to draw the picture as they have seen it

I have often been asked: “How did you come to be interested in prisoners
in the first place?”

It all came about simply and naturally. I think it was W. F. Robertson
who first made clear to me the truth that what we put into life is of
far more importance than what we get out of it. Later I learned that
life is very generous in its returns for what we put into it.

In a quiet hour one day it happened that I realized that my life was out
of balance; that more than my share of things worth having were coming
to me, and that I was not passing them on; nor did I see any channel for
the passing on just at hand.

The one thing that occurred to me was to offer my services as teacher in
a Sunday-school. Now, I chanced to be a member of an Episcopal church
and their Sunday-school was held at an hour inconvenient for my
attendance; however, in our neighborhood was a Methodist church, and as
I had little regard for dividing lines among Christians I offered my
services the next Sunday to this Methodist Sunday-school. My preference
was for a class of young girls, but I was assigned as teacher to a class
of ten young men, of ages ranging between eighteen and twenty years, and
having the reputation of decided inclination toward the pomps and the
vanities so alluring to youth.

It was the season of revival meetings, and within a month every member
of my class was vibrating under the wave of religious excitement, and
each one in turn announced his “conversion.” I hardly knew how to handle
the situation, for I was still in my twenties, and as an Episcopalian I
had never experienced these storm periods of religious enthusiasm. So
while the recent converts were rejoicing in the newly found grace, I was
considering six months later when a reaction might set in.

Toward the close of the revival one of the class said to me: “I don’t
know what we’re going to do with our evenings when the prayer-meetings
are over, for there’s no place open every evening to the men in this
town except the saloons.”

“We must make a place where you boys can go,” was my reply.

What the class proceeded to do, then and there, was to form a club and
attractively furnish a large, cheerful room, to which each member had a
pass-key; and to start a small circulating library, at one stroke
meeting their own need and beginning to work outward for the good of the

The first contribution toward this movement was from a Unitarian friend.
Later, Doctor Robert Collyer–then preaching in Chicago–and Doctor E.
E. Hale, of Boston, each gave a lecture for the benefit of our infant
library. Thus from the start we were untrammelled by sectarianism, and
in three months a library was founded destined to become the nucleus of
a flourishing public library, now established in a beautiful Carnegie
building, and extending its beneficent influence throughout the homes,
the schools, and the workshops of the city.

Of course I was immensely interested in the class, and in the success of
their library venture, and as we had no money to pay for the services
of a regular librarian the boys volunteered their services for two
evenings in the week, while I took charge on Saturday afternoons. This
library was the doorway through which I entered the prison life.

One Saturday a little boy came into the library and handed me the
charming Quaker love story, “Dorothy Fox,” saying: “This book was taken
out by a man who is in jail, and he wants you to send him another book.”

Now, I had passed that county jail almost every day for years; its rough
stone walls and narrow barred windows were so familiar that they no
longer made any impression upon me; but it had not occurred to me that
inside those walls were human beings whose thoughts were as my thoughts,
and who might like a good story, even a refined story, as much as I did,
and that a man should pay money that he had stolen for three months’
subscription to a library seemed to me most incongruous.

It transpired that the prisoner was a Scotch boy of nineteen, who, being
out of work, had stolen thirty-five dollars; taking small amounts as he
needed them. According to the law of the State the penalty for stealing
any amount under the value of fifteen dollars was a sentence to the
county jail, for a period usually of sixty days; while the theft of
fifteen dollars or more was a penitentiary offence, and the sentence
never for less than one year. I quote the statement of the case of this
Scotch boy as it was given me by a man who happened to be in the library
and who knew all the circumstances.

“The boy was arrested on the charge of having taken ten dollars–all
they could prove against him; and he would have got off with a jail
sentence, but the fool made a clean breast of the matter, and now he has
to lie in jail for six months till court is in session, and then he will
be sent to the penitentiary on his own confession.”

Two questions arose in my mind: Was it only “the fool” who had made a
clean breast of the case? And if the boy was to go to prison on his own
confession, was it not an outrage that he should be kept in jail for six
months awaiting the formalities of the next session of the circuit
court? I did not then think of the taxpayers, forced to support this boy
in idleness for six months.

That night I did not sleep very well; the Scotch boy was on my mind, all
the more vividly because my only brother was of the same age, and then,
too, the words, “I was in prison and ye visited me not,” repeated
themselves with insistent persistence until I was forced to meet the
question, “Did these words really mean anything for to-day and now?”

Next morning I asked my father if any one would be allowed to talk with
a prisoner in our jail. My father said: “Yes, but what would you have to
say to a prisoner?” “I could at least ask him what books he would like
from the library,” I replied. But I could not bring my courage to the
point of going to the jail; it seemed a most formidable venture. Sunday,
Monday, and Tuesday passed, and still I held back; on Wednesday I was
driving with my brother, and when very near the jail the spring of the
carriage broke, and my brother told me that I would have to fill in time
somewhere until the break was repaired. I realized that the moment for
decision had come; and with a wildly beating heart I took the decisive
step, little dreaming when I entered the door of that jail that I was
committing myself to prison for life.

But we all take life one day, one hour, at a time; and five minutes
later when my hand was clasped through the grated door, and two big
gray eyes were looking straight into mine, I had forgotten everything
else in my interest in the boy. I asked him why he told that he had
taken thirty-five dollars when accused only of having taken ten, and he
simply said: “Because when I realized that I had become a thief I wanted
to become an honest man and I thought that was the place to begin.”

Had I known anything of the law and its processes I should doubtless
have said: “Well, there’s nothing for you to do now but to brace up and
meet your fate. There’s nothing I can do to help you out of this
trouble.” But in my fortunate ignorance of obstacles I said: “I’ll see
what I can do to help you.” I had only one thought–to save that young
man from the penitentiary and give him a fresh start in life.

I began with the person nearest at hand, the sheriff’s wife, and she
secured the sheriff as my first adviser; then I went to the wife of the
prosecuting attorney for the State, and she won her husband over to my
cause. One after another the legal difficulties were overcome, and this
was the way the matter was settled: I secured a good situation for Willy
in case of his release; Willy gave the man from whom he had taken the
money a note for the full amount payable in ninety days–the note signed
by my father and another responsible citizen; the case was given a
rehearing on the original charge of ten dollars, and Willy’s sentence
was ten days in the county jail; and this fortunate settlement of the
affair was celebrated with a treat of oranges and peanuts for Willy and
his fellow prisoners. A good part of that ten days Willy spent in
reading aloud to the other men. Immediately after release he went to
work and before the expiration of the ninety days the note for
thirty-five dollars was paid in full. Now, this was the sensible, fair,
and human way of righting a wrong. Nevertheless, we had all joined hands
in “compounding a felony.”

With Willy’s release I supposed my acquaintance with the jail was at an
end, but the boy had become interested in his companions in misery and
on his first visit to me he said: “If you could know what your visits
were to me you would never give up going to the jail as long as you
live.” And then I gave him my promise. “Be to others what you have been
to me,” has been the message given to me by more than one of these men.

While a prisoner Willy had made no complaint of the condition of things
in the jail, but after paying the note of his indebtedness, he proceeded
to buy straw and ticking for mattresses, which were made and sent up to
the jail for the other prisoners, while I furthered his efforts to make
the existence of those men more endurable by contributing various
“exterminators” calculated to reduce the number of superfluous
inhabitants in the cells.

At the time I supposed that Willy was an exception, morally, to the
usual material from which criminals are made. I do not think so now,
after twenty-five years of friendships with criminals; of study of the
men themselves and of the conditions and circumstances which led to
their being imprisoned.

Willy’s was a kindly nature, responsive, yielding readily to surrounding
influences, not so much lacking in honesty as in the power of
resistance. Had he been subjected to the disgrace, the humiliation, and
the associations of a term in the penitentiary, where the first
requirement of the discipline is non-resistance, he might easily have
slipped into the ranks of the “habitual” criminal, from which it is so
difficult to find an exit. I am not sure that Willy was never dishonest
again; but I am sure of his purpose to be honest; and the last that I
knew of him, after several years of correspondence, he was doing well,
running a cigar-stand and small circulating library in a Western town.

From that beginning I continued my visits to the jail, usually going on
Sunday mornings when other visitors were not admitted. And on Sunday
mornings when the church-bells were calling, the prisoners seemed to
be–doubtless were–in a mood different from that of the week-days.
There’s no doubt of the mission of the church-bells, ringing clear above
the tumult of the world, greeting us on Sunday mornings from the cradle
to the grave.

I did not hold any religious services. I did not venture to prescribe
until I had found out what was the matter. It was almost always books
that opened the new acquaintances, for through the library I was able to
supply the prisoners with entertaining reading. They made their own
selections from our printed lists, and I was surprised to find these
selections averaging favorably with the choice of books among good
citizens of the same grade of education. There certainly was some
incongruity between the broken head, all bandages, the ragged apparel,
and the literary taste of the man who asked me for “something by George
Eliot or Thackeray.”

A short story read aloud was always a pleasure to the men behind the
bars; more than once I have been able to form correct conclusions as to
the guilt or the innocence of a prisoner by the expression of his face
when I was reading something that touched the deeper springs of human
nature. And my sense of humor stood me in good stead with these men; for
there’s no freemasonry like that of the spontaneous smile that springs
from the heart; and after we had once smiled together we were no longer

One early incident among my jail experiences left a vivid impression
with me. A boy of some thirteen summers, accused of stealing, was
detained in jail several weeks awaiting trial, with the prospect of the
reform school later. In appearance he was attractive, and his youth
appealed to one’s sympathy. Believing that he ought to be given a better
chance for the future than our reform schools then offered, I tried to
induce the sheriff to ask some farmer to take him in hand. The sheriff
demurred, saying that no farmer would want the boy in his family, as he
was a liar and very profane, and consequently I dropped the subject.

