George Washington Cable.

The silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system online

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fact, much the largest population belonging to
any one prison in the United States, in 1880, was


in Texas, under the Lease System. The fourth
in numbers is that of Tennessee, also leased.
That of Georgia, leased, is more than twice that
of Maryland, managed on the Contract System.
The smallest State prison population in the
United States, that of Rhode Island, numbering,
at the close of last year, only eighty-one convicts,
showed a loss that year, on the Contract System,
of only eleven dollars. Missouri manages a con-
vict population of the same size as that of Geor-
gia, and boasts a cash profit, on the Contract
System. Indeed the State prisons under the Lease
System are, almost without exception, populous
prisons, the average population among the whole
twelve so governed being 920, while that of the
thirty-three that exclude the system is but 560.

Another unfounded assumption is that the
prisons working under the Contract or the Public
Accounts System receive their inmates largely
from the ranks of men skilled in trade. The
truth is, the strongest argument in favor of teach-
ing trades in prison lies in the fact that men with
trades keep out of prison, or appear there only
in decided minorities, in any community ; and
prisons everywhere receive especially but few
acquainted with the two or three or five or six
skilled industries that happen to be carried on
within their walls.

It is assumed, again, that the great majority
of the inmates of our leased prisons are not



only without mechanical training, but without
mechanical aptitude. Yet, in fact, there is quite
enough skilled work taught to just this class in
just these prisons to make void the argument.
Within the walls of the Virginia State peniten-
tiary in September, 1881, under the Contract
System, tobacco, shoes, barrels, and clothing were
being made with a force of which three-fifths were
black men. The whole force of the Maryland
prison is engaged, within its walls, under contrac-
tors, in marble-cutting and the manufacture of
shoes, stoves and hollow iron-ware, and in No-
vember, 1 88 1, consisted of five blacks to every
three whites, and of the entire number not one
in ten was previously acquainted with any handi-
craft that could be of any service to him in any
of these occupations.

Moreover, on the other hand, there is no
leased prison that does not constantly receive
a sufficient number of skilled convicts, both
white and black, to constitute a good teaching
force for the training of the unskilled. The
Texas Penitentiary, in 1880, had on its rolls 39
workers in wood, 20 in leather, 50 in metals and
machinery, 20 in stone and brick, 7 engravers
and printers, and 1 1 painters.

The leased prisons, as it happens, have one
decided advantage in this regard ; the high aver-
age term of sentences affords an unusual oppor-
tunity for training the convicts to skilled labor,



and making the best use, both pecuniary and
reformatory, of their occupations. The South
Carolina penitentiary is probably an exception ;
and yet it is in this prison that the manufacture
of shoes, say its officers, might easily be carried
on with cash profit. In the Georgia penitentiary,
in 1880, there were 87 sentenced for life; 104
for terms above ten years and less than twenty ;
101 for twenty years; 10 for higher terms up to
forty years, and only 22 for as low a term as
one year, in a total of 1185 inmates. In the
Texas State prison, in October, 1882, with a pop-
ulation of 2378, only two were under sentences
of less than two years' length. 1 To increase the
advantage, the long sentences fall with special
frequency upon the class that is assumed to
require an undue length of training. In the
Georgia convict force just noted, for instance,
only 15 were whites among the 215 under
sentences above ten years.

But why need we linger to show that there
is ample opportunity in these prisons to teach
the inmates trades, if only the system were such
as to permit it? The choice of a better system
does not rest upon this. In the Contract and
Public Accounts prisons, it is not at all the uni-
versal practice to make the unskilled convict

1 Some idea of the ferocity of these sentences may be got from
the fact that 509 of these Texas convicts were under twenty
years of age.


acquainted with a trade. This is done only in a
few prisons. Generally, much too generally,
he is set to some simple task, some minute frac-
tion of the work of manufacturing some article,
a task that he learns to do at most in a few
days, becomes skillful in within a few weeks,
and continues to do unceasingly from the begin-
ning of his imprisonment to the day of his dis-
charge. He works a lever or peddle that drives
pegs into a shoe ; or he turns down or up the
rims of hats, or varnishes the heels of innumer-
able boots, or turns a small wheel that bottoms
countless tin cans. He is employed according
to his physical strength and his intelligence. It
is no small misfortune to society that such indus-
tries leave the convict at last without a trade ;
but, comparing them with the tasks of the lessees'
camps, it may be said they do not murder him,
nor torture him, but are to those tasks what
light is to darkness.

