Bandits and Bibles BOOK review

Book Reviews
Bandits and Bibles BOOK review
Feb 1, 2003, 21:26

BANDITS & BIBLES: Convict Literature in Nineteenth-Century America edited by Larry E. Sullivan; Akhashic Books, 2003

A collection of real-life convict literature from 19th-century America, this certainly aroused my curiosity when it emerged from the YF swag box. Trouble is, however, that these guys tended to be better criminals than writers—which might not sound like much, since they all got caught (one need only check the poetry section to see what I mean.) But there are still certainly enough genuinely fascinating passages to recommend a look.

What we're dealing with here pre-dates the incendiary politics of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and the radical “black power” themes of Eldridge Cleaver. Other than the handful of poems mentioned above, the remaining nonfiction pieces in Bibles & Bandits generally fall into one of two genres. The first is the conversion narrative, in which the author, usually in an attempt to win his freedom, describes “seeing the light,” and seeks penance for the error of his ways. (Thankfully, examples of this strain, such as Twice Born, written by Henry O. Willis in 1890, are kept to a minimum.) The other, known as the confessional, concerns the actual description of some part of the criminal's life; ostensibly, the narrator confesses his deeds in order to teach a moral lesson. This branch predictably makes for much more scintillating copy, and takes in everything from the collection's earliest passage, What Comes of a Bad Name?, a 1798 plea of innocence by convicted child molester Stephen Burroughs, to an amusing account of the preferential treatment of well-to-do prisoners at Sing Sing Prison by Number 1500, published in 1903 (Mr. 1500 also contributes an entertaining glossary of jailhouse slang.) For spine-jarring exposes of life behind bars, special mention goes to “Persons and Things 'In'”(1893), a chapter edited by Nathaniel Hawthorne's son, Julian (who would later do time for mail fraud), and “Concerning Punishments, General and Particular, and Their Effect” by A Life Prisoner, a 1903 treatment on torture methods of the Kansas penal system. The confessional style also contains the highly-charged subgenre of the outlaw narrative, in which the writer recounts his wild adventures outside the walls. The best illustrations of this are former James Gang member Cole Younger's story of the group's failed bank robbery in frontier-era Minnesota and Light-Fingered Jim's (gotta love that handle) tales of life as a burglar and an opium addict.

It has its entertaining moments, but this book exists mainly to document and educate. And it does just that, perfectly. The arcane dialogue of many of its amateur authors may not move swiftly enough for most members of the Sopranos generation, but anyone doing background research into prison life during this period of American history—novelists and screenwriters, especially—will find it absolutely indispensable.

-Peter Aaron

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