In the jail at the same time was a man of forty or over who frankly told
me that he had been a criminal and a tramp since boyhood, that he had
thrown away all chances in life and lost all self-respect forever. I
took him at his own valuation and he really seemed about as hopeless a
case as I have ever encountered. One lovely June evening when I went
into the corridor of the jail to leave a book, this old criminal called
me beside his cell for a few words.

“Don’t let that boy go to the reform school,” he began earnestly. “The
reform school is the very hotbed of crime for a boy like that. Save him
if you can. Save him from a life like mine. Put him on a farm. Get him
into the country, away from temptation.”

“But the sheriff tells me he is such a liar and swears so that no decent
people would keep him,” I replied.

“I’ll break him of swearing,” said the man impetuously, “and I’ll try to
break him of lying. Can’t he see what _I_ am? Can’t he _see_ what he’ll
come to if he doesn’t brace up? I’m a living argument–a living example
of the folly and degradation of stealing and lying. I can’t ever be
anything but what I am now, but there’s hope for that boy if some one
will only give him a chance, and I want you to help him.”

The force of his appeal was not to be resisted, and I agreed to follow
his lead in an effort to save his fellow prisoner from destruction. As I
stood there in the twilight beside this man reaching out from the wreck
and ruin of his own life to lend a hand in the rescue of this boy, if
only the “good people” would do their part, I hoped that Saint Peter and
the Recording Angel were looking down. And as I said good night–with a
hand-clasp–I felt that I had touched a human soul.

The man kept his word, the boy gave up swearing and braced up generally,
and I kept my part of the agreement; but I do not know if our combined
efforts had a lasting effect on the young culprit.

As time passed many of these men were sent from the jail to the State
penitentiary, and often a wife or family was left in destitution; and
the destitution of a prisoner’s wife means not only poverty but
heart-break, disgrace, and despair. Never shall I forget the first time
I saw the parting of a wife from her husband the morning he was taken to
prison. A sensitive, high-strung, fragile creature she was; and going
out in the bitter cold of December, carrying a heavy boy of eighteen
months and followed by an older girl, she seemed the very embodiment of
desolation. I have been told by those who do not know the poor that they
do not feel as we do, that their sensibilities are blunted, their
imagination torpid. Could we but know! Could we but know, we should not
be so insensate to their sufferings. It is we who are dull. To that
prisoner’s wife that morning life was one quivering torture, with
absolutely no escape from agonizing thoughts. Her “home” to which I went
that afternoon was a cabin in which there was one fire, but scant food,
and no stock of clothing; the woman was ignorant of charitable societies
and shrinking from the shame of exposing her needs as a convict’s wife.

It is not difficult to make things happen in small towns when people
know each other and live within easy distances. In less time, really
less actual time than it would have taken to write a paper for the
Woman’s Club on “The Problems of Poverty,” this prisoner’s wife was
relieved from immediate want. To tell her story to half a dozen
acquaintances who had children and superfluous clothing, to secure a
certain monthly help from the city, was a simple matter; and in a few
months the woman was taking in sewing–and doing good work–for a
reliable class of patrons.

I have not found the poor ungrateful; twenty years afterward this woman
came to me in prosperity from another town, where she had been a
successful dressmaker, to express once more her gratitude for the
friendship given in her time of need. Almost without exception with my
prisoners and with their families I have found gratitude and loyalty

When the men sent from the jail to the penitentiary had no family they
naturally wrote to me. Sometimes they learned to write while in jail or
after they reached the prison just for the pleasure of interchanging
letters with some one. All prison correspondence is censored by some
official; and as my letters soon revealed my disinterested relation to
the prisoners, the warden, R. W. McClaughrey, now of national fame, sent
me an invitation to spend several days as his guest, and thus to become
acquainted with the institution.

It was a great experience, an overwhelming experience when first I
realized the meaning of prison life. I seemed to be taken right into the
heart of it at once. The monstrous unnaturalness of it all appalled me.
The great gangs of creatures in stripes moving in the lock-step like
huge serpents were all so unhuman. Their dumb silence–for even the eyes
of a prisoner must be dumb–was oppressive as a nightmare. The hopeless
misery of the men there for life; already entombed, however long the
years might stretch out before them, and the wild entreaty in the eyes
of those dying in the hospital–for the eyes of the dying break all
bonds–these things haunted my dreams long afterward. Later I learned
that even in prison there are lights among the shadows, and that sunny
hearts may still have their gleams of sunshine breaking through the
darkness of their fate; but my first impression was one of unmitigated
gloom. When I expressed something of this to the warden his response
was: “Yes, every life here represents a tragedy–a tragedy if the man is
guilty, and scarcely less a tragedy if he is innocent.”

As the guest of the warden I remained at the penitentiary for several
days and received a most cordial standing invitation to the institution,
with the privilege of talking with any prisoner without the presence of
an officer. The unspeakable luxury to those men of a visit without the
presence of a guard! Some of the men with whom I talked had been in
prison for ten years or more with never a visitor from the living world
and only an occasional letter.

My visits to the penitentiary were never oftener than twice a year, and
I usually limited the list of my interviews to twenty-five. With
whatever store of cheerfulness and vitality I began these interviews, by
the time I had entered into the lives of that number of convicts I was
so submerged in the prison atmosphere, and the demand upon my sympathy
had been so exhausting, that I could give no more for the time. I found
that the shortest and the surest way for me to release myself from the
prison influence was to hear fine stirring music after a visit to the
penitentiary. But for years I kept my list up to twenty-five, making new
acquaintances as the men whom I knew were released. Prisoners whom I did
not know would write me requesting interviews, and the men whom I knew
often asked me to see their cell-mates, and I had a touch-and-go
acquaintance with a number of prisoners not on my lists.

Thus my circle gradually widened to include hundreds of convicts and
ex-convicts of all grades, from university men to men who could not
read; however, it was the men who had no friends who always held the
first claim on my sympathy; and as the years went on I came more and
more in contact with the “habitual criminals,” the hopeless cases, the
left-over and forgotten men; some of them beyond the pale of interest
even of the ordinary chaplain–for there are chaplains and chaplains, as
well as convicts and convicts.

I suppose it was the very desolation of these men that caused their
quick response to any evidence of human interest. In their eagerness to
grasp the friendship of any one who remembered that they were still
men–not convicts only–these prisoners would often frankly tell the
stories of their lives; admitting guilt without attempt at extenuation.
No doubt it was an immense relief to them to make a clean breast of
their past to one who could understand and make allowance.

This was not always so; some men lied to me and simply passed out of my
remembrance; but I early learned to suspend judgment, and when I saw
that a man was lying through the instinct of self-defence, because he
did not trust me, I gave him a chance to “size me up,” and reassure
himself as to my trustworthiness. “Why, I just couldn’t go on lying to
you after I saw that you were ready to believe in me,” was the candid
admission of one who never lied to me again.

Among these convicts I encountered some unmistakable degenerates. The
most optimistic humanitarian cannot deny that in all classes of life we
find instances of moral degeneracy. This fact has been clearly
demonstrated by sons of some of our multimillionaires. And human nature
does not seem to be able to stand the strain of extreme poverty any
better than it stands the plethora caused by excessive riches. The true
degenerate, however, is usually the result of causes too complicated or
remote to be clearly traced. But throughout my long experience with
convicts I have known not more than a dozen who seemed to me
black-hearted, deliberate criminals; and among these, as it happened,
but one was of criminal parentage. Crime is not a disease; but there’s
no doubt that disease often leads to crime. Of the defective, the
feeble-minded, the half-insane, and the epileptic there are too many in
every prison; one is too many; but they can be counted by the hundreds
in our aggregate of prisons. Often warm-hearted, often with strong
religious tendencies, they are deficient in judgment or in moral
backbone. The screw loose somewhere in the mental or physical make-up of
these men makes the tragedies, the practically hopeless tragedies of
their lives; though there may never have been one hour when they were
criminal through deliberate intention. Then there are those whose crimes
are simply the result of circumstances, and of circumstances not of
their own making. Others are prisoners unjustly convicted, innocent of
any crime; but every convict is classed as a criminal, as is inevitable;
and under the Bertillon method of identification his very person is
indissolubly connected with the criminal records. Even in this twentieth
century, in so many directions an age of marvellous progress, there is a
menacing tendency among legislators to enlarge the borders of life
sentences–_not_ according to the number of crimes a man may have
committed, but according to the number of times a man has been convicted
in courts notoriously indifferent to justice; too often according to
the number of times the man has been “the victim of our penal

I well remember a man three times sent from my own county to the
penitentiary for thefts committed during the brain disturbance preceding
epileptic convulsions. On one occasion, between arrest and conviction, I
saw the man in an unconscious state and in such violent convulsions that
it was necessary to bind him to the iron bedstead on which he lay. I
knew but little of physiological psychology then; and no one connected
the outbreaks of theft with the outbreaks of epilepsy. And the man,
industrious and honest when well, was in consequence of epileptic mental
disturbance convicted of crime and sent to the penitentiary, and owing
to previous convictions from the same cause was classed as an “habitual

Like instances of injustice resulting from ignorance are constantly
occurring. In our large cities where “railroading” men to prison is
purely a matter of business, no consideration is given to the individual
accused, he is no longer a human being, he is simply “a case.” A very
able and successful prosecuting attorney–success estimated by the
number of “cases” convicted–once said to me: “I have nothing to do with
the innocence of the man: _I’m here to convict_.”

