Prison Philanthropy Journals and Cooper’s The Ways of the Hour

By Steven P. Harthorn (University of Northwestern-St. Paul)

Presented at the 21ˢᵗ International James Fenimore Cooper & Susan Fenimore Cooper Conference Watersheds at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, September, 2017.

Originally published in The James Fenimore Cooper Society Journal 30.1 (Whole No. 83, Spring 2019): 15-26.

Copyright © 2017, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Cooper writes in his preface to his 1850 novel The Ways of the Hour that “The object of this book is to draw the attention of the reader to some of the social evils that beset us; more particularly, in connection with the administration of criminal justice” (v). One of Cooper’s main purposes is to scrutinize the shortcomings of trial by jury. 1 But Cooper used the novel to raise other questions about the administration of criminal justice in America.

One pet concern of Cooper’s that fascinated me when I first read the novel was his insistence that the physical accommodations for those who had been arrested and accused but not yet convicted be distinguished from those intended for people who had already been convicted of crimes. In Cooper’s view, the assumption of “innocent until proven guilty” meant that those who were accused should be kept in secure confines but provided with relatively comfortable surroundings, not the harsh, punitive bleakness of the prison cell.

Cooper first raises the issue through a dialogue between Thomas Dunscomb, a New York lawyer, and his longtime friend Dr. Edward McBrain, a physician. Both men are about sixty years old — not far from Cooper himself at the time — and often enjoy engaging each other in friendly debate, thus opening the way for some of Cooper’s pet notions to be introduced into the narrative. In Chapter 5, Dunscomb and McBrain discuss the current plight of Mary Monson, an eccentric, “aristocratic,” apparently single young woman who is being held on suspicion of having murdered an elderly couple with whom she was boarding, stolen their fortune, and burned their house, leaving their two charred corpses in the wreckage. Neither Dunscomb nor McBrain is quite convinced that Mary should be considered a suspect in the case (McBrain, in particular, disputes the conclusions others have drawn about the forensic evidence; he argues that the two skeletons found in the ruins are both female and thus likely not those of the couple). After McBrain expresses his concern that “the comfort of Miss Monson has been properly attended to” during her confinement in the local Biberry jail, Dunscomb replies: 

“It is a blot on the character of the times, and on this country in particular,” answered Dunscomb, coldly, “that so little attention is paid to the gaols. We are crammed with false philanthropy in connection with convicted rogues, who ought [16] to be made to feel the penalties of their offences; while we are not even just in regard to those who are only accused, many of whom are really innocent. But for my interference, this delicate and friendless girl would, in all probability, have been immured in a common dungeon.”

“What! before her guilt is established?”

“Relatively, her treatment after conviction, would be far more humane than previously to that event. Comfortable, well-furnished, but secure apartments, ought to be provided for the accused in every county in the state, as acts of simple justice, before another word of mawkish humanity is uttered on the subject of the treatment of recognised criminals.” (79-80)

Pressed further, Dunscomb concedes that Mary has not been “thrust into a dungeon” but rather enjoys reasonable accommodations in the jail’s best cell; he notes, “Apart from loss of air and exercise, and the happiness of knowing herself respected and beloved, the girl will not be very badly off there. I dare say, the room is quite as good as that she occupied under the roof of those unfortunate Goodwins [the couple with whom Mary was living].” And, indeed, when Dunscomb’s nephew John Wilmeter (pronounced Wilmington) is later sent on an errand to check on Mary’s condition, he is surprised to find that the cell is quite opulently furnished, thanks to Mary’s money (which some think has been stolen from the deceased Goodwins) and the designer touch of Mrs. Gott, the jailer’s wife:

Mrs. Gott had put a carpet in the cell, and divers pieces of furniture that were useful, as well as two or three that were intended to be ornamental, rendering the otherwise gloomy little apartment tolerably cheerful. The gallery, much to John’s surprise, had been furnished, also. Pieces of new carpeting were laid on the flags, chairs and table had been provided, and among other articles of this nature, was a very respectable looking-glass. Everything appeared new, and as if just sent from the different shops where the various articles were sold. Wilmeter fancied that not less than a hundred dollars had been expended in furnishing that gallery. The effect was surprising; taking away from the place its chilling, jail-like air, and giving to it, what it had never possessed before, one of household comfort. (112)

