantees nothing at all. Indeed, it has rather the appearance of a
pleasant jest of the authorities--one of the cat-and-mouse plays with
prisoners with which every old timer is familiar. One would say the
authorities find amusement, amid the monotonous round of their
avocations, in thus stimulating hopes which they know are not likely to
be fulfilled. "Come, here is a heart not yet thoroughly broken; let us
try another blow at it!" Days, weeks, months, drag tediously by, and
nothing more is heard of the parole, or of the suit of new clothes. They
have never been made up, or if they by chance have been, they are put
away to gather dust on a shelf underground; they are old clothes
now--years old, sometimes. And when at last they are brought out again,
it is probable that they will be worn by some other, more fortunate man,
who ignored the misfit for the sake of getting past the prison doors.

When this little drama was acted for my benefit, I noticed a man sitting
in a certain chair amid the other tailor prisoners, stitching away
perfunctorily at a piece of goods. I call him a man, but he looked, to
my fancy, like an ancient frog, or the semblance of what had once been a
frog, from which, however, all the impulses and juices that had made him
alive had slowly leaked away, until nothing but the shell was left. He
was a pithless automaton, in whom mind and emotions had long since
become inert, and only enough sensibility was left to enable him to feel
dimly miserable. Who was he--or, better, who had he been? I learned that
for seven years he had sat in that same chair from morning till night,
doing the same job of sewing on one suit after another of prison
clothing. Seven years! But was he capable of no other employment? Might
he not have been given the relief of a change? Maybe; but what would be
the use? They couldn't be bothered finding him new stunts all the time,
since he had learned how to do that one thing satisfactorily. He was a

Life--your entire lifetime--means, perhaps, a good deal to you; even its
sorrows, in the retrospect, were good in their way; they meant
something. And you look forward to happier things in the future; it will
be a long and on the whole a successful future perhaps. Think of the
variety and the opportunity which this great, multiform, breathing world
holds forth to a man; the friends, the activities, the changes of scene,
the surprises, the conflicts, success and failure, hope and fear,
triumph, defeat--life, in a word. It is a divine thing, a glorious
thing, the God-given birthright of all men. It is the molding of
character, the endless, stimulating struggle, the growing sense of human
brotherhood, the faces and hands of our fellow creatures, the longer,
deeper thoughts aroused by the slow revelations of experience as to the
plan of human destiny,--and therefore are the words well chosen which
condemn a man like yourself to penal servitude "for life"?

But human language has no word to convey the significance of lifelong
imprisonment. It is surely not life: nor is it death--Oh, death would be
welcome! For death means either (as you may imagine you believe) total
extinction, or it means increased life, free from material trammels. But
death in life is a monstrous thing; life, for example, spent in a chair
in a squalid tailor's shop, doing over and over again the same piece of
squalid, meaningless work, with ever another squalid year stretching out
its length before you when the last one has been completed. Is life so
endured _life_--the sacred Creative gift, imparted to all things,
conscious or unconscious, without restriction? Life, the mystery, which
we are impotent to bestow, and which even death, self-inflicted or
inflicted by others, cannot take away; which one thing only can take
away--the death-in-life of penal imprisonment; is it not a formidable
thought that we have incurred the burden of this crime, which does not
transfer life from one phase to another, but seeks to annihilate it

Death would be welcome; the infliction of it can find forgiveness; but
how can we forgive the infliction of death-in-life? How can God forgive
it, this profane meddling with sacred and fathomless life? Will He
accept the plea that we did it "for the protection of society?--for the
man's own good?--or a warning to others?" In that day of questioning, I
would rather take my chances with the man sitting in the chair in the
prison tailor's shop for seven years, a "lifer"! Infinite mercy may find
means to compensate him for what we robbed him of; but what can it do
with us, the robbers?

