Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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This, in spite of the fact that he could have re-
assured himself on that score in a moment by
observing that every bottle was sealed.

My visitors and I kept at the task of signing
the books, every copy of which was numbered,
until midnight. Then Karsner, Castleton and
Clark presented me with their own inscribed
copy number 65 as significant of the total of my

A nation-wide holiday camjoaign had been in-
augurated for my release so that I might return
home for Christmas. It has long been a cus-
tom with the i3ardoning jDower at Washington to
grant a meritorious prisoner his freedom as an
act of grace at the season of "peace on earth and
good will among men". President Wilson
granted the Christmas pardon as usual, but in
this instance it was not in response to the nu-
merously signed petitions reiDresenting every state
in the union which had been presented to him,
but the boon was granted to an Indian who was
serving a life sentence for murder.

Attorney General Palmer had finally filed with
the President his long delayed and expected re-
port on my case. Speculation was rife as to
whether the recommendation would be favorable
or otherwise. The doubt was summarily dis-
pelled when the report flashed over the wires


that President Wilson had refused to grant the
petition circulated and forwarded to him in my
behalf, notwithstanding the Attorney GreneraPs
recommendation for my release.

When Mr. Palmer's report was placed before
the ailing President the latter had but one word
to offer as signifying his attitude toward me.
Over the face of the recommendation he scrawled,

I have been a trifle more than casually inter-
ested in the reason that prompted Mr. Wilson to
arrive at that state of mind which is furnished
by his former private secretary, Joseph P. Tu-
multy who, in his book, ^^Woodrow Wilson as I
Knew Him'', sets down this record of the Presi-
dent's comment in my case:

^ ' One of the things to which he paid particular
attention at this time, the last days of his rule,
was the matter of the pardon of Eugene V. Debs.
The day that the recommendation arrived at the
White House he looked it over and examined it
carefully and said:

** *I will never consent to the pardon of this
man. I know that in certain quarters of the coun-
try there is a popular demand for the pardon of
Debs, but it shall never be accomplished with
my consent. Were I to consent to it, I should
never be able to look into the faces of the moth-
ers of this country who sent their boys to the
other side. While the flower of American youth
was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause


of civilization, tMs man Debs stood behind the
lines, sniping, attacking and denouncing them.
Before the war he had a perfect right to exercise
his freedom of speech and to express his own
opinion, but after the Congress of the United
States declared war silence on his part would
have been the proper course to pursue.

*' ^ I know there will be a great deal of de-
nunciation of me for refusing this pardon. They
will say I am cold-blooded and indifferent, but
it will make no impression on me. This man was
a traitor to his country, and he will never be
pardoned during my administration' ".

Personally I have no fault to find, nor any
criticism to level at President Wilson for what
he considered to be his proper course. But in-
terest is quite naturally aroused when we come
upon an expression such as the following from
Mr. Wilson:

**I have no fault to find, Tumulty, with the men
who disagree with me, and I ought not to pena-
lize them when they give honest expression to
what they believe are honest opinions''.

I have nothing but pity and compassion for a
man, even though he be President of the United
States, who feels himself so unutterably lonely
as to be impelled to give voice to such a sad senti-
ment as the following:

**It is no compliment to have it said that I am
only a highly developed intellectual machine.
G-ood God! Is there no more to me than that?


Well, I want the people to love me, but I sup-
pose they never will.''

Immediately following the action of Mr. Wil-
son representatives of the press appeared at the
prison for an interview, but I declined to com-
ment on the executive's action. Some days later
I was visited by two friends, one of whom was
an Atlanta reporter, and during the conversation
that followed I expressed my opinion of the
President's action. In so doing I was entirely
within my rights under the rules of the prison.

The report of my comment was published the
following day and appears to have displeased the
President, for immediately afterward an order
was issued depriving me of all writing and vis-
iting privileges and placing me incommunicado
for an indefinite period. I was told that this
measure had been taken by order of the Presi-
dent himself because my observations had vexed
him and he wanted no more of them.