By far the most brutal man whom I have ever personally encountered was a
modern prototype of the English judge, Lord George Jeffreys–a judge in
one of our large cities, who had held in his unholy hands the fate of
many an accused person. However, with this one exception, in my
experience with judges I have found them courteous, fair-minded, and
glad to assist me when convinced that a convict had not been accorded

We find in the prisons the same human nature as in the churches; far
differently developed and manifested; but not so different after all, as
we should expect, remembering the contrast between the home influence,
the education, environment, and opportunity of the inmates of our
prisons with that of the representatives of our churches. In our prisons
we find cowardice, brutality, dishonesty, and selfishness. Are our
church memberships altogether free from these defects? Surely,
unquestionably, in our churches we do find the highest virtues: love,
courage, fortitude, tenderness, faithfulness, unselfishness. And in
every prison in this land these same virtues–love, tenderness, courage,
fortitude, faithfulness, unselfishness–are to be found; often hidden in
the silence of the heart, but living sparks of the divine life which is
our birthright. And yet between these prisons and the churches there has
long existed an almost impassable barrier of distrust, equally strong on
both sides.

I once called with a friend upon the wife of a convict who, relating an
incident in which she had received great kindness from a certain lady
very prominent in church circles, said: “I was so surprised: I could not
understand her being so kind–_for she was a Christian_.” “Why, there’s
nothing strange in the kindness of a Christian,” said my friend. “Miss
Taylor and I are both Christians.” The prisoner’s wife paused a moment,
then said, with slow emphasis: “_That is impossible_.”

We all have our standards and ideals, not by which we live but by which
we judge one another. This woman knew the sweat-shops and she knew that
Christian as well as Jew lived in luxury from the profits derived from
the labor of the sweat-shops, and of the underpaid shop-girls. To her
the great city churches meant oppression and selfishness, power and
wealth, arrayed against poverty and weakness, against fair pay and fair
play. Her own actual personal experience with some persons classed as
Christians had been bitter and cruel; thus her vision was warped and her
judgment misled. Much of the same feeling had prevailed through the
prisons; and I know that one reason why so many of “the incorrigibles”
gave me their confidence was owing to the word passed round among them:
“You can trust her; _she is no Christian_.”

This has a strange sound to us. But it does not sound strange at all
when we hear from the other side: “You can’t trust that man–he’s been a

Through the genius, the energy, the spiritual enthusiasm of that
remarkable woman known among prisoners as “The Little Mother,” the
barrier between the churches and the prisons is recently and for the
time giving way on the one side. The chaplains are taken for granted as
part of the prison equipment, and their preaching on Sunday as the work
for which they are paid. But “The Little Mother” comes from the outside,
literally giving her life to secure a chance for ex-convicts in this
world. She brings to the prisons a fresh interpretation of the
Christian religion, as help for the helpless, as a friend to the
friendless. In her they find at once their ideal of human goodness and a
lovely womanhood, and through her they are beginning to understand what
the Christian churches intend to stand for. But to undermine the barrier
on the side of society–to bring about a better understanding of the
individuals confined behind the walls which society still believes
necessary in self-protection–is, in the very nature of the case, a far
more difficult undertaking. Almost inaccessible to the outsider is the
heart of a convict, or the criminal’s point of view of life. In fact
their hearts and their points of view differ according to their natures
and experiences. But to think of our prisoners in the mass–the thousand
or two thousand men cut off from the world and immured in each of our
great penitentiaries–is to think of them as the Inarticulate. The
repression of their lives has been fearful. All that was required of
them was to be part of the machinery of the prison system; to work, to
obey, to maintain discipline. Absolutely nothing was done to develop the
individual. The mental and psychic influence of the prison has been
indescribably stifling and deadening. Every instinctive impulse of
movement, the glance of the eye, the smile of understanding, the stretch
of weary muscles, the turning of the head, all must be guarded or
repressed. The whole tendency of prison discipline has been to detach
the individual from his fellow man; at all costs to prevent
communication between convicts; and to stifle all expression of
individuality except between cell-mates when the day’s work was over.
And companionship of cell-mates is likely to pall when the same two men
are confined in a seven-by-four cell for three hundred and sixty-five
evenings in a year. Gradually but inevitably the mind dulls; mental
impressions lose their clear outlines and the faculties become
atrophied. I have seen this happen over and over again.

When first the drama of prison life began to unfold before me I looked
for some prisoner to tell the story; he only could know what it really
meant. But the desire to forget, to shake off all association, even the
very thought of having been connected with convict life, has been the
instinctive aim of the average man seeking reinstatement in society.
Occasionally a human document from the pen of an ex-convict appeared in
print, but few of them were convincing. The writer’s own consciousness
of having been a convict may have prevented him from striking out from
the shoulder, from speaking as man to man, or something in the mind of
the reader may have discounted the value of the statement coming from an
ex-convict; more likely than either the spirit was so gone out of the
man before his release that he had no heart or courage to grapple with
the subject; and he, too, shared the popular belief that prisons are
necessary–for others.

It was the poet and the artist in Oscar Wilde that made it
possible–perhaps inevitable–for him to rend the veil that hides the
convict prison execution, and to etch the horror in all its blackness–a
scaffold silhouetted against the sky–in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
The picture is a masterpiece, and it is the naked truth; more effective
with the general reader than his “De Profundis,” which is no less
remarkable as literature but is more exclusively an analysis of Oscar
Wilde’s own spiritual development during his prison experience. The
Russian writer Dostoyevski, also with pen dipped in the tears and blood
of actual experience, has given scenes of Russian convict life so
terrible and intense that the mind of the reader recoils with horror,
scoring one more black mark against Russia and thanking God that in our
dealings with convicts we are not as these other men. But not long ago a
cry from the inside penetrated the walls of a Western prison in “Con
Sordini,” a poem of remarkable power, written by a young poet-musician
who, held by the clutches of the law, was suffering an injustice which a
Russian would be slow to indorse. No doubt other gifted spirits will
have their messages. But in the mind of the public, genius seemed to
lift these men out of the convict into the literary class, and their
most human documents were too likely to be regarded only as

Genius is rare in all classes of life and my prison friends were of the
common clay. The rank and file of our convicts are almost as
inarticulate as dumb, driven cattle, many of them incapable of tracing
the steps by which they fell into crime or of analyzing the effects of
imprisonment. Some of them have not learned how to handle words and
find difficulty in expressing thoughts or feelings; especially is this
true of the ignorant foreigners.

One of the men whom I knew, not a foreigner, but absolutely illiterate,
early fell into criminal life, and before he was twenty years old was
serving a sentence of life imprisonment. After a period of unspeakable
loneliness and mental misery he was allowed attendance at the prison
evening school. He told me that he could not sleep for joy and
excitement when first he realized that through printed and written words
he could come into communication with other minds, find companionship,
gain information, and come in touch with the great free world on the

As I look back through my twenty-five years of prison friendship it is
like looking through a long portrait-gallery, only the faces are living
faces and the lips unite in the one message: “We, too, are human beings
of like nature with yourselves.” To me, however, each face brings its
own special message, for each one in turn has been my teacher in the
book of life. And now for their sakes I am going to break the seal of my
prison friendships, and to let some of these convicts open their hearts
to the world as they have been opened to me, and to give their vision of
human life; to draw the picture as they have seen it. Some of them bear
the brand of murderer, others belong to the class which the law
denominated as “incorrigible.” I believe I had the reputation of knowing
the very worst men in the prison, “the old-timers.” It could not have
been true that my friends were among the worst men there, for my prison
friendships, like all friendships, were founded upon mutual confidence;
and never once did one of these men betray my trust.


[1] Recent periodicals have given many disclosures convincing to the
public from men who know only too well the cruel and barbarous
conditions of convict life. I have long held that no judge should be
authorized to sentence a man to prison until the judge knew by
experience what prison life really was. And now we are having authentic
reports from those in authority who have taken a voluntary experience of
convict life.

[2] In 1913 an _Intra-Mural School_ was started in the Maryland
penitentiary, and the story of its effect on the minds and the conduct
of the thirty per cent of illiterate individuals in that prison is most
interesting. It unquestionably confirms my statement that the rank and
file of our convicts are inarticulate.

Not only did the prisoners whom I knew never betray my confidence, but
ex-convicts who knew of me through others sometimes came to me for
advice or assistance in getting work; and many an odd job about our
place was well done by these men, who never gave us cause to regret our
confidence in them. A stranger fresh out of jail applied to me one cold
December day just before the holidays. I was in the high tide of
preparations for Christmas, and to this young man I gladly intrusted the
all-day work of trimming the house with holly and evergreen under my
direction, and never was it done more effectively or with more of the
Christmas spirit. The man had a beautiful time and confided to my mother
his longing to have a home of his own. He left us at evening with a
heart warmed by the vision of a real home, and his pay supplemented by a
good warm overcoat. These men used to make all sorts of frank admissions
to me in discussing their difficulties. I remember one man saying:

“I want to be an honest man; I don’t like this kind of a life with all
its risks; I want to settle down, but I never can get a start. Now, if I
could just make a clean steal of one hundred dollars I could get some
decent clothes, pay in advance at a respectable boarding-house; then I
could get a job and I could keep it; but no one will give me work as I
am, and no one will trust me for board.” And that was the hard fact. As
the man was leaving he asked:

“Could you give me one or two newspapers?” As I handed him the papers he
explained: “You see, if a fellow sleeps on the bottom of a freight-car
these cold nights–as I am likely to do–it’s not quite so cold and hard
with a newspaper under you, and if I button them under my coat it isn’t
quite so cold out-of-doors.” It was no wonder that the man wanted to
settle down.

