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Film Adaptation Next? Yale Discovers Prison Memoir Of A Black Man In The 1850s (Details)

Film Adaptation Next? Yale Discovers Prison Memoir Of A Black Man In The 1850s (Details)

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.


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Pearl Duncan

Actually, just like in our time, there was close collaboration between Brad Pitt, producer-financer and Steve McQueen, filmmaker-director, to bring us “12 Years a Slave,” in that era, there was close collaboration between enslaved, free and imprisoned people and abolitionists and others who opposed injustice and lobbied for the rights of the poor.

The report says Austin Reed was one of the boys who lived at the New York House of Refuge.

When I did the research into my colonial ancestors, I saw information in the archives about the New York House of Refuge and the young people who lived there. I was tracking an ancestor who was an abolitionist, whose brother was a slaveowner. The brother died in 1801 at what was then called the Fever Hospital in a wing of the first hospital in New York, the second in the nation, at Worth and Broadway in today’s Tribeca. Because I researched fever hospitals to see if I could find my African American ancestors who traveled with their wealthy Scot ancestor, I searched all the later hospitals, and saw that a site near Bellevue Hospital was sold to the managers of the House of Refuge in 1825. There were thoughtful people back then who helped the poor and unfortunate.

The New York House of Refuge was built by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism; it opened in 1825 at Madison Square in New York City, between 23rd and 34ths Streets, near the site where the Farragut statue stands today in Madison Square Park. In 1823, New York sold the abandoned Arsenal barracks building at that site, between Broadway and Madison Avenue, to the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, a charitable society organized by John Griscom to aid young people. The House of Refuge housed boys in one building and girls in another, but was destroyed by two fires in 1839, relocated and rebuilt near Bellevue Hospital at another site on east 23rd street and First Avenue, then in 1854 moved to Randall’s Island.

John Griscom said he wanted to separate boys and girls from hardened criminals. He taught them to read and write and gave them an education and trade skills, so the young people who passed through this refuge were not only literate, they had major allies and supporters. Someone must have slipped Austin Reed paper and then taken the manuscript from prison, page by page. Genealogists have discovered incredible dramas. I found fantastic ancestors.


I wonder who the money will go to…

Li Ling

Great! This adaption is just like a Chinese history hero, he wrote in the prison for 12 years which became the most famous history books in China until now. Hope this story can put more emphasis on his mental condition when he wrote this.


This is an amazing find.


Quick! Someone call Steve McQueen…..


Hollywood seems to have a severe case of willful amnesia when it comes to Frederick Douglass and the three narratives he wrote of his historically fantastic American life.

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