This action created a sensation in the prison
and was flashed broadcast over the country. The
reaction that followed was swift and emphatic.
Popular resentment was far more widespread
than that which attended my incarceration.
Thousands of people who were not in agreement
with me at all felt that my imprisonment was
sufficient without depriving me of the limited
rights that remained to me as a prisoner, and
joined in the swelling demand that the order
placing me incommunicado be revoked.


Public men of prominence and some newspa-
pers of influence joined in the protest. So in-
sistent became the demand for the restoration
of my prison privileges that after a period of al-
most three weeks, during which my family and
friends were permitted neither to see nor hear
from me, the order was partially, and doubtless
grudgingly revoked on the day before Mr. Wil-
son's retirement from office; but I was never
again permitted to see a newspaper man or any
one who was in any way connected with the press.

It was the general opinion about the prison
that the revocation was deferred until the Presi-
dent was about to leave office and that action was
taken then only because my limited privileges
would almost certainly be restored by President
Harding, The effect of Mr. Wilson's order of
revocation increased the desire and insistence of
newspaper men to see me and obtain a further
expression of my views which the warden spared
me under the iron-clad special rule that forbade
my seeing, much less being interviewed, by re-
porters. The warden was kept busy enforcing
the rule and a sharp lookout was kept to prevent
a possible newspaper man from satisfying the
public curiosity as to what I had to say about not
being permitted to say anything.


Leaving the Peison.

The spontaneous and sensational demonstra-
tion that occurred upon my leaving the prison at
Atlanta will abide with me vividly to the last
hour of my life. The startling, thrilling, dra-
matic and deeply touching scene of that strange
leave-taking is etched into my very soul. It was
Christmas day. The definite order for my re-
lease had come at last after weeks and months
of baseless rumors. The prison was tense with
excitement. In cells and corridors, in the duck
mill, in the mess room, the stockade, everywhere
it was the one topic of conversation and com-
ment. The very atmosphere seemed charged with
some mysterious element, some dynamic force
about to break forth to shake that formidable
pile to its foundations.

The twenty-three hundred corraled convicts,
so-called, of all colors, creeds and conditions,
gathered there from all quarters, seemed in that
pregnant, pulsing hour to typify with pathetic
appeal and dramatic impressiveness, the unity of
mankind, and the common brotherhood of the

For nearly three years I had been the daily
associate and companion of these tortured souls


' — these imprisoned victims of a cruel and re-
lentless fate. I had shared with them on equal
terms in all things and they knew it and loved
me as I loved them. They were my friends not
only, but my brothers and realized and rejoiced
in our mutual and intimate relations. In a
thousand ways, by stealth when necessary, and
by other means when possible, they made mani-
fest their confidence and their loyalty, and com-
ing from that pathetic source, from hearts that
once beat high with hope but many of which had
long been dead to the thrill of enthusiasm and
the joy of life, this tender, loving tribute touched
me to the heart and had for me a meaning too
deep and overmastering to be expressed in words.

The hour had come when we must part. Great
was its rejoicing over my release, but the part-
ing and the uncertainty of ever meeting again
struck their hearts and mine with sorrow and

As the noon hour approached the Warden and
Deputy Warden called to inform me that the
time had come for me to take my leave. My
brother had arrived to join me as I left the
prison for the homeward journey. The last in-
mate I clasped hands with was a Negro serving
a life sentence. As the poor fellow stood before
me sobbing I literally saw the prison in tears.

For a moment I was rooted to the spot and
shaken with emotion. I felt as if I was deserting


my friends and a sense of guilt gripped my con-

I could see their anxious eyes peering at me
from all directions, and how could I turn my back
on them and leave them there ! They wanted me
to go, to join my family, to have my liberty, while
the impulse seized me to stay with them until we
could walk out of the barred cells together into
the sunlight of the outer world.