After all, these objections to the abandonment
of the Lease System, even if they were otherwise
well grounded, would fail at last when it comes
to be seen that the system does not make good
even its one poor profession ; it does not, even
pecuniarily " pay." In flush times it hands in
a few thousands, sometimes even a few ten-
thousands, annually, into the State treasury.
But its history is a long record of discoveries
and rediscoveries on the part of the State that


she has been the losing party in a game of con-
fidence, with nobody to blame but herself. How
much has thus been lost morally baffles estima-
tion; suffice it to say, enough ungodly gains
have gone into the hands of lessees to have put
every leased prison in the country upon a firm
basis under Public Accounts. Every system is
liable to mismanagement, but there are systems
under which mismanagement is without excuse
and may be impeached and punished. The
Lease System is itself the most atrocious mis-
management. It is in its very nature dishonor-
able to the community that knowingly tolerates
it, and in its practical workings needs only to be
known to be abhorred and cast out. It exists
to-day, in the twelve American Commonwealths
where it is found, because the people do not
know what they are tolerating.

But is there any need for them longer to be
unaware of it? There is none. Nor is there any
need that the system should continue. We
have heard one, who could give no other ex-
cuse, urge the unfavorableness of the Southern
climate to prison confinement. But what have
the reports of prisons in this climate shown us ?
That the mortality outside, among the prisoners
selected (as is pretended, at least) for their health
and strength, is twice and thrice and sometimes
four and five times as great as among the feebler
sort left within the walls. True, some of the


leases still have many years to run. What of it?
Shall it be supinely taken for granted that there
is no honorable way out of these brutal and
wicked compacts ? There is no honorable way
to remain under them. There are many just
ways to be rid of them.

Let the terms of these leases themselves con-
demn their holders. There is no reasonable
doubt that, in many States, the lessees will be
found to have committed acts distinctly forfeiting
their rights under these instruments. Moreover,
with all their looseness, these leases carry condi-
tions, which, if construed as common humanity
and the honor of the State demand, will make
the leases intolerable to men whose profits are
coined from the flesh and blood of human
beings. It is safe to say there is not a lessee
in the twelve convict-leasing States who, were
he but held to account for the excesses in his
death-roll beyond those of prisons elsewhere in
enlightened countries, would not throw up his
unclean hands in a moment and surrender to
decency, honesty, humanity, and the public wel-
fare. But we waste words. No holder of these
compacts need be driven to close quarters in
order that, by new constraints, they may be made
to become void. They are void already. For,
by self-evidence, the very principles upon which
they are founded are contra bonos mores ; and
though fifty legislatures had decreed it, not one


such covenant can show cause why the seal of the
commonwealth and the signatures of her offi-
cers should not be torn from it, and one of the
most solemn of all public trusts returned to those
official hands that, before God, the world, and
the State, have no right to part with it.



Burke said that no man could draw an indictment
broad enough to cover a whole nation, but Mr. G. VV.
Cable has accomplished it in very brief space, in " The
Silent South." One charge in substance is that the
Southern courts and juries, not in a few scattered and
occasional cases, but habitually and generally, prosti-
tute their offices and perjure themselves to convict the
blacks of crime ; that they affix a punishment, on the
average, five times as great upon a negro as upon a
white man for the same offence in the same courts;
that whereas the penalty for burglary is greater than for
larceny, the courts indict and convict a negro of burglary
who has only committed larceny, or, indeed, no offence
at all ; and that these enormities are perpetrated in obe-
dience to a public sentiment in favor of oppressing the

