Crime and Punishment (American History Through Literature)
Scenes of transgressions and consequences inform Western cultural discourse going back to the first story of humankind in the Bible, so it is not surprising that crime and punishment form the basis of a number of literary works in the mid-nineteenth century. Under this rubric one finds memorable criminals such as the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), scenes of imprisonment in fictions such as "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and Billy Budd by Herman Melville (1819891), and women described in fictions by Lydia Maria Child (1802880) and Catharine Sedgwick (1789867) who find themselves unjustly incarcerated. Perhaps one of the most celebrated literary efforts to document crime and punishment occurs in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864). The story of Hester Prynne begins at the prison door with a crowd of men and women, apparently waiting. The narrator provides a historical footnote to accompany the scene: "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison" (p. 53). The inevitability of death and punishment mark their incorporation into both the Puritan community and this narrative of Hester's complex relation to those who punish her. Likewise, crime and its consequences occupied the minds of American reformers and writers during the antebellum period.
Eager to demonstrate the success of the republican revolution, Americans in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century worked toward reconfiguring a criminal justice system deemed inefficient and cruel in its procedures and punishments. Some abjured the death penalty as despotic, linking it with monarchy. Many reformers considered corporal punishments inhumane, preferring to effect a program of work and solitude for the convict as a means of rehabilitating character and habit. Supporting methods used in particular prisons, prison associations in Philadelphia (formed in the 1780s), Boston (1826), and New York (1844) advocated rehabilitating prisoners by instruction, silent reflection, and work. They differed over whether to allow convicts to see one another in the penitentiary, how to incorporate study of the Bible and other texts, whether to promote solitary or congregate work, and whether to depend on convict labor to subsidize the penitentiary. Even Americans not involved with criminal procedures or reforms read about crimes, trials, prisons, and disciplinary methods in periodicals and in sensational, sentimental, and realist fictions.
CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON PRISON REFORM
Antebellum anxieties about crimes reflected general unease concerning social change, including immigration, slavery, and class mobility. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg explains that the difficulties of establishing social cohesion for a mobile, increasingly diverse population prompted Jacksonian reformers in cities to develop institutional mechanisms of preventing crime, notably almshouses and workhouses. Prisoners were disproportionately black, Indian, and immigrant, groups assumed more likely to be deviant. As David Rothman discerns, whether fears of increasing crimes and ideas about predispositions toward criminal behavior were justified by actual numbers or not remains an open question because statistics from the period are suspect.
Penitentiary reforms were also affected by other cultural formations, including other reform movements, theological arguments about sin, emerging social scientific theories of moral character, and the national project of information diffusion. Whitney Cross describes how diverse religious sects promoted contradictory doctrines concerning free will and the sovereignty of God. Religious groups joined with philanthropists to advocate regulating the social environment in ways that would appropriately shape individual moral character. The Second Great Awakening (beginning in the 1790s and at its height from 1822 to 1844) encouraged the formation of missionary organizations and tract societies, which in turn supported institutions for the prevention and amelioration of poverty, unemployment, and juvenile delinquency.
Concerned citizens in the antebellum period pressed for new laws regarding abolition, women's rights, temperance, and prison discipline. Reformers were enjoined to employ a spirit of sympathy in their benevolence. In an 1811 speech to the Humane Society of Massachusetts, Lemuel Shaw, who was appointed in 1830 as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, promoted "a habitual compassion for the wants and sufferings of others" (p. 6) as the necessary motivation for reformers. The Philadelphia publisher and bookseller Mathew Carey, whose politics exiled him to France from his native
Some reformers argued that environmental influences produced crimes. In a column in the abolitionist newspaper the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the activist and journalist Lydia Maria Child described visiting New York's Blackwell's Island prison in 1842. She responded to a companion's inquiry of "Would you have them [the prisoners] prey on society?" by affirming "I am troubled that society has preyed upon them. I will not enter into an argument about the right of society to punish these sinners; but I say she made them sinners" (pp. 20203). She posits that similar instincts motivate the soldier killing Indians, the frontier resident vindicating an insult, and a New York professional shooting someone who accuses him of dishonor, but that society nominates the first (Andrew Jackson) for the presidency, hails the second for bravery, and hangs the third. Sara Payson Willis Parton (1811872), writing as Fanny Fern about Blackwell's Island in 1858, pointedly asked readers if they were any less guilty in being "politic enough to commit only those [crimes] that a short-sighted, unequal human law sanctions?" (p. 305). She criticized the inefficacy of prison discipline: "I don't believe the way to restore a man's lost self-respect is to degrade him before his fellow creatures; to brand him, and chain him, and poke him up to show his points, like a hyena in a menagerie. No wonder that he growls at you, and grows vicious" (p. 306).
