Imprisoned: How Inmates in Early American Jails Resisted Control

“Hope in a Prison of Despair.” Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). Public Domain.

From its opening in 1829, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary was meant to serve as a fortress of reform, behind which inmates prepared to reenter society through hard work, clean habits, and penitent solitude. With scarce contact from others (aside from clergy and prison officials), went the theory, inmates would have plenty of time to mull over their misdeeds. But prisoner David Anderson was having none of this isolation. Repeatedly, he climbed on top of the loom where he was supposed to be weaving in order to reach the prison’s soaring skylight and speak through it to other inmates. He kept up this practice until he fell and broke his leg. Anderson’s efforts to flout the system’s rules were far from unusual, according to Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America (The University of Georgia Press).

Edited by Michele Lise Tarter, associate professor of English at the College of New Jersey, and Richard Bell, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland-College Park, this new essay collection examines various ways that incarcerated men and women in early America resisted control by their jailers and challenged the penal system.

Eastern State Penitentiary.
Photo by Thesab. Wikimedia Commons.

“No matter the setting, inmates’ defiance—prompted by a variety of motives—often thwarted the purpose of punishment,” the editors write in their introduction. “At times, their behavior served to exacerbate existing structural weaknesses, exposing fault lines that could bring penal institutions to the verge of collapse. On other occasions inmates imposed their own disciplinary imperatives to contrast and compete with those forced upon them by their keepers.”

Writing about Eastern State Penitentiary, Villanova University historian Jennifer Lawrence Janofsky, shows how prisoners challenged reformers’ intentions by exploiting weaknesses in the building and its management. “Burrowing holes between cells took considerable time, but for prisoners who had nothing but time, the opportunity for human interaction was worth the risk,” she writes. “Nails, hammers, and pieces of iron, intended for shoemaking, became the tools of resistance as prisoners tenaciously attacked the walls, determined to communicate with their neighbors.” Others nudged notes through the plumbing pipes.

Sometimes imprisonment had the unintended effect of blurring racial lines as inmates cooperated in plans of escape. Susan Eva O’Donovan, associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, describes how an enslaved man named Bill broke out of his shackles in a Georgia jail in 1855 and went on to free a half-dozen other inmates, both black and white. The group then shimmied down blankets after squeezing through a hole in the upper-story wall.

Contacts forged behind bars also exposed Southern slaves to “powerful and potentially leveling ideas” and practical knowledge that was sometimes used in future bids for freedom, O’Donovan adds. For example, when Anthony Burns, a runaway slave, was caught and lodged in a Richmond jail, he was able to describe his taste of freedom up North and share escape tactics with his prison neighbors (talking through a hole he made in the floor of his cell).

“Burns relayed accounts of the places he had seen to the inmates below,” O’Donovan writes. “He told his audience of the people he had met. He warned them of the perils that must be avoided … Burns performed, in short, as the slaves’ “Columbus,” the explorer home from foreign shores, eager to share what he had heard and learned and observed while living beyond the horizon.”

Getting sent to the Philadelphia Almshouse—or seeking admission as a last resort in hard times—was another form of imprisonment for some early Americans. Despite its locked gates, work rules, and punishments for noncompliance (in a special cell called the “black hole”), inmates still found ways to exert some autonomy, according to essays by Jacqueline Cahif (University of Cambridge), Simon P. Newman (University of Glasgow), and Billy G. Smith (Montana State University).

For instance, though release from the Almshouse had to be approved by the steward, many men and women took it upon themselves to leave after receiving what the institution had to offer, be it clothing or medical care. Some came and went repeatedly. A septuagenarian named Matthew Richards climbed over the fence, “presumably in search of rum,” only to be returned to the Almshouse in a cart and flee yet again, write Newman and Smith.

Others sought seasonal shelter in the facility, combining their need to survive with a drive for self-determination: “Like numerous other indigents, Philip and Sarah Haines ‘entered as usual to be fed and kept warm during the winter and jump the fence in the spring.’ Sarah, complained the clerk “is as good at fence jumping as [Philip] is.’”

Prostitutes who entered the Almshouse for syphilis treatment also vexed their keepers by going back out to practice their trade. Between 1790 and 1799, more than half of them, on average, left without permission, Cahif writes.

