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about it. There are those in this city who would brighten,
to me, the darkest winter-day that ever glimmered and went
out in Lapland; and before whose presence even Home grew
dim, when they and I exchanged that painful word which
mingles with our every thought and deed ; which haunts our
cradle-heads in infancy, and closes up the vista of our lives
in age.



CHAPTER VII.

PHILADELPHIA, AND ITS SOLITARY PRISON.

THE journey from New York to Philadelphia, is made by
railroad, and two ferries ; and usually occupies between five
and six hours. It was a fine evening when we were passengers
in the train : and watching the bright sunset from a little
window near the door by which we sat, my attention was
attracted to a remarkable appearance issuing from the
windows of the gentleman's car immediately in front of us,
which I supposed for some time was occasioned by a number
of industrious persons inside, ripping open feather-beds, and
giving the feathers to the wind. At length it occurred to
me that they were only spitting, which was indeed the case ;
though how any number of passengers which it was possible
for that car to contain, could have maintained such a playful
and incessant shower of expectoration, I am still at a loss to
understand: notwithstanding the experience in all salivatory
phenomena which I afterwards acquired.

I made acquaintance, on this journey, with a mild and
modest young quaker, who opened the discourse by informing
me, in a grave whisper, that his grandfather was the inventor
of cold-drawn castor oil. I mention the circumstance here,
thinking it probable that this is the first occasion on which
the valuable medicine in question was ever used as a con-
versational aperient. .

We reached the city, late that night. Looking out of my



116 AMERICAN NOTES.

chamber-window, before going to bed, I saw, on the opposite
side of the way, a handsome building of white marble, which
had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I
attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on
rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its
steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in
and out. The door was still tight shut, however ; the same
cold cheerless air prevailed; and the building looked as if
the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any
business to transact within its gloomy walls. I hastened to
inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished.
It was the Tomb of many fortunes ; the Great Catacomb of
investment; the memorable United States Bank.

The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous conse-
quences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on
Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet
laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits.

It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After
walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would
have given the world for a crooked street. The collar of my
coat appeared to stiffen, and the brim of my hat to expand,
beneath its quakery influence. My hair shrunk into a sleek
short crop, my hands folded themselves upon my breast of
their own calm accord, and thoughts of taking lodgings in
Mark Lane over against the Market Place, and of making
a large fortune by speculations in corn, came over me
involuntarily.

Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water,
which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and
poured off, everywhere. The Waterworks, which are on a
height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful,
being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the
best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point,
and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or
reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the
houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense.



EASTERN PENITENTIARY. 117

There are various public institutions. Among them a
most excellent Hospital a quaker establishment, but not
sectarian in the great benefits it confers ; a quiet, quaint old
Library, named after Franklin ; a handsome Exchange and
Post Office; and so forth. In connection with the quaker
Hospital, there is a picture by West, which is exhibited for
the benefit of the funds of the institution. The subject is,
our Saviour healing the sick, and it is, perhaps, as favourable
a specimen of the master as can be seen anywhere. Whether
this be high or low praise, depends upon the reader's taste.

In the same room, there is a very characteristic and life-
like portrait by Mr. Sully, a distinguished American artist.

My stay in Philadelphia was very short, but what I saw
of its society, I greatly liked. Treating of its general
characteristics, I should be disposed to say that it is more
provincial than Boston or New York, and that there is afloat
in the fair city, an assumption of taste and criticism, savouring
rather of those genteel discussions upon the same themes, in
connection with Shakspeare and the Musical Glasses, of which
we read in the Vicar of Wakefield. Near the city, is a most
splendid unfinished marble structure for the Girard College,
founded by a deceased gentleman of that name and of
enormous wealth, which, if completed according to the original
design, will be perhaps the richest edifice of modern times.
But the bequest is involved in legal disputes, and pending
them the work has stopped ; so that like many other great
undertakings in America, even this is rather going to be done
one of these days, than doing now.

In the outskirts, stands a great prison, called the Eastern
Penitentiary : conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of
Pennsylvania. The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless
solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel
and wrong.

In its intention, I am well convinced that it is kind,
humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded
that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and



118 AMERICAN NOTES.

those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do
not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very
few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of
torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged
for years, inflicts upon the sufferers ; and in guessing at it
myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon
their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel
within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth
of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers them-
selves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict
upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tamper-
ing with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably
worse than any torture of the body : and because its ghastly
signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of
touch as scars upon the flesh ; because its wounds are not
upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears
can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret
punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to
stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I
had the power of saying "Yes" or "No," I would allow it
to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment
were short ; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards
or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky
by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the
consciousness that one human creature, for any length of
time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment
in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in
the least degree.