Reformers closely connected with institutions expressed greater confidence in penal techniques, arguing that because instinctive emotions influenced some to do good and others to transgress, habitual offenders ought to be carefully controlled. In her footnote to a criminal psychology text published in 1846, Eliza Farnham, women's matron at Sing Sing, describes "the inheritance of propensities" leading to "criminal indulgence" (p. 28). The book's author, M. B. Sampson, blames its possible biological cause: "a defective form of brain" (p. 7).
Most reformers were optimistic about the power of a controlled environment to improve individuals. The early nineteenth century witnessed a reading revolution, a popular lyceum movement, and a general disposition of Americans toward self-improvement and social progress. Richard Brown characterizes the diffusion of information during this period as "a great national enterprise," for the "seemingly inexhaustible market for this sort of personal improvement information . . . was driven by a popular desire to enjoy such material and psychological benefits as gentility afforded" (pp. 289, 274). Society's interest in encouraging moral improvement included developing rehabilitation methods in prisons to stop recidivism.
ORIGINS OF THE PENITENTIARY IN THE UNITED STATES
While the century witnessed a number of innovations relevant to the topics of crime and punishment, including establishing metropolitan police forces along with specialized detective units, the most celebrated landmarks of reform involved the construction of penitentiaries by various states in the Northeast. The transformation from prison to penitentiary began with eighteenth-century experiments and arguments advocated by Benjamin Rush and others in Philadelphia, where Eastern State Penitentiary, designed by John Haviland, was built in 1821823. New York also developed penal techniques and facilities, instituting a contract labor system in Auburn penitentiary in 1819; convicts worked silently in groups during the day and slept in solitary cells. Auburn's brief experiment with solitary cells permitting some convicts to work separately in the early 1820s was abandoned as unworkable, likely due to the poor conditions of the cells.
By 1828 the congregate Auburn penitentiary turned a profit, but its system of contract labor invited criticism from prisoners, most notably regarding the physical punishments employed to increase productivity. The ex-convict William Coffey's first-person account, Inside Out; or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison (1823), indicted harsh disciplinary methods used during his incarceration and called for separating prisoners instead of requiring convict labor, a recommendation agreeing with the conclusions of an 1822 New York Senate report on prisons. Two works by Horace Lane, The Wandering Boy, Careless Sailor (1839) and Five Years in State's Prison (1835), respectively a first-person didactic account of his criminal life and a dialogue between two prisoners of Auburn and Sing Sing, also explore the inefficacy of corporal punishment.
Many reformers also objected to harsh corporal punishments as a way of forcing convicts to work. Philadelphia's inspector Richard Vaux, a frequent critic, argued in 1855: "It is believed that the congregation of convicts during their incarceration for crime-punishment, and their sale to the highest bidder as human machines, out of which profit is to be made, is of far greater evil to society, than society yet fully comprehends" (Staples, p. 33). Convicts were subdued with straitjackets, iron gags, the lash, and the cold shower-bath, punishments applied frequently in New York penitentiaries to improve productivity. Proponents of extreme punishments sometimes depicted blacks, immigrants, Indians, and certain white recidivists as more likely to be inured to pain, an argument also advanced by slaveholders. John W. Edmonds, a judge who founded the New York Prison Association in 1844, was one of many humanitarians opposed to flogging, which was finally outlawed by New York penitentiaries in 1847.
