Julian Hawthorne.

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In the cell over mine at night
A step goes to and fro
From barred door to iron wall -
From wall to door I hear it go,
Four paces, heavy and slow,
In the heart of the sleeping jail:
And the goad that drives, I know!

I never saw his face or heard him speak;
He may be Dutchman, Dago, Yankee, Greek;
But the language of that prisoned step
Too well I know!

Unknown brother of the remorseless bars,
Pent in your cage from earth and sky and stars,
The hunger for lost life that goads you so,
I also know!

Hour by hour, in the cell overhead,
Four footfalls, to and fro
'Twixt iron wall and barred door -
Back and forth I hear them go -
Four footfalls come and go!
I wake and listen in the night:
Brother, I know!

_(Written in Atlanta Penitentiary,
May, 1913.)_







These chapters were begun the day after I got back to New York from the
Atlanta penitentiary, and went on from day to day to the end. I did not
know, at the start, what the thing would be like at the finish, and I made
small effort to make it look shapely and smooth; but the inward impulse in
me to write it, somehow, was irresistible, in spite of the other impulse
to go off somewhere and rest and forget it all. But I felt that if it were
not done then it might never be done at all; and done it must be at any
cost. I had promised my mates in prison that I would do it, and I was
under no less an obligation, though an unspoken one, to give the public an
opportunity to learn at first hand what prison life is, and means. I had
myself had no conception of the facts and their significance until I
became myself a prisoner, though I had read as much in "prison literature"
as most people, perhaps, and had for many years thought on the subject of
penal imprisonment. Twenty odd years before, too, I had been struck by
William Stead's saying, "Until a man has been in jail, he doesn't know
what human life means." But one does not pay that price for knowledge
voluntarily, and I had not expected to have the payment forced upon me. I
imagined I could understand the feelings of a prisoner without being one.
I was to live to acknowledge myself mistaken. And I conceive that other
people are in the same deceived condition. So, with all the energy and
goodwill of which I am capable, I set myself to do what I could to make
them know the truth, and to ask themselves what should or could be done to
end a situation so degrading to every one concerned in it, from one end of
the line to the other. The situation, indeed, seems all but incredible.
Your first thought on being told of it is, It must be an exaggeration or a
fabrication. On the contrary, words cannot convey the whole horror and
shamefulness of it.

I am conscious of having left out a great deal of it. I found as I went on
with this writing that the things to be said were restricted to a few
categories. First, the physical prison itself and the routine of life in
it must be stated. That is the objective part. Then must be indicated the
subjective conditions, those of the prisoner, and of his keepers - what the
effect of prison was upon them. Next was to come a presentation of the
consequences, deductions and inferences suggested by these conditions.
Finally, we would be confronted with the question, What is to be done
about it? Such are the main heads of the theme.

But I was tempted to run into detail. Here I will make a pertinent
disclosure. During my imprisonment I was made the confidant of the life
stories of many of my brethren in the cells. I am receiving through the
mails, from day to day, up to the present time, other such tales from
released convicts. The aim of them is not to get their tellers before the
public and win personal sympathy, but to hold up my hands by supplying
data - chapter and verse - in support of the assertions I have made. They do
it abundantly; the stories bleed and groan before your eyes and ears, and
smell to heaven; the bluntest, simplest, most formless stuff imaginable,
but terrible in every fiber. Before I left prison I had accumulated a
considerable number of these narratives, and had made many notes of things
heard and seen - data and memoranda which I designed to use in the already
projected book which is now in your hands. Such material, however, would
have been confiscated by the Warden had its existence been known, and none
of it would have been permitted to get outside the walls openly. The only
thing to do, then, was to get it out secretly - by the "underground

There is an underground railroad in every penal institution. There is one
at Atlanta. I attempted to use it, but my freight got in the wrong car. A
prisoner whom I knew well and trusted came to me, and said he had found a
man who would undertake to pass the packet through the barriers; he had
already served such a need, and was anxious to do it in my case. This man
was also a prisoner of several years' standing, and with several years
yet to serve; he had recently applied for parole, but had been refused.
I met and talked with him, found him intelligent and circumspect, and
professedly eager to do his share toward helping me get my facts before
the world. He intimated that he was on favorable terms with one of the
guards or overseers who was inclined to help the prisoners, and would
take the packet out in his pocket and mail it to its address. I addressed
it to a friend of mine living near New York and on a certain prearranged
day I handed it to my confederate. He hid it inside his shirt, and that
was the last I saw of it.

The packet never turned up at its address, and it was only long after that
I was told what had occurred. My confederate wanted his parole badly, and
made a bargain with the Warden, by the terms of which his parole should be
granted in return for his delivering to the Warden my bundle of memoranda.
The terms were fulfilled on both sides, and my data are at this moment in
the Warden's safe, I suppose, along with the letter that I wrote during my
confinement to the Editor of the New York _Journal_ (mentioned in the text
of this book).