In the Federal prison there were a score or more of lifers, with some of
whom it was my fortune to become acquainted. I stood in a sort of awe of
them; the thought of their fate was so overwhelming that my mind could
not compass it, though my heart might approach some conception of it
through obscure channels of intuition. Their treatment by the prison
officials was not ordinarily severe; even a warden or a guard could feel
that clubbing and dark-celling would be a kind of anticlimax for a man
sentenced for life. Some of them--usually negroes--would be given easy
jobs, and not held too strictly to the petty regulations whose special
object is to humiliate the ordinary prisoner, under guise of
disciplining and reforming him. Nothing was to be gained by disciplining
or reforming a "lifer." Others, however, in whom despair had taken the
expression of obstinacy or savagery, were savagely handled; one of them
bears terrible scars from a shooting by one of the guards, and he told
me that, out of the twenty-two years he had already served, eight had
been spent in the punishment cells. Others are maltreated for a while,
experimentally, or to "put the fear of God in their hearts," and
afterward let alone. But as a rule, there is not much fun to be got out
of a "lifer" by the prison keepers, and they prefer to ignore him.

The introduction of the law allowing the privilege of applying for
parole, did, to be sure, place in the hands of the authorities a weapon
with which they could "get beneath the hide" (as they might term it) of
these obdurate subjects. Needless to say, this measure, which provides
that "lifers" may be paroled (at the discretion of the parole board)
after having served fifteen years with a good prison record, did not
contemplate introducing thereby a new element of misery into their
lives. But the men to whose hands the "lifer" is entrusted found in it a
means of making him more readily amenable to discipline by holding over
him the threat of an adverse report should he prove intractable. They
could keep him indefinitely in that state of torturing suspense as to
his fate, which is perhaps the worst of all tortures, by withholding
from him all information as to whether or not his appeal was likely to

Several cases of this kind came under my observation. In one, the
release came before the man had collapsed; in others, too late. In only
one or two that I know of was there any pretext that his conduct during
imprisonment had been unsatisfactory. The delay was never explained; it
was due to wilful or careless neglect. Two men were carried out feet
foremost in a deal box after they had endured suspense up to the extreme
limit of mortal capacity. They died of broken hearts--gradually broken
through long months of hope slowly fading into despair.

The warden sat serene in his office, attending to business as a good
official should, writing reports to the Department which testified to
his efficiency and economy, welcoming visitors with his genial smile,
occasionally reading encomiums upon himself in a local newspaper,
written and inserted there by somebody; the guards sauntered jauntily
about, cocking their caps and making their clubs dance at the end of the
cords; eight hundred unsightly felons, who had once been men like you
and me, filed drearily in to their meals, and out again, the worse for
the experience; and all the while, from morning till night, Dennis sat
on the corner of his cot in the hospital room, waiting for the news of
his release. He felt, and said, at first, that it was sure to come; it
would come in a day or two, or at the end of the week anyway; or at the
beginning of the week after. He knew his application had been accepted;
of course, those big officials had lots to do, and could not be expected
to attend to him at once; but they would not forget him.

For several weeks--a month or two--Dennis kept up his spirits well; he
had been in prison many years, more than the number required for parole,
and he had no bad marks against him. His wife and two daughters were
still living, however, and he was full of plans for his future life with
them; what he would do, where he would live, how happy they all would be
together, after that separation. But one day as he sat on his cot, or
paced slowly up and down the hospital chamber, news was brought to him,
bad news, news that his wife had died unexpectedly.

He survived it; some men survive miraculously in prison, and some die
easily. Dennis had his daughters left to him still; and the release was
sure to come now--they would not surely delay it any longer. He had been
a tall, powerful mulatto when he first came to prison; he was a gaunt,
bent skeleton of a man now, with great, bony, strengthless hands, that
closed round mine with a sort of appealing, lingering pressure when we
met, as if he feared to let go his hold upon a man who was sorry for
him. The doctor knew--any competent physician, at least, might have
known--that he could not last much longer; but the doctor said nothing
and did nothing. Then--for the stars in their courses seemed to fight
against Dennie--came another piece of news for him; not news of parole,
but news that his daughters, both of them, had followed their mother;
they too were dead. Dennis, who had begun to plan out a life with them,
to be father and mother both to them, to comfort them and work for them,
and to die at last with their love and companionship comforting him, was
now alone in the world, and still in prison.

