I am not suggesting that the convict laborers on the Western North Carolina Railroad had it that much worse than other prisoners of their era.
A Delaware whipping post
Clarissa Olds Keeler in her 1907 book THE CRIME OF CRIMES OR THE CONVICT SYSTEM UNMASKED recites some varied examples from around the US:
Delaware which has but three counties has no penitentiary, but has three workhouses or jails. Eye witnesses have long borne testimony to the evils resulting from confining youthful offenders in these "schools of vice."
Referring to Delaware's whipping post the President of the Maryland Prison Association has said: It stands out in the yard a relic of a barbarous age and conveys to the mind of the prisoners bitterness and hatred and drives from them almost every remnant of better nature."
What can be more revolting to a human mind than such accounts as the following?
"February 7, 1903:--This was whipping day for New Castle County. Long before the time for flogging the prisoners, trolley cars running to Greenback were crowded with persons who wished to see the punishment inflicted. Many women were in the party.
"Prisoners who stood at the post were doubly punished in view of the biting wind which raged while the flogging process was going on. From the workhouse through the tunnel to the stockade the prisoners were marched bared to the waist. With chattering teeth and shivering bodies they awaited their turns at the post."
The Wilmington Evening Journal of September 26, 1903, describes the whipping of fourteen prisoners at the New Castle prison, when several hundred men and women witnessed the punishment. Some of the prisoners stood in the pillory one hour each. Several received forty lashes each, one of whose whole back was left as raw as a piece of meat. another was whipped while "each blow sent streams of blood down his back." Another "cried and prayed." Another while being tortured by the lash "tried to climb the post and wrenched his hands free from the iron braces." But the punishment continued.
The Wilmington papers reported the whipping of ten prisoners on February 11, 1905, one of the coldest days of the season. Some of the prisoners "were taken from a room with a temperature of 60 degrees to the jail yard where it was 18 degrees" to receive their punishment. One negro received forty lashes well laid on after being in the pillory one hour. A middle aged negro "cried for mercy" as the lashes were laid on unsparingly. "He stole three mackeral to relieve his hunger and ten lashes and a year's labor constituted his punishment." Another negro had been found guilty of having in possession an old heater he had taken from an ash barrel. His skin was "blistered and cracked" from the lashing, and in addition he must serve six months in the workhouse. All were whipped on the naked back.
Horse-drawn prison cage that moved from one North Carolina worksite to the next, housing the inmates, ca. 1900
Texas which has long been a convict leasing State, has the largest prison population of any State in the Union. The number of felony convicts on hand August 31, 1904, was 3,975. Of this number 2,314 were negroes, 1,851 were illiterate and 1,792 intemperate. Over 700 were under 20 years of age, some being under 15. Nearly one-half are employed on contract force, or in other words are leased to work on contract.
The Galveston (Texas) Daily News, of May 31, 1902, gives extracts from a report of a recent official investigation. The investigating committee declared "the lease (contract) system a disgrace to the State." "The prison officials," said the committee, "are furnished palatial homes, but as a rule the life of a (leased) convict is not so valuable in the eyes of the sergeants, guards and contractors, with few exceptions, as that of a dog. We find that the average life of a convict is seven years. Convicts are shot down upon the least provocation and when there is absolutely no excuse for it.
Convicts are worked when they are sick and disabled, and some have been compelled to work until they have dropped dead in their tracks, yet nothing so far as we know has been done to remedy the evil." The law regarding whipping convicts was "held in contempt" by lessees and guards. "The sergeant whips at any and all times, it is his pleasure to do so." Some of the guards had been retained 30 years "which tends to make them callous."
The full report was withheld from the public.
[ Preceeding from THE CRIME OF CRIMES, viewable online at http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=rbaapc&fileName=15100/rbaapc15100.db&recNum=0 ]
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