Now we lock ’em all up

According to historian Gordon S. Wood, “Traditionally[,] accused criminals were held in jail only until they went to trial; then if convicted they were fined, whipped, mutilated, or executed, but not incarcerated.” [Emphasis mine.]

“Debt and Democracy” in the June 12, 2003, issue of The New York Review. Wood points out that debtors were the sole exception. “But actions for debt could send the debtor to prison where he languished….”

(Wood is indeed the same Gordon S. Wood whose work is discussed in the one-upsmanship bar scene in Good Will Hunting.)

“[T]he selling of the West preceded the settling of it”

Larry McMurtry’s excellent essay “Inventing the West” from the August 2000 issue of The New York Review is online. McMurtry explains that most of the traditions associated with the American West were inventions of pulp writers, artists and advertising men—and show business. He illustrates how this romantic storytelling sometimes came to haunt the very characters it had already canonized:

In the fall of 1849, however, real life and the dime novel smacked into each other with a force that Kit Carson would never forget. A man named James M. White was traveling with his family on the Santa Fe Trail when they were attacked by a raiding party of Jicarilla Apaches, who killed James White and carried off Mrs. White, her child, and a servant. Pursuit was not immediate, but pursuit was eventually joined. Kit Carson lived nearby and was asked to help. In the brief autobiography which he dictated in 1856 he says that the trail was the most difficult he had ever been asked to follow; but, near the Canadian River, the rescuers finally caught up with the raiders. Carson charged immediately but was called back. The commanding officer, Captain Grier, had been told that the Apaches wanted to parley. They didn’t. After taking a shot or two at the soldiers, they killed Mrs. White and fled. Here is the scene in Carson’s words:

There was only one Indian in camp, he running into the river hard by was shot. In about two hundred yards the body of Mrs. White was found, perfectly warm, had not been killed more than five minutes, shot through the heart with an arrow….

In the camp was found a book, the first of the kind that I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds and I have often thought that Mrs. White would read the same and knowing that I lived near, she would pray for my appearance and that she might be saved. I did come but I had not the power to convince those that were in command over me to pursue my plan for her rescue….

Kit Carson was illiterate. He could sign and perhaps recognize his name, but all his life he took orders—often foolish and sometimes barbarous orders—from his superiors: men who could read. He was never insubordinate. The dime novel found by Mrs. White’s still-warm corpse had to be read to him, or summarized. He was long haunted by the hopes that had been raised by that dime novel, hopes he had just failed to fulfill. Except for recording the fact that he married Josefa Jaramillo, his “Little Jo,” Mrs. James M. White is the only woman mentioned by name in his autobiography.

McMurtry outlines the career of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley and others. Cody, McMurtry writes, “spent more than forty years peddling illusions about the West….” In the end, when he wanted to tell the real story, he found that “Americans, now as then, were perfectly happy with the illusion….”

Letter from Birmingham Jail

If you’ve never had the opportunity to read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail I encourage you to do so. It’s one of the most remarkable documents in American history.

Dr. King’s note provides some background.

Note from the author: This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed under somewhat constricting circumstance. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication.

The letter is lengthy; nine pages. It is an Adobe PDF file.

Ghosts of White House past

Excerpt from newly located Harry Truman diary, January 6, 1947:

Arose at 5:45 A.M.[,] read the papers and at 7:10 walked to the station to meet the family. Took 35 minutes. It was a good walk. Sure is fine to have them back. This great white jail is a hell of a place in which to be alone. While I work from early morning until late at night, it is a ghostly place. The floors pop and crack all night long. Anyone with imagination can see old Jim Buchanan walking up and down worrying about conditions not of his making. Then there’s Van Buren who inherited a terrible mess from his predecessor as did poor old James Madison. Of course Andrew Johnson was the worst mistreated of any of them. But they all walk up and down the halls of this place and moan about what they should have done and didn’t. So-you see. I’ve only named a few. The ones who had Boswells and New England historians are too busy trying to control heaven and hell to come back here. So the tortured souls who were and are misrepresented in history are the ones who come back. It’s a hell of a place.