The Confessions of a Backslider – By Henry Morrison

Chapter 9

Taken Prisoner

As I lay there waiting and thinking, I thrust my hand into the pocket of the left breast of my shirt, and took out a small photograph and a little rosebud wrapped in a piece of oiled paper. The photograph was of the woman of whom I have written, whom I have loved so dearly and who was torn so soon from me by death. The rosebud was the one she had given me on the deck of the little steamer the first day I had looked into her angel face. As I looked at these little tokens, my heart cried out within me against the cruel fate which had followed me, and for the first time in many days tears came into my eyes. Folding up the precious little mementos I replaced them where I had carried them for so long and, overcome with fasting and fatigue, I fell asleep.

After some time, I know not how long, I was aroused by a voice saying, “Wake up here!” and opening my eyes I found I was surrounded by a group of not less than half a dozen men with their Winchester rifles pointed at me. “Throw up your hands!” My hands went up as I rose to a sitting posture and I said: “Gentlemen, I am your prisoner. I have thrown away my arms and shall make no resistance.” One of the men came forward and with a good deal of display of authority clicked handcuffs upon my wrists and jerked me to a standing posture.

Fortunately for me there had been no one killed in the train robbery, or I believe these men would have made short work with me. As it was there was much profanity, rough talk, and threats, but having killed one of our number, and captured the other two of us, they were very well pleased with themselves and, after the first excitement which followed getting me safely into their clutches, they treated me as kindly as I could expect under the circumstances.

We had a rough journey back from the mountains and attracted great attention at every point where we stopped for refreshments, took a train, or changed cars. I was finally landed safely behind the iron bars of a prison, and I must confess a sense of relief came over me after the excitement of the robbery, the flight into the mountains, the chase and exhaustion, and then the weary journey of return. I seemed to be dead inside, feeling was almost entirely gone from me and I was more brute than human. I ate my food, slept soundly, read the newspapers, looked back over the past, which seemed like a troubled dream, and into the future, which looked blank and dark enough. I had sown the seeds of am and was reaping the harvest of sorrow. As the days went by my nerves relaxed, my whole physical and nervous constitution rested from the tremendous tension of the past few years, and I seemed to wake out of a strange dream. Like the Prodigal Son of whom I had read in the good old Book in my boyhood days, I came to myself, and realized that I was indeed in a far country. But it seemed too late to resolve to arise and go to my father’s house. Strong iron bars stood between me and the home of my childhood. My father was dead and gone; my mother, I had no idea where she was, and was fully determined that if it were possible for me to keep my secret, she should know nothing of my checkered career.

There are many such men in the world. Men who have drifted from their homes and then fallen into sin and crime. They are lost to all who ever knew them, lost to society, to hope, liberty, and they wear out their poor miserable lives toiling in some prison, concealing their identity while their sad hearts quietly eat themselves away in bitterness and disappointment.

The reader must not understand that I was a penitent. I had not reached the point where I grieved for my sins; I grieved that I had been detected in my sins and brought to account for them.

As the time of my trial approached, which was very soon after my incarceration, I felt no disposition to employ a lawyer, I never had denied my crime, I felt sure of punishment and doggedly awaited it, feeling that it would be something of a relief to begin to work out the weary years between me and liberty, with some sort of employment that would give exercise to my body and a degree of activity to my mind.

My trial was quite a formal affair and I was sent to the penitentiary in short order for a period of not less than ten, and not more than fifteen years.

When I was brought to the prison and stood inside of a circle line, and my clothes taken from me and burned, my hair shorn close to my head, and I was bathed and put into a striped suit, my heart sank within me and there settled upon me a dead heavy weight of disappointment, shame, and protest against my fate which seemed to blind my soul, and crush my very body.

I was one of the practical evil results of modern popular unbelief, which is disseminated from so many colleges and universities, and not a few pulpits, and that too by men who are so shallow and ignorant of the real philosophy of life that they imagine themselves to be benefactors of society.