The Warden thought, perhaps, that the lack of my accumulated data would
prevent or embarrass me in writing my book. I thought so myself at first,
but had not long been at work before I found that the essential book
needed no data other than those existing in my memory and supplied by the
general theme; my material was not scant, but excessive. My knowledge
of prison and my opinions and arguments based upon that knowledge were
not subject to the Warden's confiscation, and they were quite enough to
make a book of themselves, without need of dates, places, names and
illustrations. Indeed, even of such supplementary and confirmatory matter
I also found an adequate amount in my own unaided recollection - more
than I cared to give space to; for it was my belief that such things
were not required to secure confidence in the truth of what I had to say
in the minds of persons whose confidence was worth my winning. They would
believe me because they couldn't help it - because truth has a quality
which compels belief. Moreover, of illustrations of my statements the
public had of late had more than enough from other sources; what was now
wanted was not so much instances of the facts, as a general presentation
of the subject into which special and apposite cases could be fitted
by the reader according to his previously acquired information. Finally,
I reflected that the introduction of names, places and dates might injure
the men thus pointed out; secret service men, post-office inspectors and
other spies, and the prison authorities themselves, would be prompted
and helped to give them trouble. Accordingly, I was sparing even of such
data as I had; and I noticed, as the chapters appeared serially in the
newspaper syndicate which published them, that they were criticised in
certain quarters as of the "glittering generality" class of writings;
I made assertions, but adduced no specific proof of them. The source of
such criticisms was obvious enough, but they did no harm, and were not
accompanied by denials of my facts. The only other form of attack brought
against the book is comprised in the claim that I am a writer of fiction
and as such incapable of telling the truth, about anything; that I was the
dupe of designing persons who made me the mouthpiece for their factitious
grievances or spites; and that I was myself animated by a spirit of
revenge for the injury of my imprisonment, which must render anything I
might allege against prisons and their conduct worthless.

I have touched upon the two latter counts of the indictment in the text of
the book; of the assertion that fiction writers cannot stick to facts or
convey truth, I will say that it is unreasonable upon its face. Fiction
writers, in order to attain any measure of success in their calling, must
above all things base their structures upon facts, and to seek and
promulgate undeniable truth in their descriptions and analyses. The
"fiction" part of their stories is the merest outside part; all within
must be true, or it is nothing. A novelist or story writer, therefore, is
more likely to give a true version of any event or condition he may be
required to present, than a person trained in any other form of writing,
with the exception, perhaps, of journalism. And I have been a journalist,
as well as a story writer, for more than thirty years past, and what
success I attained was due to the accuracy and veracity of the reports I
sent to my papers. In short, I am a trained observer of facts if ever
there were one; and no facts in my experience have been so thoroughly
hammered into my mind, heart and soul, digested and appreciated, as were
the facts of my prison life. Whatever else that I have written might be
cavilled at on the plea of inaccuracy, certainly this book cannot be.
Whether the statements which it contains be feebly or strongly put may
properly be questioned, but none of them can be successfully denied.

But this aspect of the matter gives me small uneasiness. The important
consideration is, will the book, assuming that it is accepted as the
truth, do the work, or any large part of the work, which it was designed
to do? Will readers be influenced by it to practical action; will it be an
effective element in the forces that are now rising up to make wickedness
and corruption less than they are? The proposal toward which the book
points and in which it ultimates is so radical and astounding - nothing
less than that _Penal Imprisonment for Crime be Abolished_ - that the
author can hardly escape the apprehension that the mass of the public will
dismiss it as preposterous and impossible. And yet nothing is more certain
in my opinion than that penal imprisonment for crime must cease, and if it
be not abolished by statute, it will be by force. It must be abolished
because, alarming or socially destructive though alternatives to it may
appear, it is worse than any alternative, being not only dangerous, but
wicked, and it breeds and multiplies the evils it pretends to heal or
diminish. It is far more wicked and dangerous than it was a thousand or a
hundred years ago, because society is more enlightened than it was then,
and the multitude now exercise power which was then confined to the few.
Whatever person or society knowingly and wilfully permits the existence
of a wickedness which it might extirpate, makes itself a party thereto,
and also inflames the wickedness itself. And the ignorance or the
impotence which we could plead heretofore in history, we cannot plead
to-day. We know, we have power, and we must act; if we shrink from
acting, action will be taken against us by powers which cannot be
estimated or controlled. This book is meant to confirm our knowledge and
to stimulate and direct, in a measure, our action; and to avert, if
possible, the consequences of not acting. Its individual power may be
slight; but it should be the resolve of every honest and courageous man
and woman to add to it the weight of their own power. Wonderful things
have been accomplished before now by means which seemed, in their
beginning, as inadequate and weak as this.