That far more blacks than whites, in proportion to
numbers, in the Southern States are convicted of crime
is unhappily only too true. This must of necessity re-
sult from one of two causes ; either the blacks are the
criminal class, or justice is prostituted and judges, wit-
nesses, jurors, and people indulge easily and without
scruple in perjury. Mr. Cable rejects the former so-
lution and accepts the latter, and this in face of the fact
that no man anywhere in the United States can be tried
for felony without being furnished with a copy of the
indictment and confronted with his accusers, and having
the aid of counsel and the right to summon witnesses.
24 185


I propose to test the truth and accuracy of Mr. Cable's
statements by official documents, which happily are at
hand, and to show that he has made the grossest mis-
statements, to the prejudice of the Southern whites, in
many important particulars.

He opens his indictment by charging that for larceny
alone "such sentences are imposed as twelve, fourteen,
fifteen, twenty, and in one case forty years of penal ser-
vice, whose brutal tasks and whippings kill in an aver-
age of five years."

No such penalties as these are allowed by law in any
Southern State, unless for a second offence. I have ex-
amined the criminal codes of most of them, and find
that in Georgia, to which Mr. Cable particularly refers,
the general crime of larceny is divided into: i. Theft or
larceny from the person. 2. Simple theft or larceny.
3. Theft or larceny from the house. 4. Theft or larceny
after a trust or confidence has been delegated or re-

The penalties are : Horse-stealing confinement in the
penitentiary not less than four nor more than twenty
years. Cattle-stealing not less than two nor more
than four years. Larceny from the person not less than
two nor more than five years. Larceny from the house
not less than one nor more than ten years.

Want of space prevents similar quotations from other
codes in the South, but in none of them are such penal-
ties allowed as Mr. Cable indicates, and it is not credible
that any judge would venture to put upon the records
of his court a sentence against a prisoner for a longer
term than the law affixed.

Proceeding with the counts of the indictment in the
order made, we come to this:


I8 7

" Larceny is the peculiar crime of the poorest classes everywhere. In
all* penitentiaries out of the South, the convicts for this offence always*
exceed, and generally double, the number of convicts for burglary. Lar-
ceny has long been called the peculiar crime of the negro criminal. What
then shall we say to the facts, deduced from official records, that in the
Georgia penitentiary and convict camps there were, in 1882, twice as many
colored convicts for burglary as larceny, and that they were, moreover,
serving sentences averaging nearly twice the average of the white convicts
in the same places for the same crime."

Not only in the South, but everywhere else, burglary
is regarded as a more serious offence than larceny, and
the penalty affixed to it is greater. But Mr. Cable says
that the courts, the officers of the law, and the juries
take advantage of this difference of penalty to send a
negro to the penitentiary who has been guilty of larceny
or some other inferior crime. Fortunately, the records
are accessible to refute this statement, and the exam-
ples of the two great States of New York and Ohio are
sufficient for the purpose.

Official reports give the following facts on this point :
That in the two Northern States of New York and Ohio
there were eight hundred and ninety convicts for bur-
glary and only seven hundred and seventy for larceny;
and in the four Southern States of South Carolina,
Florida, Alabama, and Georgia there were seven hun-
dred and forty-seven for burglary and seven hundred
and eighty for larceny. In the Northern States quoted
the convicts for burglary outnumber those for larceny
and in the Southern States just the reverse is the case,
and thus this count in the indictment is successfully

The next count states, " We are far from overlooking
the depravity of the negro. But those who rest on this
cheap explanation are bound to tell us which shows the
greater maliciousness: for one man to be guilty of hog-

* Italicised only here.


stealing, or for twelve jurors to send him to the coal-
mines for twenty years for doing it?" I have already
shown that such a sentence as this could not be ren-
dered in any Southern State ; unless possibly in a rare
and occasional case, where the convict, after being once
tried and sentenced, continued to repeat the offence,
each time incurring an increased penalty. And the
world even its philanthropists will not be inclined to
think that a persistent and irreclaimable criminal like
this is entitled to expect anything but the maximum

Next comes this from Mr. Cable's prolific reservoir:

1 In Georgia, outside of her prisons, there are eight whites to every
seven blacks. Inside, there are eight whites to every eighty blacks. The
depravity of the negro may explain away much, but we cannot know how
much while there also remain in force the seductions of our atrocious con-
vict-lease system, and our attitude of domination over the blacks, so subtly
dangerous to our own integrity."