THE MODEL AMERICAN PENITENTIARY
Officials and philanthropists in the first half of the century built, managed, and theorized about penitentiaries based on principles of separation and solitary confinement. Americans acknowledged European predecessors, including Césare Beccaria, who argued that "it is better to prevent crimes than to punish them" (pp. 10405) and John Howard, whose writings improved British prisons. Elizabeth Fry's work in British prisons and Alexander Maconochie's in Australian institutions were also lauded by Americans. The 10 April 1847 issue of the Literary World praised Fry as having "gone forth with a mission to complete the unfinished labor of Howard," reminding readers that "our own country is taking the lead, most honorably, in this humane science" ("Review of Memoirs," p. 226).
Penitentiaries provided architectural and pro-grammatic models for visitors who wished to observe reforms in action. Scott Christianson describes the "inspection avenues" that allowed officials and visitors to Auburn to secretly observe convicts at work. Approved visitors to Eastern State, colloquially termed "Cherry Hill" because of its site in a former cherry orchard, were permitted to engage solitary inmates in conversations focused on moral rehabilitation. Norman Johnston argues that "over three hundred prisons worldwide show the direct or indirect imprint of Haviland's Philadelphia and Trenton prisons. It is on the basis of both contributions that Cherry Hill must be considered the most influential prison ever built and arguably the American building most widely imitated in Europe and Asia in the nineteenth century" (p. 105).
Touring the United States in the early 1830s as representatives of the French government, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville (who would also produce Democracy in America from this visit) reported on the American models of penal discipline in On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France (1833); they were succeeded in 1837 by their countrymen Frédéric-Auguste Demetz and Guillaume-Abel Blouet and the Spaniard Ramón de la Sagra, who visited in the mid-1830s. Visitors noted that prison discipline societies associated with the penitentiaries emphasized the virtues of their own system and the vices of the other. Eastern State's solitary system, with individual cells used for work, contemplation, and sleeping, was more expensive to administer and appeared to induce mental degeneration in some inmates. The congregate Auburn system was profitable but appeared less humanitarian in its reliance on corporal punishments and on independent contractors to supervise silent convict laborers. As Beaumont and Tocqueville state, "the Philadelphia system produces more honest men, and that of New York more obedient citizens" (p. 60).
In 1841 Dorothea Dix (1802887), a schoolteacher and a writer of childrens' didactic literature, became an advocate for prisoners and the mentally ill after teaching a Sunday school class for women in an East Cambridge jail. In 1843, after surveying conditions for the incarcerated and institutionalized in the state, she reported her findings to the Massachusetts legislature, and in subsequent legislative addresses she identified abuses in other states' facilities. In Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline in the United States (1845), Dix connected rehabilitating criminals and diminishing poverty as "the two great questions" and argued for making paupers "useful" citizens and for paying convicts for work to help them improve habits and conscience (p. 5).
The reformer Samuel Gridley Howe (1801876) noted in 1846 that the debate between the supporters of separate and congregate establishments reflected cultural differences between Europeans, who were reluctant to endorse corporal punishment, preferring the Philadelphia system, while most Americans approved the profitable Auburn system. Howe counted the Americans Francis Lieber (1800872) and Dorothea Dix as recommending Eastern State, while George Combe and Charles Dickens, visiting from Britain, were horrified by the degenerative effects of solitary confinement there.
Others also kept prisons in the public eye. Chaplains, philanthropists, and officials reported on penitentiaries in publications issued by prison discipline societies; excerpts from such reports and from related books were often reprinted in reviews appearing in popular periodicals. Francis Lieber, a German immigrant and professor of political science who translated Beaumont and Tocqueville's report on penitentiaries into English, later wrote his own book on the subject. In an 1847 book on prison discipline, the American Francis Gray responded to Howe's 1846 book, which had expressed a preference for solitary confinement, by arguing on behalf of the congregate Auburn system. John Luckey, a chaplain, published Life in Sing Sing in 1860, a brief history documenting how moral instruction improved several convicts.
