John Edmonds’ Communicative Practices

face of a prisoner

John Edmonds, who led the founding of the Prison Association of New York, had strong non-familial personal relationships. He had a life-long friendship with Martin Van Buren. Van Buren was older and even more politically prominent than Edmonds. Edmonds also cultivated relationships with younger and less prominent persons. A profile of Edmonds in a law journal in 1851 noted:

With the younger members of the bar Judge E. is an especial favorite. He always receives them with words of kindness and encouragement, and hears them with patience. By the rising generation of lawyers – those who must, in a score of years hence, be the masters of the field now occupied by their seniors, he will be long and affectionately remembered^

In 1860, nine of Edmonds’ law students, “wishing to circulate more widely the high intellectual and religious standard that {he} set,” requested that Edmonds publish an “address delivered before us.” The students wrote:

In making this request, though not unmindful of your public career, our hearts turn instinctively to that closer social and scholastic relation which your unlooked-for kindness and beneficence have instituted between us, and which gave rise to the address we now solicit; by reason of the one, you must feel that you are entitled to our highest esteem; in consequence of the other, you know that you enjoy our warmest affection.^

While Edmonds devoted a large amount of time and energy to his career, he evidently also made time to teach young lawyers and win their affection. He in turn valued their friendship. Edmonds’ final wishes included:

I want as bearers at my funeral those who have been students of mine, viz.:

  • Judge Amasa J. Parker of Albany;
  • Judge Claudius I. Monell
  • Samuel J. Tilden
  • Wm. H. Field
  • Samuel G. Jolliffe
  • Thomas Allison, lawyer, New-York
  • Herbert Smalls, lawyer, New-York
  • G. W. Lyon, District Attorney’s Office
  • Charles P. Shaw, lawyer, New-York
  • Israel L. Gosling, lawyer, New-York^

Edmonds undoubtedly had many friends and appreciated friendship.

John Edmonds spent considerable time personally communicating with held and released prisoners. On February 22, 1851, Edmonds explained in a letter to the Executive Committee of the Prison Association:

I have, myself, stood day after day, for hours at a time, at the doors of the cells of the prisoners, listening to the details of human depravity and human suffering, until the sickness of the heart was even more intolerable than the weariness of the body. Still it was a duty which our experience told us ought not to be omitted, and which our Association rigidly exacted from those upon whom they devolved the duty of examination.^

While Edmonds connected this experience of communication to the “duty of examination,” his description highlighted listening rather than examining.

Edmonds also personally communicated with released prisoners. The Recording Secretary of the Prison Association, who had access to Edmonds’ personal papers, stated in a memorial sketch of Edmonds:

A most voluminous correspondence has been preserved, showing his care for and interest in individual cases. Both while on the bench and afterwards, when in full practice at the bar, he hunted up persons who had been discharged; he visited them at their lodgings; he advised with them; he sought out their friends; he obtained for them employment.^

Edmonds tended to depreciate “sentiments of pity and of good will to men”; he favored “sober results rather than emotional or pathetic impressions.” An acclaimed authority on penal reform, Edmonds emphasized science and expertise in treating prisoners:

the care and treatment of criminals…must be pursued upon scientific principles. The reformatory treatment and discipline of criminals is a department of social science.^

Edmonds probably helped to establish in New York about 1872 a system of supervision of released prisoners. The prisoners were required to pledge to follow certain rules, to write a helper every two months, and to report to this person any changes in residence or employment.^ This system was a forerunner of the current parole system.

Edmonds communicated extensively with prisoners, but he described that communication as a matter of duty and science. He considered the ultimate aim of prison reform to be a state in which “prison-keeping and all penal discipline, were in the hands of broad-minded and enlightened experts, free from embarrassing relations to political strife, and the selfish aims and dictation of partisan leaders.”^ That aim reflected the values and interests of elite public reason. That aim biased Edmonds’ understanding of his own communicative practices.

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