There can be no doubt that this remarkable document uncovered and authenticated recently by a team led by Caleb Smith at Yale University is something altogether new in the annals of prison literature. A young free black inmate of New York’s prison system, ten years old at first incarceration in 1833, shares his history in rich detail and with great storytelling skill.
If at first I thought this might be a story of the wrongly accused—the boy was only ten years old!—I was soon disabused of that idea, given Austin Reed’s own testimony that his mother was despairing of his precocious criminality and bad habits, sending him out to be indentured to a farmer some distance into the country from the corrupting influence of city life Rochester, N.Y. Within days Reed had made that farmer angry enough to give him the whip, at which point Reed threw himself on the mercy and tender attentions of another nearby farmhouse, who promptly made an effort to bring the boy back to his home in Rochester again, to the near-suicidal despair of Reed’s mother.
It turns out that Reed’s sister was as indignant as Reed himself was about the whipping, and stirred the boy to take a pistol and a knife to that angry farmer who initially indentured him. Thus attempted murder must be considered when considering his case, and though the murder failed, Reed did manage to light the farmer’s barn and house on fire, burning it nearly to the ground if his own record is to be believed. That is how he was put into the prison system the first time. (Here I will admit to an exceedingly strong hankering to know what became of the sister. If this were fiction, we could make something up. I want the nonfiction story of that strong-willed creature so filled with rage.)
What makes this work so thrilling to read is that the reader finds oneself taken with this “bright boy” despite his best efforts to complicate his life, forcing one to imagine the position and condition of a free black in a northern city before the Civil War, and examine what could cause such indignation on the part of the sister and the boy when authority of any kind attempted to constrain their unruly behaviors. When Reed tells us that being in the House of Refuge in New York City as a young boy taught him many scams and illicit behaviors of which he had been previously unaware, and to which he took like a duck to water, we shudder to think of what will become of him. So it is foretold that he was incarcerated most of his adult life for felonies and larcenies of all sorts.
An astonishing and full-throated defense of immigrant Irish we may never again hear and yet shows the depth of Reed’s feeling for those boys who, crushed like him by the “hand of oppression,” shared his cells:
“Poor Pat…shivering in poverty and clothed in rags of disgrace and shame, while freedom is planted deep in his breast…poor and helpless on these shores, with no one to extend them a hand…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 a full blooded Yankee…Reader, if you are on the right side of an Irishman, you have the best friend in the world.”
This beautifully written, edited, and annotated memoir of Austin Reed’s time in jail is revelatory for what it says of the cruelties and inconsistencies in the justice system, but it also gives an unforgettable glimpse into the mind of a black man in the system at the time. Prison “cut off from all virtue” a man who could only “sit brooding on vice and preparing for crime.” Fantastically detailed in places, the memoir recreates the adventures of a picaresque hero more usually found in the pages of a novel. Reed had many protectors and mentors during his time in prison, and due to his native intelligence, pride, and charm (and despite his crimes), managed to live out his years to old age. A letter he wrote to the prison system in 1895 is discussed in the Introduction.
While I have called this work a memoir, it is not a memoir in the usual sense. It is a personal history in the manner of literature at the time, and uses fictional devices and structure in places to make the story flow and involve readers. The prison warden also notes that Reed is “a most notorious liar…a deep knowing impudent and brazen-faced boy…” Inconsistencies between Reed's record and the researched history of the time suggests Reed took some liberties with the truth. Reed wanted the work published: he actively tried to make that happen at different stages in his life. Reed had a sensibility that reminds one of Iceberg Slim, another proud brother who had a strong sense of his own talents who used prison to learn many shortcuts to the life he wanted to live. Iceberg Slim also came to advise against a life of crime, but he could see the attractions of it, and the reasons for it, in the black community.
I cannot recommend this entrancing book more highly.
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