William Coffey, Early 19th-Century Prisoner-Author

face of a prisoner

William A. Coffey provides a case study of a nineteenth-century prisoner-author who struggled with meager success to attract attention to his public work. In June, 1823, a book entitled Inside Out; or, an Interior View of the New-York State Prison was published in New York. It had the authorial attribution “By One Who Knows.” William A. Coffey was the author.

William Coffey was well-positioned to be a prisoner-author. A life-long resident of New York City, he received a literary and philosophical education and trained as a lawyer. In 1816, at age twenty-one, Coffey was serving as secretary of the Hamilton Society in New York City. He read Fisher Ames’ eulogy to Hamilton at the Society’s anniversary celebration. In May of 1817, Coffey opened his own law office. In July of 1818, in Trinity Church, Manhattan, he married Anna Isabella, daughter of Joseph Molyneux, formerly of Dublin. In May of 1819, Coffey was convicted of forgery and sentenced to seven years at hard labor in the state prison.

Coffey strove to succeed as a prisoner-author. His background and experiences, along with considerable public interest in prison reform, would seem to bode well for him. Coffey declared in the first paragraph of the preface to Inside Out:

In compiling the following pages, it becomes me to state that I have not been actuated by a nonsensical rage for literary fame. Public utility has been essentially my aim; and if my attempt is not completely unsuccessful, the patronage of the public will follow my endeavours, and the interests of my family will be particularly subserved.^

About two months after Coffey’s book was published in New York, a newspaper in Massachusetts printed an article headlined with the title of the book. The article began by stating that the book had recently been published and that a convict had written it. The article then noted:

The language employed (says a correspondent of the Providence Journal) is chaste, and sometimes elegant; the style is open, clear and perspicuous, often bordering on the margin of poetical fiction ^

Most of the article consisted of two long excerpts from the book. The first excerpt was an “effusion, describing the fondness and faithfulness of his wife in the hour of affliction.” The second excerpt described two convicts, one who had committed highway robbery and a second who was a partner to the murder of a woman. Chaste but sensational fiction, with content to boost women’s self-esteem and to play on their fears, is the sort of writing that has always been popular. The form and content of the newspaper article strongly suggests that it was book puffery.^

Coffey’s book was offered through major institutions for circulating books at the time. The title page declared: “New-York / Printed for the author, / and sold by / James Costigan.” Costigan deposited a copy of the book with a copyright official on June 27, 1823. Costigan claimed copyright as “proprietor” of the work.^ By August, 1823, booksellers in Rhode Island were advertising the book for sale. In 1824, a commercial circulating library in Bennington, Vermont, was offering the book to its subscribers. The Astor Library and the Mercantile Library, two of New York City’s largest libraries, listed the book in their catalogs of 1839 and 1844, respectively.

Coffey personally attempted to win the support of former U.S. president James Madison. About two months after his book was published, Coffey wrote to Madison. Coffey began his letter with the simple, generic salutation, “Sir.” He then provided a narrative of facts:

I herewith send you a copy of “Inside Out” – a work just published in this city, for the benefit of its author. Divested of his profession, and with a dependent family, without the means of acquiring a livelihood, but by the labours of his pen, he has made a trifling attempt at authorship, in the compiling of this work, with the hope, in some degree, of advancing his pecuniary {sic} views.^

Coffey then appealed to Madison’s good-will as a lead-in to self-centered sentiment:

Approaching you as the uniformly active friend of the unfortunate, and as a distinguished philanthropist, he is confident that you will not discountenance his present endeavors, but readily believe of him, in the expressive words of Byron,
That there are hues not always faded,
which shew a mind not all degraded,
Even by the crimes thro’ which it waded.^

Coffey then wrote a terse imperative and a long, formal, high-status closing:

Be pleased to acknowledge the receipt of “Inside Out”; and believe me to be, Sir, Your most Obedient and very humble Servant, Wm. A. Coffey {signed with a large flourish} / 80 Maiden Lane / care of Jos. Molyneux {Coffey’s father-in-law}

Madison’s papers do not include a response to this letter. Leading public figures today probably receive thousands of similar letters. They probably read and retain few of them. That Madison’s papers preserve this letters suggests that, early in the nineteenth century, authors received more attention than they typically do today.

