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Published October, 1914

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Lest any one may charge me with extravagant optimism in regard to
convicts, or may think that to me every goose is a swan, I wish to say
that I have written only of the men - among hundreds of convicts - who
have most interested me; men whom I have known thoroughly and who never
attempted to deceive me. Every writer's vision of life and of humanity
is inevitably colored by his own personality, and I have pictured these
men as I saw them; but I have also endeavored, in using so much from
their letters, to leave the reader free to form his own opinion.
Doubtless the key to my own position is the fact that I always studied
these prisoners as men; and I tried not to obscure my vision by looking
at them through their crimes. In recalling conversations I have not
depended upon memory alone, as much of what was said in our interviews
was written out while still fresh in my mind.

I have no wish to see our prisons abolished; but thousands of
individuals and millions of dollars have been sacrificed to wrong
methods of punishment; and if we aim to reform our criminals we must
first reform our methods of dealing with them, from the police court to
the penitentiary.


_August 6, 1914._



I have often been asked: "How did you come to be interested in prisoners
in the first place?"

It all came about simply and naturally. I think it was W. F. Robertson
who first made clear to me the truth that what we put into life is of
far more importance than what we get out of it. Later I learned that
life is very generous in its returns for what we put into it.

In a quiet hour one day it happened that I realized that my life was out
of balance; that more than my share of things worth having were coming
to me, and that I was not passing them on; nor did I see any channel for
the passing on just at hand.

The one thing that occurred to me was to offer my services as teacher in
a Sunday-school. Now, I chanced to be a member of an Episcopal church
and their Sunday-school was held at an hour inconvenient for my
attendance; however, in our neighborhood was a Methodist church, and as
I had little regard for dividing lines among Christians I offered my
services the next Sunday to this Methodist Sunday-school. My preference
was for a class of young girls, but I was assigned as teacher to a class
of ten young men, of ages ranging between eighteen and twenty years, and
having the reputation of decided inclination toward the pomps and the
vanities so alluring to youth.

It was the season of revival meetings, and within a month every member
of my class was vibrating under the wave of religious excitement, and
each one in turn announced his "conversion." I hardly knew how to handle
the situation, for I was still in my twenties, and as an Episcopalian I
had never experienced these storm periods of religious enthusiasm. So
while the recent converts were rejoicing in the newly found grace, I was
considering six months later when a reaction might set in.

Toward the close of the revival one of the class said to me: "I don't
know what we're going to do with our evenings when the prayer-meetings
are over, for there's no place open every evening to the men in this
town except the saloons."

"We must make a place where you boys can go," was my reply.

What the class proceeded to do, then and there, was to form a club and
attractively furnish a large, cheerful room, to which each member had a
pass-key; and to start a small circulating library, at one stroke
meeting their own need and beginning to work outward for the good of the

The first contribution toward this movement was from a Unitarian friend.
Later, Doctor Robert Collyer - then preaching in Chicago - and Doctor E.
E. Hale, of Boston, each gave a lecture for the benefit of our infant
library. Thus from the start we were untrammelled by sectarianism, and
in three months a library was founded destined to become the nucleus of
a flourishing public library, now established in a beautiful Carnegie
building, and extending its beneficent influence throughout the homes,
the schools, and the workshops of the city.

Of course I was immensely interested in the class, and in the success of
their library venture, and as we had no money to pay for the services
of a regular librarian the boys volunteered their services for two
evenings in the week, while I took charge on Saturday afternoons. This
library was the doorway through which I entered the prison life.

One Saturday a little boy came into the library and handed me the
charming Quaker love story, "Dorothy Fox," saying: "This book was taken
out by a man who is in jail, and he wants you to send him another book."

Now, I had passed that county jail almost every day for years; its rough
stone walls and narrow barred windows were so familiar that they no
longer made any impression upon me; but it had not occurred to me that
inside those walls were human beings whose thoughts were as my thoughts,
and who might like a good story, even a refined story, as much as I did,
and that a man should pay money that he had stolen for three months'
subscription to a library seemed to me most incongruous.

It transpired that the prisoner was a Scotch boy of nineteen, who, being
out of work, had stolen thirty-five dollars; taking small amounts as he
needed them. According to the law of the State the penalty for stealing
any amount under the value of fifteen dollars was a sentence to the
county jail, for a period usually of sixty days; while the theft of
fifteen dollars or more was a penitentiary offence, and the sentence
never for less than one year. I quote the statement of the case of this
Scotch boy as it was given me by a man who happened to be in the library
and who knew all the circumstances.

"The boy was arrested on the charge of having taken ten dollars - all
they could prove against him; and he would have got off with a jail
sentence, but the fool made a clean breast of the matter, and now he has
to lie in jail for six months till court is in session, and then he will
be sent to the penitentiary on his own confession."

