Free Writing

Illustration by Devon Geyelin.

Austin Reed wrote in silence and in darkness. Over the course of three decades, he crafted his memoirs in a prison cell in upstate New York, where he was prohibited from speaking and forced to work ten hours a day. The first line reads: “The bright sun was just a shining into the window of my father cottage when I was call’d by the voice of a female to come and take the last look of my dying father.”

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library acquired Reed’s manuscript in 2009 at an estate sale in Rochester, New York; its whereabouts during the preceding 150 years remain largely unknown. Titled “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison,” and composed between the 1830s and the 1850s, it is the earliest known prison narrative by a black writer. He wrote under the name Robert Reed. Scholars guess that Robert was his middle name, or that it was a pen name playing on the word Rob because he was in jail for theft. Perhaps, some speculate, it served as an ode to Robinson Crusoe or Walter Scott’s Rob Roy.

The authenticity of the manuscript was verified by English professor Caleb Smith in December using a letter Reed wrote in 1895, as well as court records, prison documents, and newspaper articles. “There is no voice quite like this in the literature of the period,” says Smith, who has written two books on incarceration and is preparing Reed’s text for publication in early 2016.

The elegant handwriting fades into the weathered paper, marking the moments when Reed ran low on ink, but the 304-page manuscript remains highly legible a century and a half after its completion. The memoir moves from childhood anecdotes to prison conditions and poetic musings, from moments of denial and indignation to remorse and acquiescence. In his concluding note, written two decades after he began the memoir, Reed reflects on his time as a prisoner and tells the Reader to heed his life as a cautionary tale.

Reed resorted to theft and violence after the death of his father, and landed himself first in a Manhattan reformatory for juvenile delinquents that offered instruction in reading and writing. He was later sent to Auburn State Prison, a reform institution that aimed to create a rehabilitative prison model. In addition to enforced silence and labor, inmates had to walk in lockstep to prevent them from facing one another. They were subject to punishments such as shower-baths, a form of torture Reed describes vividly: “Stripping off my shirt the tyrantical curse bounded my hands fast in front of me and orderd me to stand around. Turning my back towards him he threw Sixty seven lashes on me according to the orders of Esq. Cook. I was then to stand over the dreain while one of the inmates wash my back in a pail of salt brine.”

Reed wanted to publish the manuscript during his lifetime, but he never did. Perhaps it was censored because he was trying to expose the system, or maybe it just never got into the right hands. In any case, his attempt to illustrate the horrors of prison firsthand put him in the growing group of prison reformers, who were closely allied with the abolitionists. In 1858, the year Reed completed his memoir, the state prison faced unwanted attention from the press when a black inmate was killed in the shower bath. “This was a sensitive issue, even at the time,” Smith says, “in part because the prison reformers were so strongly identified with anti-slavery, and didn’t want people to be able to say about their prisons that they were racist institutions—that they were like slavery.”

Reed was born a free man near Rochester, but he faced violence from a young age. Shortly after his father’s death, a white farmer came to his door to complain that Reed and his friends had cut down trees on his property. Reed’s mother, who was raising her five children alone, decided to give him a lashing: “She took a rawhide from the mantlepiece and orderd me to strip off my coat. I jump for the ax that stood behind the door and raising at my mothers head told her if she struck me one blow with that rawhide that I would sliver her brains out on the floor.” The farmer intervened and attempted to take the weapon from Reed, who cocked back and threw the ax at him with all the force his small frame could muster, leaving a deep cut below the farmer’s knee. Reed was six.

He was sent to work on the farmer’s property as retribution and recompense. Reed once told the farmer that he was tired of laboring and that he would go home to see his mother and siblings, and the man responded with the whip. No ax by his side, Reed received his lashes with his hands tied behind his back.

Despite the age of the manuscript, Reed’s narrative remains all too familiar. Though whippings and salt brine are no longer common practice, tens of thousands of inmates today spend twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day in sterile steel boxes of solitary confinement in most states, including Connecticut. The lights stay on, and meals are served through slots in the doors. Rather than walking in lockstep, recreation entails supervised, shackled pacing. The U.S. still claims the highest incarceration rate in the world; forty percent of the country’s 2.3 million inmates are black, disproportionately representing just thirteen percent of the country’s population. And just as two-thirds of today’s American inmates end up back in prison within three years, Reed was reincarcerated after only a few months of freedom in 1842.

From his dark room at the Auburn reform institution, Reed looked back on the moment beneath the white farmer’s rawhide. He wrote, “Then was the hour that I thought of my beloved who was sleeping in the grave—yes then was the time that I needed a father’s protection.”