It was a strange, sad, mystifying experience.
As I pen these lines I live over again those
solemn, heart-gripping moments. The pathetic
smiles on the pallid faces that pressed so hard
against the relentless bars of that living tomb
will haunt me to my dying day.

What would I not have given to fling those
gates of hell wide open and give to every soul
therein his life and freedom!

The grim guard simply opened the steel door
in front at a signal from the Warden.

The portals of the prison were soon left be-
hind. At the edge of the reservation an auto-
mobile stood in readiness to whirl me to the
depot. Flanked by the Warden and Deputy, who
treated me with perfect courtesy, I was soon to
greet my eager long-waiting friends and com-

Midway in the reservation, between the prison
entrance and the street, we were halted by what
seemed a rumbling of the earth as if shaken by
some violent explosion. It was a roar of voices —












the hoarse voices of a caged humaii host that had
forgotten how to cheer and gave vent to their
long pent-up emotions in thunder volleys I never
heard before and never shall again, for that over-
whelming, bewildering scene, without a parallel
in prison history, will never be re-enacted in my

The demonstration was spontaneous as it was
startling and spectacular. No one could have
planned or sponsored the sensational outburst.
It all happened in a twinkling and gave the offi-
cials and guards a surprise that struck them
dumb. They stood staring and speechless as they
beheld the wild demonstration of the mob of con-
victs who but a moment before were the silent
and submissive slaves of a brutal prison regime.

Feeling themselves free for the moment at
least they let loose again and again in roars of
farewell salutation. Prison rules, hard and for-
bidding, as if by magic, fled the scene, while grim
guards, the pitiless terror and torment of the
convicts, looked on paralyzed and speechless with

Not a word passed between the Warden, the
Deputy Warden and myself as we stood rooted
where we had been halted by the first outburst
in the prison. We had wheeled about as one, and
there we stood, mute witnesses to a scene of such
tragic human appeal as would have moved a
heart of stone.

My own heart almost ceased to beat. I felt


myself overwhelmed with painful and saddening
emotions. The impulse again seized me to turn
back. I had no right to leave. Those tearful,
haunting faces, pressing against the barred
prison windows — how they appealed to me — and
accused me!

But I had to go. As I stepped into the waiting
car and waved my last farewell another mighty
shout was heard. And then another and another
and still another, until far, far up the winding
road and far away from the terrible prison, the
last faint echo of the convict-host that wept as
it cheered, died away in the distance,


General Prison Conditions.

During the nearly three years that I was in
Atlanta Federal Prison a number of convicts
spoke to me from time to time of their desire and
intention to escape from the prison. I invariably
and emphatically advised them against it, know-
ing as I did, what lay in store for them as the
fruit of such rashness. I also ad^dsed the men to
keep within the rules and conduct themselves as
decently as possible in the interest of their own
protection and well-being against the cruel
prison regime in general and the brutality ot
some of the guards in jDarticular.

It should be conceded here that prison condi-
tions, generally speaking, are today far better
than they were at any time before in history.
The truth of this is more apparent when we con-
sider the state of the prison and its inmates in
this country a century and more ago. To realize
what a foul and hideous institution the prison
was at that time one need only read the pages of
McMasters' ''History of the United States''
dealing with prison life during the colonial

At that time men were still imprisoned for
debt, and the prison sometimes consisted of an


abandoned mine, a pest hole in which men and
women were confined and in which they literally
rotted away in filth and loathsomeness. Capital
punishment would have been more merciful than
the unspeakable torture visited upon the unfor-
tunate poor who were thrown into these black
holes and doomed to slow and shocking death for
the crime of being poor and unable to pay some
small debt.