Several incidents of honor among thieves are recorded in the annals of
our household. One evening as we were starting for our usual drive my
mother exclaimed: “Stop a minute! There is Katy’s sweetheart, and I want
to speak to him.”

Katy was our cook and her sweetheart was a stout, blond working man
closely resembling the one walking up our front driveway. My mother
stopped the man and gave him this bit of information:

“The house is all open and any one could go in and help himself. I wish
you would ask Katy to lock the front door.” The man bowed, and we drove

When we returned Katy reported that a strange man had come to the
kitchen door and told her that the mistress wished her to lock the front
door. She left the man while she did this and found him waiting when she
came back. Then he asked her for something to eat, stating that he was
just out of prison, and wished to see Miss —- (mentioning my name).
The cook gave him a lunch and made an appointment for me to see him next

Katy did not resent the man’s being taken for her Joe, for she noticed
the resemblance, but there was reproach in her tone as she added: “But
you know Joe always dresses up when he comes to see me.”

At the appointed hour the man came again, bringing me a message from an
acquaintance, a fellow convict who had been his cell-mate in prison. He
did not refer to the fact that had he chosen he might have taken
advantage of the information received from my mother, but no better
plan for a robbery could have been devised than the circumstance that
fell ready to his hand.

But of all the ex-convicts employed at various times on our place the
one in whom the family took the greatest interest was George–his other
name does not matter because it was changed so often.

One Sunday morning I found George the only prisoner in our county jail.
He was a thief awaiting trial at the next term of court several weeks
ahead. He had “shifty” eyes and a sceptical smile, was thin, unkempt,
and altogether unprepossessing; but I did not think so much of that as
of his loneliness. He was reserved concerning himself but seemed to have
some education and a taste for reading, so I supplied him with books
from the library and called on him once or twice a week; but I made slow
progress with acquaintance, and one day George said to me:

“I understand perfectly why it is that you come to see me and bring me
things to read; _you think that you will gain a higher place in heaven
when you die_.” In other words, George thought that I was using him as a
stepping-stone for my own advantage–his sceptical smile was not for

How I disarmed his suspicions I do not know; but in the weeks that
followed before he was taken to prison we came to know each other very
well. The prison life was hard on George, so hard that when I first saw
him in the convict stripes I did not know him, so emaciated had he
become; and I was startled when his smile disclosed his identity.
Clearly he would be fit for no honest work when released from prison. He
made no complaint–he did not need to, for his appearance told the story
only too well. George was an insignificant-looking man, only one of the
hundreds consigned to that place of punishment, and by mere chance had
been given work far beyond his strength. When I called the warden’s
attention to George he was immediately transferred to lighter work, and
was in better condition when I saw him next time.

And then we had some long and serious talks about his way of life, which
he invariably defended on the score that he would rather be “a downright
honest thief” than to get possession of other people’s property under
cover of the law, or to grind the poor in order to pile up more money
than any one could honestly possess. George _thought_ that he really
believed all business men ready to take any unfair advantage of others
so long as their own safety was not endangered.

With the expiration of this term in prison George’s letters to me ceased
for a while, to be resumed later from a prison in another State where he
was working in the greenhouses and had become interested in the flowers.
That gave me my chance.

In a fortunate hour I had encountered a little story by Edward Everett
Hale, “How Mr. Frye Would Have Preached It,” and that story had formed
my ideal of loyalty to my prisoners when once they trusted me, and by
this time I had won the confidence of George. Accordingly, I wrote
George a Christmas letter making a direct appeal to his better
nature–for I knew it was there–and I asked him to come to me on his
release the following July, which he was glad to do.

Now, my mother had always been sympathetic with my interest in
prisoners, and she dearly loved her flower garden, and had difficulty in
finding intelligent help in the care of her flowers. She knew that
George was just out of prison, and after introducing him as a man who
might help her with her roses I left them together.

A few minutes later my mother came to me and reported:

“I don’t like the looks of your George: he looks like a thief.”

“Yes,” I answered, “you know he has been a thief, and if you don’t want
him I’ll try and get another place for him.”

But the flowers were pulling at my mother’s heart and she decided to
give George a trial. And what a good time they both had that summer! It
was beautiful to see the two together morning after morning, caring for
those precious flowers as if they were babies. My mother had great
charm, and George was devoted to her and proved an altogether
satisfactory gardener. Unquestionably the two months that George spent
with us were the happiest of his life. My mother at once forgot all her
misgivings as to his honesty and came to regard him as her special ally;
she well knew that he would do anything in his power to serve her.

One afternoon my mother informed me that she was going driving with the
family that evening–she was always nervous about “leaving the house
alone”–and that the maids were going to be out, too; “but George is
going to stay in charge of the house, so everything will be all right
and I shall not worry,” she said with all confidence.

I smiled; but I had no misgiving, and sure enough we all went off, not
even locking up the silver; while George, provided with newspapers and
cigars, was left in charge.

On our return, some two hours later, I noticed that George was unusually
serious and silent, and apparently didn’t see any joke in the situation,
as he had on a former occasion when I sent him for something in a closet
where the family silver was in full view. He told me afterward that the
time of our absence covered the longest two hours of his life, and the
hardest to bear.

My home is on the edge of the town in the midst of twelve acres with
many trees. “You had not more than gone,” said George, “when I began to
think ‘what if some one should come to rob the house and I could not
defend it. And they could _never know_ that I had not betrayed their

George spent his Sundays under our trees, sometimes on guard in the
orchard, which rather amused him; and I generally gave him an hour of my
time, suggesting lines of work by which he could honestly earn his
living, and trying my best to raise his moral standards. But he
reserved his right to plan the general course of his life, or, as he
would have said, to follow his own line of business. He knew that his
work with us was but for the time, and he would never commit himself as
to his future. This was the way he stated his position:

“I have no health; I like a comfortable place to sleep and good things
to eat; I like a good class of entertainments and good books, and to buy
magazines and send them to my friends in prison, and I like to help a
man when he is just out of prison. Now, you ask me to forego all this;
to work hard just to earn the barest living–for I could never earn big
wages; you ask me to deny myself everything I care for just for the sake
of a moral idea, when nobody in the world but you cares whether I go to
the devil or not, and I don’t really believe in either God or devil.
Now, how many churchgoing men do you know who would give up a
money-making business and accept the barest poverty and loneliness just
for the sake of a moral idea?” And I wondered how many, indeed.

However, for all his arguments in defence of his way of life, when the
time came to leave us better desires had taken root. My mother’s taking
his honesty for granted had its effect, and seemed to commit him to an
effort in the right direction. We had fitted him out with respectable
clothing and he had earned money to last several weeks. My mother gave
him a letter of recommendation as gardener and he left us to seek
employment in the parks of a large city.

But his appearance was against him and he had no luck in the first city
where he applied; the time of the year, too, was unfavorable; and before
his money had quite melted away he invested the remainder in a peddler’s
outfit of needles and other domestic requisites. These he sold among the
wives of farmers, and in that way managed to keep body and soul together
for a time. Frequent letters kept me informed of his whereabouts, though
little was said of his hardships.

One morning George appeared at our door seeming more dulled and
depressed than I had ever seen him. He stayed for an hour or more but
was not very communicative. It was evident, however, that he had found
the paths of honesty quite as hard as the way of the transgressor. As he
was leaving he said:

“You may not believe me, but I walked all night in order to have this
visit with you. I was off the railroad and couldn’t otherwise make
connections with this place in time to keep an appointment with a friend
this evening; and I wanted to see you.”

He hurried away then without giving me time for the inevitable surmise
that the “friend” whom he was to meet was an “old pal,” and leaving me
to question whether I had another friend on earth who would walk all
night in order to see me.

Only once again did I see George; he was looking more prosperous then,
and handed me a ten-dollar bill, saying: “At last I can return the money
you lent me; I wanted to long ago but couldn’t.”

I did not remember having lent him the money, and so I told him. “But I
want you to take it anyway,” he said.

And then, brought face to face with the thief in the man, I replied:

“I cannot take from you money that is not honestly yours.”

Flushing deeply he slowly placed the bill among some others, saying:
“All right, but I wanted you to take it because I knew that you would
make better use of it than I shall.” Never had the actual dividing line
between honesty and dishonesty been brought home to George as at that
moment; I think for once he realized that right and wrong are white and
black, not gray.

For some years after I had occasional notes from George; I answered them
if an address was given, but his was then a roving life. Always at
Christmas came a letter from him with the season’s greetings to each
member of the family, and usually containing a line to the effect that
he was “still in the old business.” When my sister was married, on my
mother’s golden wedding-day, among the notes of congratulation to the
bride of fifty years before and the bride of the day was one from
George; and through good or ill report George never lost his place in
the regard of my mother.

