J. C Powell.

The American Siberia; or, Fourteen years' experience in a southern convict camp online

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In the fall of 1876 a singular spectacle might
have been observed at the little town of Live Oak,
in Northern Florida. A train had just arrived, and
from one of the cars some thirty odd men disem-
barked and formed in irregular procession by the
road-side. The sun never shone upon a more abject
picture of misery and dilapidation. They were
gaunt, haggard, famished, wasted with disease,
smeared with grime, and clad in filthy tatters.
Chains clattered about their trembling limbs, and
so inhuman was their aspect that the crowd of
curiosity seekers who had assembled around the
depot shrank back appalled.

These thirty starved and half -dying wretches
were about half of the convicts of the State of
Florida. They were those who had emerged alive
from as awful an experience as men were ever fated
to undergo. Florida had shortly before passed from
radical rule. Governor Sterns had been superseded
by George F. Drew, now a merchant in Jacksonville,
and with the change of administration came a gen-



eral overhauling of state institutions, including the
penal system. Prior to that time a penitentiary
had been maintained in a very old building at Chat-
tahoochee, since remodeled and used as an insane
asylum. The state was poor, largely unsettled,
torn with political strife, and as might have been
expected, the prison was run in a rather happy-go-
lucky fashion, and the history of its early years is
a story of experiments, expedients and make-shifts
of which little or no record was kept.

I do not pretend to say whose fault it was. A
man named Martin was warden, and the place was
horror's den. He had been placed in charge of the
building during the war, at a time when it was used
as an arsenal. The state got rid of its criminals
by turning them over bodily to him, and paid him
bonuses amounting to over $30,000 for accepting the
charge. He had vast vineyards and worked the con-
victs in them, manufacturing all kinds of wine, at
which he made a fortune. There were no restric-
tions whatever placed upon him by the state. The
punishments consisted of stringing up by the
thumbs, "sweating" and "watering." The first ex-
plains itself; sweating was shutting up in a close
box-cell without ventilation or light; and the last
named was no less than the celebrated torture prac-
ticed during the Spanish Inquisition under the
name of the "ordeal by water." Accounts of it
given by historians are almost identical with the
method then in vogue at Chattahoochee. The pris-


oner was strapped down, a funnel forced into his
mouth and water poured in. The effect was to enor-
mously distend the stomach, producing not only
great agony but a sense of impending death, due to
pressure on the heart, that unnerved the stoutest.
When deaths occurred, as they did quite frequently,
the remains were wrapped in a blanket and buried
in a shallow trench that barely covered the remains
from the air. Some horrible stories, too revolting
to repeat in detail, are told of graves desecrated by
domestic animals, and there was no record kept of
the dead or those who escaped. In brief, the state
turned over its charges body and soul, and thence-
forth washed its hands of them. And this was not
in the middle ages or Siberia, but in these United
States, about a decade and a half ago.

During this administration escapes were frequent,
and there are some tragic stories connected with
them. The guards were often negro convicts, and
the old maxim of slavery days, that a black overseer
was the crudest to his race, was proven time and
again. One day a prisoner, a white man, made his
escape and succeeded in penetrating tr>3 wilds of
La Fayette County, some seventy miles to the
south. In that section of Florida there are not
only dense and trackless forests, but they are inter-
sected by wide lagoons and palmetto flats, in which
the tropical monotony of the scene is such that a
man may wander for days and not be positive that
he has made any actual progress. None dare vent-


ure into these wastes save trained backwoodsmen,
and even they are often lost in the forest laby-

In this natural man-trap the convict found him-
self. It was impossible to track him through such
a jungle, infested as it was by wild beasts, alliga-
tors and horrible reptile life from the swamps, and
there he was left to his fate. Months afterward a
party of adventurous hunters discovered a sodden
bundle of rags in a very lonely spot in the woods.
They disturbed the unsightly rubbish and lay bare
the bones of a man. The tatters of clothing bore
the tell-tale prison stripes, and by a peculiarity of
the shoes, one of them being a convict's brogan
and the other a gaiter, the remains were identified
as those of the fugitive who had disappeared in
the forest. It was a dreadful death, alone in that
awful solitude, and could the story of what he suf-
fered be told in its entirety it would doubtless put
romance to shame.