Time had gone by; it was six months since he had begun to look for
freedom. What would freedom mean for him now, with no one in the world
to go to or to be with? Probably he gave up looking for it at this
point; at any rate, he spoke of it no more. He spoke very little after
that, and he very seldom rose from his seat on the corner of his cot, or
took notice of any one or of anything in the hospital room. He sat
there, day after day, all day long, with his eyes fixed upon a certain
point of vacancy; what he saw, what he thought, no one knew. His hands
lay before him on his bony knees, lax and inert. Half a lifetime in
prison, and now he was nearing the end, mute and motionless, making no
complaint or protest--the power for that had gone by. He no longer spoke
of parole; and no parole came. No doubt, the great officials were busy,
and what was Dennis that they should remember him, and draw out that
paper from its pigeonhole, and sign it, and send it to him? The world
could get along without Dennis.

So, one day, Dennis died; and after his body had been laid in its box,
the old market wagon, with the old mule between the shafts, was backed
up to the door, and the box with the gray old corpse in it was shoved in
and driven round to the prison burying ground and dumped into its red
clay hole. There it lies; but I am not sure that that is the end of
Dennis. A time may be coming, after this earthly show is over, when
persons who were so much pressed for time that they could find no moment
to sign a paper to save a fellow man's life, may see him again under
awkward circumstances, and be asked to explain. Justice, after all, is
an Immortal, and belongs to eternity. We should beware of measuring, by
the apparent slowness of her movements on this lower plane, the
likelihood of her final victory.

If you have some imagination to spare, put yourself in the place of a
convict who finds himself, to-day, facing a sentence of imprisonment for
life. The imagination of it, even, is so appalling that you will need
more than common courage to picture it to yourself. What, then, must the
reality of it be? It is hard to understand how any human heart and brain
can withstand the prospect of it. If it has not stopped your heart at
once--if your brain has not immediately collapsed under the shock--you
will think of suicide. But, perhaps, before you can find means or
resolution to seek that escape, you will become conscious, in the
background of your mind, of a stirring of that almost ineradicable thing
that we call hope. You cannot quite bring yourself to believe that your
entire earthly future is to be passed in a prison cell. Some event will
occur, some beneficent freak of destiny, some earthquake or lightning
bolt, some national revolution or catastrophe, some belated sense of
humanity in your brother man, some new law repealing the impious cruelty
of the old law, that will break your bars before the end can come. You
cannot believe that you will actually live and die in jail.

Thus you are tided over your first hours and days, and with each new day
that you survive the chances of your surviving altogether increase. By
and by, you fall into the prison routine, and your existence becomes
mechanical and automatic. There will be occasional flamings-out of rage
and despair, but they pass, and become progressively more infrequent.
You have slipped down into a merely animal stratum of existence; you
live to-day because you lived yesterday, and you do not forecast
to-morrow. Perhaps you learn to assuage and deceive the hunger of your
immortal soul by forcing your attention upon the petty ripple of daily
events and duties, until you present, to the outsider, the appearance of
a commonplace, non-tragic person, bearing no noticeable scars of the
crime which society perpetrated on you. You perhaps lose, at last, the
realization of your own inhuman plight, and are received, unawares, into
the gray prison protoplasm, no longer really sensitive to impressions,
though presenting the semblance of human reactions. You drift down the
stream, passive, in a sort of ghastly contentment. You have forgotten
that you ever were a man.

But I am merely speculating in the direction of truths that I do not
know and cannot reach. The lifers themselves whom I knew could tell me
nothing; they were less demonstrative than the men of five or ten years'
sentence. We can never fathom the dealings of the Almighty with His
creatures, and they, perhaps, can fathom them as little as we can. In
ways inconceivable to us, they are supported.

