- Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America ed. by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell
An 1816 pamphlet describes the last days of a Pennsylvania murderer named Henry Mills. Initially unrepentant, Mills underwent a conversion upon being sentenced to death. He dedicated himself to religious study and on his execution day begged spectators to learn from his “dreadful example,” just before throwing himself off of the gallows (2). Many at the time probably recognized “The Narrative of the Pious Death of the Penitent Henry Mills” as fictional, for in reality, the administration of punishment was rarely so neat and orderly. Indeed, this execution tale was written to serve as a stark lesson in obedience and piety to Massachusetts’s children.
Nearly two hundred years later, the story of Henry Mills is still instructive, though not in the way its anonymous author intended. Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell, the editors of Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early [End Page 815] America, use it in opening the introduction to demonstrate the distance between penal ideas and practice, and to highlight the role of writing in inscribing ideas about punishment on the American imagination. The Mills story also helps to bring together the two disciplinary lenses through which the book examines early American incarceration, tying together the social history of carceral experience with the literary analysis of prison writing.
From the scaffolds of colonial New England to the prison ships of Revolutionary New York, the asylums of early nineteenth-century Philadelphia to the jails of the antebellum South, the ten essays in Buried Lives examine historical and literary evidence to analyze the experiences and writings of people confined in a variety of carceral institutions over a spread of more than a century and a half and across a diverse geographic range. The book contributes to the third wave of incarceration historiography that insists on inmate agency by examining penal practice rather than reformers’ ideals. The essays work “to refocus the familiar story of the transition from scaffold to penitentiary upon the incarcerated Americans whose patterned defiance provided an important impetus for each successive wave of penal reform and innovation” (9). Such a refocusing expands and complicates the history of incarceration. And in contributing to a social history of these “long-buried lives,” the essays urge us—as Michael Meranze suggests in the foreword—to carefully consider the intersections between slavery, expansion, American national-identity formation, state power, and incarceration in this period (26, xi-xii). The essays also highlight the ways in which race, class, and gender inform the experience of incarceration. The book is divided into two parts, along disciplinary and methodological lines. The five historical essays that form the first part, “Brokering Power behind Bars,” argue that these carceral spaces were not the total institutions depicted in earlier historiography, but from the outset were sites of contested power shaped just as much (if not more) by inmates’ resistance as by reformers’ plans. Far from the inmates being the docile bodies described by Michel Foucault, the essays show that they employed various strategies to resist the carceral conditions imposed on them in efforts to escape, improve their conditions, or merely survive.
Accused and suspected slaves held in British Antiguan jails in 1736 bartered details of a slave conspiracy that had probably never existed in exchange (they hoped) for their lives. Confined in group cells, they forged alliances, shared information, and crafted stories about the plot in an effort [End Page 816] to escape the ultimate punishment, as Jason T. Sharples recounts. Simon P. Newman and Billy G. Smith show how late eighteenth-century men and women confined in Philadelphia’s almshouse and jail resisted the criminalization of their impoverished status, negotiating their incarceration to improve their conditions. Some simply ran away, while others refused to work or abide by the institutional rules. Still others learned to utilize the asylums for their own advantage, pilfering clothing, food, and furniture; feigning illness and injury to avoid work; and retreating to the almshouse for shelter during the cold...