I was accompanied to this prison by two gentlemen officially
connected with its management, and passed the day in going
from cell to cell, and talking with the inmates. Every
facility was afforded me, that the utmost courtesy could
suggest. Nothing was concealed or hidden from my view,
and every piece of information that I sought, was openly and
frankly given. The perfect order of the building cannot be
praised too highly, and of the excellent motives of all who



BURIED ALIVE. 119

arc immediately concerned in the administration of the
system, there can be no kind of question.

Between the body of the prison and the outer wall, there
is a spacious garden. Entering it, by a wicket in the massive
gate, we pursued the path before us to its other termination,
and passed into a large chamber, from which seven long
passages radiate. On either side of each, is a long, long row
of low cell doors, with a certain number over every one.
Above, a gallery of cells like those below, except that they
have no narrow yard attached (as those in the ground tier
have), and are somewhat smaller. The possession of two of
these, is supposed to compensate for the absence of so much
air and exercise as can be had in the dull strip attached to
each of the others, in an hour's time every day ; and therefore
every prisoner in this upper story has two cells, adjoining and
communicating with, each other.

Standing at the central point, and looking down these
dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is
awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone
weaver's shuttle, or shoemaker's last, but it is stifled by the
thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make
the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face
of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a
black hood is drawn ; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of
the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is
led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until
his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He never hears
of wife and children ; home or friends ; the life or death of
any single creature. He sees the prison-officers, but with
that exception he never looks upon a human countenance, or
hears a human voice. He is a man buried alive ; to be dug
out in the slow round of years ; and in the mean time dead
to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.

His name, and crime, and term of suffering, are unknown,
even to the officer who delivers him his daily food. There is
a number over his cell-door, and in a book of which the



120 AMERICAN NOTES.

governor of the prison has one copy, and the moral instructor
another : this is the index of his history. Beyond these pages
the prison has no record of his existence : and though he live
to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of
knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the
building it is situated ; what kind of men there are about
him ; whether in the long winter nights there are living
people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail,
with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the
nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.

Every cell has double doors : the outer one of sturdy oak,
the other of grated iron, wherein there is a trap through
which his food is handed. He has a Bible, and a slate and
pencil, and, under certain restrictions, has sometimes other
books, provided for the purpose, and pen and ink and paper.
His razor, plate, and can, and basin, hang upon the wall, or
shine upon the little shelf. Fresh water is laid on in every
cell, and he can draw it at his pleasure. During the day,
his bedstead turns up against the wall, and leaves more space
for him to work in. His loom, or bench, or wheel, is there ;
and there he labours, sleeps and wakes, and counts the
seasons as they change, and grows old.

The first man I saw, was seated at his loom, at work.
He had been there six years, and was to remain, I think,
three more. He had been convicted as a receiver of stolen
goods, but even after his long imprisonment, denied his
guilt, and said he had been hardly dealt by. It was his
second offence.

He stopped his work when we went in, took off his
spectacles, and answered freely to everything that was said
to him, but always with a strange kind of pause first, and in
a low, thoughtful voice. He wore a paper hat of his own
making, and was pleased to have it noticed and commended.
He had very ingeniously manufactured a sort of Dutch clock
from some disregarded odds and ends; and his vinegar-
bottle served for the pendulum. Seeing me interested in this



SPECIMENS OF INGENUITY. 121

contrivance, he looked up at it with a great deal of pride, and
said that he had been thinking of improving it, and that he
hoped the hammer and a little piece of broken glass beside
it " would play music before long." He had extracted some
colours from the yarn with which he worked, and painted a
few poor figures on the wall. One, of a female, over the
door, he called " The Lady of the Lake. 1 '

He smiled as I looked at these contrivances to while away
the time; but when I looked from them to him, I saw that
his lip trembled, and could have counted the beating of his
heart. I forget how it came about, but some allusion was
made to his having a wife. He shook his head at the word,
turned aside, and covered his face with his hands.

"But you are resigned now!" said one of the gentlemen
after a short pause, during which he had resumed his former
manner. He answered with a sigh that seemed quite reckless
in its hopelessness, " Oh yes, oh yes ! I am resigned to it. 1 '
" And are a better man, you think ? " " Well, I hope so :
I'm sure I hope I may be." " And time goes pretty quickly ? "
" Time is very long, gentlemen, within these four walls ! "

He gazed about him Heaven only knows how wearily !
as he said these words ; and in the act of doing so, fell into
a strange stare as if he had forgotten something. A moment
afterwards he sighed heavily, put on his spectacles, and went
about his work again.