The story of this regime is one of almost unre-
lieved barbarity, and the absence of records make
it almost impossible to give an idea of the state of
affairs, except by isolated instances. For example:
the guards were armed with muskets and bayonets.
The latter were carried fixed, and when the squadi
returned at night they were called into frequent
requisition to keep laggards in line. Often a man
would drop of fatigue, and he would be instantly
and mercilessly prodded with the cruel steel.


The legs and backs of nearly all of the convicts
were covered with the scars of bayonet-wounds.
The squads were run in, in this manner, to make it
possible to work them up to the latest moment.

On one occasion there was a prisoner who gave con-
siderable trouble by reason of his frequent attempts
to escape. His name has been lost, but his number
was forty-seven. At last he formed a plot to levant
through one of the windows, and a fellow-prisoner
who was in his confidence betrayed him to the offi-
cers. This furnished a good opportunity to get rid
of him, and guards were stationed before the win-
dows all night, to kill him as he came out. How-
ever, he suspected something wrong, and did not
come. Next morning he was placed in the black-
smith shop and purposely left alorle near an open
window. The temptation was too great and he
made his way through, to be shot dead by a guard
who lay ambushed for him outside. I have these
statements from the then deputy warden of the
prison, who is now a resident of Jacksonville, and
there is no doubt of their accuracy.

At last, shortly before the close of Governor
Stern's administration, a great scandal, growing out
of these atrocities, became so imminent, that a sort
of compromise between the prison and the lease
systems was effected. The convicts were divided;

about half were sent to build a railroad between St.
John and Lake Eustace, and the balance were left

under Martin. It was hardly an improvement.


The line of the proposed railroad was through st
virgin wilderness; there seems to have been no at-
tention whatever paid to proper equipments, and
the story of that terrible journey stands unparal-
leled in criminal annals. Dozens of those who
went into the tropical marshes and palmetto jun-
gles of Lake Eustace went to certain death. There
was no provision made for either shelter or sup-
plies. Rude huts were built of whatever material
came tp hand, and in the periods of heavy rain it
was no unusual thing for the convicts to awake in
the morning half submerged in mud and slime,
The commissary department dwindled into nothing
I do not mean that there was some food or a little
food, but that there was no food at all. In this
extremity, the convicts were driven to live as the
wild beasts, except that they were only allowed the
briefest intervals from labor to scour the woods ior
food. They dug up roots and cut the tops from
"cabbage" palmetto trees. Noble Hawkins, a tew-
year Nassau convict, lived for fourteen days on
nothing but palmetto tops and a little salt, and his
case was but one of many.

Of course there is a limit to human endurance.
It was not long before the camp was ravaged by
every disease induced by starvation and exposure.
The pestilential swamps were full of fever, and
skin maladies; scurvy and pneumonia ran riot.
Dysentery was most common, and reduced the men
to a point of emaciation difficult to describe or to


credit. Every stopping-place was a shambles, and
the line of survey is punctuated by grave-yards.

The camp was at different times in charge of va-
rious captains, and under some of them the pun-
ishments were excessive. Hanging up by the
thumbs was usually resorted to, and this led, one
night, to a grisly tragedy. A negro convict was
strung up for some infraction of the rules. Whip-
cords were fastened around his thumbs, the loose
ends flung over a convenient limb and made taut
until his toes swung clear of the ground. The
scared convicts huddled about the camp-fire and
watched their comrade as he writhed, and yelled ex-
pecting every moment that the cords would be un-
fastened and his agony ended. But the captain had
determined to make a salutary example, and he let
the negro hang. Meantime the poor wretch's an-
guish was a hideous thing to see. They say his
muscles knotted into cramps under the strain, his
eyes started from his head, and sweat ran from his
body in streams. An hour passed then two. His
shrieks had ceased and his strugglss grown feeble,
so they let him down and he fell to the ground like
a log dead.