Two questions arose in my mind: Was it only "the fool" who had made a
clean breast of the case? And if the boy was to go to prison on his own
confession, was it not an outrage that he should be kept in jail for six
months awaiting the formalities of the next session of the circuit
court? I did not then think of the taxpayers, forced to support this boy
in idleness for six months.

That night I did not sleep very well; the Scotch boy was on my mind, all
the more vividly because my only brother was of the same age, and then,
too, the words, "I was in prison and ye visited me not," repeated
themselves with insistent persistence until I was forced to meet the
question, "Did these words really mean anything for to-day and now?"

Next morning I asked my father if any one would be allowed to talk with
a prisoner in our jail. My father said: "Yes, but what would you have to
say to a prisoner?" "I could at least ask him what books he would like
from the library," I replied. But I could not bring my courage to the
point of going to the jail; it seemed a most formidable venture. Sunday,
Monday, and Tuesday passed, and still I held back; on Wednesday I was
driving with my brother, and when very near the jail the spring of the
carriage broke, and my brother told me that I would have to fill in time
somewhere until the break was repaired. I realized that the moment for
decision had come; and with a wildly beating heart I took the decisive
step, little dreaming when I entered the door of that jail that I was
committing myself to prison for life.

But we all take life one day, one hour, at a time; and five minutes
later when my hand was clasped through the grated door, and two big
gray eyes were looking straight into mine, I had forgotten everything
else in my interest in the boy. I asked him why he told that he had
taken thirty-five dollars when accused only of having taken ten, and he
simply said: "Because when I realized that I had become a thief I wanted
to become an honest man and I thought that was the place to begin."

Had I known anything of the law and its processes I should doubtless
have said: "Well, there's nothing for you to do now but to brace up and
meet your fate. There's nothing I can do to help you out of this
trouble." But in my fortunate ignorance of obstacles I said: "I'll see
what I can do to help you." I had only one thought - to save that young
man from the penitentiary and give him a fresh start in life.

I began with the person nearest at hand, the sheriff's wife, and she
secured the sheriff as my first adviser; then I went to the wife of the
prosecuting attorney for the State, and she won her husband over to my
cause. One after another the legal difficulties were overcome, and this
was the way the matter was settled: I secured a good situation for Willy
in case of his release; Willy gave the man from whom he had taken the
money a note for the full amount payable in ninety days - the note signed
by my father and another responsible citizen; the case was given a
rehearing on the original charge of ten dollars, and Willy's sentence
was ten days in the county jail; and this fortunate settlement of the
affair was celebrated with a treat of oranges and peanuts for Willy and
his fellow prisoners. A good part of that ten days Willy spent in
reading aloud to the other men. Immediately after release he went to
work and before the expiration of the ninety days the note for
thirty-five dollars was paid in full. Now, this was the sensible, fair,
and human way of righting a wrong. Nevertheless, we had all joined hands
in "compounding a felony."

With Willy's release I supposed my acquaintance with the jail was at an
end, but the boy had become interested in his companions in misery and
on his first visit to me he said: "If you could know what your visits
were to me you would never give up going to the jail as long as you
live." And then I gave him my promise. "Be to others what you have been
to me," has been the message given to me by more than one of these men.

While a prisoner Willy had made no complaint of the condition of things
in the jail, but after paying the note of his indebtedness, he proceeded
to buy straw and ticking for mattresses, which were made and sent up to
the jail for the other prisoners, while I furthered his efforts to make
the existence of those men more endurable by contributing various
"exterminators" calculated to reduce the number of superfluous
inhabitants in the cells.

At the time I supposed that Willy was an exception, morally, to the
usual material from which criminals are made. I do not think so now,
after twenty-five years of friendships with criminals; of study of the
men themselves and of the conditions and circumstances which led to
their being imprisoned.

Willy's was a kindly nature, responsive, yielding readily to surrounding
influences, not so much lacking in honesty as in the power of
resistance. Had he been subjected to the disgrace, the humiliation, and
the associations of a term in the penitentiary, where the first
requirement of the discipline is non-resistance, he might easily have
slipped into the ranks of the "habitual" criminal, from which it is so
difficult to find an exit. I am not sure that Willy was never dishonest
again; but I am sure of his purpose to be honest; and the last that I
knew of him, after several years of correspondence, he was doing well,
running a cigar-stand and small circulating library in a Western town.

From that beginning I continued my visits to the jail, usually going on
Sunday mornings when other visitors were not admitted. And on Sunday
mornings when the church-bells were calling, the prisoners seemed to
be - doubtless were - in a mood different from that of the week-days.
There's no doubt of the mission of the church-bells, ringing clear above
the tumult of the world, greeting us on Sunday mornings from the cradle
to the grave.

