- The Life and Death of Gus Reed: A Story of Race and Justice in Illinois during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Thomas Bahde
On May 7, 1878, an Illinois State Penitentiary inmate died in solitary confinement, his body bruised by an illegal whip and a gag fatally wedged in his mouth. Though the death of petty larcenist Gus Reed prompted a minor sensation in the national press, the former slave who migrated from Georgia to Lincoln’s Illinois hometown during the Civil War was promptly forgotten, his life lamented as still more evidence of emancipation’s folly. In this smart and timely book, Thomas Bahde situates Reed’s story in the larger history of race and criminal justice in the Reconstruction-era Midwest. In doing so, he joins a host of recent scholars who have demonstrated that Reconstruction was neither a southern problem nor a time period, but rather “a long national process” that entailed “a vigorous contest over the nature of citizenship and civil rights” (4). Even more significantly, Bahde illustrates the stubborn, post‒Civil War persistence of white supremacist fears that underwrote Illinois’s notorious antebellum Black Laws.
Each chapter takes a particular station in Reed’s life as a point of departure, skillfully presenting new research while addressing the larger context. The book begins in wartime Georgia by considering how slaves—and very likely Gus Reed himself—developed a “complicated set of beliefs regarding the utility, legality, and morality of theft” while in bondage (14). Like many thousands of his fellow slaves, Reed seized upon the war as an opportune moment to vote with his feet. A trickle of refugees making their way to the Midwest became a flood of perhaps eighty thousand. In Illinois, they quickly encountered what one contemporary described as the “cruel slavery spirit,” manifested most odiously in the Black Laws, which prohibited African American immigration to the state (21). The Civil War divided white Illinoisans—and sometimes violently. [End Page 84] Republicans labored in Lincoln’s shadow and repealed the Black Laws in 1865, while Democrats dolefully predicted that emancipation would lead only to “an unhappy future of racial strife” (19).
Chapter 3 presents a social history of black life in Springfield, where Reed settled by 1866. While the black community grew both quantitatively and qualitatively after the Civil War, their heroic efforts could not overcome the racial assumptions of many local whites. Exceptionally eager to confirm their worst fears about the menace of racial equality, Democrats on the stump and above the fold peddled “allusions to black criminality” (95). Bahde prowls around the black “underworld” before wandering the wards of the Illinois State Penitentiary. This brilliant chapter connects burgeoning criminological theories to a “continuing unease about the consequences of emancipation and the tentative advance of civil rights during Reconstruction” (157). “Increased public concern about the criminal in society” merely “codified popular prejudice” (153). And so it was that attention paid to Gus Reed’s death was fleeting, the reform-minded press more interested in “the shameful conduct of the prison officials” than the hapless criminal “who was responsible for his own demise” (136‒37). He became not a subject, but rather another doleful statistic.
Accessibly written, thoroughly researched, and informed by the latest scholarship, this excellent book would make a superb addition to undergraduate courses in late nineteenth-century, legal, and African American history. A model of the historian’s craft, it deserves a popular readership. The ghosts of the Civil War still haunt us.