John Howard Within Heroic Individual Myth

face of a prisoner

Historical accounts of John Howard have presented Howard as a heroic individual. In an address to the International Penitentiary Congress in 1872, the Reverend H. W. Bellows declared:

The glory of a great name sometimes obscures the outlines of the life and character that furnished its spendour. … Of no great name is this more true than of the man whose life and services we are now met to consider. The name of Howard has become the synonym of philanthropy. It is more widely known, and known with more unqualified praise and honour, than any private name in modern history.^

The Howard League for Penal Reform celebrated the John Howard Bi-Centenary in 1926. The Howard League’s Howard Journal marked the Howard Bi-Centenary with an article describing “The Place of John Howard in Penal Reform.” The article’s introductory remarks began thus:

The story of John Howard is the indelible record of the colossal achievements of a solitary human spirit in the space of seventeen years.^

Seventeen years apparently refers to the time from 1773, when Howard began inspecting prisons, to 1790, when Howard died.

Howard’s work depended on others for its conception and its effects. National interest in prison reform placed Howard in the position for his first prison examinations and motivated his work. Howard’s friends, the Drs. John Aikin and John Coakley Lettsom, probably shaped Howard’s ideas on sanitary conditions and fevers. Howard was largely indebted to others for drafting and revising The State of the Prisons. Moreover, Howard was well-connected to prominent public figures of his time. Those connections surely played a key role in publicizing The State of the Prisons.

John Howard was an extraordinary man. His contemporaries considered him to be rather eccentric. He was widely regarded both as a close personal friend to prisoners and a philanthropist. He convincingly acted as a medical doctor. John Howard was more extraordinary than the cultural convention of the heroic, solitary individual.

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