Coffey also brought his book to the attention of the New York legislature. A newspaper reported in March, 1824:

Mr. M’Clure presented a memorial of Wm. A. Coffey, of the city of New-York, offering to substantiate before any proper tribunal the abuses and corruptions which he had declared to exist in the book entitled “Inside Out.”^

While M’Clure was reading Coffey’s statement to the legislature, a member moved to dispense with reading the rest of the statement and return it to Coffey because “it was a paper reflecting upon the officers of the government which the Legislature ought not to hear when coming from a pardoned convict.” Another member responded in support of further reading, noting “if the memorialist was a pardoned convict, yet he was restored by the pardon to all his civil rights, and it was the right of every citizen to be heard.” A third member responded:

He thought it extremely improper for the house to listen to such criminations of their own public officers by a person who, although restored to most of this civil rights, yet having been a tenant of the prison, was not competent to give testimony on the subject before any Court, or any Committee which this Legislature might appoint.^

The motion to suppress reading of Coffey’s statement did not prevail. The statement was read in full to the Legislature. It was then withdrawn from consideration.

Despite reaching influential public figures, Coffey’s book seems to have been unprofitable. Probably no more than 500 copies of the book were printed.^ Coffey paid for the printing and most likely financed distribution costs as well.^ ^ In the introduction to the book, Coffey stated:

If the public should be pleased to receive this volume favourably, it will be followed by another on the same subject, containing equally interesting matter^

The 1820s were a relative propitious time for authors. Some authors in that period received large incomes.^ However, the “normal fate of the untried author” at that time was that “he paid the cost of manufacture {of the book}, paid a commission to a distributor, and allowed the retailer to receive the work on consignment.”^ Inside Out was printed only once. Coffey advocated penal reform and exposed corruption in public administration. He apparently didn’t achieve commercial success.

A newspaper article printed about four years after Coffey’s book hints at the author’s fate. The article described a “petty offender” named “Storms” (no given name provided), who was convicted of burglary:

He had formerly been in the State Prison, and was one of the persons who compiled the book called “Inside Out.” … The literary rogue shewed some talents in writing, and last Saturday he made a tolerable speech to the court, begging mercy, &c. He investigated the evidence, and pronounced it illegal according to the laws of his own country.^ ^

Inside Out documents Coffey penchant for literary display. Moreover, Coffey had trained and practiced as a lawyer. The style and content of Inside Out, as well as Coffey’s letter to Madison and his presentation to the New York legislature, strongly supports Coffey being the sole author of Inside Out. Mid-nineteenth-century library catalogs list Coffey as the sole author of Inside Out. Storms may have been an alias that Coffey adopted. If Coffey was “Storms,” he was sentenced in 1827 to fourteen more years in the state prison.

Coffey may have made an additional effort to achieve success as an author. Storms, with good time, could have been released from Auburn State Prison in 1838. On December 13, 1838, Henry J. Brower, claiming rights as author, deposited A Peep into the State Prison at Auburn “By One Who Knows” with the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the Northern District of New York. Henry J. Brower may have been another alias that Coffey/Storms adopted. A Peep into the State Prison is an inward-looking counterpart to Inside Out. Like Inside Out, A Peep into the State Prison quotes extensively from prison reports, features an epigraph from Shakespeare, includes other literary quotations embedded in the text, and displays the author’s knowledge of Latin, law, and highly stylized upper-class expressions. Both works appeal to philanthropists, frame personal responses in terms of flows of emotion and sentiment, and show concern for jealousy, rivalry, and enemies among the author’s peers. In his preface, the author of A Peep into the State Prison professes “to make use of language adapted to the lowest capacity, to be as concise as the nature of the case will admit, and to offer the publication at so small a price as to be within the scope of every man’s means.”^ With the prolixity that also characterizes Inside Out, A Peep into the State Prison extended for 138 pages.

A Peep into the State Prison seems to have been less successful than Inside Out. Both were printed at the expense of the author (“Printed and published for the author”). Inside Out was broadly disseminated. A Peep into the State Prison wasn’t. A writer for The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate reported receiving a copy of the “large pamphlet” in February, 1839. Accompanying that large pamphlet was “a request to read and notice it.”^ The writer provided a lengthy description of the pamphlet and urged reading it. But no major newspaper of the time noticed it. Large libraries did not include it in their collections. Prison reformers did not mention it. Today no library in WorldCat other than the New York Historical Society Library reports holding A Peep into the State Prison.

Inside Out and A Peep into the State Prison indicate that the prison wall isn’t the primary barrier to prisoner-authors. Writing a book about an important, largely unknown public institution isn’t enough to make a book successful. Attracting attention and being commercially successful is as big of a challenge for prisoner-authors as it is for authors in general. Because producing and circulating successfully public works is difficult, public discourse that is informed only through public works is narrowly informed.

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