There was a little old man known as Uncle Billy. If the parole board has
kept faith with him, he should have been set free the 23rd of December.
Uncle Billy's right arm had been amputated at the shoulder, the result
of a shot through the arm from his own gun while he was getting out of a
buggy. He lived in Oklahoma, Indian Territory, at the time of his story.
Billy was married to a woman who must have had some attractiveness, for
a journeying pedler, who periodically passed through the region, formed
a liaison with her. There was at that time a daughter, who had just
reached marriageable age. The pedler was wont practically to put Billy
out of his own house during his sojourns, and usurped his place as
master of the household. At one time he secured Billy's conviction on
some minor offense, and had him jailed for six months. What Billy
thought of the situation I don't know; he was a small, slight man, under
five foot three, and of an intellectual cast. But he seems not to have
attempted active measures, until one day he discovered that the pedler,
not satisfied with the wife, was attempting the seduction of the
daughter likewise.

Then, one night, Billy came to his house, and found that going on which
his patience could not tolerate. He got hold of an ax, and, stealing
into the room, struck the pedler, as he lay in bed, with his one arm,
and split his head open. What passed then between him and his wife is
not known. Billy, I believe, was for giving himself up to the
authorities at once; but the woman prevailed upon him to conceal the
deed. She tied the body to the tail of the horse, and dragged it across
the fields to a ditch, where she covered it with dirt and rubbish. There
it lay for some weeks, until a couple of men out hunting saw an end of a
suspender sticking out of the ground, and pulling at it, discovered the
murdered corpse. Billy confessed, and he and his wife were lodged in
jail pending their trial. The woman died there; but Billy was tried and
convicted, and in consideration of the peculiar circumstances, was "let
off" with a life sentence. When I knew him, he had been in a cell nearly
fifteen years.

The weather was chilly; some of the prisoners were let out in the yard
every day at one o'clock, to pace round in a ring for forty minutes. I
saw the little, bent, thin old man, with one arm, hobbling round and
round with his cane. Conversation was not permitted under the rules, but
the rule was often overlooked. After I had gained an outline of his
story from some old timers, I spoke to him, and he looked up at me with
a pair of singularly intelligent brown eyes, and with a kindly
expression of his meager little face. We conversed a little on general
subjects, and I found him well educated, observant, thoughtful, with a
distinct vein of subdued humor. Afterward I saw him in his cell, though
there was a rule against that, too; but the guard was tolerant.

He had a violin there which he had made himself, his tools being a knife
made out of a nail hammered flat and the edge sharpened, and a piece of
broken glass. It was admirably fashioned, and except that it was not
varnished, would have been taken for such an instrument as you buy in a
shop; its tone, too, was pleasing, and Billy could discourse excellent
music on it. It was in the manufacture of these fiddles that his time
was passed; the fact that he had but one hand to work with did not
embarrass him. His contrivance for playing on the instrument was as
remarkable as the instrument itself; he had rigged up a sort of jury arm
of wood and metal, with an elbow to it, and a grip to lay hold of the
bow. Persons who play on violins will doubtless be more puzzled than I
was to conceive how he could do it; but he did it. And for aught I could
see, he was content with his singular industry; it gave him constant
occupation and enabled him, I suppose, to keep thoughts of other things
out of the way. Otherwise, he was utterly unobtrusive, almost invisible,
and the guards let him alone. But the government of the United States
had kept him there for fifteen years, as a menace to society. You can
see him in fancy, had he been set free for doing what most human beings
must have done, ranging up and down the country, dealing out terror and
slaughter. Such wild beasts must be restrained. They must be disciplined
and reformed, and jail is the way to do it.

Just before I left the jail, I spoke to Billy about his parole. "You and
I will get out almost together," I said. "No, no," he replied, with his
curious little humorous smile, "they can't get rid of me as easy as
that; I've got three months yet, and I'm going to stick it out to the
end." I have not heard the sequel; but I can hardly believe that the
authorities mean to play the cat-and-mouse game with him.