It was then that the captain realized what a mon-
strous thing he had done, and he deserted his post,
slunk away in the night, and was never heard of
again. Here was a study for an artist. Night in
the palmetto woods, the flaming camp-fire outlin-
ing the circle of frightened convicts and the miser-


able barracks where they slept, the distorted corpse
upon the ground, and the panic-stricken officer
creeping away among the trees.

Soon after the Drew administration assumed the
state government, the horrible condition of affairs
which I have outlined forced a change of some
character. The building at Chattahoochee was en-
tirely unsuited for prison purposes, and the lease
system was turned to, as a last resort, very much
as was the case when Georgia was saddled with
that institution. Advertisement was made for bids
and the Lake Eustace gang hired to Major H. A.
Wise, a general merchant of Live Oak. The bal-
ance were sub-leased to Green Cheers, a farmer who
lived in Leon County. My brother, W. F. Powell,
and myself were employed by Major Wise to take
charge of his camp, and thus began the system
which has been more or less under my eye ever

The ragged battalion who disembarked at Live
Oak were the survivors of those who had penetrated
the wild morasses of Lake Eustace. The major
part of them were negroes, but it was impossible to
tell, as they stood, who were white and who weie
black, so incrusted were they all with the accumu-
lated filth of months. The sight staggered me, but
I saw at once that the first business on hand was to
get them clean, and I ordered them to strip. It was
not a difficult task, as scarcely a man of them pos-
sessed a whole garment, and I burned the vermin*


swarming rags as fast as they were removed. Tubs
of water were placed along the line; they bathed,
and clean clothes were given them.

While this operation was in progress, my atten-
tion was attracted in particular to two white men,
by reason of the singular appearance of their hands.
They resembled the paws of certain apes, for
their thumbs, which were enormously enlarged at
the ends, were also quite as long as their index-fin-
gers, and the tips of all were on aline. This deform-
ity was occasioned by stringing up, and when one
stops to consider the amount of pressure necessary
to stretch out a man's thumb fully three inches,
some idea can be formed of the severity of the
punishment. The names of these two men were
Robert and Eugene Weaver. They were natives of
one of the northern states, and subsequently served
out their sentence and were discharged by me.

Another member of the squad was a negro named
Cy Williams, and as he had had a rather extraor-
dinary history, I may as well tell it at this point.
He was the first prisoner received by the State of
Florida, and was entered in the books as* No. i.
He did not know his age, but when he was a mere
pickaninny, running about in the one garment that
forms the costume of all negro youngsters in the
South, he was arrested for stealing a horse. He
was not large. enough to mount the animal, and was
caught in the act of leading it off by the halter, for
wfcich he was duly sentenced to twenty years impris-


onment. Warden Martin was somewhat puzzled to
know what to do with so small a convict, but he
finally invented a task that certainly reflects credit
upon his ingenuity. He placed two bricks at each
end of the prison yard, and giving the black baby
two more, ordered him to carry them to one of the
piles, lay them down, pick up the other two, which
in turn he carried to the further end, exchanged
again, and soon back and forth all daylong, always
carrying two bricks. He was warned that he
would be whipped if he failed to pile the bricks
neatly or broke any of them. He grew up at the
task, and the constant abrasion of merely picking up
and laying down wore out four sets of bricks be-
fore he was put to other labor. Owing to the ab-
sence of all system, he received no commutation upon
the first ten years he served, but on the balance of
the sentence he received what is called in Florida
"gain time," making the entire sentence seventeen
years and some months.

Major Wise leased the prisoners with rather
vague speculative views, and the squad was sent
originally to the Santa Fe River, where they were
employed for some months in "ranging" timber.
Meantime he closed a contract with Dutton, Ruff
& Jones, dealers in turpentine, rosin and naval
stores, by which he engaged to deliver "gum" from
the vast tracts of pine woods owned by the firm
in the vicinity of Live Oak. The leading spirit of
the firm was Major Charles K. Dutton, of New York


City, who subsequently occupied about the same
relation to the lease system in Florida as that of
Senator Joseph Brown in Georgia.

