Few people living have an adequate conception of the powers of the human mind to grasp and retain the things that pass through it in a lifetime. I have had ample opportunity to experience the marvelous powers of memory. A man’s mind is like a great storehouse or depot in some seaport in which a thousand things may be stowed away. They are perhaps forgotten, time passes, but by and by some clerk will take a waybill and search from room to room, garret to cellar and drag out dusty bales, boxes, and packages, that had not been thought of for months, but there they are with the proper stamp and address upon them. So it is with a man’s mind. It is stored with a multitude of things that, for the time, he has forgotten, but when occasion arises and he rummages through the garret and cellar of his memory the past events rise up with familiar faces and look him in the eye.
I cannot say that I have been a hard student. The fact is I never did give myself up to industrious study of a language, a branch of science, or difficult and hard problems. I didn’t have the industry in me that calls for that kind of work, but I was a great reader, fond of histories, magazines, novels, stories of travel, and all that sort of thing, and from my boyhood I delighted in reading, and early in life formed the habit of reading late into the night. When reading an interesting novel, I have sometimes read all night long and it was quite a common thing for me to read until one and two o’clock and then lay abed late the next day to the inconvenience of other people. In this way, I contracted the habit of wakefulness and could not sleep until late at night, rarely going to bed even when I had nothing to read, before one o’clock. When I was locked up in the institution from which I write these chapters (and I may as well in the outset confess that I write from a prisoner’s cell) I found myself at great disadvantage because of these irregular habits. The light is turned out on us here promptly at nine o’clock and then I must lie in total darkness and think, while the clock strikes ten, eleven, twelve, one, and sometimes two, before I can find relief in sleep. Could I have had a light in my cell, and books to read, I never would have realized the retentive powers of my memory. But, without a light, lying in the darkness, I have learned to entertain myself with reflections on the past, and I have been surprised to find that all of my past life is written indelibly on the pages of memory. It seems that I have really forgotten nothing. I have been able to go back to my early childhood and to follow myself through life to this sad, dismal place, in a remarkably minute and accurate way. The acts of my life, the places where I have acted, and the very dates, have been burned into my brain.
It has occurred to me that there are some thing connected with my sad career that may be communicated to others to their advantage, so I come to you with some of the fragments of the story of my misspent life. I should regret to appear to blame others for my misdeeds and for the calamities which have come upon me. Nevertheless, as my identity is completely concealed and as what I shall say cannot bring any sorrow or hurt to those of whom I shall speak, I shall not hesitate to try to describe, to some extent, the influences that went into the building of my character which made me unfit, and unable to battle against the temptations before which I have fallen.
My father was a good man. He was not a man of college education, but had been to the common schools, and was a man of natural ability, read many good books, kept up somewhat with the political and general news of the times, and was quite a reader of religious books and the church periodicals. He was a diligent man in business and accumulated quite a comfortable living. He was a positive man, almost to sternness, a man of just principles and a tender, true heart.
My mother was my father’s second wife. He had one son by a former marriage who was a boy ten years older than myself, my brother John, my ideal and delight. Poor, dear John! He was deeply fond of me, played with and cared for me in my childhood and loved me faithfully to the last. It is some comfort to me that my father and John both went away in peace to heaven before I brought disgrace upon the family.
My mother was a graduate of a woman’s college. A place where they gave more attention to exact grammar, careful pronunciation and correct spelling than they did to the higher things that belong to the soul. Not that I have anything to say against thoroughness in education, but my dear mother was much more careful of my mental training along these lines than she was in the development of my moral character. She was much more anxious that I should learn how to speak grammatically than she was that I should learn how to make an honest living in the sweat of my brow. Poor woman! She always seemed to feel that I was too precious to do good, honest, hard work with my hands; one of many deluded mothers, with whose unfortunate sons I am now associating in a place where we are forced to do the work that we were, unconsciously, taught to avoid when we might have done it in honor and happiness.
My mother had taught school a few years before her marriage to my father and had developed quite a spirit of controlling other people. She never was able to get over this and it was always a question who was the head of our house, and not infrequently we children heard discussions at the table and about the fireside between our parents, which were most unfortunate in their effect upon us and our general family government. I remember well it was the occasion of great disappointment and sorrow to my boyish heart when I was made to realize that my parents did not have the affection and love for each other that is necessary to a genuinely peaceful and happy home.
My parents were church members. They were so religious, but they failed to reach that state of piety that would deeply impress their children with the importance of seeking early the one thing needful. I was a willful child, selfish, hard to control, and while my father was inclined to be severe with me, my mother was quite inclined to be indulgent. Perhaps both of them went to extremes and they rarely, if ever, agreed with each other with regard to what I should do, what I should wear, what books I should study, what places I should visit, with whom I should associate, or how I should be corrected and dealt with for my many disobediences and misdeeds. In the end, my mother became my champion and protector, and gradually my father sadly and unwisely, yielded to the situation and gave me up. I can remember clearly when I began to realize that my mother and myself were getting the victory over him and coming to rule the house as we chose, and I began to feel that I could largely do as I pleased without any fear of punishment. The thoughtful reader will agree with me that these circumstances were most unfortunate for my child life.
From my very early childhood I attended Sabbath school and was carefully instructed in the great doctrines of Christianity, and believed them very firmly and many times had a strong conviction in my heart because of my disobedience and sinful acts. There is no memory that stands out more vividly before me than the revival meeting in which I was converted. I was just turning into my fifteenth year. There were evangelistic services held in the Methodist Church of which my parents were members. It was a great time of awakening, and many of my schoolmates and best friends were saved, myself among the rest. I need not go into details, but I had a great struggle of soul. There was a strong bent to evil in me, but finally I surrendered and after many tears and much earnest praying, was soundly converted. I can never forget the sweet peace and joy that came into any heart. For quite a number of weeks I ran well, kept company with earnest young Christians and enjoyed the various services of the church, but my early training had not put into me the kind of character that makes stalwart Christian. A child who has not obeyed his parents will find it difficult to live in obedience to the law of his God. While I soon lost the first glow of love which came into my heart at the time of my conversion, I kept a tender conscience and my faith in God, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, and the personality of the Holy Ghost was clear and unshaken. If I could only have gotten into a Christian school I might have become established in my spiritual life and have made a happy and useful man, but my going away to college proved my undoing.