His last letter was written from an Eastern Catholic hospital where he
had been ill. Convalescent he then was “helping the sisters,” and he
hoped that they might give him employment when he was well. Helpful I
knew he would be, and loyal to those who trusted him. I wrote him at
once but received no reply; and the chances are, as I always like to
think, that the last days of George were apart from criminal
associations, and that the better elements in his nature were in the
ascendant when the end came.

I believe George was the only one of my prisoners who even made a bluff
in defence of the kind of life he had followed; and in his heart he knew
that it was all wrong. I do not defend him, but I do not forget that the
demoralization of the man, his lack of moral grip, was the logical
product of the schools of crime, the jails, and prisons in which so much
of his youth was passed. Yes, the life of George stands as a moral
failure; and yet as long as flowers bloom in that garden where he and my
mother spent so many pleasant hours helping the roses to blossom more
generously, so long will friendly memories cluster around the name of
George, and he certainly did his part well in the one opportunity that
life seems to have offered him.

During the last twenty-five years there has been a general tendency to
draw sharp hard-and-fast dividing lines between the “corrigible” and the
“incorrigible” criminal. It has been assumed that a man only once
convicted of a crime may yet be amenable to reform, but that a second or
third conviction–convictions, not necessarily crimes–is proof that a
man is “incorrigible,” that the criminal dye is set and the man should
therefore be permanently removed from society. This really does appear a
most sensible arrangement as we look down upon the upper side of the
proposition; to those who look up to it from below the appearance is
altogether different.

A distinguished professor in a law school has said: “If any person shall
be a third time convicted of _any crime, no matter of what nature_, he
should be imprisoned at hard labor for life.” At a National Prison
Congress in 1886 another eminent professor thus indorsed this sentiment:
“I believe there is but one cure for this great and growing evil, and
this is the imprisonment for life of the criminal once pronounced
‘incorrigible.'” Later the governor of my own State told me that he
would consider no petition for shortening the sentence of an “habitual
criminal.” Any leniency of attitude was stigmatized as “rose-water
sentiment.” And the heart of the community hardened itself against any
plea for the twice-convicted man. What fate he was consigned to was not
their affair so long as he was safely locked up.

In our eagerness for self-protection at any cost we lose sight of the
fact that the criminal problem is one of conditions quite as much as of
“cases.” In our large cities, the great reservoirs of crime, we are but
reaping the harvest of centuries of evil in older civilizations, and in
our own civilization as well.

So far we have been dealing with effects more than with causes. Indeed,
our dealings with lawbreakers, from the hour of arrest to the hour of
discharge from prison have served to increase rather than to diminish
the causes of crime. True enough it is that thousands of our fellow men
have found life one great quicksand of criminal and prison experience in
which cause and effect became in time inextricably tangled.

And it sometimes happens that the twice-convicted man is in no way
responsible for his first conviction, as happened to James Hopkins, a
good boy reared in a New England family to a belief in God and respect
for our courts. He was earning his living honestly when he was arrested
on suspicion in Chicago and convicted of a burglary of which he knew
nothing. He knew nothing either of the wiles of the courts and depended
on his innocence as his defence. But the burglary was a daring one; some
one must be punished, no other culprit was captured, so Hopkins was sent
to one of our schools of crime supported by public taxation under the
name of penitentiaries. Pure homesickness simply overpowered the boy at
first. “Night after night I cried myself to sleep,” he told me. His cell
happened to be on the top row where there was a window across the
corridor, and summer evenings he could look across out into a field so
like the field at home where he had played as a child. But the darkness
of the winter evening shut out every glimpse of anything associated with
home. He had not written his mother; he could not disgrace her with a
letter from a convict son. She had warned him of the dangers of the
city, but she had never dreamed of what those dangers really were. She
firmly believed that the courts were for the protection of the innocent,
and would she believe that a court of justice had sent an innocent man
to prison? He lost all faith in God and his heart hardened. Branded as a
criminal, a criminal he resolved to be; and when I met him twenty years
later he had a genuine criminal record as a scientific safe-blower.

In spite of his criminal career some of the roots of the good New
England stock from which he was descended cropped out. With me he was
the gentleman pure and simple, discussing courts and prisons in a manner
as impersonal as my own; and he was a man of intelligence and an
interesting talker. I had come in touch with Hopkins because I was at
the time planning the future of his young cell-mate and I wanted the
advice of the older man, as well as his assistance in preparing the
younger to meet the responsibilities and temptations of freedom; and a
better assistant I could not have had. Concerning his own future Hopkins
maintained discreet reserve and unbroken silence as to his inner life.
He had deliberately stifled a Puritan conscience; but I doubt if it was
completely silenced, for while the lines in his face indicated nothing
criminal nor dissipated it was the face of a man in whom hope and
ambition were forever dead, a face of unutterable sadness.[3]

I am free to admit that when I glance over the newspaper reports of
brutal outrages and horrible crimes my sympathy swings over wholly to
the injured party; I, too, feel as if no measure could be too severe for
the perpetrator of the crime. That there are human beings whose
confinement is demanded by public safety I do not question, but modern
scientific study is leading us to the conclusion that back of abnormal
crimes are abnormal physiological conditions or abnormal race
tendencies. And the “habitual criminal” is _not_ so designated because
of the nature of his crimes but because of the number of his infractions
of the law.

I might have concurred with the opinions of the learned professors were
it not that just when legislation in my own State was giving no quarter
to second and third offenders I was being led into the midst of this
submerged tenth of our prison population, and my loyalty to their cause
has been unswerving ever since.

“Have any of your ‘habituals’ permanently reformed?” I am asked.

They certainly have, more of them than even my optimism expected and
under circumstances when I have been amazed that their moral
determination did not break. In my preconceived opinion, the most
hopeless case I ever assisted surprised me by settling down, under
favorable environment, into an honest, self-supporting citizen; and we
may rest assured that he is guarding his boys from all knowledge of
criminal life.

After I came to understand how all the odds were against the penniless
one, scarred and crippled by repeated crimes and punishments, it was not
his past nor his future that interested me so deeply as _what was left
of the man_. I suppose I was always in search of that something which we
call the soul. And I sometimes found it where I least looked for
it–among the very dregs of convict life.

John Bryan stands out in clear relief in this connection. How well I
remember my first meeting with this man, who was then more than forty
years old, in broken health, serving a twenty-year sentence which he
could not possibly survive. He had no family, received no letters, was
utterly an outcast. Crime had been his “profession.”[4] His face was not
brutal, but it was hard, guarded in expression and seamed with lines.
The facts of his existence he accepted apparently without remorse,
certainly without hope. This was life as he had made it, yes–but also
as he had found it. His friends had been men of his own kind, and,
judged by a standard of his own, he had respected them, trusted them,
and been loyal to them. I knew this well for I sought his acquaintance
hoping to obtain information supposed to be the missing link in a chain
of evidence upon which the fate of another man depended. I assured Bryan
that I would absolutely guard the safety of the man whose address I
wanted, but Bryan was uncompromising in his refusal to give it to me,
saying only: “Jenkins is a friend of mine. You can’t induce me to give
him away. You may be sincere enough in your promises, but it’s too
risky. I don’t know you; but if I did you couldn’t get this information
out of me.” Knowing that “honor among thieves” is no fiction I respected
his attitude.

However, something in the man interested me, and moved to break in upon
the loneliness and desolation of his life I offered to send him
magazines and to answer any letters he might write me. Doubtless he
suspected some ulterior motive on my part, for in the few letters that
we exchanged I made little headway in acquaintance nor was a second
interview more satisfactory. Bryan was courteous–my prisoners were
always courteous to me–but it was evident that I stood for nothing in
his world. One day he wrote me that he did not care to continue our
correspondence, and did not desire another interview. Regretting only
that I had failed to touch a responsive chord in his nature I did not
pursue the acquaintance further.

Some time afterward, when in the prison hospital, I noticed the name
“John Bryan” over the door of one of the cells. Before I had time to
think John Bryan stood in the door with outstretched hand and a smile
of warmest welcome, saying:

“I am so glad to see you. Do come in and have a visit with me.”

“But I thought you wanted never to see me again,” I answered.

“It wasn’t _you_ I wanted to shut out. It was the thought of the whole
dreadful outside world that lets us suffer so in here, and you were a
part of that world.”

In a flash I understood the world of meaning in his words and during the
next hour, in this our last meeting, the seed of our friendship grew and
blossomed like the plants of the Orient under the hand of the magician.
It evidently had not dawned on him before that I, too, knew his world,
that I could understand his feeling about it.

For two years he had been an invalid and his world had now narrowed to
the “idle room,” the hospital yard, and the hospital; his associates
incapacitated, sick or dying convicts; his only occupation waiting for
death. But he was given ample opportunity to study the character and the
fate of these sick and dying comrades. He made no allusion to his own
fate but told me how day after day his heart had been wrung with pity,
with “the agony of compassion” for these others.

He knew of instances where innocent men were imprisoned on outrageously
severe and unjust sentences, of men whose health was ruined and whose
lives were blighted at the hands of the State for some trifling
violation of the law; of cases where the sin of the culprit was white in
comparison with the sin of the State in evils inflicted in the name of
justice. He counted it a lighter sin to rob a man of a watch than to rob
a man of his manhood or his health. It was, indeed, in bitterness of
spirit that he regarded the courts and the churches which stood for
justice and religion, yet allowed these wrongs to multiply. His point of
View of the prison problem was quite the opposite of theirs.