In the mid-1840s Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce reorganized the previously badly managed women's prison at Mount Pleasant, associated with Sing Sing. Nicole Hahn Rafter notes that their educational program permitted some conversation and allowed fictional texts. Barbara Packer notes that, during Farnham and Bruce's four-year tenure, the prominent transcendentalist Margaret Fuller (1810850) read excerpts from prisoners' journals sent by Bruce. With Caroline Sturgis and W. H. Channing, Fuller visited Mount Pleasant in fall 1844 and motivated friends to donate books to supplement religious tracts; the same year she spent Christmas with the female convicts.
Other writers also advocated for prisoners by noting how economic circumstances drive individuals to crime, the cruelty of particular punishments, and the poor prospects for released convicts. As noted above, Lydia Maria Child advocated improvements in the criminal justice system in her journalism. In her story "The Irish Heart: A True Story," published in Fact and Fiction (1846), she tells of the young Irish immigrant James, unfairly sentenced as a forger to Sing Sing, which fails to provide him with adequate skills to earn a living; upon release he receives tools and other help from the New York Prison Association. In the same anthology's "Rosenglory," Child describes Susan, a domestic servant corrupted by one employer's son who later steals money from another employer for not paying her wages. Susan is sent to prison and later receives assistance from a home for discharged women convicts. In Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (serialized in 1851852), Marie St. Clare sends her slave Rosa to be whipped in a New Orleans jail despite her sister-in-law Ophelia's protests that to put a girl under a man's lash degrades her body and soul.
Other writers represented more positive views of how the law protects the innocent, emphasizing the speedy, efficient resolution of crimes. Catharine Sedgwick was involved with the Women's Prison Association and the Isaac Hopper Home for discharged women prisoners. She alluded to the unfortunate situation of the innocent convict in her novel Married or Single? (1857), in which Alice Clifford visits her brother Max in the Tombs because he has been falsely indicted for forgery. After Alice spends a night in a jail cell adjacent to his, Max is acquitted because several individuals help Alice prove his innocence at trial. Horatio Alger's (1832899) prototypical rags-to-riches tale Ragged Dick (1868) contains a subplot detailing how a fellow boarder steals Dick's bankbook; tipped off by the victim, the police set a trap for the thief, who is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to nine months on Blackwell's Island.
As Andie Tucher notes, American periodicals began printing crime news in 1820, shortly after certain London papers started columns reporting petty crimes. Economic fluctuations encouraged the editors James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald and Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to develop a newspaper readership among the working class by castigating greedy, fraudulent entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians as well as alleged murderers and thieves. Periodicals printed descriptions of jails and prisons based on reporters' visits and collected reports of domestic and foreign crimes. The National Police Gazette (published 1845 to 1933 and claiming a circulation of forty thousand readers in its first decade) described famous crimes in history and noted recent crimes reported in the popular press in the United States and abroad. The Gazette summarized criminal trials, editorialized about political crimes, and printed articles about historical and contemporary criminals; the editor, George Wilkes, also published the latter in pamphlet form some reprinted decades later. Patricia Cline Cohen argues that newspaper articles about the clerk Richard Robinson, acquitted for the alleged murder of his lover, the New York prostitute Helen Jewett, in 1836, increased sales of the papers and fueled competition in the 1840s by retailing obsessions about sex and death.