In another cell, there was a German, sentenced to five years'
imprisonment for larceny, two of which had just expired.
With colours procured in the same manner, he 'had painted
every inch of the walls and coiling quite beautifully. He
had laid out the few feet of ground, behind, with exquisite
neatness, and had made a little bed in the centre, that looked
by-tho-bye like a grave. The taste and ingenuity he had
displayed in everything were most extraordinary ; and yet a
more dejected, heart-broken, wretched creature, it would be
difficult to imagine. I never saw such a picture of forlorn
affliction and distress of mind. My heart bled for him ; and



122 AMERICAN NOTES.

when the tears ran down his cheeks, and he took one of the
visitors aside, to ask, with his trembling hands nervously
clutching at his coat to detain him, whether there was no
hope of his dismal sentence being commuted, the spectacle
was really too painful to witness. I never saw or heard of
any kind of misery that impressed me more than the wretched-
ness of this man.

In a third cell, was a tall strong black, a burglar, working
at his proper trade of making screws and the like. His time
was nearly out. He was not only a very dexterous thief, but
was notorious for his boldness and hardihood, and for the
number of his previous convictions. He entertained us with
a long account of his achievements, which he narrated with
such infinite relish, that he actually seemed to lick his lips
as he told us racy anecdotes of stolen plate, and of old ladies
whom he had watched as they sat at windows in silver
spectacles (he had plainly had an eye to their metal even
from the other side of the street) and had afterwards robbed.
This fellow, upon the slightest encouragement, would have
mingled with his professional recollections the most detest-
able cant; but I am very much mistaken if he could have
surpassed the unmitigated hypocrisy with which he declared
that he blessed the day on which he came into that prison,
and that he never would commit another robbery as long as
he lived.

There was one man who was allowed, as an indulgence, to
keep rabbits. His room having rather a close smell in con-
sequence, they called to him at the door to come out into
the passage. He complied of course, and stood shading his
haggard face in the unwonted sunlight of the great window,
looking as wan and unearthly as if he had been summoned
from the grave. He had a white rabbit in his breast ; and
when the little creature, getting down upon the ground, stole
back into the cell, and he, being dismissed, crept timidly
after it, I thought it would have been very hard to say in
what respect the man was the nobler animal of the two.



VARIOUS PRISONERS. 123

There was an English thief, who had been there but a few
days out of seven years : a villainous, low-browed, thin-lipped
fellow, with a white face ; who had as yet no relish for visitors,
and who, but for the additional penalty, would have gladly
stabbed me with his shoemaker's knife. There was another
German who had entered the jail but yesterday, and who
started from his bed when we looked in, and pleaded, in his
broken English, very hard for work. There was a poet, who
after doing two days'" work in every four-and-twenty hours,
one for himself and one for the prison, wrote verses about
ships (lie was by trade a mariner), and " the maddening wine-
cup," and his friends at home. There were very many of
them. Some reddened at the sight of visitors, and some
turned very pale. Some two or three had prisoner nurses
with them, for they were very sick; and one, a fat old negro
whose leg had been taken off within the jail, had for his
attendant a classical scholar and an accomplished surgeon,
himself a prisoner likewise. Sitting upon the stairs, engaged
in some slight work, was a pretty coloured boy. "Is there
no refuge for young criminals in Philadelphia, then ? " said I.
" Yes, but only for white children." Noble aristocracy in
crime !

There was a sailor who had been there upwards of eleven
years, and who in a few months'" time would be free. Eleven
years of solitary confinement !

" I am very glad to hear your time is nearly out." What
does he say? Nothing. Why does he stare at his hands,
and pick the flesh upon his fingers, and raise his eyes for an
instant, every now and then, to those bare walls which have
seen his head turn grey ? It is a way he has sometimes.

Does he never look men in the face, and does he always
pluck at those hands of his, as though he were bent on
parting skin and bone ? It is his humour : nothing more.

It is his humour too, to say that he does not look forward
to going out; that he is not glad the time is drawing near;
that he did look forward to it once, but that was very long



124 AMERICAN NOTES.

ago ; that he has lost all care for everything. It is his
humour to be a helpless, crushed, and broken man. And,
Heaven be his witness that he has his humour thoroughly
gratified !

