Horace Lane, Early 19th-Century Prisoner-Author

face of a prisoner

Horace Lane was an early nineteenth-century working-class prisoner-author. Unlike fellow early-nineteenth-century prisoner-author William Coffey, Lane didn’t grow up within the social and intellectual elite. Like Coffey, Lane sought to expose injustices and reform prisons through writing a book. Like Coffey, Lane had little influence on public policy and lived in poverty. For authors, the inspiring ideal of authoring public works has tended to obscure the typical, actual effects of doing so.

Lane grew up in impoverished circumstance and lacked formal education. He was born in 1789 in a farm family in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Lane’s family moved to Stillwater, New York, a small town on the Hudson River, a year after Lane was born. When Lane was six, his mother died. From age six to ten, Lane lived and worked apart from his family as a child laborer for a farmer, a shoemaker, a country storekeeper, and a clothier. At age ten, he joined the U.S. Navy. He went to sea as a “ship’s boy.” In the navy he endured strenuous conditions, severe floggings, and combat with pirates and the British. He was impressed at least three times into the British navy.^

Lane spent many years in many different prisons. In 1812, after a British man-of-war captured his ship, he endured three months in a British prison ship moored in Bermuda. From about 1815 to 1819, he served four years in a Dutch prison for stealing furniture and participating in a drunken brawl. After returning to the U.S. about 1824, he served fifteen months in the Simsbury mines in Connecticut for breaking into a house and stealing. He was released from that prison spell in February 1826. In May, 1827, he was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to three years of hard labor in the Auburn State Prison. Soon after he was released, he was convicted of burglary and theft. In December, 1830, he entered Sing Sing State Prison to serve a two-year sentence. Upon release from Sing Sing, Lane was given “two dollars, and a suit of old clothes that would scarcely hang together.”^ Lane was forty-three years old. He was already an old man who had suffered much and gained little. His family and social connections were long attenuated. He had no formal education outside of prison. His body was failing from alcoholism and brutal life experiences. He had no skills that would help him to get more than a low-paying job.

Lane became an author. About 1835, he wrote a twenty-four-page pamphlet, “Five Years in State’s Prison; or, Interesting Truths , Showing the Manner of Discipline in the State Prisons at SingSing and Auburn, Exhibiting the Great Contrast Between the Two Institutions, in the Treatment of the Unhappy Inmates; Represented in a Dialogue Between SingSing and Auburn. By Horace Lane, a Discharged and Penitent Convict.” Lane described repeated beatings to force him and other Sing Sing prisoners to work harder:

{a prison official} sent me after large sledge, and set me to breaking up rocks, but it was so heavy I could not swing it: then I got it, the keeper would come and give me five or six raps with his cudgel every half hour, says he, “I’ll learn you how to act the old soldier.” Oh! how I longed for night; and in the morning my bones would ache so I could hardly stir.^

He also described prison officials selling prisoners’ provisions for pigs’ feed and leaving prisoners starving:

I was so hungry that I would watch every chance I could get, to pull up some grass or weeds, to eat; this is the truth, and there was enough others did so too, while the assistant keeper was selling barrels of provision for swill.^

Weakened by the brutal work and poor food, Lane was beaten for staggering while he and other prisoners were marched in formation to work:

You know how they {the prisoners} have to march, one after another, close together, so as one’s belly touches the other’s back; and we had a long hill to go down three times a day. I was so lame in my bones I could not steady myself, and I would stagger and tumble on the others, and then I would get two or three raps over the head with a cudgel. I could not help but cry almost all the time, and the more I cried, the more they beat me.^

Prison reform was a major public issue at that time. Lane’s pamphlet was a sensational, personal account of experiences highly relevant to public discussions of prison reform.