I did not hold any religious services. I did not venture to prescribe
until I had found out what was the matter. It was almost always books
that opened the new acquaintances, for through the library I was able to
supply the prisoners with entertaining reading. They made their own
selections from our printed lists, and I was surprised to find these
selections averaging favorably with the choice of books among good
citizens of the same grade of education. There certainly was some
incongruity between the broken head, all bandages, the ragged apparel,
and the literary taste of the man who asked me for "something by George
Eliot or Thackeray."

A short story read aloud was always a pleasure to the men behind the
bars; more than once I have been able to form correct conclusions as to
the guilt or the innocence of a prisoner by the expression of his face
when I was reading something that touched the deeper springs of human
nature. And my sense of humor stood me in good stead with these men; for
there's no freemasonry like that of the spontaneous smile that springs
from the heart; and after we had once smiled together we were no longer

One early incident among my jail experiences left a vivid impression
with me. A boy of some thirteen summers, accused of stealing, was
detained in jail several weeks awaiting trial, with the prospect of the
reform school later. In appearance he was attractive, and his youth
appealed to one's sympathy. Believing that he ought to be given a better
chance for the future than our reform schools then offered, I tried to
induce the sheriff to ask some farmer to take him in hand. The sheriff
demurred, saying that no farmer would want the boy in his family, as he
was a liar and very profane, and consequently I dropped the subject.

In the jail at the same time was a man of forty or over who frankly told
me that he had been a criminal and a tramp since boyhood, that he had
thrown away all chances in life and lost all self-respect forever. I
took him at his own valuation and he really seemed about as hopeless a
case as I have ever encountered. One lovely June evening when I went
into the corridor of the jail to leave a book, this old criminal called
me beside his cell for a few words.

"Don't let that boy go to the reform school," he began earnestly. "The
reform school is the very hotbed of crime for a boy like that. Save him
if you can. Save him from a life like mine. Put him on a farm. Get him
into the country, away from temptation."

"But the sheriff tells me he is such a liar and swears so that no decent
people would keep him," I replied.

"I'll break him of swearing," said the man impetuously, "and I'll try to
break him of lying. Can't he see what _I_ am? Can't he _see_ what he'll
come to if he doesn't brace up? I'm a living argument - a living example
of the folly and degradation of stealing and lying. I can't ever be
anything but what I am now, but there's hope for that boy if some one
will only give him a chance, and I want you to help him."

The force of his appeal was not to be resisted, and I agreed to follow
his lead in an effort to save his fellow prisoner from destruction. As I
stood there in the twilight beside this man reaching out from the wreck
and ruin of his own life to lend a hand in the rescue of this boy, if
only the "good people" would do their part, I hoped that Saint Peter and
the Recording Angel were looking down. And as I said good night - with a
hand-clasp - I felt that I had touched a human soul.

The man kept his word, the boy gave up swearing and braced up generally,
and I kept my part of the agreement; but I do not know if our combined
efforts had a lasting effect on the young culprit.

As time passed many of these men were sent from the jail to the State
penitentiary, and often a wife or family was left in destitution; and
the destitution of a prisoner's wife means not only poverty but
heart-break, disgrace, and despair. Never shall I forget the first time
I saw the parting of a wife from her husband the morning he was taken to
prison. A sensitive, high-strung, fragile creature she was; and going
out in the bitter cold of December, carrying a heavy boy of eighteen
months and followed by an older girl, she seemed the very embodiment of
desolation. I have been told by those who do not know the poor that they
do not feel as we do, that their sensibilities are blunted, their
imagination torpid. Could we but know! Could we but know, we should not
be so insensate to their sufferings. It is we who are dull. To that
prisoner's wife that morning life was one quivering torture, with
absolutely no escape from agonizing thoughts. Her "home" to which I went
that afternoon was a cabin in which there was one fire, but scant food,
and no stock of clothing; the woman was ignorant of charitable societies
and shrinking from the shame of exposing her needs as a convict's wife.

It is not difficult to make things happen in small towns when people
know each other and live within easy distances. In less time, really
less actual time than it would have taken to write a paper for the
Woman's Club on "The Problems of Poverty," this prisoner's wife was
relieved from immediate want. To tell her story to half a dozen
acquaintances who had children and superfluous clothing, to secure a
certain monthly help from the city, was a simple matter; and in a few
months the woman was taking in sewing - and doing good work - for a
reliable class of patrons.

I have not found the poor ungrateful; twenty years afterward this woman
came to me in prosperity from another town, where she had been a
successful dressmaker, to express once more her gratitude for the
friendship given in her time of need. Almost without exception with my
prisoners and with their families I have found gratitude and loyalty

When the men sent from the jail to the penitentiary had no family they
naturally wrote to me. Sometimes they learned to write while in jail or
after they reached the prison just for the pleasure of interchanging
letters with some one. All prison correspondence is censored by some
official; and as my letters soon revealed my disinterested relation to
the prisoners, the warden, R. W. McClaughrey, now of national fame, sent
me an invitation to spend several days as his guest, and thus to become
acquainted with the institution.