It was evident that very few of these men were
able to stand the exhausting labor of turpentine
culture, and that it would be necessary to first get
them into condition. However, we went into camp
in the woods near a little station called Padlock.
There we built a rude log-house, twenty by forty
feet, for sleeping quarters. Like Solomon's temple,
it was erected without the sound of hammer, and
the roof vvas secured by a curious system of pegs
and weights. There was not a nail in the structure,
and it was altogether a fine specimen of wild wood-
craft. On each side two sloping platforms ran
from end to end, one built over the other, like berths
in a steamboat. The prisoners slept on them, and
midway between the two a long chain was stretched
at night-time, on which they were strung by means
of smaller chains fastened to their leg-irons. These
latter were technically known as "waist-chains, " and
were attached in turn to the "stride-chain," which
passed from shackle to shackle, with play enough
to enable a man to walk by taking fairly short
steps. As both stride and waist chains were riveted
on, it would appear at first glance impossible for a
man to remove his pants with his ankles thus
fastened together, and in fact, when we first
received the convicts, they wore them buttoned down
the outside of the leg, like Mexican vanqueros.


But in time they learned to draw the garment down
between the ankle and the iron, and then up and
out; a simple but ingenious process, and slashed
trousers were abandoned.

The front of this "cell-house," as it was
termed, was not sealed solidly, but slatted, so as
to permit a view of the interior at any time.
At night it was lighted by pine knots burned on a
sort of pyre in the middle of the floor, and a watch-
man sat with loaded rifle in front. The routine of
locking up the men was about as follows: As they
returned trom work they filed in and took their
places on the sleeping-platform. The building
chain was then passed through a ring at the end of
each man's waist-chain and made fast outside. A
squad of guards were ready, torches in hand, and
proceeded to rapidly scrutinize each link of the
irons, a process familiarly known in camp as "chain
search." This over, supper was served and eaten,
and after a short interval a bell rang for every man
to lie down. That was the last thing in order for
the night, and if any convict desired to move or
change his position thereafter it was required tfeat
he first call to the night guard and obtain his per-
mission. I may say that the same system, with
some immaterial modifications, is the one in vogue
at the present day.

We named our camp "Padlock," after the station.
Besides the cell-house, there were buildings of the
same primitive character for the guards, but there


was no stockade, and the cooking was done hunter-
fashion, on a bank of dirt under a lean-to shelter.
The kettles and pots were suspended over it by bits
of wire, and, in brief, all the other appointments
were on the same scale. The food consisted of fat
"white bacon," corn-bread and cow-peas the latter
a small red variety indigenous to the South. They
were wretchedly prepared, of course, and in summer-
time I have often taken my penknife and scraped
off a literal stratum of gnats from the top of the
pea pan before sending it to the men.

We discarded the old methods of punishment from
the start, and adopted the strap, which has been
used ever since to enforce discipline, and has of
late years been adopted by state law. It consists
of a sect ion of tough leather about afoot and a half
long by three inches broad, and attached to a wood-
en handle. The castigation is applied below the
loins, and the convict placed upon his knees with his
palms on the ground. The clothing is then drawn
back and the leather applied until, in the judgment
of the captain, a sufficient punishment has been ad-
ministered. There is no legal restriction, and never
was, as to the number of blows, the frequency of
punishment or by whom it shall be applied; but
the rul has been that the warden, his assistant or
the captain in direct charge of the camp, shall do
the whipping. During the time that I was at the
head of the lease system, I allowed no one else to
administer punishment, as the matter was always un-


avoidably the source of more or less outside criticism,
and I did not wish responsibility to be divided.