Now, as I could have matched his score with cases of injustice, as my
heart, too, had been wrung with pity, when he realized that I believed
him and felt with him the last barrier between us was melted.

There were at that time few persons in my world who felt as I did on the
prison question, but in this heart suddenly opened to me I found many of
my own thoughts and feelings reflected, and we stood as friends on the
common ground of sympathy for suffering humanity.

Another surprise was awaiting me when I changed the subject by asking
Bryan what he was reading. It seemed that his starving heart had been
seeking sympathy and companionship in books. He had turned first to the
Greek philosophers, and in their philosophy and stoicism he seemed to
have found some strength for endurance; but it was in the great
religious teachers, those lovers of the poor, those pitiers of the
oppressed, Jesus Christ and Buddha, that he had found what he was really
seeking. He had been reading Renan’s “Jesus,” also Farrar’s “Life of
Christ,” as well as the New Testament.

“Buddha was great and good and so were some of the other religious
teachers,” he said, “but Jesus Christ is better than all the rest.” And
with that Friend of the friendless I left him.

Strange indeed it seemed how the criminal life appeared to have fallen
from him as a garment, and yet in our prison administration this man
stood as the very type of the “incorrigible.” What his course of action
would have been had Bryan been given his freedom I should not care to
predict. Physically he was absolutely incapable of supporting himself
honestly, and he might have agreed with another who said to me: “Any man
of self-respect would rather steal than beg.” There are those to whom no
bread is quite so bitter as the bread of charity. But I am certain that
the John Bryan who revealed himself to me in that last interview was the
_real_ man, the man who was going forward, apparently without fear, to
meet the judgment of his Maker.

A noted preacher once said to me: “Oh, give up this prison business.
It’s too hard on you, too wearing and depressing.” And I replied: “Not
all the preachers in the land could teach me spiritually what these
convicts are teaching me, or give me such faith in the ultimate destiny
of the human soul.” Perhaps my experience has been exceptional, but it
was the older criminals, the men who had sowed their wild oats and come
to their senses, who most deepened my faith in human nature.

I am glad to quote in this connection the words of an experienced warden
of a large Eastern penitentiary, who says: “I have yet to find a case
where I believe that crime has been taught by older criminals to younger
ones. I believe, on the contrary, that the usual advice of the old
criminal to the boys is: ‘See what crime has brought me to, and when you
get out of here behave yourselves.'”

My whole study of “old-timers” verifies this statement; moreover, I am
inclined to believe that in very many instances the criminal impulses
exhaust themselves shortly after the period of adolescence, when the
fever of antagonism to all restraint has run its course, so to say; and
I believe the time is coming when this branch of the subject will be
scientifically studied.

It is greatly to be regretted that the juvenile courts, now so efficient
in rescuing the young offender from the criminal ranks, had not begun
their work before the second or third offence had blotted hope from the
future of so many of the younger men in our penitentiaries; for the
indeterminate sentence under the board of pardons has done little to
mitigate the fate of those whose criminal records show previous

Hitherto we have been dealing with crimes. But the time is at hand when
we shall deal with men.[5]


[3] We instinctively visualize “confirmed criminals” with faces
corresponding to their crimes. But our prejudices are often misleading.
I once handed to a group of prison commissioners the newspaper picture
of a crew of a leading Eastern university. The crew were in striped
suits and were assumed to be convicts, with the aid of a little
suggestion. It was interesting to see the confidence of the
commissioners as they pronounced one face after another “the regular
criminal type.” The fact is that with one or two exceptions my
“habituals,” properly clothed, might have passed as church members, some
of them even as theological students.

[4] I seldom heard the terms “habitual” or “incorrigible” used by men of
his class, but the “professionals” seemed to have a certain standing
with each other.

[5] For full discussion of this matter the reader is referred to
“Individualism in Punishment,” by M. Salielles, one of the most valuable
contributions yet made to the study of penology. Also Sir James Barr’s
“The Aim and Scope of Eugenics” demands the recognition of the
_individual_ in the criminal.

Alfred Allen was one of my early acquaintances among prisoners, having
had the good fortune to receive his sentence on a second conviction
before the habitual-criminal act was in force in Illinois. Our
introduction happened in this way: in one of my interviews with a young
confidence man, who did not hesitate to state that he had always been
studying how to sell the imitation for the genuine, to get something for
nothing, my attention was diverted by his suddenly branching off into a
description of his cell-mate.

“Alfred is the queerest sort of a chap,” the man began. “He’s a
professional burglar, and the most innocent fellow I ever knew; always
reading history and political economy, and just wild to get into the
library to work. He hasn’t a relative that he knows and never has a
visit nor a letter, and I wish you’d ask to see him.”

On this introduction I promised to interview Alfred Allen the next
evening. The warden allowed me the privilege of evening interviews with
prisoners, the time limited only by the hour when every man must be in
his cell for the night.

It was an unprecedented event for Alfred to be called out to see a
visitor, and he greeted me with a broad smile and two outstretched
hands. With that first hand-clasp we were friends, for the door of that
starved and eager heart was thrown generously open and all his soul was
in his big dark eyes. I understood instantly what the other man meant by
calling Alfred “innocent,” for a more direct and guileless nature I have
never known. The boy, for he was not yet twenty-one, had so many things
to say. The flood-gates were open at last. I remember his suddenly
pausing, then exclaiming: “Why, how strange this is! Ten minutes ago I’d
never seen you, and now I feel as if I’d known you all my life.”

In reply to my inquiries he rapidly sketched the main events in his
history. Of Welsh parentage he had learned to read before he was five
years old, when his mother died. While yet a child he lost his father,
and when ten years old, a homeless waif, morally and physically
starving, in the struggle for existence he was a bootblack, newsboy, and
sometimes thief. “To get something to eat, clothes to cover me, and a
place to sleep was my only thought; these things I must have. Often in
the day I looked for a place where the sun had warmed the sidewalk
beside barrels, and I’d go there to sleep at night.”

At last, when about thirteen years old, he found a friendly, helping
hand. A man whose boots he had blacked several times, who doubtless
sized up Alfred as to ability, took the boy to his house, fed him well,
and clothed him comfortably. Very anxiously did the older man, who must
have _felt_ Alfred’s intrinsic honesty, unfold to the boy the secret of
his calling and the source from which he garnered the money spent for
the comfort of the street waif. And Alfred had small scruple in
consenting to aid his protector by wriggling his supple young body
through small apertures into buildings which he had no right to enter.
And so he was drifted into the lucrative business of store burglary.[6]
After the strain and stress and desperate scramble for existence of the
lonely child, one can imagine how easily he embraced this new vocation.
It was a kind of life, too, which had its fascination for his
adventurous spirit; it even enabled him to indulge in what was to him
the greatest of luxuries, the luxury of giving. His own hardships had
made him keenly sensitive to the suffering of others. But Alfred was not
of the stuff from which successful criminals are made, for at eighteen
he was in prison for the second time and was classed with the

It was during this last imprisonment that thought and study had
developed his dominant trait of generosity into a broader altruism. He
now realized that he could serve humanity better than by stealing money
to give away. He was studying the conditions of the working and of the
criminal classes, the needs of the side of society from which he was an
outgrowth. The starting-point of this change was an Englishman’s report
of a visit to this country as “A place where each lived for the good of
all.” (?) “When I read that,” said Alfred, “I stopped and asked myself:
‘Have I been living for the good of all?’ And I saw how I had been an
enemy to society, and that I must start again in the opposite
direction.” It was not the cruelty of social conditions which he accused
for his past. His good Welsh conscience came bravely forward and
convicted him of his own share in social wrong-doing. “Now that I’m
going to be a good man,” Alfred continued, “I suppose I must be a
Christian”–reversing the usual order of “conversion”–“and so I’ve been
studying religion also lately. I’ve been hard at work trying to
understand the Trinity.” Alfred did not undertake things by halves.

I advised him not to bother with theology, but to content himself with
the clear and simple working principles of Christianity, which would
really count for something in his future battle with life.

When we touched upon books I was surprised to find this boy perfectly at
home with his Thackeray and his Scott, and far more deeply read in
history and political economy than I. He said that he had always read,
as a newsboy at news-stands, at mission reading-rooms, wherever he could
lay his hands on a book. He talked fluently, picturesquely, with
absolute freedom from self-consciousness.

In Alfred’s physiognomy–his photograph lies before me–there was no
trace of the so-called criminal type; his face was distinctively that of
the student, the thinker, the enthusiast. His fate seemed such a cruel
waste of a piece of humanity of fine fibre, with a brain that would have
made a brilliant record in any university. But the moral and physical
deprivations from which his boyhood suffered had wrought havoc with his
health and undermined his constitution.

This November interview resulted immediately in a correspondence,
limited on Alfred’s side to the rule allowing convicts to write but one
letter a month. On my part, the letters were more frequent, and
magazines for the Sundays were regularly sent. Alfred was a novice in
correspondence, probably not having written fifty letters in his life. I
was surprised at the high average of his spelling and the uniform
excellency of his handwriting. In order to make the most of the allotted
one leaf of foolscap paper he left no margins and soon evolved a small,
upright writing, clear and almost as fine as magazine type.

In using Alfred’s letters I wish I might impart to others the power to
read between the lines that was given me through my acquaintance with
the writer. I could hear the ring in his voice and often divine the
thought greater than the word. But in letting him speak for himself he
will at least have the advantage of coming directly in contact with the
mind of the reader. The first extracts are taken from one of his
earliest letters.