Those who did remain in the so-called “polishing ward” found other ways to defy the system. When Jane Bickerdite, a former patient, became a ward nurse, for instance, the other patients balked at her new alliance with authority. “They mobbed her severely,” wrote the steward, “and raised a Bawling Clamerous noise & Clanger with … Rattling Frying pans after her, all of which together, they called the Whoars march, and of which Doubtless they are competent judges … as every step they have taken for several years have been in line and true to the Beat.”

Those were the words of the women’s keeper. But Buried Lives also devotes several essays to exploring how prisoners commented on the institutions that contained them.

Through a variety of sources cited in this book, from confessions to petitions to newspaper articles, the reader is exposed to inmates’ perspectives. “In their pages,” Tarter and Bell write, “we find the many voices of the captive and imprisoned in early America: vicious men, calculating women, diffident drunks, runaway slaves, immigrant workers, homeless children, victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, and above all, the vagrant, the poor and the enslaved.”

Images of Freedom: Photo Collection Shows the Faces of Emancipation

Unidentified African American soldier with wife and two daughters. (1863-1865) Ambrotype. Library of Congress.

When Deborah Willis studied the Civil War era as a teenager back in the 1960s, she recalls, her school lessons stuck to a single narrative: “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.” The photographic collection in a new book by Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Temple University Press), presents a more complex picture of the freedom story.  (I got in touch with Willis and Krauthamer after reading about their book in this post on KolorBlind Mag.)

Most of the book’s 150 images date from the 1850s, a decade before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, to the 1930s. As a whole, the photographs and accompanying text show African Americans as agents in their emancipation: We see a teenage girl, posed in a big bell of a skirt, who had once disguised herself as a boy to flee slavery. An old man with a lifetime of stories written in his eyes holds up a slave-calling horn he doesn’t have to answer.  Sojourner Truth displays a daguerrotype of her grandson in Civil War uniform, calling attention to what’s at stake in the abolitionist cause. We also see the work of African-American photographers. One of them, Augustus Washington, was active in the anti-slavery movement before his emigration to Liberia.

For Willis, who is professor and chair of photography and imaging in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, it was an eye-opening experience to read the letters and diaries of soldiers, mothers, teachers, and other African Americans who took part in the struggle for Emancipation—“to hear their voices about their hopes and dreams for their loved ones,” she says. “The multiple narratives really expanded my idea of the lived experience of slavery [and new-found freedom].”

Nursemaid with child. ca. 1855. Ruby ambrotype, handpainted.
Library of Congress.

“What we wanted to show through the book was people’s dignity and sense of their own strengths and potential to shape the future,” adds Krauthamer, an assistant professor of history at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. African Americans “were intellectually and philosophically engaged in the major political and social issues of the day.”

But that point didn’t come across in Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed movie Lincoln, Krauthamer argues in this opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The film’s depiction of Emancipation largely excludes African-American women and men as anything other than the patient and grateful recipients of the gift of freedom,” she writes. “This is, of course, Spielberg’s prerogative as a filmmaker.”

Some of the photographs in Envisioning Emancipation were taken to support abolitionist causes. (Activist Sojourner Truth, for example, sold her portraits for 33 and 50 cents, which she referred to as “living on my shadow.”) Others were personal mementos, purchased by free African-Americans who could finally exercise some control over how they were presented. The laundress who appears on the book’s cover has a small American flag pinned to her dress in a nod to her patriotism. “When we look at these photographs, we see full human-beings,” Willis says. “They were creating their own biographies through these images.”

Not everyone had this chance, of course. Haunting the book are daguerrotypes of African Americans whose bodies were exposed for scientific study. Enslaved nursemaids are pictured holding white children in their laps. While the latter women served as human “restraints” for wiggling subjects, their presence also showed off the wealth of the white families who owned them, Krauthamer notes. She wonders what became of the women’s own children, if they had them. “Did they lose them to sale?”  What would it be like, she asks, “to be holding someone else’s child and wondering where is your own child?” The book contrasts those images with post-Emancipation portraits of older women with adult children and freeborn grandchildren. “How powerful an experience it must have been to pose with your own family,” she says.

Emancipation Day, Richmond, Va. ca. 1905.
Library of Congress.

Krauthamer and Willis became interested in this book project when they came across a small photograph of a woman in a white kerchief named “Dolly.” Her picture was pasted onto a $50 Reward notice that her master, Louis Manigault, created after she ran away from his Augusta, Georgia, plantation in 1863. Reflecting on her attractiveness and her “fine set of teeth,” Manigault seems to puzzle over why she left him. It is unclear why he possessed a picture of her. “We both thought that was a story that needed to be explored,” Willis says. Though some of the stories raise more questions than historians can answer, “these images allow us to connect to people whose lives would be lost [to us otherwise],” Krauthamer says.