To return to the camp, the prisoners were worked
in the woods in a radius of a few miles, and con-
veyed to and from the spot on what was known as
a "squad-chain." In principle it was similar to a
building-chain, but it was shorter and lighter, and
the men were strung upon it by the rings of their
waist-chains like ribs from a central vertebrae.
Every man went on a trot. They kept this gait up
all day long, from tree to tree, and as the labor is
exhausting in the extreme, I have frequently seen
men on their way back to camp drop of fatigue, and
their comrades on the squad-chain drag them a
dozen yards through the dirt before the pace
could be checked so as to enable them to regain
their feet. There would be a prodigious clatter of
iron, a cloud of dust, a volley of imprecation, and
the fallen man would stagger up, dash the dirt
out of his eyes, and go reeling and running on.

But these scenes came latter on, for the camp was
for a long time virtually a hospital. I found the
dysentery, with which most of the men were af-
fected, almost impossible to check, and the mortal-
ity was terrible. The disease was of the same char-
acter as that which was so prevalent on both
sides during the war, and many a corpse interred
at Sing Sing was almost literally nothing but skin
and bones. No records were kept of the number
of deaths, and I am unable at this lapse of time to


estimate them with accuracy, but it was a large
proportion of our prisoners, and it was nearly a
year before the balance were in what might be
termed fairly good condition.

I shall frequently have occasion in this narrative
to speak of trailing convict runaways with hounds,
and I know that there is a prevalent impression
that bloodhounds are employed for the purpose.
This is an error, and I believe that the first and only
experiment of that sort was made at the beginning
of the Wise lease. Major Wise sent to New York
and procured two imported blood-hounds of pure
strain one a male and the other a female. They
were sent originally to the Santa Fe River, to the
logging-camp, but afterward transferred to us at
Padlock. The male died from the effects of the
^urney, but the other arrived in tolerably fair condi-
tion, and was certainly a formidable brute. She was
as large as a calf, pied like a leopard, and looked
less like a dog than some unknown wild beast. She
spread consternation among the natives, and when
they happened to encounter me with her they would
abandon the road and take to the tall timber. I
called the dog Flora.

The experiment was not a success. Beyond the
intimidation of her appearance Flora had no espe-
cial value, and was vastly inferior to a deer-hound
as a trailer. The hot climate proved too much for
her, and she eventually succumbed to it and took
the hydrophobia. I shut her up in a shed upon


the first appearance of the symptoms, and the great
brute, howling, foaming and dashing herself against
the walls in her paroxysms, was a spectacle of such
terror that none dare approach her. She crunched
some heavy boxes that happened to lie inside abso-
lutely into splinters, and in one of the fits she

The fact is that fox-hounds are used for man-
hunting in nearly all the southern convict camps.
They are probably a trifle less keen of scent than a
deer-hound, but they have also a slower gait, which
is an advantage, inasmuch as it enables the horse-
men to keep up with them. But at any rate, their
marvelous powers of following a trail hours after
it has been made, holding it through turns and
back-tracks and over traveled roads, almost sur-
passes belief. The fox-hound used for the purpose
is slightly larger than a full-blooded pointer, and
built a little heavier about the shoulders, but resem-
bles it in general contour of the body. The head,
however, is that of the typical hound long-eared,
sad-faced and deep-jowled. I can affirm that some
of them are natural man-hunters, just as a colt is
occasionally born with a natural trotting-gait. In
training puppies at the camp it was my custom to
order one of the "trusties" to run a few miles through
the woods, and then put the dogs on his track. I
have known them to trail the man over the most
intricate routes, and eventually follow up his track
into the cell-house and pick out the identical trusty


where he lay, among a hundred other men, upon
the sleeping-platform.

Another popular error in regard to chasing with
hounds is that they attack the prisoner when they
run up upon him. Such is by no means the case.
The hounds are always closely followed by horse-
men, and if they once get out of sight and sound
the pursuit might as well be abandoned. In brief,
they are simply guides, and when once the game is
brought to bay, they are too wary to venture close
enough to run the risk of a blow. I have known
cases where dogs have been killed, but the convict
invariably employed some strategy to entice them
in range. On one or two occasions men have hid-

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Online LibraryJ. C PowellThe American Siberia; or, Fourteen years' experience in a southern convict camp → online text (page 1 of 19)