CONFESSIONS OF A PRISONER!
The following confessions, of a prisoner in one of our State penitentiaries, present some interesting facts in relation to the insidious progress of the vice of intemperance; and the power of a vicious habit against the remonstrances of reason and conscience. They are contained in a communication addressed some months since, to the General Agent of the American Temperance Society. The unhappy author discloses his own history with much apparent faithfulness. In the course of a private note, he frankly remarks, 'certainly I do not write now for fame, and have endeavoured (sic) to dwell more briefly upon the favourable (sic) than the unfavourable (sic) parts of my unhappy story.'
Jour. of Humanity.
Sir.- I address you from the solitary cell of a penitentiary prison. The specific crime alleged against me is forgery; but the cause of my present condition, and of all the calamities which have attended my devious career of life, is the inebriating bowl. Nearly four years have passed since I entered these dreary walls, and more than three others remain for me to spend here. An offended God in wrath remembered mercy. The morning bitters, the drams of the day and of the night, have not reached me. Eyes that were once inflamed have acquired their native clearness; trembling limbs have resumed their wanted functions; internal fevers and burnings are quenched. Ruined, degraded, and wretched as my condition may seem, it is very possible, that when the sealed book shall be opened, it will appear that with me the prisoner was substituted for the tomb;- that while Intemperance was hurrying thousands to the gates of death, I was rescued `as a brand from the burning`. If the graves which intemperance, this prime minister of Death had peopled, should 'burst their marble jaws,' to raise a warning voice to the living, the church yards would fearfully yawn as by a mighty earthquake, and the united mountains of all that is loathsome, appalling or fearful, would cry to the votaries of the cup, in more than human accents, Beware!
But though no spirit may rise from the tombs of the dead, 'a warning voice may come forth from the dungeons of the living. And whenever punishment, whether considered as the necessary sanction to human laws, or as the dispensation of an overruling Providence,- has produced its legitimate effect; whenever the pride of the human heart is humbled under the mighty hand of offended heaven, there will be no hesitation in stating the causes which led to infamy and ruin.
While I could wish to spare the feeling of the connexions (sic) of my family; for myself I should be willing that the story of one, whose earthly hopes intemperance had blasted, should be written upon the walls of the city, and find its way to every ta-room in the nation. I find myself surrounded with more than five hundred beings in the same condition with myself. The atmosphere I breathe is agitated with sighs and groans; and my individual calamity seems lost in the wretchedness that surrounds me. Where shall we look for the source of all this misery? Let the keeper's docket tell. Theft, forgery, burglary, bestiality, rape, murder; every species of crime, at the name of which the soul recoiled, appears in the black catalogue. These are specific actions upon the perpetrators of which the law can fix its hold. But the vice which leads to every other, eludes the grasp of the law.
Inflamed eyes, bloated visage, palsied limbs, sickness, poverty, or even death, are not the things which give to this vice its most appalling aspect. It unnerves the soul more fearfully than it does the body. It gradually destroys the moral sensibilities of the heart, and rouses the violent passions of our depraved nature. It mars the soft and refined emotions of the soul, like the hideous trail of the serpent over the brightest blossoms of Eden. If the pillow be sometimes the place of serious thought, the libation of the morning obliterates the salutary lesson. One draught calls for a second, the second still more loudly for the third, another for another, until every other sentiment and feeling is lost in the insatiable cry-'give, give.' Such was my condition. I saw indeed, that destruction was before me, and still approached with accelerated pace, the horrid gulf. When a child, I once saw a bird charmed by the sparkling eyes of a serpent, and approaching near the reptile which lurked for its destruction. When, from pity, I destroyed the enchanter, and set the fluttering captive free, how little did I think that I should ever be enchanted-that the frightful pit of perdition should yawn before me, and yet that I should voluntarily rush with open eyes toward the abyss. An overruling Providence interposed, and my career of vice was arrested by the arm of civil authority.