“On coming back to my cell the day after Christmas, I saw a letter,
a magazine and a book lying on my bed. I knew from the handwriting
that they came from you. After looking at my present and reading
the sunshiny letter I tried to eat my dinner. But there was a lump
in my throat that would not let me eat, and before I knew what was
up I was crying over my dear friend’s remembrance. I was once at a
Mission Christmas tree where I received a box of candy. But yours
was my first individual gift. It is said that the three most
beautiful words in the English language are Mother, Home and
Heaven. I have never known any of them. My first remembrance is of
being in a room with the dead body of my mother. All my life it
seems as if everybody I knew belonged to some one; they had mother,
brother, sister, some one. But I belonged to no one, and I never
could repress the longing in my heart to belong to somebody. I have
my God, but a human heart cannot help longing for human as well as
divine sympathy.”

In a similar vein in another letter he writes:

“I’ve sometimes wondered if I should have been a different boy if
circumstances in my childhood had been better. I have seen little but
misery in life. In prison and out it has been my fate to belong to the
class that gets pushed to the wall. I have walked the streets of Chicago
to keep myself from freezing to death. I have slept on the ground with
the rain pouring down upon me. For two years I did not know what bed
was, while more than once I have only broken the fast of two or three
days through the kindness of a gambler or a thief. This was before I had
taken to criminal life as a business…. Still when I think it over I
don’t see how I could have kept in that criminal life. I remember the
man who taught me burglary as a fine art told me I would never make a
good burglar because I was too quick to feel for others.”

Only once again did Alfred refer to the bitter experiences of his
childhood and that was in a conversation. He had many other things to
write about, and his mind was filled with the present and the future.
Four years of evenings in a cell in a prison with a good library give
one a chance to read and think, although an ill-lighted, non-ventilated
four-by-seven cell, after a day of exhausting work, is not conducive to
intellectual activity. The godsend this prison library was to Alfred is
evident through his letters.

“All my life,” he writes, “I have had a burning desire to study and
educate myself, and I do not believe that a day has passed when I have
not gone a little higher. Some time ago I determined to read a chapter
in the new testament every night, though I expected it would be tedious.
But behold! The first thing I knew I was so interested that I was
reading four or five chapters every night. The Chaplain gave me a
splendid speller and I’m going to study hard until I know every word in

Proof that Alfred was a genuine book-lover runs through many of his
letters. He tells me:

“Much as I hate this place if I could be transferred to the library from
the shop I should be the happiest boy in the State. I’d be willing to
stay an additional year in the prison. Twice when they needed an extra
man in the library they sent me. It was a joy just to handle the books
and to read their titles and I felt as if they knew that I loved
them…. Thank you for the _Scribner Magazine_. But the leaves were
uncut. I want all the help and friendship you can spare me. I am glad to
have any magazine you are through with. But you must not buy new ones
just for me. The _Eclectic_ and _Harpers_ were most welcome. _Man versus
the State_ was a splendid article, also, _Education as a Factor in
Prison Reform_, and Prof. Ely on the Railroad Problem. The magazines you
send will do yoeman service they are passed on to every man my cell-mate
or I know.”[7]

Alfred was devoted to the writings of John Draper and devoured
everything within his reach on sociology, especially everything relating
to the labor problems. He had theories of his own on many lines of
public welfare, but no taint of anarchy or class hatred distorts his
ideals of justice for all. He always advocates constructive rather than
destructive measures.

Occasionally Alfred refers to the poets. He enjoys Oliver Wendell
Holmes, and Lowell is an especial favorite; while delighting in the
“Biglow Papers,” he quotes with appreciation from Lowell’s more serious
poetry. The companionship of Thackeray, Dickens, and Scott brightened
and mellowed many dark, hard hours for Alfred. “Sir Walter Scott’s
novels broke my taste for trashy stuff,” he writes. Naturally, Victor
Hugo’s “Les Miserables” absorbed and thrilled him. “Shall I ever forget
Jean Valjean, the galley slave; or Cosette? While reading the story I
thought such a character as the Bishop impossible. I was mistaken.” Of
Charles Reade he says: “One cannot help loving Reade. He has such a
dashing, rollicking style. And then he hardly ever wrote except to
denounce some wrong or sham.” Even in fiction his preference follows the
trend of his burning love and pity for the desolate and oppressed. How
he would have worshipped Tolstoi!

Complaint or criticism of the hardships of convict life forms small part
of the thirty letters written me by Alfred while in prison. He takes
this stand: “I ought not to complain because I brought this punishment
upon myself.” “I am almost glad if anyone does wrong to me because I
feel that it helps balance my account for the wrongs I have done
others.” Shall we never escape from that terrible idea of the moral
necessity of expiation, even at the cost of another?

Nevertheless, Alfred feels the hardships he endures and knows how to
present them. And he is not “speaking for the gallery” but to his one
friend when he writes:

“Try to imagine yourself working all day on a stool, not allowed to
stand even when your work can be better done that way. If you hear a
noise you must not look up. You are within two feet of a companion but
you must not speak. You sit on your stool all day long and work. Nothing
but work. Outside my mind was a pleasure to me, in here it is a torture.
It seems as if the minutes were hours, the hours days, the days
centuries. A man in prison is supposed to be a machine. So long as he
does ten hours’ work a day–don’t smile, don’t talk, don’t look up from
his work, does work enough to suit the contractors and does it well and
obeys the long number of unwritten rules he is all right. The trouble
with the convicts is that they can’t get it out of their heads that they
are human beings and not machines. The present system may be good
statesmanship. It is bad Christianity. But I doubt if it is good
statesmanship to maintain a system that makes so many men kill
themselves, go crazy, or if they do get out of the Shadow alive go out
hating the State and their fellowmen. As a convict said to me, ‘It’s
funny that in this age of enlightenment they have not found out that to
brutalize a man will never reform him. I have not been led to reform by
prison life. It has made me more bitter at times than I thought I ever
could be. One cannot live in a prison without seeing and hearing things
to make one’s blood boil….’

“Times come to me here when it seems as if I could not stand the strain
any longer. Then again, even in this horrid old shop I have some very
happy times, thinking of your friendship and building castles in the
air. My favorite air castle is built on the hope that when my time is
out I can get into a printing office and in time work up to be an
editor. And perhaps do a little something to help the poor and to aid
the cause of progress. Shall I succeed in my dream? Do we ever realize
our ideals?”

“I wonder if ever a sculptor wrought
Till the cold stone warmed to his ardent heart;
Or if ever a painter with light and shade
The dream of his inmost heart portrayed.”

“I did have doubts as to whether Spring was really here till the violets
came in your letter. Now I am no longer an unbeliever. I am afraid that
I love all beautiful things too much for my own comfort. If a convict
cares for beauty that sensitiveness can only give him pain while in
prison. I love music and at times I have feelings that it seems to me
can only be expressed through music; and I hope I shall be able to take
piano lessons some time.”

I discovered later that there was a strain of the old Welsh minstrel in
Alfred’s blood, but small prospect there was at that time of his ever
realizing the hope of studying music. For all this while the boy was
steadily breaking down under the strain of convict life, the “nothing
but work” on a stool for ten hours a day on the shoe contract. Physical
exhaustion was evident in the handwriting of the shorter letters in
which he tells me of nature’s revolt against the prison diet, and how
night after night he “dreams of things to eat.” “I sometimes believe I
am really starving to death,” he writes. But the trouble was not so much
the prison food as that the boy was ill.

I went to see him at about this time and was startled by the gaunt and
famished face, the appeal of the hungry eyes that looked into mine. I
felt as if starvation had thrust its fangs into my own body, and all
through the night, whether dreaming or awake, that horror held me.
Fortunately: for well I knew there would be no rest for me until forces
were set in motion to bring about a change for the better in Alfred.

In the general routine of prison life, if the prison doctor pronounces a
convict able to work the convict must either work or be punished until
he consents to work; or—-? In the case of Alfred or in any case I
should not presume to assign individual responsibility, but as soon as
the case was laid before the warden Alfred was given change of work and
put on special diet with most favorable results as to health.

Alfred’s imprisonment lasted about two years after I first met him, this
break in health occurring in the second year. As the day of release drew
near his hopes flamed high, breaking into words in his last letter.

“Next month I shall be a free man! Think of it! A free man. Free to do
everything that is right, free to walk where I please on God’s green
earth, free to breathe the pure air, and _to help the cause of social
progress_ instead of retarding it as I have done.”

Now, I had in Chicago a Heaven-sent friend whose heart and hand were
always open to the needs of my prisoners, indeed to the needs of all
humanity. This friend was a Welsh preacher. He called upon me in Chicago
one November afternoon when I had just returned from a visit to the
penitentiary. I was tingling with interest in the Welsh prisoner whom I
had met for the first time the evening before. Sure of my listener’s
sympathy I gave myself free rein in relating the impression that Alfred
made upon me. I felt as if I had clasped the hand of Providence
itself–and had I not?–when my friend said:

“Your Welsh boy is a fellow countryman of mine. If you will send him to
me when released I think I can open a way for him.” This prospect of a
good start in freedom was invaluable to Alfred, giving courage for
endurance and a moral incentive for the rest of his prison term.

Every man when released from prison in my State is given a return ticket
to the place from which he was sent, ten dollars in cash, and a suit of
clothing. These suits are convict-made, and while not distinctive to the
ordinary observer, they are instantly recognizable to the police all
over the State. Half-worn suits I had no difficulty in obtaining through
my own circle of friends. So when Alfred’s day of freedom came a good
outfit of business clothing was awaiting him and before evening no
outward trace of his convict experience remained.

