Here’s an interesting discovery by Yale University that, even though not directly related to cinema, is still within the cinematic spirit of the times, given the recent surge in interest in pre-Civil War/slavery abolition as the subject of films and TV shows in the USA.
Yale has discovered a mystery manuscript that was written by an imprisoned black man in the 1850s, in which he details his experiences at both the New York House of Refuge, which was the first juvenile detention center in the USA, and later in New York’s Auburn State Prison.
The young man’s name is Austin Reed, and the 304-page memoir is titled The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison. The title alone immediately draws one’s attention. And if that isn’t already long enough, it’s subtitle is: With the Mysteries and Miseries of the New York House of Refuge and Auburn Prison Unmasked.
According to Yale…
Reed provides a wealth of vivid detail about his incarceration at Auburn, including a description of the horizontal black-and-white striped uniform which originated at the prison: “streaked clothes of shame and disgrace.” Released from Auburn on May 1, 1842, he was reincarcerated there before the close of the year, “I return’d home and committed a crime wich brought me back to a gloomy prison.” This unparalleled narrative is a unique resource documenting the lives of African-American prisoners in antebellum America.
The New York Times has apparently gotten a hold of this never-before-published memoir, which was authenticated for Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and they shared some reactions to it, calling the book unlike any other voice in American literature, adding that it has a very lyrical quality to it, written with dramatic flair, showcasing Reed’s skills as a natural storyteller, despite the fact that it has several grammatical and spelling errors. And from a historical perspective, it makes the necessary connection between the history of slavery and the history of incarceration in this country.
Here’s a little more:
Reed is believed to have been born a free man near Rochester. As a young man, according to Yale’s research, he was sent to the New York House of Refuge, a juvenile reform school in Manhattan, where he learned to read and write. By the 1830s, a string of thefts resulted in his incarceration in a state prison in Auburn, now known as the Auburn Correctional Facility, which was built in 1816. The manuscript traces his life from childhood to his years at Auburn. It is written under the name Rob Reed, although it is unclear why he used that name, according to Yale. In the early pages, Reed describes a childhood incident when, encouraged by his sister, he disguised himself as a girl and attempted to kill a man to avenge an earlier whipping. “I cocked the pistol and with an uplifted hand of revenge I let fire and missd my shot,” he wrote. “It was a dark night. I could hardly see my hands before my face. The old man hollowd murder, murder, but before any aid could get to him I drew the knife a cross his shoulders wich left a deep wound for months afterward.” Later, Reed describes torturous punishments at Auburn that were typical at the time, including frequent whippings and a device known as the shower-bath, a kind of precursor to waterboarding that was occasionally fatal. “Stripping off my shirt the tyrantical curse bounded my hands fast in front of me and orderd me to stand around,” Reed wrote. “Turning my back towards him he threw Sixty seven lashes on me according to the orders of Esq. Cook. I was then to stand over the dreain while one of the inmates wash my back in a pail of salt brine.”
It’s further noted that it would have been extremely challenging for Reed to have written this manuscript under prison conditions at the time, which were very strict, as prisoners were not allowed any leisure time, and they had zero access to books and even writing materials. But he got it done. By any means necessary.
Yale is now prepping the manuscript for publication, stating that they know it was never published, but Reed almost certainly hoped it would be, as, given the way it’s written, he clearly wasn’t writing for himself alone, but for the public to eventually read.
Back to my original supposition. With the upcoming publication of Reed’s memoir, I can say that I would most definitely love to read it. But taking it even further, I won’t be surprised if it’s optioned by a film studio or production company, since there’s been a lot of interest in antebellum stories, with black characters at the center. In fact, with today’s news, I won’t be shocked if it’s already been picked up. It clearly sounds like a fascinating, never-before-heard story.