Saturday, September 3, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: May 31, 1861

I went with Mr. Mure to visit the jail. We met the sheriff, according to appointment, at the police court. Something like a sheriff — a great, big, burly, six-foot man, with revolvers stuck in his belt, and strength and arms quite sufficient to enable him to execute his office in its highest degree. Speaking of the numerous crimes committed in New Orleans, he declared it was a perfect hell upon earth, and that nothing would ever put an end to murders, manslaughters, and deadly assaults, till it was made penal to carry arms; but by law every American citizen may walk with an armory round his waist, if he likes. Bar-rooms, cock-tails, mint-juleps, gambling-houses, political discussions, and imperfect civilization do the rest.

The jail is a square whitewashed building, with cracked walls and barred windows. In front of the open door were seated four men on chairs, with their legs cocked against the wall, smoking and reading newspapers. “Well, what do you want?” said one of them, without rising. “To visit the prison.” “Have you got friends inside, or do you carry an order?” The necessary document from our friend the sheriff, was produced. We entered through the doorway, into a small hall, at the end of which was an iron grating and door. A slightly-built young man, who was lolling in his shirt-sleeves on a chair, rose and examined the order, and, taking down a bunch of keys from a hook, and introducing himself to us as one of the warders, opened the iron door, and preceded us through a small passage into a square courtyard, formed on one side by a high wall, and on the other three by windowed walls and cells, with doors opening on the court. It was filled with a crowd of men and boys; some walking up and down, others sitting, and groups on the pavement; some moodily apart, smoking or chewing; one or two cleaning their clothes, or washing at a small tank. We walked into the midst of them, and the warder, smoking his cigar and looking coolly about him, pointed out the most desperate criminals.

This crowded and most noisome place was filled with felons of every description, as well as with poor wretches merely guilty of larceny. Hardened murderers, thieves, and assassins, were here associated with boys in their teens, who were undergoing imprisonment for some trifling robbery. It was not pleasant to rub elbows with miscreants who lounged past, almost smiling defiance, whilst the slim warder, in his straw hat, shirt-sleeves, and drawers, told you how such a fellow had murdered his mother, how another, had killed a policeman, or a third had destroyed no less than three persons in a few moments. Here were seventy murderers, pirates, burglars, violaters, and thieves, circulating among men who had been proved guilty of no offence, but were merely waiting for their trial.

A veranda ran along one side of the wall, above a row of small cells, containing truckle beds for the inmates. “That's a desperate chap, I can tell you,” said the warder, pointing to a man who, naked to his shirt, was sitting on the floor, with heavy irons on his legs, which they chafed notwithstanding the bloody rags around them, engaged in playing cards with a fellow prisoner, and smoking with an air of supreme contentment. The prisoner turned at the words, and gave a kind of grunt and chuckle, and then played his next card. “That,” said the warder, in the proud tone of a menagerie keeper exhibiting his fiercest wild beast, “is a real desperate character; his name is Gordon; I guess he comes from your country; he made a most miraculous attempt to escape, and all but succeeded; and you would never believe me if I told you that he hooked on to that little spout, climbed up the angle of that wall there, and managed to get across to the ledge of that window over the outside wall before he was discovered.” And indeed it did require the corroborative twinkle in the fellow's eye, as he heard of his own exploit, to make me believe that the feat thus indicated could be performed by mortal man.

“There's where we hang them,” continued he, pointing to a small black door, let into the wall, about eighteen feet from the ground, with some iron hooks above it. “They walk out on the door, which is shot on a bolt, and when the rope is round their necks from the hook, the door's let flop, and they swing over the court-yard.” The prisoners are shut up in their cells during the execution, but they can see what is passing, at least those who get good places at the windows. “Some of them,” added the warder, “do die very brave indeed. Some of them abuse as you never heard. But most of them don't seem to like it.”

Passing from the yard, we proceeded up-stairs to the first floor, where were the debtors' rooms. These, were tolerably comfortable, in comparison to the wretched cells we had seen; but the poorer debtors were crowded together, three or four in a room. As far as I could ascertain, there is no insolvency law, but the debtor is. free, after ninety days' imprisonment, if his board and lodging be paid for. “And what if they are not?” “Oh, well, in that case we keep them till all is paid, adding of course for every day they are kept.”

In one of these rooms, sitting on his bed, looking wicked and gloomy, and with a glare like that of a wild beast in his eyes, was a Doctor Withers, who, a few days ago, murdered his son-in-law and his wife, in a house close to Mr. Mure's. He was able to pay for this privilege, and “as he is a respectable man,” said the warder, “perhaps he may escape the worst.”

Turning from this department into another gallery, the warder went to an iron door, above which was painted a death's head and cross-bones; beneath were the words “condemned cell.”

He opened the door, which led to a short narrow covered gallery, one side of which looked into a court-yard, admitting light into two small chambers, in which were pallets of straw covered with clean counterpanes.

Six men were walking up and down in the passage. In the first room there was a table, on which were placed missals, neatly bound, and very clean religious books, a crucifix, and Agnus Dei, The whitewashed wall of this chamber was covered with most curious drawings in charcoal or black chalk, divided into compartments, and representing scenes in the life of the unhappy artist, a Frenchman, executed some years ago for murdering his mistress, depicting his temptations, — his gradual fall from innocence, — his society with abandoned men and women, — intermingled with Scriptural subjects, Christ walking on the waters, and holding out his hand to the culprit, — the murderer's corpse in the grave, — angels visiting and lamenting over it; — finally, the resurrection, in which he is seen ascending to heaven!