Lane’s pamphlet was also a stirring evangelical testimony in a culture where such testimonies attracted considerable attention. Lane experienced life among the dying. While serving in the navy, Lane participated in battles involving cannon and gun fire. Lane was a prisoner in Sing Sing when a cholera epidemic struck the prison in July and August, 1832. Most of the prisoners became ill, and roughly ten percent died. Lane wrote, “I counted nine, and seven, and five or six a day {dying}, for a fortnight.”^ Lane declared:

I am a standing monument of singular mercy. When numbers were dropping down around me, when instruments of death were rattling thick around me, like the hail from the thunder cloud, and falling like drops of rain, I was preserved among the gasping, groaning, and dying.^

Lane publicly acknowledged and repented his sins. He praised God for mercy and goodness, and urged readers to do likewise. He drew upon his personal experiences as an alcoholic in an extended figurative comparison urging readers to pray:

If you never prayed before, now, before you shut this pamphlet, if you have no disposition {to prayer}, pray God to give you a spirit of prayer. If man never had an inclination to drink strong drink, yet he may get into company where they are drinking, and he may think they feel wonderful well through their jollyness, and be tempted to take a little; and the first glass will create a desire for another, and so he goes on till he gets to be a perfect drunkard: just so you may suppose the Christians, when they get together to worship God, and drink in largely of his heart-reviving Spirit, must feel well, and so they do ^

The temperance movement and revivalist Christianity were powerful social currents in antebellum America. These currents encompassed a far larger group of potential readers than those interested in prison reform.

Lane vigorously promoted sales of his pamphlet. He recorded in his autobiography:

There was no small excitement drawn into operation in the minds of the people, when, with a large literal showbill, I commenced selling my stigmatizing pamphlet about the streets and markets of the city. It was not long before I could hear the boys in all directions crying out, “Five years in State Prison! here comes Five Years in State Prison!” This was truly humiliating to the natural man; and had it not been that I was in straitened circumstances, I think my pride would have overcome my desire to do good.^

Having to promote themselves to potential readers has been an enduring source of humiliation for many authors. This author had actual personal experience relevant to an institution with major public significance. That didn’t change the necessity of promotion:

I was bold to attest to the truth of the above pamphlet, as being my own experience. Some were so swelled up with haughty disdain, that they said, (seldom without an imprecation or an oath,) “You ought to go back, and stay there for life.” It was hard for me to keep from retaliating; sometimes I got off my guard, but generally kept in mind that humility is better than pride.^

On the street one day, some gentlemen put to the author this proposition:

what would I take to read one of the pamphlets through? I made them no answer; they offered me, I think, twenty-five cents. I thought I could do it in less than an hour, and that would be good wages; but the condition was, that I was to mount, and stand on a pile of codfish, and in the form of an orator perform the task. … They stalked the money; I mounted; the force of my agitations produced the cold sweat, but I read on; while they, observing my firmness, purchased a pamphlet, left me the twenty-five cents, and retired.^

In one form or another, many authors face similar challenges. Successful authors re-enforce their status by encouraging others to attempt to achieve it. Taking the position of an author in the public sphere can be a degrading experience even for persons with the lowest social status.

Lane reaped meager rewards from his authorship. In the preface to Five Years in State’s Prison, Lane wrote:

I do not undertake this work, thinking to gain fame or applause; to the contrary, I know that the greater part will ridicule me, and say, “What a vile wretch!” … If I don’t get fame and applause, I am in hopes of getting a few shillings, or dimes, or cents.^

Lane reported that he sold eleven thousand copies of his pamphlet.^ That’s almost surely more than twenty times more copies than William Coffey, another early nineteenth-century prisoner-author, sold of his book Inside Out. But Lane noted that selling eleven thousand copies did not bring him much net profit: “it took me so long, and my expenses were so great on steamboats, railroads, and other ways, that I did not make much.”^

Over the long run, Lane’s work apparently benefited Lane and prisoners little. Perhaps because of poor prospects for alternative employment, Lane continued to write and sell publications. In 1839, he published a 225-page autobiography entitled The Wandering Boy, or Careless Sailor, and Result of Inconsideration. A True Narrative. In 1843 he published a patriotic song sheet, The Yankee Boy that went to sea from 99 to 43.^ Nonetheless, by the 1840s, destitute and ill, he was spending time in Sailor’s Snug Harbor, an “Asylum, or Marine Hospital, … for the purpose of maintaining and supporting aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.”^ ^

Any reform at Sing Sing that Lane helped to produce was at best short-lived. In 1842, Elam Lynds, a prison official known for brutal floggings, was rehired at Sing Sing.^ Lane petitioned Congress in 1855 for a military pension. He was refused.^ Lane is largely a forgotten name in the history of prison reform. Exposés of brutal treatment of prisoners have been a staple of prison literature through to the present. These stories haven’t been successful in producing enduring, systemic changes in the scope and nature of imprisonment.

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