May 24, 1859
A Day in Prison.
(Editors of the Vermont Chronicle.)
Cleveland, Ohio, May 11, 1859.
This is the first day I ever spent in prison, and I feel inclined to jot down a few notes.
First, the Prisoners. I have seen criminals by scores and hundreds before, but never
such as these. Prominent among them is a devoted minister of the gospel, Professor H.E. Peck; a man with a clear eye, vigorous intellect, profound learning, earnest piety, and a heart that beats true to God and our common humanity. His wife is by him to-day, though her cares and duties necessarily divide her time between the jail and her distant home. Professor Peck looks pale, worn and feeble, but his spirit falters not. Mrs. Peck is a slender woman, worn with excitement and anxiety, but whether by the side of her imprisoned husband, or presiding in the home-circle and bowing at the family altar, amidst a group of infant children, to pray for the loved husband and father thus torn from them by the officers of our liberty-loving Government, - in both positions she exhibits the devotion of a loving wife and the spirit and bearing of a noble and true-hearted woman.
Next among these prisoners I find the Hon. Ralph Plumb, a gentleman of fine manly bearing, and sterling intellect, who has ably and honorably sustained his rank and borne his part among the representatives of this State. He is some 43 years of age, possessing the ripe experience and hastened energy of mature and vigorous manhood. His wife, too, is by him, in prison and in court, a woman whose intellectual countenance, marked with a chastened, anxious expression, coupled with a retiring, matronly, dignified, lady-like bearing, fails not to fix attention and stir sympathy.
Next comes Mr. Fitch, a man of some 40 years, through whose keen eye shines out an active intellect, and an earnest soul. After years of missionary life and toil on heathen shores, he finds his own native soil – this boasted land of freedom – the place of persecution, fines and imprisonment for conscience’s sake. Mrs. Fitch, too, is here, true to the instincts of a faithful wife, and bears herself with a noble, queenly dignity and unflinching fortitude.
Next comes Bushnell, a younger brother of Albert Bushnell, our devoted missionary of the A.B.C.F.M. in Western Africa, whose humble bearing, hopeful spirit, enduring faith and touching eloquence, have so often moved the sympathies of praying men and women in behalf of that dark land. This brother, in his small stature, dark eye, meek, inoffensive bearing and benevolent heart, reminds me much of the missionary. His young wife sits near him, a gentle, retiring, interesting person, her womanly graces shining through a countenance somewhat saddened and anxious; and on his knee sits a smiling infant, all unconscious of her father’s wrongs. Mr. Bushnell has been convicted and sentenced to pay $600 fine, with costs of prosecution, which may be $2000 more, and to lie in jail 60 days longer. Will his brother, in Africa, tell the heathen around him of this event? If they hear of it, and question that brother about the crime and the character of our laws, what will he say to them? If that brother should be treated in like manner by some despotic ruler in Africa, what should we say? Would our Government look tamely on and suffer such an outrage?
But I forbear. There are other noble souls among these prisoners. The whole party of Rescuers from Oberlin numbers 14, and all are here in prison. A band of more respectable citizens is seldom to be found.
In the adjoining cells are real felons – men of dark crimes and bitter malice. How must they regard this imprisoning of conscientious Christians – ministers and missionary? How must it lead them to look upon our laws, and the Government, which makes and administers them?
May 12. I have just left the Courtroom, after hearing the sentence of Langston, the second of this noble band of Rescuers who has been tried and convicted. His sentence was 20 days imprisonment, with $100 fine and costs of prosecution. Langston is young man of 26 years, a keen eye and fine intellectual countenance, though his yellow complexion betrays his Virginian descent. When the Judge asked him if he had anything to say before receiving sentence, Langston rose deliberately, perfectly self-possessed, and spoke a half hour. He reviewed the case, pointed out the false issues in the testimony and the pleadings of the prosecution, referred effectively to his own father as one who fought for the liberties of this country, under Washington and Lafayette, showed the Fugitive Law to be unrighteous, objected to the verdict of the jury and a sentence in accordance, on the round that he had not had a trial by his peers – the jury, prosecuting attorney, Judge himself – all, in fine, having prejudices against men of his color, and there fore in no true sense his peers; and lastly, he appealed to the Judge, - “Your honor has been pleased to say that if my brother is violently seized and about to be dragged into life-long and cruel bondage, and I even invoke the laws of this free State for his deliverance, I commit a crime. If this be a crime, then, your honor, I am guilty; and pardon me if I glory in such guilt. – Nay, Sir, let me express my firm belief that, despite this official utterance of hour honor, there are more noble and manly instincts in your own breast – instincts truer to God and to humanity, - that it your brother, or your wife, or your child were being torn from you and forced into slaver, you, Sir, would rise in your strength – you would invoke the same law which I have invoked; and if this failed you, you would not hesitate to use what means God and Nature have given you. These, Sir, I believe to be the nobler feelings of your own heart; and with all fitting deference to your honor, let me avow them to be mine. Yes, Sir, whenever I see a panting brother or sister, panting in the vile grasp of the bloody slave-catcher, I will invoke the more righteous laws of this land; and if these fail me, then this good right arm shall not falter – the means which God and Nature have given me shall not be wanting for their rescue, so help me God.”
The scene in the court room was impressive. Twice irrepressible clappings and acclamations incensed the Judge and elicited threats to “clear the house;” but of much deeper significance were t he smothered feelings of manly breast and the gushing tears brushed from scores of furrowed cheeks in that crowd of anxious, thoughtful men. What is to become of the majesty of law, when right and sympathy and moral power fly from the bench as a thing defiled, and gather around the true-hearted and persecuted criminal, waiting his sentence at the bar?