Their book asks: “What did [Dolly] envision when she planned her escape? What did she see around her when she stepped outside her master’s yard and closed the gate behind her? When we look at her picture we see her life in slavery, but we also recognize that the picture is a testament to her liberation.”

In the end, Willis hopes their readers will find “a much more nuanced story about slavery. Not just the top down, but the fact that black people were actively involved in obtaining their freedom,” she says. “That’s what I want people to walk away with, because I didn’t know it when I was in high school.”

Families: How Those Torn Apart by Slavery Tried to Reunite

Spend any time reading 19th-century newspapers and you’ll likely find them: tucked among ads for barrels of ox beef and puncheons of rum will be notices of persons for sale or, equally unsettling, runaway ads that inventory the appearance or personality of a master’s departed slave. Usually, a reward was offered to track down the individual—“a stout fellow” or “a slender wench,” who was “considerable knock-kneed” or perhaps “marked with small pox,” and showing a “pleasing smiling countenance” or “a down look.”*

In her new book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, University of North Carolina history professor Heather Andrea Williams turns her attention to a third kind of newspaper communication—Information Wanted notices posted by African Americans themselves. After the Civil War, this was one of the ways that former slaves sought to find their loved ones.

It’s interesting that “this is how black people showed up in the newspaper most often in that century,” notes Williams in a recent phone interview. “The runaway ads are about money, offering a reward to get ‘property’ back,” she says. In contrast, the Information Wanted ads launch “an emotional appeal.” But rather than providing physical details of the missing person, whose appearance may have changed with the passage of time, they typically use the owner’s name as an identifier.

“I think they’re all really laden with emotion—some much more explicit than others,” she says. “You get some where there is this resentment really coming through. They put the word owner in quote marks, making this rhetorical challenge to the idea of one person owning another. But then they are also poignant—not because they say I loved my mother and cry for her every night, but because somebody has been looking for his mother for 21 years. He thinks he somehow might have a chance [of finding her.]”

In an ad that appears in Nashville’s Colored Tennessean on October 7, 1865, Thornton Copeland wrote, “Information is wanted of my mother, whom I left in Fauquier county, Va., in 1844, and I was sold in Richmond, Va., to Saml. Copeland. I formerly belonged to Robert Rogers. I am very anxious to hear from my mother … My mother’s name was Betty, and was sold by Col. Briggs to James French.”

“That one is really poignant because it raises lots of issues which people contended with,” Williams says. How do you find someone after a separation of more than two decades? “How do you find someone whose name was Betty, knowing that the owner could have changed her name at any point?

“There’s hope. There’s pain. There are multiple emotions in these ads,” Williams says.

As her book explains, newspaper ads weren’t the only strategy used by African Americans. Sometimes they wrote to former owners for information or sought clues to a relative’s whereabouts from one of the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up around the country after the Civil War. (Others, of course, took the opportunity to run away while slavery was still in place, often heading toward the plantation where they last saw a family member.)

Williams practiced law before becoming an historian, but she has always been interested in African-American history. “I write books because I want to know the black people in the past,” she explains. “Often we talk about slaves, and the word replaces the people.”

The Help Wanted notices provide a peek at people’s personal stories. The personalities of individuals come through even more in the letters and narratives that Williams also excerpts in her book, particularly those that refer to the loss of family members in childhood. Recalling how her mother was sold and taken from her when she was a child, Kate Drumgoold wrote, “The saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone and I used to go outside and look up to see if anything that would direct me and I saw a clear place in the sky and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it 3 ½ years not knowing what that meant and it was there the whole time mother was gone.” Continue reading

Frank Furness: He Put the Modern in Architectural Design

Photograph of Frank Furness

Photograph of Frank Furness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before Frank Furness transformed western architecture in the late-19th century, his field seemed to be stuck in the past. “If you were designing a library, you looked to King’s College [at the University of Cambridge] and imitated the forms” of that institution, says George Thomas, an urban planner and architecture historian who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania. “Basically, as you look at the early to mid-nineteenth century in architecture all across Europe and America, you can very quickly tease out the historical sources that were being drawn on.” Opening his office in Philadelphia in 1866, Furness had a different vision that led him to create new forms inspired by industry, Thomas explains.