I have perhaps mentioned John Ross, who died, under promise of parole,
after thirty-three years behind the bars. And there was Thomas Bram, a
prisoner hardly less remarkable, freed on parole after seventeen years'
confinement. He had persistently asserted his innocence from the first,
and nobody so far as I know doubted his assertion. The evidence against
him was entirely circumstantial, and there was another man in the case
who seemed, to judge by the reports of the trial, to have been at least
as likely to be guilty. Bram's record in prison was wholly blameless,
and though there was some opposition to freeing him, it sufficed only to
obtain a delay of a few weeks beyond the date set for his release. But
during those few weeks, his sufferings were trying to witness, and he
was near collapse before the end came. He told me that the
Attorney-General had personally promised him freedom two years before,
but had done nothing toward keeping his promise. "It wasn't right, Mr.
Hawthorne," was all the comment he allowed himself to make. Bram's
self-control was great, and his manner always soft and ingratiating; he
was politic and prudent, and had probably resolved from the outset of
his prison career to obtain pardon or mitigation if good conduct and
unfaltering adherence to his plea of innocence could compass it. He was
given a job which procured him some indulgences, and was never punished.
But if a life sentence for a guilty man be intolerable, what shall be
said if he were guiltless? Think it over in your leisure moments.

I find my list is far too long to be dismissed in one chapter; and in
cases where the men are still in confinement, discussion of them might
prove injurious. There was a young fellow there who looked like a
slender boy of seventeen; he was really over thirty years of age. But he
had been imprisoned since his fifteenth year, and his face since then
had not developed or taken the contours of manhood; and his manner was
boyish. He was well educated in the grammar school sense, however,
though I believe he had picked up most of what he knew in prison. He had
a distinct, emphatic way of speaking, and believed, I fancy, that he was
quite a man of the world, though, of course, he was almost totally
devoid of other than prison experience. He would have been an
interesting study, had not the pathos of his condition, of which he was
himself unaware, made one shrink from probing it.

He had killed a man at the instigation of and under the influence of a
step-father, who wished the man removed for ends of his own, and forced
the child (he was nothing else) to take the job off his hands, and the
law of Indian Territory, which was the scene of the affair, condemned
him for life. After serving fifteen years, he applied for his parole
under the law; there appeared to be no grounds so far as his prison
record went for denying it; nevertheless, he was rejected. He asked the
reason, and was told that it was not considered safe to set him at
liberty; he had a "bad temper"--that was, I think, the explanation.

Psychological insight is a good thing in its way and place, but it may
be carried too far, or employed amiss; and this looks like an
illustration. The boy, in more than fifteen years, had never done
anything in prison that called for discipline; but because some
self-constituted and arbitrary psychologist chose to believe, or to say,
that his temper was not under full control, he was doomed to spend the
rest of his life in a cell. This prisoner knows, of course, that he has
been wronged, but he does not know how much; he does not know what life
in a world of free men is. But he, after being kept for half of his
lifetime under duress, must submit to the caprice of a man to whom the
country has entrusted absolute power. No man is qualified to exercise
absolute power; no man is justified in accepting it; but we bestow it
upon every chance political appointee, and what he does with it puts us
to shame, whether or not we can as yet realize it.

There was at least one life prisoner in Atlanta who merits a chapter to
himself; but I cannot speak of him now. He is one of the unreconciled,
and his horoscope is still too cloudy to make it safe to tell his story.
A desperate criminal, he would be termed by prison experts. In truth, he
is a warm-hearted, generous, high minded man, sentenced to death in his
boyhood for a deed which would have been properly punished by a few
months in a reformatory, afterward obtaining a commutation to life
imprisonment, and now a man of more than forty years, bearing upon his
body terrible scars of severities practised upon him for trying to
resist wrongs which no manly man could tamely endure. A Balzac might
find in him a more human and lovable _Vautrin_; a Victor Hugo could make
him the hero of another _Les Miserables_; a Charles Reade could win new
renown by summoning us to put ourselves in his place. But the best
service I can do him now is to give him silence. He is not quite
desperate yet; should he become so, the world will know his history.

Julian Hawthorne

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