My attention was attracted from this extraordinary room to an open gallery at the other side of the court-yard, in which were a number of women with dishevelled hair and torn clothes, some walking up and down restlessly, others screaming loudly, while some with indecent gestures were yelling to the wretched men opposite to them, as they were engaged in their miserable promenade.

Shame and horror to a Christian land! These women were maniacs! They are kept here until there is room for them at the State Lunatic Asylum. Night and day their terrible cries and ravings echo through the dreary, waking hours and the fitful slumbers of the wretched men so soon to die.

Two of those who walked in that gallery are to die tomorrow.

What a mockery — the crucifix! — the Agnus Dei! — the holy books! I turned with sickness and loathing from the dreadful place. “But,” said the keeper, apologetically, “there's not one of them believes he'll be hanged.”

*           *           *           *           *           *           *

We next visited the women's gallery, where female criminals of all classes are huddled together indiscriminately. On opening the door, the stench from the open veranda, in which the prisoners were sitting, was so vile that I could not proceed further; but I saw enough to convince me that the poor, erring woman who was put in there for some trifling offence, and placed in contact with the beings who were uttering such language as we heard, might indeed leave hope behind her.

The prisoners have no beds to sleep upon, not even a blanket, and are thrust in to lie as they please, five in each small cell. It may be imagined what the tropical heat produces under such conditions as these; but as the surgeon was out, I could obtain no information respecting the rates of sickness or mortality.

I next proceeded to a yard somewhat smaller than that appropriated to serious offenders, in which were confined prisoners condemned for short sentences, for such offences as drunkenness, assault, and the like. Among the prisoners were some English sailors, confined for assaults on their officers, or breach of articles; all of whom had complaints to make to the Consul, as to arbitrary arrests and unfounded charges. Mr. Mure told me that when the port is full he is constantly engaged inquiring into such cases; and I am sorry to learn that the men of our commercial marine occasion a good deal of trouble to the authorities.

I left the prison in no very charitable mood towards the people who sanctioned such a disgraceful institution, and proceeded to complete my tour of the city.

The “Levee,” which is an enormous embankment to prevent the inundation of the river, is now nearly deserted except by the river steamers, and those which have been unable to run the blockade. As New Orleans is on an average three feet below the level of the river at high water, this work requires constant supervision; it is not less than fifteen feet broad, and rises five or six feet above the level of the adjacent street, and it is continued in an almost unbroken line for several hundreds of miles up the course of the Mississippi. When the bank gives way, or a “crevasse,” as it is technically called, occurs, the damage done to the plantations has sometimes to be calculated by millions of dollars; when the river is very low there is a new form of danger, in what is called the "caving in" of the bank, which, left without the support of the water pressure, slides into the bed of the giant river.

New Orleans is called the “Crescent City” in consequence of its being built on a curve of the river, which is here about the breadth of the Thames at Gravesend, and of great depth. Enormous cotton presses are erected near the banks, where the bales are compressed by machinery before stowage on shipboard, at a heavy cost to the planter.

The custom-house, the city-hall, and the United States mint, are fine buildings, of rather pretentious architecture; the former is the largest building in the States, next to the capital. I was informed that on the levee, now almost deserted, there is during the cotton and sugar season a scene of activity, life, and noise, the like of which is not in the world. Even Canton does not show so many boats on the river, not to speak of steamers, tugs, flat-boats, and the like; and it may be easily imagined that such is the case, when we know that the value of the cotton sent in the year from this port alone exceeds twenty millions sterling, and that the other exports are of the value of at least fifteen millions sterling, whilst the imports amount to nearly four millions.

As the city of New Orleans is nearly 1700 miles south of New York, it is not surprising that it rejoices in a semi-tropical climate. The squares are surrounded with lemon-trees, orange-groves, myrtle, and magnificent magnolias. Palmettoes and peach-trees are found in all the gardens, and in the neighborhood are enormous cypresses, hung round with the everlasting Spanish moss.

The streets of the extended city are different in character from the narrow chaussées of the old town, and the general rectangular arrangement common in the United States, Russia, and British Indian cantonments is followed as much as possible. The markets are excellent, each municipality, or grand division, being provided with its own. They swarm with specimens of the composite races which inhabit the city, from the thorough-bred, woolly-headed negro, who is suspiciously like a native-born African, to the Creole who boasts that every drop of blood in his veins is purely French.

I was struck by the absence of any whites of the laboring classes, and when I inquired what had become of the men who work on the levee and at the cotton presses in competition with the negroes, I was told they had been enlisted for the war.

I forgot to mention that among the criminals in the prison there was one Mr. Bibb, a respectable citizen, who had a little affair of his own on Sunday morning.

Mr. Bibb was coming from market, and had secured an early copy of a morning paper. Three citizens, anxious for news, or, as Bibb avows, for his watch and purse, came up and insisted that he should read the paper for them. Bibb declined, whereupon the three citizens, in the full exercise of their rights as a majority, proceeded to coerce him; but Bibb had a casual revolver in his pocket, and in a moment he shot one of his literary assailants dead, and wounded the two others severely, if not mortally. The paper which narrates the circumstances, in stating that the successful combatant had been committed to prison, adds, “great sympathy is felt for Mr. Bibb.” If the Southern minority is equally successful in its resistance to force majeure as this eminent citizen, the fate of the Confederacy cannot long be doubtful.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 244-9

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