The destiny which denied my the accustomed stimulus, was, at the first inexpressibly painful; the separation from the bottle seemed like the separation of the 'joints and marrow.' An artificial and vitiated appetite had predominated over every other feeling; overpowered the entreaties of friendship, the inductions of reason, the monitions of conscience. No dissuasive from my vice was effectual,whether drawn from that which is desirable in life, or from what is repugnant in the prospect of vagabond degradation and premature death.- Heaven had not sufficient charms to allure me, nor Hell sufficient terrors to deter. The will was enchained to a tyrant who never said enough. But in imprisonment, the manacles which bound my body set my spirit free. The unnatural cravings of the stomach gradually subsided with the disuse of spirit.
In the haunts of dissipation, the mind may be banished from itself, but in the cell of a prison, who can avoid revolving in his mind the variety of causes which conspired to rivet his fetters? Who will not inquire.- At what period of life did I commence the construction of this gloomy abode? When did I lay the first foundation? On what anvil did I forge the bolts and bars? From what quarries did I obtain materials for the wall? Through what means did I provide and adopt the various materials of the building, until, at length, I came forward with the last key-stone to the arch? Why am I doomed like the ox, to toil for another? Was I not 'born free as Caesar?' Why, then have I 'sold myself for nought?' Alas! while I can trace the source of my present wretchedness and ruin to the infatuating effects of ardent spirits, I am constrained to add that it has blasted the fairest hopes.
I entered upon the active scenes of life, without friends, patrimony, or connexions (sic) at the age of sixteen; and though the four years immediately proceeding were passed in active labour (sic), yet works of literature and philosophy were my companions in the field, and at that early period, I anticipated a literary career. When parental protection was removed, I exchanged the axe for the pen. My first essays were published in an obscure village paper, and I had the gratification of seeing them reprinted in popular journals. At seventeen I removed to one of our Atlantic cities, where the editorial department of a daily paper was committed temporarily to my charge, during the sickness of its proprietor. There, although an entire stranger, and almost without resources, I succeeded in acquiring the friendship of some literary men. Perhaps they were willing to accept my homage to science, in the place of profound knowledge. The friendship of such men was worth more than the patronage of the rich. It opened a wider sphere of action, and, at twenty three, having visited Europe, I found myself the proprietor of an ample fortune, exclusively the production of the pen. But before this period the seeds of destruction had been sown, and they now began to take root. Shortly after entering the city of _______, I attached myself to several clubs of wits, 'free and easy' associations; but I soon found that a convivial evening drew heavily upon the morning of the succeeding day. At length the morning after was called for, to chase away the ennui arising from the midnight debouch. This impaired the relish for breakfast. Coffee became insipid-appetite for food diminished. The Bitters in the morning required a rejoinder at eleven, and a surrejoinder at one. and it was not until I frequently found myself in a state of intoxication, and some of my friends began to whisper, 'this is the road to ruin,' that I first suspected myself of being reprehensibly intemperate. I had completely entered the camp of the enemy, before I discovered the presence of danger. Every effort to retrace my steps proved vain; the only avenue of escape was barred as by a giant,- by burnings and cravings, insatiable as the grave. Every fit of intemperance operated upon my constitution with more than ordinary force; it led to distracting frenzy and extravagant excesses. My friends could weep; and yet I wanted resolution to dash the fatal poison from my lips. Unwilling to blast every prospect, in a city still dear to my recollection, I removed to another, under the vain hope that a change of place might lead to a change of habit.
From that period to the commencement of my present imprisonment, in 1824, an interval of eleven years, I have floated over the surface of the world, without any settled purpose of life, and there is scarce a section, in two empires, in which I have not temporarily resided. My resources were soon exhausted, and I found the necessity of adopting some means for a livelihood. I have been the preceptor of a school in fifteen different villages and neighbourhoods (sic); have conducted the editorial department of eight different newspapers, to three of which my name was attached; and have worked as a mechanical printer in thirty of forty different offices. But so completely had the desire of spirituous liquor acquired the ascendancy, that the earnings of a month were not unfrequently (sic) squandered in a week; and it was never till my pockets were emptied, that I left the tavern, or the grocery, in quest of employment. But an empty purse was the least of all the evils occasioned by this besetting and besotting sin. The same stimulants which heated the blood, and inflamed the animal spirits, overpowered reason; while the feet tottered, the arms trembled, and the tongue faltered, the soul was in the wildest frenzy. Three time I have been led to excesses which fell within the cognizance of municipal law; and imprisonment followed: twice for a few days, and once for a little more than a year.