It was my good fortune to be placed in a prison whose chief warden was perhaps as suitable a man for the position he occupies as any other man in all the country. He was genuinely interested in the welfare of his prisoners, he was careful to see that we had a sufficiency of healthy food, proper baths, and were made as comfortable in our cells as prisoners could hope to be even in these progressive times, when the spirit of humanitarianism is abroad in the land.

Our chaplain, at the time of my incarceration, was merely a political chaplain. He had been appointed because of the pull he had with certain men in office, and not because of any special qualifications he had to fill the office; he was of no special benefit either to the prisoners or the state. There did not seem to be anything especially bad in him; he was simply a figurehead. He went through the discharge of his duties in a perfunctory way, drew his salary, came to the prison when he had to, and got away as soon as possible.

Many of the guards, and not a few of the foremen about the prison were coarse, rough men who seemed to take pleasure in the discomfort of the unfortunate men under their control. I am quite safe in saying that there is no doubt but many of our penal institutions, instead of being places of penitence and reform, are schools of vice in which men are hardened in sin and crime. Several of the foremen and guards of our institution seem to take delight in annoying and torturing those under their control, and not a few of our prisoners were so hardened and imbruted in their crimes, that they in turn sought every opportunity to provoke and in any possible way annoy those who had charge of them. Of course, they sought to do this so as not to bring the wrath of their tormentors down upon themselves.

On entering the prison I resolved to be as good a prisoner as possible and make the best of a bad situation. To be sure, I was overwhelmed with my situation, discouraged, and outraged, and somewhat sullen. I was put to work in a paint shop. My employment was that of staining and varnishing chairs. I soon learned to execute my work with a degree of efficiency and was able to complete my task and have some time to work for myself, which I did with some financial advantage, saving up a little money which I deposited with one of our prison officials, taking a receipt for same. The money was to be turned over to me when my time was up, or at any time I should demand it.

After my first year in prison we were fortunate in securing in the chaplain a man who really loved the poor souls of the unfortunate fellows he had come to minister to. He spent almost all of his time in the prison, moving around among the prisoners, speaking kind words, looking after our sick, finding out about the location of the families and affairs of our poor boys, and writing letters for those who could not write for themselves. His influence for good was felt in the prison in a very short time after his arrival. He preached with great earnestness, not infrequently weeping while offering salvation to the poor condemned wretches who sat before him. His influence affected the guards, there was less of roughness among them, there was general improvement in the discipline and conduct of the prisoners, and not long after the arrival of our new chaplain, several of our men claimed to be converted, and the change in their lives and conduct gave good reason to believe that their claim was not without foundation.

Among the religious workers who came to the prison there was a man and woman ,who played the organ and sang. They had a beautiful little girl, a flaxen-haired child, about three or four years of age of whom the prisoners were very fond. Up to this time I had taken no part in religious services. My seat in the chapel was far back from the front and while it was my purpose to treat the whole matter of religion and personal responsibility with indifference, in spite of myself. I soon found some sort of an awakening going on within me. I got interested in the chaplain, the young man and his wife and baby. I found a longing within my heart to get the beautiful little girl in my arms, and one afternoon as the gentleman and his wife came out of the chapel I reached out my hands to the little creature and she came to me very gladly, patting my cheek and said in her baby way, “Mr. Man, where is your little girl?” and looked into my face with such tender and kindly interest that my heart began to throb, and there came rushing into my mind a thought of the silent grave away up in one of the middle states where slept the beautiful woman who had loved me so dearly and promised to bless me so much.

This little child awakened in me a genuine interest, and I found myself longing for the time when she would come with her parents to the prison. Her presence in the chapel gave the entire service a new meaning to me and scarcely a Sabbath afternoon passed that we did not have some sort of friendly chat, and frequently it was my privilege to carry the little creature in my arms to the gate leading from the prison. I found myself preserving any little card, clipping, some picture from a magazine, or whittling out at odd moments a little toy, to please the fancy of this little friend of mine. Her parents seemed pleased with the kindly feeling that had sprang up between the little girl and myself, and while it did not occur to me at the time, I am quite sure now that they were earnestly praying that this beautiful little creature might in some way thaw out my heart raid sullen nature, and open up for me the return road to a better life.