By this he means to say that courts and juries in
Georgia send colored men to the penitentiary merely to
afford a few citizens the opportunity of getting convict

But if it can be demonstrated that in the Northern
States as well as in the Southern crime is much more
common and flagrant among the colored race than the
white, and that in this respect the sections stand on a
common platform, then Mr. Cable will be compelled to
fall back upon the proposition that the black man and
woman are more prone to crime than the white. Once
more the official records are needed, and referring to
them, and taking some of the leading States, both
North and South, what is developed?

In the Alabama penitentiary there are about seven
and a half colored convicts to one white. In Georgia
the ratio is nine colored to one white. But in the Dis-
trict of Columbia, according to the census of 1880, there


are 115,446 whites and 62,596 blacks, or nearly two
whites to one black. And yet from January, 1881 ( I
quote from data given in the " Agricultural Review "
for May, 1884, the accuracy of which I have verified by
personal examination), to November, 1882, there were
two hundred and fifty-three convictions for felony in the
District of Columbia sixty-four whites and one hundred
and eighty-nine colored.

In the State of New York there are 5,016,022 whites
and 95.104 colored people, a proportion of about
seventy-seven to one. But in the three State prisons of
Sing-Sing, Auburn, and Clinton there are 2395 whites
and 178 blacks about thirteen and a half whites to one
black. Or, to state it as Mr. Cab'e does, in New York,
outside of her State prisons there are seventy-seven
white persons to one black ; inside, there are only thir-
teen and a half to one.

In Ohio there are 3,117,920 whites and 79,900 blacks
a ratio of thirty-nine to one. In the penitentiary there
are six hundred and three white convicts, and ninety-
four colored a ratio of six and a half to one. And in
all the State prisons there were 1081 white convicts and
190 colored a ratio of five and two-thirds to one.
Again stating it as Mr. Cable does, in Ohio, outside of
prisons, there are thirty-nine whites to one black ; inside,
six whites to one black.

In the city where our national Government is located,
where Congress is effusive in its care of the colored
people, where Howard University bestows its benign
influence, and in the great States of New York and
Ohio, substantially the same state of things exists, as to
the conviction of the colored race, as prevails in the
Southern States. This being the case, there can be but
one explanation : North as well as South the colored
race furnishes largely more criminals than the white,



and Southern courts, juries, witnesses, and people must
stand acquitted in the minds of all fair men of the
charges Mr. Cable brings against them.

It is in Georgia that Mr. Cable fancies he finds most
to condemn. One of his main causes of complaint is
that the courts inflict on colored convicts for larceny
sentences five times as great as on white convicts at the
same places. But the official report of the Georgia
penitentiary and convict-camps for the period from
October 20, 1882, to October 20, 1884, is conclusive on
the subject. I took one of the penitentiaries, where
there were five hundred and thirty-five convicts, and
went carefully through the sentences for larceny, put-
ting the whites in one column and the blacks in another,
and then ascertained the average of each. I found the
average sentence of tne white convicts for larceny was
actually greater than of the blacks ! That for the whites
was six years and one month, and for the blacks five
years and six months.