It was a great experience, an overwhelming experience when first I
realized the meaning of prison life. I seemed to be taken right into the
heart of it at once. The monstrous unnaturalness of it all appalled me.
The great gangs of creatures in stripes moving in the lock-step like
huge serpents were all so unhuman. Their dumb silence - for even the eyes
of a prisoner must be dumb - was oppressive as a nightmare. The hopeless
misery of the men there for life; already entombed, however long the
years might stretch out before them, and the wild entreaty in the eyes
of those dying in the hospital - for the eyes of the dying break all
bonds - these things haunted my dreams long afterward. Later I learned
that even in prison there are lights among the shadows, and that sunny
hearts may still have their gleams of sunshine breaking through the
darkness of their fate; but my first impression was one of unmitigated
gloom. When I expressed something of this to the warden his response
was: "Yes, every life here represents a tragedy - a tragedy if the man is
guilty, and scarcely less a tragedy if he is innocent."

As the guest of the warden I remained at the penitentiary for several
days and received a most cordial standing invitation to the institution,
with the privilege of talking with any prisoner without the presence of
an officer. The unspeakable luxury to those men of a visit without the
presence of a guard! Some of the men with whom I talked had been in
prison for ten years or more with never a visitor from the living world
and only an occasional letter.

My visits to the penitentiary were never oftener than twice a year, and
I usually limited the list of my interviews to twenty-five. With
whatever store of cheerfulness and vitality I began these interviews, by
the time I had entered into the lives of that number of convicts I was
so submerged in the prison atmosphere, and the demand upon my sympathy
had been so exhausting, that I could give no more for the time. I found
that the shortest and the surest way for me to release myself from the
prison influence was to hear fine stirring music after a visit to the
penitentiary. But for years I kept my list up to twenty-five, making new
acquaintances as the men whom I knew were released. Prisoners whom I did
not know would write me requesting interviews, and the men whom I knew
often asked me to see their cell-mates, and I had a touch-and-go
acquaintance with a number of prisoners not on my lists.

Thus my circle gradually widened to include hundreds of convicts and
ex-convicts of all grades, from university men to men who could not
read; however, it was the men who had no friends who always held the
first claim on my sympathy; and as the years went on I came more and
more in contact with the "habitual criminals," the hopeless cases, the
left-over and forgotten men; some of them beyond the pale of interest
even of the ordinary chaplain - for there are chaplains and chaplains, as
well as convicts and convicts.

I suppose it was the very desolation of these men that caused their
quick response to any evidence of human interest. In their eagerness to
grasp the friendship of any one who remembered that they were still
men - not convicts only - these prisoners would often frankly tell the
stories of their lives; admitting guilt without attempt at extenuation.
No doubt it was an immense relief to them to make a clean breast of
their past to one who could understand and make allowance.

This was not always so; some men lied to me and simply passed out of my
remembrance; but I early learned to suspend judgment, and when I saw
that a man was lying through the instinct of self-defence, because he
did not trust me, I gave him a chance to "size me up," and reassure
himself as to my trustworthiness. "Why, I just couldn't go on lying to
you after I saw that you were ready to believe in me," was the candid
admission of one who never lied to me again.

Among these convicts I encountered some unmistakable degenerates. The
most optimistic humanitarian cannot deny that in all classes of life we
find instances of moral degeneracy. This fact has been clearly
demonstrated by sons of some of our multimillionaires. And human nature
does not seem to be able to stand the strain of extreme poverty any
better than it stands the plethora caused by excessive riches. The true
degenerate, however, is usually the result of causes too complicated or
remote to be clearly traced. But throughout my long experience with
convicts I have known not more than a dozen who seemed to me
black-hearted, deliberate criminals; and among these, as it happened,
but one was of criminal parentage. Crime is not a disease; but there's
no doubt that disease often leads to crime. Of the defective, the
feeble-minded, the half-insane, and the epileptic there are too many in
every prison; one is too many; but they can be counted by the hundreds
in our aggregate of prisons. Often warm-hearted, often with strong
religious tendencies, they are deficient in judgment or in moral
backbone. The screw loose somewhere in the mental or physical make-up of
these men makes the tragedies, the practically hopeless tragedies of
their lives; though there may never have been one hour when they were
criminal through deliberate intention. Then there are those whose crimes
are simply the result of circumstances, and of circumstances not of
their own making. Others are prisoners unjustly convicted, innocent of
any crime; but every convict is classed as a criminal, as is inevitable;
and under the Bertillon method of identification his very person is
indissolubly connected with the criminal records. Even in this twentieth

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Online LibraryWinifred Louise TaylorThe man behind the bars → online text (page 1 of 15)