The details of my unhappy course would fill volumes. I will merely mention two or three additional incidents.
One of the instances of imprisonment which I have already mentioned, was at Salem, Washington County, N. Y. for a transaction at Whitehall, where I had been the actual though not the nominal editor of the Whitehall Emporium. I left the prison pennyless (sic), and Stevenson, Secretary of the Washington County Bible Society, and one of the proprietors of the Salem Post, received me into his office for a few days, for the charitable purpose of repairing my exhausted funds. At my departure he cautioned me with much tenderness, to guard against 'the sin which so easily beset me,' and requested me to read the Scriptures, placing at the same time, a copy of the New Testament in my hand. I did not leave Salem before my money was squandered at the tavern; and that I might indulge the sinful propensity to the uttermost, I sold the book, which was given me for a very different purpose, to an inn-keeper, and received the quid pro quo from the bar. I cannot but view this as the blackest action of my wicked life. I should do injustice to myself, if I did not add, that the first moment of reflection, when the maddening influence of ardent spirit subsided, my soul shuddered at the thought that I had been base enough to convert the generous feelings that would have reclaimed me, into the means of a farther sinful indulgence; and perhaps the purchaser, who was aware of all the circumstances, was little less guilty, than myself. Again destitute, I wandered as I could to Troy, where my necessities were supplied by a literary gentleman, resident at that place.
I entered the borough of Easton Pond, at another time on my way from New York to Harrisburg, at which latter place I had business, and where some years before, I had conducted the editorial department of a newspaper. I was a stranger in Easton, and Satan seemed to whisper that I might here gratify my favorite propensity better than at a place where I had any character at stake. Having squandered the small funds, I then had $50, which were divided between the bar and the card table, I next divested myself of every valuable article of apparel. Pennyless (sic), a stranger, and almost naked, the stomach was still unsatisfied, and to gratify its incessant clamors, as a last resort, I joined a small recruiting party, then in the place, as a private soldier, under the assumed name of Thompson, from no higher principle than that of converting the six dollars advance into rum. We were shortly after transferred to Fort Niagara, where I remained about a month. But the discipline of the camp could not guard against the expedients by which I continued to gratify this fatal propensity; and, in a fit of intemperance, I was guilty of a violation of discipline, rendered capital by the rules and articles of war; for which I was transferred, a prisoner, to Sacketts Habour (sic), confined in the guard-room, and leaded with irons. Before, court martial convened, I contrived, though at the hazard of instant death, to effect my escape. Overleaping the picketts (sic) at the cantonment, I wandered through woods and morasses for three days without sustenance, in which I progressed about forty miles, until at length I found a canoe at Alexander Bay, with which I crossed to the British dominions. Heaven, which had ever loaded me with unmerited blessings, still continued to be merciful. Although a stranger, and appearing under the most unfavourable (sic) circumstances, I experienced, almost at the first house I entered, the kindness and affections of a brother, and the confidence of a friend, from a mercantile gentleman whose name was Jones. He was a Christian, and his house a little Sanctuary in which the love of God dwelt. He immediately supplied me with decent apparel, for I had nothing but a soldier's fatigue dress, and through his influence, in less than a week, I was employed at respectable wages, to take the charge of a school in the neighbourhood (sic), for three months. Here was the first instance in which a moral feeling overpowered the strong propensity for the bottle. It was a christian neighbourhood, my immediate predecessor officiated at the sacred altar, and I saw that indulgence in intemperance would result in a dismissal which would place it out of my power to refund the advances of my generous benefactor. This was a step I dared not take. I completed the contract, with perfect sobriety, and commenced a new one at an increase salary, which was further augmented by supernumerary scholars, some of whom were studying Latin, and the higher branches of education. But my feet soon began to stumble. I wept over the first fit of intemperance, after the abstinence of four or five months; and with prayers and sighs implored the God of heaven to save me from the gulf which seemed to yawn before me. My case was communicated to the village clergyman, who opened his doors for my reception, and treated me with peculiar delicacy and tenderness. But all was in vain. I could not pass a tavern, and I could not drink one glass without following the enchanting poison with another ' another, till raving frenzy, or beastly intoxication ensued. I neglected my school, and a dismissal followed. Collecting my earning and discharging my debts, I proceeded to Montreal, genteelly habited (sic) and with about sixty dollars.