According to previous arrangement Alfred went directly to the Welsh
preacher. This minister was more than true to his promise, for he
entertained the boy at his own home over night, then sent him up to a
small school settlement in an adjoining State where employment and a
home for the winter had been secured, the employer knowing Alfred’s

And there for the first time in his life Alfred had some of the right
good times that seem the natural birthright of youth in America. Here is
his own account:

“I had a splendid time Thanksgiving. All the valley assembled in the
little chapel, every one bringing baskets of things to eat. There were
chickens, geese and the never-forgotten turkey, pies of every variety of
good things known to mortal man. In the evening we boys and girls filled
two sleighs full of ourselves and went for a sleigh-ride. You could have
heard our laughing and singing two miles off. We came back to the school
house where apples, nuts, and candy were passed round, and bed time
that night was twelve o’clock.”

It was not the good times that counted so much to Alfred as the chance
for education. He began school at once, and outside of school hours he
worked hard, not only for his board but picking up odd jobs in the
neighborhood by which he could earn money for personal expenses. He
carried in his vest pocket lists of words to be memorized while working,
and still wished “that one did not have to sleep but could study all
night.” The moral influences were all healthful as could be. The people
among whom he lived were industrious, intelligent, and high-minded.
Among his studies that winter was a course in Shakespeare, and the whole
mental atmosphere was most stimulating. Within a few months a chance to
work in a printing-office was eagerly accepted and it really seemed as
if some of his dreams might come true. But while the waves on the
surface of life were sparkling, beneath was the perilous undertow of
disease. Symptoms of tuberculosis appeared, work in the printing-office
had to be abandoned after a few weeks, and Alfred’s doctor advised him
to work his way toward the South before cold weather set in; as another
severe Northern winter would probably be fatal. After consultation with
his friends this course was decided upon; and, confident in the faith
that he could surely find transient work with farmers along the line, he
fared forth toward the South, little dreaming of the test of moral fibre
and good resolutions that lay before him. The child had sought refuge
from destitution in criminal life from which his soul had early
revolted; but the man was now to encounter the desperate struggle of
manhood for a foothold in honest living.

For the first month all went fairly well, then began hard luck both in
small towns and the farming country.

“The farmers have suffered two bad seasons; there seems to be no money,
and there’s hardly a farm unmortgaged,” he wrote me, and then: “When I
had used the last penny of my earnings I went without food for one day,
when hunger getting the best of me, I sold some of my things. After that
I got a weeks work and was two dollars ahead. I aimed for St. Louis, one
hundred miles away and walked the whole distance. What a walk it was! I
never passed a town without trying for work. The poverty through there
is amazing. I stuck to my determination not to beg. I must confess that
I never had greater temptation to go back to my old life; and I think if
I can conquer temptation as I did that day when I was _so_ hungry I need
have no fears for the future.

“I reached St. Louis with five cents in my pocket. For three days I
walked the streets of the City trying to get work but without success. I
scanned the papers for advertisements of men wanted, but for every place
there were countless applicants. My heart hurt me as I walked the
streets to see men and women suffering for the bare necessaries of
existence. The third night I slept on the stone steps of a Baptist
Church. Then I answered an advertisement for an extra gang of men to be
shipped out to work on railroad construction somewhere in Arkansas. A
curious crew it was all through; half the men were tramps who had no
intention of working, several were well-dressed men who could find
nothing else to do, some were railroad men who had worked at nothing
else. When one of the brakesmen found where we were bound for he said,
‘That place! You’ll all be in the hospital or dead, in two months.’

“The second evening we stopped at the little town where we now are. The
work is terrible, owing to the swamps and heat. Out of the twenty five
who started only eight are left. Yesterday I fainted overcome by the
heat, but if it kills me I shall stick to the work until I find
something better.”

The work did not kill Alfred, but malarial fever soon turned the
workmen’s quarters into a sort of camp hospital where Alfred, while
unable to work, developed a talent for nursing those who were helpless.
His letters at this time were filled with accounts of sickness and the
needs of the sick. He had never asked me for money; it seemed to be
almost a point of honor among my prison friends _not_ to ask me for
money; but “if you could send me something to get lemons for some of the
boys who haven’t a cent” was his one appeal; to which I gladly

Better days were on the way, however. Cooler weather was at hand, and
during the winter Alfred found in a lumber mill regular employment,
interrupted occasionally by brief illnesses. On the whole, the next year
was one of prosperity. Life had resolved itself into the simple problem
of personal independence, and with a right good will Alfred took hold
of the proposition, determined to make himself valuable to his employer.
That he accomplished this I have evidence in a note of unqualified
recommendation from his employer.

When the family with whom he had boarded for a year were about to leave
town he was offered the chance to buy their small cottage for two
hundred and fifty dollars, on monthly payments; and by securing a man
and his wife as tenants he was able to do this.

“At last, I am in my own house,” he writes me. “I went out on the piazza
to-day and looked over the valley with a feeling of pride that I was
under my own roof. I have reserved the pleasant front room for myself,
and I have spent three evenings putting up shelves and ornamenting them
and trying to make the room look pretty. I shall get some nice mouldings
down at the mill to make frames for the pictures you sent me. And I’m
going to have a little garden and raise some vegetables.”

But the agreeable sense of ownership of a home and pleasure in the
formation of social relations were invaded by haunting memories of the
past. The brighter possibilities opened to his fancy seemed but to
emphasize his sense of isolation. Outward conditions could not alter his
own personality or obliterate his experiences. It was a dark hour in
which he wrote:

“How wretched it all is, this tangled web of my life with its suffering,
its sin and its retribution. It is with me still. I can see myself now
standing inside the door of my prison cell, looking up to the little
loop-hole of a window across the corridor, trying to catch a glimpse of
the blue heavens or of a star, longing for pure air and sunshine,
longing for freedom….

“Strong as is my love for woman, much as I long for someone to share my
life, I don’t see how I can ever ask any woman to take into her life
half of that blackened and crime-stained page of my past. I must try to
find happiness in helping others.”

But nature was too much for Alfred. Not many months later he tells me
that he is going to be married and that his sweetheart, a young widow,
“is kind and motherly. When I told her all of my past she said, ‘And so
you were afraid I would think the less of you? Not a bit. It only hurts
me to think of all you have been through.'”

The happy letters following this marriage give evidence that the tie of
affection was strong between the two. Here we have a glimpse of the
early married days:

“I have been making new steps to our house, putting fancy wood work on
the porch and preparing to paint both the inside and the outside of the
house next month.”–Alfred was night-watch at the lumber mill.–“It is
four o’clock in the afternoon; I am writing by an open window where I
can look out and see my wife’s flowers in the garden. I can look across
the valley to the ridge of trees beyond, while the breeze comes in
bringing the scent of the pines. Out in the kitchen I can hear my wife
singing as she makes some cake for our supper. But my old ambition to
own a printing office has not left me. I am still looking forward to

Just here I should like to say: “And they lived happy ever after.” But
life is not a fairy-story; to many it seems but a crucible through which
the soul is passed. But the vicissitudes that followed in Alfred’s few
remaining years were those of the common lot. In almost every letter
there were indications of failing health, causing frequent loss of time
in work. Three years after his marriage, in the joy of fatherhood,
Alfred writes me of the baby, of his cunning ways and general dearness;
and of what he did when arrayed in some little things I had sent him.
Then, when the child was a year old came an anxious letter telling of
Baby Alfred’s illness, and then:


“My baby is dead. He died last night.


This tearing of the heart-strings was a new kind of suffering, more
acute than any caused by personal hardship. Wrapped in grief he writes
me: “To think of those words, ‘My baby’s grave.’ I knew I loved him
dearly, but how dearly I did not know until he was taken away. It isn’t
the same world since he died. Poor little dear! The day after he was
taken sick he looked up in my face and crowed to me and clapped his
little hands and called me ‘da-da,’ for the last time. Oh! my God! how
it hurts me. It seems at times as though my heart must break….

“Since the baby died night watching at the lumber mill has become
torture to me. In the long hours of the night my baby’s face comes
before me with such vividness that it is anguish to think of it.”

The end of it all was not far off; from the long illness that followed
Alfred did not recover, though working when able to stand; the wife,
too, had an illness, and the need of earnings was imperative. Alfred
writes despairingly of his unfulfilled dreams, and adds: “I seem to have
succeeded only in reforming myself,” but even in the last pencilled
scrawl he still clings to the hope of being able to work again.

I can think of Alfred only as a good soldier through the battle of life.
As a child, fighting desperately for mere existence, defeated morally
for a brief period by defective social conditions; later depleted
physically through the inhumanity of the prison-contract system; then
drawing one long breath of happiness and freedom through the kindness of
the Welsh preacher; but only to plunge into battle with adverse economic
conditions; and all this time striving constantly against the most
relentless of foes, the disease which finally overcame him. His was,
indeed, a valiant spirit.

Of those who may study this picture of Alfred’s life will it be the
“habitual criminals” who will claim the likeness as their own, or will
the home-making, tender-hearted men and women feel the thrill of

Truly Alfred was one with all loving hearts who are striving upward,
whether in prison or in palace.


[6] Alfred never entered private houses.

[7] Mrs. Burnett’s charming little story, “Editha’s Burglar,” went the
rounds among the burglars in the prison till it was worn to shreds.