Thomas is organizer of Furness 2012: Inventing Modern, a Philadelphia-based celebration of the architect’s innovative work upon the 100th anniversary of his death. The celebration has included exhibitions, talks, and Furness-inspired street art throughout the city. Click here to see more of Furness’s famous projects.

Furness was born in Philadelphia in 1839. His father, William Henry Furness—a Unitarian minister and an abolitionist—was a major influence on him. So was the rising industrial culture of his native city:

“In the nineteenth century, the premier machine tool-and-die maker in the world is William Sellers, whose business dominates industrial design and wins all the gold medals in the Paris Fair,” Thomas explains. One of his central ideas was that “the design ought to serve the particular task at hand.” His cousin and main designer, Coleman Sellers, lectured at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1874 about their machines, pointing out that they were painted gray in order to look like the metals from which they were made. He went on to explain that the new purposes of industry demanded new forms.

“My sense is that’s exactly the parallel that Furness picks up and runs with in architectural design,” Thomas says. “He begins to understand that post-Civil War America is drastically different. There’s no point in looking to history for solutions.”

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1900. Detroit Publishing Company. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph’s division. under the digital ID det. 4a08450.

One of the best showcases of Furness’s “drastically different” architectural strategy is Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1871). As part of Furness’s design, “students are pushed as far away [as possible], to the farthest back corner, because I suspect that then, as now, art students are not what you want to mix with your paying customers,” Thomas says. Furness also put a giant freight elevator at the back of the building to enable the movement of canvases, sculptures, and animals used in art instruction. “Furness understands there are paying customers, students, and objects and animals. Each has a different entryway into the building.”

Rather than hiding the academy’s building materials, Furness shows them off with a huge exposed steel truss spanning the north side of the building. Its addition made it possible to put a glass roof above the academy’s ground-floor art studios. “He’s basically thinking of the building as a factory-meets-palace for art.”

Furness’s vision continued with his design of the University Library (now known as the Fisher Fine Arts Library) at the University of Pennsylvania. “You walk in and there’s this lesson in new materials of the age, [including] big iron stairs with cast-iron newels and wrought iron railings,” Thomas says. “Furness is reveling in what this new material can do.”

The industrialists and engineers who inspired him were entranced enough with Furness’s work to hire him at the rate of one building every other week for the rest of his career, Thomas notes. Furness designed railroad presidents’ homes, train stations, libraries, banks, hospitals, churches and synagogues, and more. “You name it, he’s doing it.”

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsy...

Fisher Fine Arts Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furness’s career spanned four decades. Like his father, he was “not afraid to be a hero,” Thomas says. “He wins the Medal of Honor in the Civil War fighting for his father’s beliefs, and he’s not afraid to be a hero as an architect. Rather than ducking into the crowd, he tends to carry the ammunition box across the battlefield … I think that is what is at the core of what makes him so interesting: there is a heroic personality, a new context, and a connection to the great forces of the industrial age.”

Furness’s legacy isn’t limited to the buildings across the Philadelphia region that that his firm designed. His students, including Louis Sullivan (who went on to teach Frank Lloyd Wright), George Howe, and William Price, also helped carried the message of modernism into the 20th century.

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Adultery: Men Prosecuted More in Some Medieval Courts

Thanks to Jenny Torres Sanchez, an excellent blogger/YA author, for tipping me off to some interesting research on adultery:

If you were a man living in Late-Medieval Northern France, you might have had an extra incentive to keep your undertunic on. Historian Sara McDougall has found that contrary to common beliefs, men were prosecuted far more often than women for their infidelities.

McDougall, an assistant professor of history at The City University of New York, is also the author of Bigamy and Christian Identity in Late Medieval Champagne (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). In an email she described to me her most recent findings:

“Scholars generally assume—and until very recently I was one of them—that medieval courts and societies handled adultery quite unfairly depending on the gender of the alleged offender,” McDougall writes. After all, Medieval Europe is “rather infamous” for its sexual double standard. The common idea has been that women typically bore the brunt of adultery prosecutions, while men were freer to frolic.

“According to this line of reasoning, if they actually ever punished men for adultery, it would almost always have been only as the lover of a married woman,” McDougall adds. “That is to say, the prosecution of these men had nothing to do with their own marital status, and everything to do with the fact that they were sleeping with other men’s wives.”

But in her search of court records, McDougall found the opposite to be true: In addition to being prosecuted more, men were most often punished for their trysts with unmarried women. Continue reading