Here, instead of entering into business, I passed the time in the lowest groceries, with which that city abounds, until I had expended every penny, and exchanged by wardrobe for rags.- One morning as I awoke from a broken and painful sleep, after excessive intoxication and faintly ejaculated the line of Horace.- 'Quo me Bacche;' I was surprised to find that my stomach did not crave the accustomed stimulant, Nature could hold out no longer, disease had set in; my frame was debilitated, my flesh was as yellow as saffron, and it seemed that rivers of water could not allay the internal burnings which gnawed my vitals. I was almost naked, as inclement winter had begun, I had now become completely wretched, no bed would receive me, no house would shelter me. I commenced by retreat from this scene of ruin, and wandered with a slow and trembling pace, I knew not whither, until my limbs refused to sustain me, and I was received into a sleigh. My mind was no less debilitated than my body. When I entered Brockville, in the immediate vicinity of my former residence, I knew not where I was; and my most intimate friends, with whom I was soon surrounded, as strangers. I was immediately supplied with clothing; and, with the kind attendance I received, my health recovered. In the meantime, a newspaper was established in the village, under the title of 'The Brockville Recorder,' and I was employed as its editor. I continued in this capacity for a few months, until intemperance unfitted me for business, and I left the Province almost as destitute as I entered it.
Such are some of the incidents which have attended my course,- and these are but a few of the 'wounds without cause,' and complicated woes, produced by my inordinate attachment to spirituous liquor. This has been my ruling passion; has loaded my limbs with irons, confined me in guard rooms and dungeons; made me a hissing and a by-word, so that the very rabble have treated me with contumely, whom, in better days, 'I would have disclaimed to set with the dogs of my flock.' There have, indeed, been some lucid intervals of short continuance. Nature could never have held out thus long, under the consuming influence of one incessant stream of liquid fire. At these periods, guilty and undeserving as I was, Heaven never failed to confer choice blessings. The wealthy and the educated befriended me. But these intervals, either of partial or of total abstinence, were like the calm before a storm; and the prelude of a more daring movement in the road to hell.
Here let me pause-my feelings recoil at the retrospect; I would gladly obliterate the traces of the past from memory. But while they still live in the softened light of mental perspective, and I am enabled to say; 'Such things were,' may not a salutary lesson be derived from this shameful story? Perhaps a living example may exhibit the fatal tendency of this prevalent vice in more vivid colours (sic), than abstract moral precept. I have given this recital with a desire that others may avoid the breakers on which my barque was wrecked. This desire has overpowered the strong repugnance I felt, to detail, with my own pen, the story of my own shame.
The time may come when my term of legal death shall expire, and I experience a kind of resurrection from the tomb, and again find this fatal liquid within my reach. But if my enlargement is to be the means of recommencing this destructive habit; if the animal functions, restored to their proper tone, are again to be heated, maddened, infuriated; I would now, on bended knees invoke the Great God that this prison may rather be my tomb; that I may never see these doors unbarred, nor again exclaim, 'I am an American citizen.' I do not make this solemn appeal without impressions of the deepest awe. I would not offend a Redeemer whom I love. I would not tempt a God whom I fear, and whose chastening hand lies heavily upon me. I indulge hope of better days; and I could not desire these hopes, fondly cherished, to be blighted in 'the land of forgetfulness.' I could not leave this mortal tenement willingly, for I cling to life. But there is something so appalling in that which I have but just escaped; something so inexpressibly fearful in the idea of a confirmed drunkard tottering on the verge of the eternal world, and its fearful reversions; that prisons, dungeons, falling rocks or mountains, would be comparative ministers of mercy.