Sensational, dime, and western novels incorporated lurid details also used in newspaper crime stories. According to David Reynolds and Kimberly Gladman, the first American city novel was George Lippard's The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: A Romance of Philadelphia Life (1844845). Inspired by Eugène Sue's Mystères de Paris, The Quaker City describes upstanding citizens and criminals conspiring to seduce young women. Reynolds characterizes journalistic aspects of the prolific George Foster's New York in Slices (1849), Fifteen Minutes around New York (1854), and New York Naked (1854) as "realistic exposés" of everyday life in the city. George Thompson's many novels, including Venus in Boston (1849) and City Crimes (1849), lasciviously describe the degenerative effects of drinking and promiscuous sexual habits, unveiling seemingly virtuous individuals as deviants working closely with vicious criminal gangs. Dime novels, including some published in Erastus Beadle's series beginning in 1860, and some westerns were also criticized as morally pernicious. Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868) more optimistically depicts the rehabilitation of those inclined toward transgression in plotting how a baby civilizes miners on the frontier.
REPRESENTING CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
In addition to the works already cited, images of incarceration and punishment appear in a number of other texts, including Indian captivity narratives and Revolution-era captivity narratives such as Thomas Dring's Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship (1829); narratives of slavery, including Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Harriet Wilson's novel Our Nig (1859); and anti-Catholic convent literature, such as Rebecca Reed's Six Months in a Convent (1835) and satires of the latter such as Six Months in a House of Correction (1835). After Henry David Thoreau resisted paying his poll tax in protest of the Mexican-American War, he described his night in the Concord jail in "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849).
Several American fiction writers refer to issues associated with historical and contemporary practices of crime and punishment, and some criticize contemporary reforms and reformers. Edgar Allan Poe's fictions represent transgressive anxieties and fears of incarceration; particularly chilling are depictions of murder in "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) and of an old man who "is the type and the genius of deep crime" (p. 272) in London, depicted in "The Man of the Crowd" (1840). In the first American detective stories, Poe describes Auguste Dupin's ratiocination in solving criminal cases in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Purloined Letter" (1844), and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842843).
Nathaniel Hawthorne's works are more critical of criminal stereotypes and reform motivations. "Endicott and the Red Cross" (1838) and The Scarlet Letter (1850) characterize the cruelty of Puritan punishments directed at those who are different (Episcopalians, women, Indians). The House of Seven Gables (1851) denounces social conventions falsely accusing Clifford Pyncheon, foreigners, deviants, women, and the poor of transgressive behaviors. The Blithedale Romance (1852) suggests that reforms focused on moral rehabilitation fail in representing Hollingsworth's "impracticable plan for the reformation of criminals through an appeal to their higher instincts" (p. 36).
Herman Melville mentions the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry in The Confidence-Man (1857) and François Eugéne Vidocq, the French criminal turned detective, in White-Jacket (1850) and Moby-Dick (1851). Melville's other fictions note the imprisoning aspects of civilizing society (Typee, 1846) and colonialism (Omoo, 1847; Mardi, 1849). Images of captivity recur in Redburn (1849), The Piazza Tales (1856), and Israel Potter (1855), as protagonists experience diverse forms of captivity on land and sea. The last scenes of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) and Pierre (1852) take place in the Tombs, a New York jail, and in Billy Budd (1924) the title character is summarily executed in a hasty trial at sea.
Foreshadowing naturalistic depictions of crime and punishment, Life in the Iron Mills (1861), by Rebecca Harding Davis (1831910), depicts the wretched circumstances endured by poor ironworkers, who labor like convicts in that their lives and work are constrained by those in authority. In the novella, Deb picks the pocket of the rich observer who admires her cousin Hugh's ironwork, an action resulting in Hugh's conviction as a thief after he tries to return the money. Davis portrays the inevitable, cruel punishment heaped on the honest worker. Like Hawthorne and Melville, she suggests that Americans countenance social and economic inequalities as the byproduct of entrepreneurial spirit. Decades of investment in penitentiary programs and thousands of words endorsing moral rehabilitation in the antebellum period reflect and reconfigure reform ideals as inextricably tied to ideas of American progress.
See also Individualism and Community; Life in the Iron Mills; Psychology; Reform; Sensational Fiction
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