In the sixth chapter of the Book of Joshua you may read the great type and
example of such achievements, the symbol of every victory of good over
evil, the thing that could not be done by man's best power, skill and
foresight, accomplished, with God to aid, by a breath. The defensive
strength of Jericho was greater, compared with the means of attack then
known, than that of Sebastopol in the fifties of the last century, or of
Plevna in the seventies, or of Port Arthur a few years since. Those walls
were too high to be scaled, too massive to be beaten down, and they were
defended by a great king and his mighty men of valor. From any moral point
of view, the enterprise of destroying the city was hopeless. Nor did the
Lord add anything to such weapons of offense as Joshua already possessed.
Seven trumpets of rams' horns were the sole agents of the destruction
provided; and not the trumpets themselves, but the breath of the mouths of
the seven priests who should blow through them, should overthrow those
topless ramparts, and give the king and his army and his people into the
hand of the men of Israel. Were such a proposition presented to our
consideration to-day, we can imagine what would be the comments of the
Army and Navy departments, of Congress, of the editors of newspapers, of
witty paragraphers, and of the man on the street. Possibly the churches
themselves might hesitate before giving their support to such a plan of
war: "We must take the biblical stories in a figurative sense!" But stout
Joshua had seen the angel of the Lord, with his sword drawn, the night
before; and he knew nothing of figures of speech. He got the seven
trumpets of rams' horns, and put them in the hands of the seven priests,
and led the hosts of the Israelites round and round the walls of Jericho
day after day for six days, the trumpets blowing amain, and the hosts
silent. And on the seventh day, the hosts compassed the walls of the city
seven times; "And at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the
trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you
the city.... So the people shouted when the priests blew with the
trumpets; and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the
trumpets, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the walls fell
down flat, so that every man went up into the city, every man straight
before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that
was within the city."

Yes, the biblical stories are to be taken in a figurative sense; they
stand as symbols for spiritual actions in the nature of man; though that
is not to say that the events narrated did not actually take place as
recorded. But Joshua had faith; and faith in the hearts of the champions
of right begets fear in the hearts of supporters of wrong, and the
defenses they have so laboriously built up tumble distractedly about their
ears when the trumpets of the Lord blow and the people who believe in Him
utter a mighty shout. Our jails are our Jericho; the evils which they
encompass and protect are greater than the sins of that strong city; but a
breath may shatter them into irretrievable ruin. Not compromises; not
gradual and circumspect approaches; not prudent considerations of
political economy, nor sound sociological principles; but simple faith in
God and a blast on the ram's horn.

My business in this book was to show that penal imprisonment is an evil,
and its perpetuation a crime; that it does not reform the criminal but
destroys him body and soul; that it does not protect the community but
exposes it to incalculable perils; and that the assumption that a
criminal class exists among us separate and distinct from any and
the best of the rest of us is Pharisaical, false and wicked. The
"Subterranean Brotherhood" are our brothers - they are ourselves, unjustly
and vainly condemned to serve as scapegoats for the rest. What the
criminal instinct or propensity in a man needs is not seclusion, misery,
pain and despotic control, but free air and sunlight, free and cheerful
human companionship, free opportunity to play his part in human service,
and the stimulus, on all sides of him, of the example of such service.
Men enfeebled by crime are not cured by punishment, or by homilies and
precepts, but by taking off our coats and showing them personally how
honest and useful things are done. And let every lapse and failure on
their part to follow the example, be counted not against them, but
against ourselves who failed to convince them of the truth, and hold them
up to the doing of good. Had we been sincere and hearty enough, we would
have prevailed.

I do not underrate the difficulties; they are immeasurable; the hope seems
as forlorn as that of the Israelites against the walls of Jericho. But
they are forlorn and immeasurable only because, and so long as, we let our
selfish personal interests govern and mold our public and social action.
Altruism will not heal the inward sore, but at best only put on its
surface a plausible plaster which leaves the inward still corrupt; for
altruism is a policy and not an impulse, proceeding not from the heart but
from the intelligence - the policy of enlightened selfishness. It has
already been tried thoroughly, and proved thoroughly inefficient; it is
the motive power behind charitable organization; it breeds a cold,
impersonal, economic spirit in charity workers, and coldness, ingratitude
and resentment in those who are worked upon. It will not do to speak of
Tom, Dick and Harry as cases Nos. 1, 2 and 3. You must call them by name
and think of them as flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood, to whom
you owe more than they owe you, or than you can repay. Put a heart into
them by giving them your own heart; do not look down on them and advise
them, but at and into them and take counsel with them; or even up to them,
and learn from them. They know and feel much that you have never felt or

The book is full of shortcomings, imperfections, omissions, and
repetitions. But there is meaning and purpose in it, and I hope it may do
its work.




