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.”