Austin Reed was a criminal. He admits this outright. He conspired, stole, and even stabbed a man when he was just 6 years old. (Then he burnt the man’s house down.)
But thanks to a recently discovered manuscript, Reed is also an invaluable documentarian of a crucial period of American history.
In the memoir The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, published this week by Random House, Reed reflects about a life spent in and out of the American prison system back when it still was in its infancy. His movements through the state of New York's prison system between the years of 1833 and 1858 are included in the text.
The handwritten tale was randomly found at an estate sale in Rochester, Ny. in 2009 and was later verified and authenticated by Yale literature professor Caleb Smith, who served as the book's editor. The researchers believe it is the earliest prison memoir written by an African-American.
Reed wrote on scraps of paper over 150 years ago, in between prison stints. But his tales of inhumane treatment, ineffective reformation programs, and a lifetime of recidivism sound awfully familiar today.
The story begins with the death of Reed's father, when he was around 6 years old. His father gives him a final piece of advice and blessing: "that I might be kept from all the snares and temptations of the world, and that I might grow up and become a useful man."
Soon after, though, Reed starts to get into trouble. After he and a group of friends jump a fence and cut down some fruit trees in an orchard for the hell of it, Reed's mother breaks down, pledging to send him away for reformation.
"My mother had firmly made up her mind that I should be sent from a city life and live a country life," he writes. It was this first experiment, at only 6 years old, which starts him on his path to a lifetime in incarceration.
His mother strikes up a deal to send Reed away to live with a white man as an indentured servant, something Reed's sister and brother get angry about, worried he might in fact be handed over to a slave holder. After a few days adjusting to his surroundings, the white man asks Reed to start working, but Reed refuses. The white man takes him to the barn and whips him.
This is where the troubles begin. Upon returning home to the city with the help of another, friendlier white man, Reed's sister is livid when she learns about the whipping. She hands him their father's old pistol and a knife, with instructions to return at night and kill the man who whipped him. Clumsily, Reed fires a shot at the man but misses, but he still manages to sink the knife into him. Overnight, he is held at a constable's home, until he sneaks out and sets fire to the home of the man who whipped him.
At the age of 6, he is given a 10-year sentence at the House of Refuge in New York City, the first juvenile reformatory in the U.S. Entering into the facility as a typical, misguided child, it's only a matter of days before he starts to learn "little tricks" from the fellow criminals around him.
"I now became harden [sic] in vice and crime," Reed writes of these early days.
There were some good sides to the prison, though. A warden took a liking to him, teaching how to read, write and perform poetry and theater.
Towards the end of his stay, things take a turn for the worst. A tyrannical former Presbyterian minister takes over, giving brutal whippings to the boys for seemingly arbitrary infractions. The culture of fear and overt oppression takes hold, as "reformation" is all but abandoned.
Notably, boys of the facility were driven to work 7 to 8 hours every day, except on Sundays. The tyrant warden hired out the boys to private contractors, who would use the labor to make shoes, brooms, and other commodities for profit.
"The exploitation of their labor was justified as a kind of character building," Smith, the editor, notes in the introduction. Not quite slavery, but free labor nonetheless.
After having escaped three times from the facility, Reed's fourth attempt is a success.
At the age of 9, Reed is at a crucial crossroads: he has the basics of a good education, but is stained with the "deep print of a state prison" upon him. A nice white family takes him in, promising to pay for his education and giving him a job as a bartender, but by that time Reed is already hardened. He buys a gun and promises to shoot whoever might come to take him back to jail, after he discovers authorities are looking for him.
In the end, though, he shoots a fellow black man who is attempting to rape a white woman, and is thrown back in jail to await trial. Even though he is cleared of the crime, and in fact celebrated for shooting the man, after months of arbitrary detention, Reed's future prospects with the family are over.
Within a few months, for a separate crime, he is thrown into the notorious Auburn State Prison, which is notable for developing the Auburn System of corrections, which was being innovated within its walls at the time Reed was there. Striped uniforms, solitary confinement, hard labor, the use of torture devices, and a strict code of silence at all times made up the culture.
