Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Jack London in Prison

This remarkable story about Jack London's time spent in an American prison was published for the first time in John O'London's Weekly on April 2, 1921. In 1894 he was convicted of sleeping in a field. One of the many vagrants who lost their liberty during the late 19th and early 20th century in the USA. This is just a short extract from the article.

Jack London, marching in lock-step, went out to hard labour in the yards. He tried to mail a letter. The guards laughed at him. He learned that short-timers were not allowed to write letters; that when long-timers wrote them the letters were read and destroyed or pigeon-holed in the office. He found that the prison was cut off entirely from the outside world, a hell enclosed in stone walls, ruled by brutality and horror and fear. He heard the screams of men hung up by the thumbs, gnawing their arms in agony, shrieking till unconsciousness ended their torture. He saw half-starved men caught hiding bits of bread in their shirts and brutally punished for it. He heard, from the corners of mouths trained to speak without lip-movement, incredible and monstrous things more hideous, and he saw that those tales were true. For the first time in his life fear entered his own soul.
He walked warily and shuddering through the horrors around him. Strength and courage would not avail him; he fell back upon craft. He considered men in his hall and selected a friend. "Pittsburg Jack" was a yegg, experienced in the ways of prison. Having a pull with the head trusty, who had done time with him in Sing Sing years before, he had himself become a trusty, holding inestimable privilages of tobacco and matches and opportunities for graft as payment for ruling the hundred wretches in his tier of cells.
About forty, kindly, humorous, utterly unscrupulous, with a dry philosophy of his own, he responded to the advances made by young "Frisco Jack" London. He saw good qualities in the boy; courage, enterprise, honour. Frisco Jack was a square kid; he wouldn't go back on a pal in a pinch, no matter how bad the bulls beat him up. He was worth cultivating, ....