Conspiracies of silence - it is a common phrase; but it has never been
better illustrated than in regard to what goes on in prisons, here and in
other parts of the world. The conspiracy has been attacked sometimes, and
more of late than usual, and once in a while we have caught a glimpse of
what is occurring behind those smug, well-fitting doors. But they have
been mere glimpses, incoherent, obscure, often imaginative, or guesswork
based on scanty, incorrect, at any rate secondhand information; never yet
conclusive and complete. In England, Charles Dickens and Charles Reade
have personally visited prisons, talked with prisoners, written stories
that have stirred the world, and forced improvements. Great prisoners
like Kropotkin have related their experiences in Russia, and our own
George Kennan prompted us to congratulate ourselves, in our complacent
ignorance, that our methods of generating virtue out of crime were not
like those of the Russians. It was annoying, after this, to be assured by
writers in some of our magazines - called muckrakers by some, pioneers by
others - that after a sagacious, eager, well-equipped investigation into
our own prison conditions, peering into depths, interrogating convicts,
searching records, they had found little difference in principle between
our way of handling offenses against law, and that of our Cossack
neighbors. The latter are more sensational and red-blooded about it, that
is all. These revelations compelled some removals and a few reforms; but
they too failed to bring home livingly to public knowledge and
imagination the whole ugly, sluggish, vicious truth.

Then, only yesterday, an amiable, naive and impressionable young gentleman
underwent a week of amateur convictship in one of our jails, and came
forth tremulous with indignation and astonishment; though, obviously and
inevitably, he did not have to endure the one thing which, more than
hardship or torture, is the main evil of penal imprisonment - the feeling
of helplessness and outrage in the presence of a despotic and unrighteous
power, from which there is no appeal or escape. The convict has no rights,
no friends, and no future; the amateur may walk out whenever he pleases,
and will be received by an admiring family and friends, and extolled by
public opinion as a reformer who suffered martyrdom in the cause. Yet what
he has experienced and learned falls as far short of what convicts endure,
as the emotions of a theater-goer at a problem play (with a tango supper
awaiting him in a neighboring restaurant) fall short of the long-drawn
misery and humiliation of those who undergo in actuality what the play

Meanwhile, scores of animated humanitarians, penologists, criminologists,
theorists and idealists have consulted, resolved, recommended, and
agitated, striking hard but in the dark, and most of their blows going
wide. Commissioners and inspectors have appeared menacingly at prison
gates, loudly heralded, equipped with plenipotentiary powers; and the
gates have been thrown wide by smiling wardens and sympathetic
guards - tender hearted, big brained, gentle mannered people, their
mouths overflowing with honeyed words and bland assurances, their clubs
and steel bracelets snugly stowed away in unobtrusive pockets - who
have personally and assiduously conducted their honored visitors
through marble corridors, clean swept cells, spacious dining saloons,
sanctimonious chapels, studious libraries and sunny yards; and have
stood helpfully by while happy felons told their tales of cheerful hours
of industry alternating with long periods of refreshing exercise and
peaceful repose; nay, these officials will sometimes quite turn their
backs upon the confidences between prisoner and investigator, lest there
should seem to be even a shadow of restraint in the outpourings. "Is all
well?" - "All is well!" - "No complaints?" - "No complaints!" What, then,
could inspectors and commissioners do except bid a friendly and
apologetic adieu to their ingenuous entertainers, and go forth bearing in
each hand a pail of freshest whitewash? And if, during the colloquies,
any malignant prisoner had happened, in a burst of reckless despair, to
venture on an indiscreet disclosure, the visitors were allowed to get
well out of earshot before the thud of clubs on heads was heard, and the
groans of victims chained to bars in dark cells of airless stench,
underneath the self same polished floors which had but an hour before
resounded to paeans of eulogy and contentment.

This is not a fancy picture - no, not even of what is known to judges and
attorneys (but not to prisoners) as "The model penitentiary of America,"
down in sunny Georgia. Fancy is not needed to round out the tale to be
told of conditions existing and of things done and suffered in this age
and country, behind walls which shut in fellow creatures of ours whom
facile jurors and autocratic courts have sent to living death and to
worse than death in accordance with laws passed by legislatures for
the benefit of - What, or Whom? - Of the community? - Of social order
and security? - Of outraged morality? - Of the reform of convicts
themselves? - These questions may be considered as we go along. Meanwhile
we may take notice that a number of persons, more or less deserving, gain
their livelihood by the detection, indictment, arrest, conviction and
imprisonment of other persons more or less undeserving; and whether or
not these proceedings or any of them are rash or prudent, straight or
crooked, just or tyrannous, lenient or cruel, honest or corrupt - is of
secondary importance. What is of first importance is to supply fuel for

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Online LibraryJulian HawthorneThe Subterranean Brotherhood → online text (page 1 of 20)