The most cruel of all the charges which Mr. Cable
has published against the people of the South is when
he characterizes its penal service as one "whose brutal
tasks and whippings kill in an average of five years."
This is predicated specially of Georgia, but the official
reports are once more available to contradict and dis-
prove, in the most conclusive manner possible, this
dreadful aspersion. Dr. Westmoreland, the physician
having general charge of all the penitentiaries, reports
that from the ist of January, 1884, to October 2oth of the
same year there were sixteen hundred and thirty-nine
convicts in all the penitentiaries, and during that period
there were only thirty-eight deaths, twenty-eight from
acute or ordinary diseases, five from chronic or malig-
nant diseases, and five from accidents or violence. This
is really a low rate of mortality, and will compare


favorably with that existing in any city in the United
States, among the colored people. It is only twenty-
two to the thousand, while the mortuary reports for the
cities named below show in every case a greater per-
centage :

Richmond 37 to the 1000

Norfolk 34 "

Lynchburg 30 " "

Washington 32 " "

Mr. Cable speaks of the mines at which some of the
convicts are employed, in Georgia, as particularly fatal
to life, and denounces the treatment that the colored
convicts receive there. But let Dr. Westmoreland and
Mr. Nelms, the Marshal of Georgia, tell the facts about
these mines. I quote from the report relative to the
Dade coal-mines. There were three hundred and
seventy-five convicts working at these mines, and from
January i, 1884, to October 20, 1884, there were only two
deaths one from cancer and one from accident. The
physician says :

" The above table of sanitary statistics shows most excellent results,
particularly as to the mortuary list, as not one death has occurred from
ordinary camp or acute diseases nothing, certainly, that could be attributed
to the management of the camps or their surroundings. One was killed
from slate falling on him, and the other died from cancer. These favorable
results, in my opinion, are due to three causes : First, to the humane and
intelligent management of the officers directly in control of the camps, I
mean the physician and superintendent of the camps ; secondly to the well-
arranged and roomy prisons and hospitals ; and thirdly, not the least, and
perhaps above all, to the existence of a vegetable garden convenient to the
camps, of one hundred acres, in the highesf state of cultivation, thus fur-
nishing, the year round, that variety of fresh vegetables so essential to the
health of men in confinement."

And Mr. Nelms, the Marshal of Georgia, in reply to a
question asked him by myself as to the relative advan-
tages and disadvantages of the old penitentiary system
and the convict-lease system, answers :



"Your second question is, Is the treatment of the convicts as humane
under the present system as under the former penitentiary system ? I have
no hesitation in answering that it is more humane. They have a great deal
more outdoor exercise, they are as well fed, they are as comfortably clad,
they are as humanely treated, and worked as moderately, as they ever were
within the walls of the penitentiary, under the former system ; and being
out in the open air a great deal more, their health is generally better, and
they are more cheerful and contented than the convicts under the former
system were."

The two races are nearly equal in numbers in the
Southern States ; the blacks have the right of suffrage
and all the other political rights that belong to the
whites. Upon the conduct of the negro depends in a
large degree the destiny of the white man ; and no one
who is not given over to a blind hatred of the Southern
white race can believe that they desire anything but the
success and prosperous advancement of those who are
to be their neighbors and coadjutors in the matters that
interest both.

Mr. Cable imputes much " domination " over the
blacks to the Southern whites. If he means this term
as synonymous with oppression or wrong, I deny it em-
phatically. But the Southern whites are Anglo-Saxons,
and in one sense that race dominates all others with
which it comes in contact red, black, or white. By
virtue of superior energy and force of character they
remand other people to a secondary and subordinate
position. In this sense, and this only, does "domina-
tion " exist in the Southern States.

I ask fair and candid men everywhere to judge the
Southern whites by official facts, which certainly afford
the best tests by which to measure their conduct to their
colored fellow-citizens.






Ex SENATOR JOHNSTON seems to me to be a very
careless reader. In " The Silent South " I presented
certain official facts which on their face appear to jus-
tify the complaints of the colored people that they do
not get justice in court in the Southern States. And
then I wrote, "Shall we from these facts draw hasty con-
clusions? We draw none. If any one can explain them
away, in the name of humanity let us rejoice to see him
do so. We are far from charging any one with deliber-
ately prostituting justice." Does that sound like an
indictment ?

The utmost I can be said to have charged I can con-
dense here into an axiom : that nowhere on earth can
one people hold another people in political or civil
subjection, and forcibly monopolize the administration

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Online LibraryGeorge Washington CableThe silent South, together with the freedman's case in equity and the convict lease system → online text (page 11 of 13)