In the progress of society, the prison has in
the very nature of things undergone some im-
provement, but there are vast stretches yet to be
covered before the prison becomes, if it ever
does, an institution for the reclamation and re-
habilitation of erring and unfortunate men and

The general public knows practically nothing
about the prison and appears to be little con-
cerned about how it is managed and how prison-
ers are treated. Not until the average man finds
himself behind steel bars does he realize how in-
different he has been to a problem in which he
should have felt himself vitally concerned.

As a rule, prisons are under the control of
politicians to whom the welfare of its inmates,
and the welfare of society as it is affected by
them, is but a secondary consideration, if, indeed,
that question really engages their attention at all.
The wardenship of a federal or a state prison
is, in my opinion, of more importance to society
than the presidency of a college. The latter is


chosen with at least some reference to his chac-
acter and his qualifications for the position,
whereas the warden is usually awarded his office
in return for his political services irrespective of
his fitness to hold a position that has to do with
the welfare of human beings.

The president of a college has supervision of
an institution in which young and normal people
are dealt with, and who readily understand and
embrace the opportunity afforded them to secure
educational advantages to fit them for the strug-
gle of life. The warden of a prison, on the other
hand, is in charge of and has almost absolute
power over the life and destiny of thousands of
human beings, some of whom are subnormal,
most of whom have, for the time at least, been
broken and beaten in the battle of life, and all of
whom are in need of such humane and intelligent
understanding and treatment as is necessary to
retrieve their lost character and standing, rein-
vest them with self-respect and restore them to
society fitted for useful service to themselves and
their fellowmen.

But how many are there who take this view
of the importance of the character and the fit-
ness of prison officials, and of the function and
purpose for which the prison is maintained?
When it is taken into account that in the United
States several hundred thousand men, women and
children pass through our prisons annually and
are influenced for better or for evil by their ex-


periences in such institutions, it should appear
apparent to even the most casual observer that
the prison problem is one of the most vital con-
cern to the people, and that the prison as an in-
stitution should be maintained with jealous care
as to the character of the officials who are to
preside over it, and as to the moral and physical
treatment of its inmates.

If the people would but analyze the human
equation of a prison they might better account
for the crimes that are visited upon them in
cities, towns and hamlets, ofttimes by men who
graduated with an education and equipment for
just that sort of retributive service from some
penal institution.

There was a time not long ago when prison
guards were armed with deadly weapons, when
convicts kept the lockstep in hideous stripes, and
were forbidden to speak or even look at one an-
other. Most prisons have outgrown these abomi-
nations because it was realized that under their
brutal and degrading influence men were turned
into sodden beasts and subsequently settled their
account with society upon the basis of the depth
to which prison barbarity had sunk them.

Prison guards at Atlanta and many other peni-
tentiaries have been divested of their deadly
weapons, and are no longer permitted to bear
them. They now carry clubs. In the march of
prison progress we have passed from the gun to
the club. I have reference here to the guards


within and not those who surmount the walls,
for the latter in their watchtowers are still armed
with rifles and under orders to shoot to kill the
inmate who may try to escape.

I must digress here a moment to say a word
ahout the prisoner who attempts to escape. The
very moment the ** count", which is taken several
times a day, tells of his escape, a siren, known
as the ^^ escape whistle'^, is blown and continues
to screech at intervals for a considerable time.
This is the signal for the farmers in the sur-
rounding vicinity to rush eagerly for their shot-
guns and rifles and join in the mad man-hunt in
which a prize is awarded to the lucky one who
stalks the quarry. Fifty dollars, dead or alive,
is the reward paid for the capture of the escap-
ing convict, and I have been told that those who
participate in it find it more exciting than a fox

I shall not stop to comment here about my per-
sonal views as to the elevating influence of
sportmanship of this nature. It is nothing less
than folly, and ofttimes suicidal, for a prisoner to
attempt to escape, whatever the temptation may
be, for it is next to impossible for him to make
his way through the lines. If he should yield to
the natural impulse to break the bonds that hold
him in captivity and is recaptured he must pay
the severest penalty for his ill-advised attempt.

