Prisoner-Author William Coffey’s Early Life and Work

face of a prisoner

William A. Coffey was a prisoner-author early in nineteenth-century America. Here’s a review of Coffey’s experience as a prisoner-author. Below is a timeline of information about Coffey’s life, with citations to supporting primary sources.

Coffey lived “all my life time” in the city of New York. He received a literary and philosophical education and trained as a lawyer.^ The Federal Census of 1800 includes a head of household named William Coffey living in 2-WD, New York City. The six-person household included five males (two ages 0-9, one age 10-15, one age 16-25, and one age 26-44) and one female (age 16-25). One of the males ages 0-9 may have been William A. Coffey, named after his father. A case record from 1819 describes the testimony of Sarah Dulet, Coffey’s mother. Coffey’s mother “had been married to {her husband} Dulet about four months ago.”^ In 1823, Coffey refers to embracing “my wife,” “aged mother,” and “my little sisters.”^ Perhaps Coffey’s family had grown significantly since 1800.

In 1816, at age twenty-one, Coffey was serving as secretary of the Hamilton Society in New York City. See “Hamilton Society,” New-York Courier {New York, NY}, v. 19, n. 7259, p. 3 (Feb. 8, 1816), advertisement; “Hamilton Society,” New-York Courier, v. 2, n. 511, p. 3 (Aug. 28, 1816), advertisement.

In 1817, Coffey opened his own law office and worked as a lawyer for debtors declaring bankruptcy. See The Exile {New York, NY}, v. 1, n. 20, p. 3 (May 17, 1817), advertisement: “For Wm. A. Coffey, Attorney at Law, office at No. 31 Ann-street, between William and Nassau-streets.” On Coffey’s work as a lawyer for debtors, see The National Advocate {New York, NY}, v. 5, n. 1392, p. 4 (June 12, 1817), advertisement.

In July of 1818, Coffey married Anna Isabella, daughter of Joseph Molyneux, formerly of Dublin. The marriage took place at Trinity Church in Manhattan. See The New-York Evening Post {New York, NY}, n. 5029, p. 2 (July 28, 1818), matrimony notice.

On Jan. 15, 1819, Coffey was indicted for the first time. He was indicted for passing bad checks, but acquitted of the charges.^ He was then about age twenty-four.

In May of 1819, Coffey was convicted of forgery and sentenced to seven years at hard labor in the New York state prison. See “Court of Sessions – May term, 1819,” The New-York Columbian, v. 10, n. 2808, p. 2 (May 18, 1819).

In August, 1822, Coffey was pardoned.^

On June 27, 1823, Inside Out; or, an Interior View of the New-York State Prison was registered at the copyright office.^ That book declares its author only as “One Who Knows.” Inside Out specifies that the narrator entered the New York State Prison in May, 1819 (p. 20), was pardoned in Aug., 1922 (p. 189), was in prison for forgery (p. 103) with a sentence of seven years (p. 102), and his wife’s name was Anna (p. 124). All these facts agree with facts from Coffey’s life from independent sources. Coffey’s letter to James Madison makes little sense apart from Coffey’s authorship of Inside Out.^ The same is true of Coffey’s letter to the New York State legislature.^ A newspaper account in 1824 indicates that James Steward and an inmate named Storms were authors of Inside Out.^ Storms seems to have been an alias of William Coffey. James Stewart may have contributed information that Coffey included in his book. Coffey apparently wrote this book after he was released from prison. The book, however, includes poems the author claims he wrote while in prison.^

By August, 1823, booksellers in Rhode Island were advertising Inside Out for sale. See Providence Gazette {Providence, RI}, v. 59, n. 3233, p. 3 (Aug. 2, 1823), advertisement by John Hutchens, No. 12, Market-Square; “Just Received for Sale and Circulation,” Rhode-Island American {Providence, RI}, v. 14, n. 104, p. 4 (Sept. 26, 1823), advertisement by George Dana, Agent, Book Agency, Market-Street, Sept. 23.

In 1824, a commercial circulating library in Bennington, Vermont was offering the book to its subscribers. See “Catalogue of Books Belonging to D. Clark’s Circulating Library,” Vermont Gazette {Bennington, VT}, v. 16, n. 1, p. 1 (Nov. 30, 1824), advertisement.

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