Annette Gordon-Reed is the Charles Warren professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School, a professor of history at Harvard and the Carol K. Pforzheimer professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.”
By serendipity, we are able to read one of the most fascinating and important memoirs ever produced in the United States. Austin Reed’s “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict” surfaced when a book dealer bought a “bound journal and two hand-sewn gatherings of loose paper” at an estate sale in Rochester, N.Y. When curators at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library learned of the existence of the autobiography in 2009, they asked three Yale scholars, David Blight, Robert Stepto and Caleb Smith, to examine the work. Smith, the volume’s ultimate editor, notes in an introduction that he had been “writing about the cultural history of America’s prison system for a decade but . . . had never seen anything quite like this before.”
He authenticated the find by digging into documents in the New York state archives. At first, however, his research led nowhere — the manuscript was supposedly written by a man named Rob Reed, and Smith could find no record of a “Rob or Robert Reed whose life conformed to the story” in the pages. Progress came only after it was discovered that the author had not used his real name, Austin Reed. The story that unfolds is Reed’s nightmarish odyssey through New York’s criminal justice system. That book dealer’s chance discovery turned out to be the earliest known prison memoir of an African American.
Reed recalls his experience of prison life in the 19th century in a singular, clear voice. His was not a typical story of a black man living in pre-Civil War America. He was neither Southern nor enslaved. He was born and raised in upstate New York; his father, Burrell Reed, was a barber, which was considered a very prestigious position for a black man. His mother, Maria, was a literate woman from Massachusetts. For a time, Burrell and Maria Reed raised Austin, his three brothers and a sister amid “the close circle of middle-class people of color” in Rochester. The city, which also became the home of Frederick Douglass, was transforming into “one of North America’s great centers of black intellectual and political culture.” During Austin’s early childhood, the Reed family owned their home, and he and his siblings shared some of the privileges enjoyed by children of white middle-class families. Austin had his own bed in a two-story house, and he likely went to the local school for black children.
The family’s stability and comfort began to disappear soon after Burrell Reed died in 1828. He left no will and little money to pay off his debts. Austin was not older than 5 — his exact birthdate is unknown — and his mother struggled to make ends meet. His father’s death and his time later as an abused indentured servant on a farm drove the young boy to despair and repeated run-ins with the law. As Smith perceptively notes in the introduction, Reed’s narrative opens not with his birth but with the death of his father, “as if his life begins with the trauma of losing a figure of moral authority and economic self-determination.”
And that was not the end of his daunting personal losses. His mother, trying hard to keep her family afloat, eventually gave up on life and wandered into the woods to die. She was rescued but was then for the most part out of her son’s life.
Although the reader sympathizes with Reed because of the harsh hand life dealt him, it must be said that not all people who suffer great personal tragedies turn to crime. For long stretches of his life, Reed was not a good person — he threatened his mother, engaged in theft and arson, and committed a host of crimes, petty and not. With the encouragement of his sister, Reed understandably felt compelled to exact revenge on the farmer, Herman Ladd, who had mistreated him. He not only attacked Ladd, he also set his house on fire. For these acts Reed was sent to the House of Refuge, a reformatory for juvenile delinquents. Reed is forthright about his own shortcomings. But he intended his memoir to be an exposé of the greater shortcomings of New York’s handling of its poor, who too often ended up in its penal system.
While he learned to make furniture and received some education in the House of Refuge, he and his fellow inmates also suffered debilitating physical punishments. Reed had a stubborn streak and defied rules and plotted escapes, one of which succeeded for a short time. After he was released from the House of Refuge, Reed was indentured to another farmer, then walked away and embarked on a life of crime that landed him in Auburn Prison. Auburn’s regime was said to emphasize rehabilitation, but Reed encountered only more violence and brutality; he vividly details the forms of punishment and torture prisoners endured: beatings with a cat o’ nine tails, restraint in iron yokes and subjection to an activity that resembled waterboarding. These experiences moved Reed to write his memoir. He hoped to expose conditions in Auburn and prompt reforms of the system.
Reed’s account is written in the melodramatic style common to the day; the pages throb with many references to “infernal wretches” and “damned infernal villain[s],” making the memoir an entertaining read.
Reed’s portrayal of the rich ethnic mix of 19th-century America reminds us of the long history of our country’s diversity. He and his friends were keenly aware of who was Irish, English, French, Yankee — the American melting pot is on full display. Reed was particularly fond of the Irish, whose struggles were almost as desperate as his own. There is no question, however, that as a black person he was a member of the most despised race in the country. White supremacy was so pervasive that it even fueled Reed’s negative views of his fellow African Americans.
The overwhelming majority of African Americans were held in bondage in the South, and even free blacks lived in fear of being kidnapped and taken south to be sold. The specter of slavery was never far from Reed’s life. As Smith suggests, “no other memoir by a self-identified black writer . . . could suggest such profound connections between the penal system and plantation society.” The comparison will probably strike a chord with readers today because of the works of scholars such as Michelle Alexander who have outlined the ways in which the criminal justice system — in addition to punishing crimes — has been used throughout our history as a mechanism of social control. In this age of mass incarceration, Reed’s story is a timely one. What good fortune for us that the record of his life as a prisoner was preserved and found.
By Austin Reed
Random House. 270 pp. $30