There were three young women in adjoining cells, all
convicted at the same time of a conspiracy to rob their
prosecutor. In the silence and solitude of their lives they
had grown to be quite beautiful. Their looks were very sad,
and might have moved the sternest visitor to tears, but not
to that kind of sorrow which the contemplation of the men
awakens. One was a young girl ; not twenty, as I recollect ;
whose snow-white room was hung with the work of some
former prisoner, and upon whose downcast face the sun in all
its splendour shone down through the high chink in the wall,
where one narrow strip of bright blue sky was visible. She
was very penitent and quiet ; had come to be resigned, she
said (and I believe her); and had a mind at peace. "In a
word, you are happy here ? " said one of my companions.
She struggled she did struggle very hard to answer, Yes;
but raising her eyes, and meeting that glimpse of freedom
overhead, she burst into tears, and said, " She tried to be ;
she uttered no complaint ; but it was natural that she should
sometimes long to go out of that one cell : she could not
help that" she sobbed, poor thing !

I went from cell to cell that day; and every face I saw,
or word I heard, or incident I noted, is present to my mind
in all its painfulness. But let me pass them by, for one,
more pleasant, glance of a prison on the same plan which I
afterwards saw at Pittsburg.

When I had gone over that, in the same manner, I asked
the governor if he had any person in his charge who was
shortly going out. He had one, he said, whose time was
up next day; but he had only been a prisoner two years.

Two years ! I looked back through two years of my
own life out of jail, prosperous, happy, surrounded by bless-
ings, comforts, good fortune and thought how wide a gap



A PRISONER GOING TO BE RELEASED. 125

it was, and how long those two years passed in solitary cap-
tivity would have been. I have the face of this man, who
was going to be released next day, before me now. It is
almost more memorable in its happiness than the other faces
in their misery. How easy and how natural it was for him
to say that the system was a good one; and that the time
went "pretty quick considering;" and that when a man
once felt that he had offended the law, and must satisfy it,
" he got along, somehow : " and so forth !

" What did he call you back to say to you, in that strange
flutter ? " I asked of my conductor, when he had locked the
door and joined me in the passage.

" Oh ! That he was afraid the soles of his boots were not
fit for walking, as they were a good deal worn when he came
in ; and that he would thank me very much to have them
mended, ready."

Those boots had been taken off his feet, and put away
with the rest of his clothes, two years before !

I took that opportunity of inquiring how they conducted
themselves immediately before going out ; adding that I
presumed they trembled very much.

" Well, it's not so much a trembling," was the answer
" though they do quiver as a complete derangement of the
nervous system. They can't sign their names to the book ;
sometimes can't even hold the pen ; look about 'em without
appearing to know why, or where they are ; and sometimes
get up and sit down again, twenty times in a minute. This
is when they're in the office, where they are taken with the
hood on, as they were brought in. When they get outside
the gate, they stop, and look first one way and then the
other; not knowing which to take. Sometimes they stagger
as if they were drunk, and sometimes are forced to lean
against the fence, they're so bad : but they clear off in
course of time."

As I walked among these solitary cells, and looked at the
faces of the meii within them, I tried to picture to myself



126 AMERICAN NOTES.

the thoughts and feelings natural to their condition. I
imagined the hood just taken off', and the scene of their
captivity disclosed to them in all its dismal monotony.

At first, the man is stunned. His confinement is a hideous
vision ; and his old life a reality. He throws himself upon
his bed, and lies there abandoned to despair. By degrees
the insupportable solitude and barrenness of the place rouses
him from this stupor, and when the trap in his grated door
is opened, he humbly begs and prays for work. "Give me
some work to do, or I shall go raving mad ! "

He has it ; and by fits and starts applies himself to labour ;
but every now and then there comes upon him a burning
sense of the years that must be wasted in that stone coffin,
and an agony so piercing in the recollection of those who
are hidden from his view and knowledge, that he starts from
his seat, and striding up and down the narrow room with
both hands clasped on his uplifted head, hears spirits tempting
him to beat his brains out on the wall.

Again he falls upon his bed, and lies there, moaning.
Suddenly he starts up, wondering whether any other man is
near; whether there is another cell like that on either side
of him : and listens keenly.

There is no sound, but other prisoners may be near for all
that. He remembers to have heard once, when he little
thought of coming here himself, that the cells were so con-
structed that the prisoners could not hear each other, though
the officers could hear them. Where is the nearest man
upon the right, or on the left? or is there one in both
directions? Where is he sitting now with his face to the
light ? or is he walking to and fro ? How is he dressed ?
Has he been here long ? Is he much worn away ? Is he
very white and spectre-like ? Does lie think of his neighbour
too?

Scarcely venturing to breathe, and listening while he thinks,
he conjures up a figure with his back towards him, and
imagines it moving about in this next cell. He has no idea



TERRORS BY DAY AND BY NIGHT. 127

of the face, but he is certain of the dark form of a stooping
man. In the cell upon the other side, he puts another figure,



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe works of Charles Dickens (Volume 28) → online text (page 11 of 43)