The guns on the walls that surround the prison
accurately, though unwittingly, index the true


character of the penitentiary in our day. It is
a killing institution in a moral as well as in a
physical sense. It is designed to break men and
not to make them. If they are partly undone
before they go to prison that institution will
complete the wrecking process. The many ex-
pressions of bitterness, hatred and revenge I
heard from the lips of departing prisoners who
had served their sentences, left no doubt in my
mind as to the effect of prison life upon its vic-

Ever since leaving the prison I have been
haunted by those guns on the walls, and those
clubs in the hands of guards within the walls.
Neither the guns nor the clubs should be there.
To the extent that they serve at all it is in a
brutalizing way which tends to promote rather
than restrain attempts to escape, and causes
lesser infractions of the prison discipline.

The gun and the club are the signs and sym-
bols of the prison institution and they proclaim
its cruel function to the world.

In one of my last interviews with Warden
Dyche before leaving Atlanta I took occasion to
relate to him what I had seen of club rule in
the prison and why I felt that the club should
follow the gun out of prison. I told him that
only men should be allowed to serve as guards
who could control the prisoners in their charge
through respect for their character instead of
through fear for the clubs they carried. A man


who can command tlie respect of other men only
because he holds a club in his hand is totally
unfit to be in any position of authority in the
outside world, much less so in a prison.

After associating freely with those convicts,
day in and day out, I knew beyond any question
of doubt that they could be kept in far better
order, that their deportment would be improved,
and the morale of the prison made higher with-
out the club to remind them that they were under
its rule and were subject at any time to its use
in regulating their conduct.

One day we were marching back into prison
after being out in the yard. A few feet in ad-
vance of me an undersized and emaciated con-
vict was shuffling along in the line. It was rather
warm and his jumper was open at his neck. This
was contrary to the rule, and a guard standing
by gave him a vigorous punch with his club that
doubled up the prisoner in pain, the guard yell-
ing above the shriek of his victim, ^* Button up
there!'' It was with difficulty that I restrained
my own feelings. I did not report the guard for
the reason that I had made up my mind from the
beginning of my sentence to make no individual
complaints while I was within the walls, having
concluded it would be better policy to accept the
situation as it was, and bide my time until I
should be free to register my opposition to the
whole prison system.

Another personal experience with a brutal


prison guard is recalled. It was on a Sunday
morning in the prison chapel where I had gone
to join the other inmates in attending devotional
exercises. At an appointed hour the prisoners
march into the chapel which is on an upper floor
of one of the main buildings. The inner blinds
were partly closed and the room was rather dark.
As we filed in, I stood for a moment at the end
of a row, not knowing until the men in advance
of me were seated if I was to occupy that row
or the one behind it. In that moment of innocent
pause I excited the wrath of a guard who was
standing by swinging his club. I do not know
if he knew me, nor does it matter. I only know
that he howled loud enough to be heard a block
away, * ^ Sit down there ! ' '

I felt that it was the club rather than the brute
in the man that had proclaimed its authority.
I did not resent the outrage, for I never per-
mitted acts of that kind to insult me, or to dis-
turb my equanimity, which I managed to main-
tain throughout my nearly three years in At-
lanta prison, as a convict of the United States
Government because I delivered a speech during
the war expounding the cause of universal peace
on earth and good will among men.

Hundreds of stories of the experiences of oth-
ers along similar lines reached me whenever the
inmates had a chance to tell me of their troubles,
and what they thought of the guards, the clubs,
the rules, and the prison in general.


The rules of the average prison are evidently
framed by men who have but a superficial knowl-
edge of the prison, and but vague and indefinite
ideas of the way it should be managed for the
good of its inmates and society. The one dom-
inating purpose of these rules is repressive and
the stupidity in framing them is crowned with
the statement that they are expected to be
** cheerfully obeyed''. No prison rule was ever

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 7 of 14)