19th-Century Prison Libraries Had Diverse Holdings

face of a prisoner

Nineteenth-century prison libraries had diverse book holdings. The imaginative literature or novels that appeared most frequently in mid-nineteenth-century British prison library catalogs were, in descending order of frequency, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Johnson’s Rasselas. Pilgrim’s Progress was “the runaway winner in all categories {of prison library books}.”^ Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Rasselas were in New York state prison libraries about 1850. The 1848 Sing Sing Prison library catalog included five copies of Pilgrim’s Progress. Nineteenth-century prison libraries did not contain merely stern theological books.

Consider, for example, the holdings of the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854. That prison library was founded in 1844. A catalog of its holdings was printed in 1854. The Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854 held Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. It also held three of Chambers’ collections: Miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (10 volumes), Papers for the People (12 volumes), and Papers for the Poor (6 volumes). The chaplain at the Pentonville penitentiary in England was asked to remove from the Pentonville prison library volumes 4 and 6 of Chambers’ Miscellany “because they contained accounts of the escapes of Trench and La Jude.”^ Both of these volumes were in the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854.

The Philadelphia prison library held many other books of diverse types. The Philadelphia Prison library held Knight’s Half-hours with the best authors (4 volumes) and Goodrich’s Boys’ and Girls’ Library (16 volumes). For prisoners with greater reading ambitions, the prison library offered collected works of Shakespeare (5 volumes), collected work of Byron (8 volumes), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, collections of Alexander Pope’s and William Wordsworth’s poetry, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 volumes). Early nineteenth-century authors with many popular works were also represented: Walter Scott (2 titles in 5 volumes), Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (12 titles in 12 volumes), and Washington Irving (13 titles in 16 volumes).

Traditional religious works did not dominate the Philadelphia prison library’s collection. Religious works of various sorts comprised 16% of the volumes in the library. The English Puritan leader Richard Baxter’s long-famous work, Saints’ everlasting rest: or, A treatise of the blessed state of the saints, in their enjoyment of God in glory (1650) was in the library in five copies. The eighteenth-century American spiritual revivalist Jonathon Edwards was represented with his book, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. The late eighteenth-century British politician, philanthropist, and influential abolitionist William Wilberforce was represented with his book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity. The library also included two copies of Sales’s translation of the Qur’an, a biblical dictionary, collections of sermons, and books such as Lamp and the lantern: or The Bible, Light for the tent and the traveler.

The most common theme among the religious books seems to have been natural theology. William Paley, Thomas Chalmers, and Thomas Dick, leading exponents of natural theology, were authors of at least twelve of the religious volumes in the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854. Other volumes that considered religion from secular standards of reason included Hall’s Christian Philosophy, Knox’s Christian Philosophy, Alexander’s Evidences of the Christian Religion, McIlvaine’s Evidences of Christianity, Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature, Smith’s Scripture and Geology, and Bell’s The Hand; Its mechanism and vital endowments as evincing design. Bell’s book on the hand was part of a series, known as the Bridgewater Treatises, which also included Prout’s Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion, considered with reference to Natural Theology. Prout’s book fits well within the current style of titles for U.S. law review articles. Bell’s work probably meets the intellectual standard of much modern work on intelligent design. Narrow-minded piety no better characterizes religious books available to prisoners from the Philadelphia County Prison library in 1854 than it characterizes intellectual life today.

State prison libraries in New York about 1850 held a larger share of religious books and a smaller share of fiction than did the Philadelphia County Prison library. The prison library at Auburn state prison of New York began in 1840 with a donation of fifty copies of Lindley Murray’s Power of religion on the mind, in retirement, affliction, and at the approach of death; exemplified in the testimonies and experiences of persons distinguished by their greatness, learning, or virtue, along with twelve copies of Abigail Mott’s Biographical Sketches and Interesting Anecdotes of Persons of Colour; To Which is Added, a Selection of Pieces in Poetry.^ The prison library in New York’s Sing Sing prison began in 1842 when the governor of New York personally funded the purchase of schoolbooks and seventy-five copies of Richard Baxter’s A call to the unconverted to turn and live, a Puritan classic.^ ^

Nineteenth-century New York state prison libraries rapidly acquired a wide array of books. In 1848, the Sing Sing prison library included Charles Dickens’ novels Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, other novels and travel tales, George Combe’s Constitution of Man, and, reportedly, Orson Fowler’s Amativeness; or Evils and Remedies of Excessive and Perverted Sexuality. Such book holdings led to a press scandal, an official investigation, and a purging of prison staff and books. This scandal may have motivated newly appointed prison inspectors to include the catalog of the Sing Sing prison library in their first annual report. The inspectors also reported books purchased for the Auburn, Sing Sing, and Clinton state prison libraries from 1848 to 1853. The Sing Sing catalog for 1848 and these lists include 14% fiction and 32% religious works, compared to 23% fiction and 16% religious works in the Philadelphia County Prison in 1854. Even in the high-profile circumstances of New York state prison libraries about 1850, religious books accounted for only about a third of the volumes. The Sing Sing prison library catalog in 1848 even included Wilhelm Meinhold’s tale, Mary Schweidler, the amber witch: the most interesting trial for witchcraft ever known. In 1864, the New York Prison Association reported with respect to the Sing Sing prison library:

The books most desired by the convicts are tales and magazines, and the latter more on account of the stories they contain than of their discussions of the great questions. … the chaplain excludes novels, as far as possible, from the shelves of the library, admitting (of this category) only the works of standard authors, such as Scott, Cooper, Edgworth, Sherwood, James, Arthur, and a few others. Biography, travels and history afford the best reading for convicts, and these, next to fiction, are most relished by them.^

A wide range of non-religious books were available in mid-nineteenth-century prison libraries. Nineteenth-century New York state prison libraries held biographies, travel books, history books, and novels. They even included recent best-selling novels and books that some public libraries refused to hold.

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