He was only 13 when he entered. Strikingly, Reed notes, he recognized so many people in the prison.
"Among eight hundred prisoners, there were over one hundred and fifty that I was acquainted with and had been boys with me at the House of Refuge," he writes.
A life of incarceration had succeeded in turning this entire generation of young boys into career criminals.
It was not only blacks who were impacted—notably, there is no reference to race-based unequal treatment in the entire text, but we do know there were fellow blacks with him—but people from all walks whose lives had been ruined by the then-fledgling system of mass incarceration. At one point, though, he laments about how the discrimination suffered against the Irish in those times, as many of his best friends were Irish:
Oh, you dare devil Yankees, who run down the poor Irishmen as they land upon your dock, and point the finger of scorn at them and look upon them with a sneer of disgrace … Yes, me brave Irish boys, me loves you till the day that I am laid cold under the sod, and I would let the last drop of this dark blood run and drain from these black veins of mine to rescue you from the hands of the full blooded Yankee.
With this generation firmly in state custody, they suffer tortures that echo in our modern consciousness. In the most extreme case, Reed escribes getting a "showering" while in Auburn State Prison—a method of torture that basically was a precursor to waterboarding. In another instance he crawls to his bed to try to rest after being tortured, only to get in trouble all over again, because it wasn't sleeping hours.
Just a few months after Reed was released from Auburn State Prison in 1858, a black inmate named Samuel Moore was killed by "showering." Inmates rioted, and it was big news in the state. An investigation was launched into the punishments in the prison, in which the prison guards were exonerated of any wrongdoing. Reed wrote the manuscript around this time, but makes no mention of the news.
Most of the harshest elements of the Auburn System of corrections were abolished in the late 1800s, according to the Correctional Association of New York.
Throughout his trials and tribulations in the penal system, Reed always returns to the words that his father spoke on his deathbed. In one climactic scene, Reed goes into a fit and rips up a Bible in his jail cell—something he had always gone to for spiritual guidance. Coming to terms with what he has just done, he breaks down into tears, blaming the criminal justice system for his fortunes:
I entered the prison with my mother's prayer printed upon my lips and my father's blessings upon my head, endown with good reason and an ample store of good education, but you, ye dare face looking devils, have whip my mother's prayers from my lips into curses, and beaten my father's blessing from my head with a heavy hickory club, and took away from me all the good reason which God endowed me with.
The tale of institutional abuses and horrors that Reed spins runs as a free-man's supplement to the classic runaway slave narrative of Frederick Douglass, the preeminent abolitionist. Incidentally, the two briefly lived in Rochester during the timeframe of Reed's story. In a sense, this fact underscores the overlap between the oppressive systems of slavery and mass incarceration, only one of which survives through today.
Reed's narrative is engaging, and at times a little strange for the modern reader. At various points we get a treatise on the evils of the novel as a literary form, several pages laying out the case for why masturbation and alcohol are the work of the devil, and a description of a prison guard who Reed admires, which goes on for pages at a time. There are also the strange literary quirks, including the removal of some possessives for some reason ("father grave," "mother blood") and the capitalization of the words "Home" and "House," which actually has a strong effect on the reader.
Readers looking for profound racial insight into the early system of mass incarceration won't find much. It's not there—but viewed in a certain light, that can almost be a strength. Reed was an incarcerated black man. He was surrounded by Irish, English, and Scottish comrades, all of whom were in the same boat. With over 2 million people behind bars today, even while our current system disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos, it is still an overarching, national issue, which touches all parts of society. By that token, A Haunted Convict stands to serve as a starting point to talk about the history of this issue at its foundation.
"Those who might have done me a heap of good turned to be my destroyers," Reed wrote around 1858, when the work was completed.
Today, we're still seeing protests in the streets calling to reform the criminal justice system, based on some of the same allegations. How can a system that's meant to reform effectively condemn? the narrative asks. No doubt, that question is in need of reflection now more than ever.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.