Many of the townspeople of Biberry find this state of affairs outrageous, particularly when the cultured Mary — who is known to speak several foreign languages and read books that few others can — brings in a harp to complete the domestic furnishings. It would seem that Mary, indeed, [17] is carrying out much the same project as Dunscomb proposes, making her surroundings comfortable as she awaits and undergoes her trial.

Cooper is clearly pressing some buttons here, skewering the misdirected efforts of philanthropists and thumbing his nose to the status quo through his descriptions and portrayals. His argument struck me as a distinctive one, especially since even today jails tend to be much more spartan places than the cell that Mary occupies. But how distinctive was Cooper’s argument in his own day? Were others undertaking similar advocacy? Cooper’s reference to philanthropists, in particular, raises the question of what philanthropists of his own day were saying about such matters. And, in fact, there did exist a whole branch of philanthropy dedicated to examining the conditions of prisons and prisoners, improving their welfare, and raising public awareness about them. In the years preceding Cooper’s composition of The Ways of the Hour, a number of philanthropic societies dedicated to prison philanthropy published their own journals to advocate for what they considered the most humane ways to treat prisoners. Several began their publication runs in the mid-1840s, not long before Cooper conceived The Ways of the Hour, suggesting that prison philanthropy was a particularly relevant concern during the time Cooper composed the novel. These journals often contain a fascinating mix of content: statistics about prisons and their inhabitants, reports about prisons from around the country and from Europe, news from other prison societies, proceedings of their own organizational business, and editorials about what might constitute “best practices” of incarceration. In my survey of them so far, I have focused much of my attention on publications of three leading prison philanthropy societies: The Prison Discipline Society of Boston, which published annual reports beginning in 1826; The Prison Association of New York, which began publishing its annual reports in December 1844, and The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, which published The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy beginning in January 1845. 2

The broader context for these journals was a shift in penal practices that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the turn of the nineteenth century, many states had reduced the number of capital crimes punishable by the death penalty. They also scaled back the use of harsh physical punishments and torture — though these continued to be used. Concerns about the degrading public nature of many punishments led reformers to seek out more private means of correction and deterrence, leading to the rise of the penitentiary, designed to be not simply a place of confinement and punishment but [18] a place of moral transformation where, by severing many of a prisoner’s interpersonal ties, the prisoner’s prior culture of crime and corrupted, egotistical self-identity would be systematically stripped away to render the prisoner submissive and open to rehabilitation. Several approaches to the penitentiary model were tried: the Pennsylvania or separate system (instituted at Pennsylvania’s famous Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829) emphasized physical separation of convicts at all times, including during their conscripted manual labor, to enforce solitude and encourage contemplative repentance. The Auburn or silent system (practiced at the Auburn Prison and Sing Sing Penitentiary in New York) separated convicts during their nighttime hours but brought them together to work communally during the day, albeit with absolute silence strictly enforced at all times. Both methods promoted the value of hard manual labor as an encouragement for discipline, reflection, and self-improvement; they also called for the provision of individual cells to house prisoners rather than the collective pens formerly employed. Proprietors of prison reform journals often promoted their own favored approaches as they surveyed the larger landscape for prison reform: for instance, The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy favored the Pennsylvania (separate) system, whereas The Boston Prison Discipline Society advocated the Auburn system; The Prison Association of New York, though inclined toward the Auburn system, recognized in its report for 1844 that both systems had been “correct in their design of separating prisoners” but imperfect in their means of implementing it (42-43).

Amid these partisan strains, common elements emerge throughout the journals, and several intersect with The Ways of the Hour in interesting ways. One constant and prominent concern was about the physical design and condition of prisons. Confining prisoners separately required special architectural considerations to ensure solitude and security; humane treatment of prisoners required clean, well-ventilated, well-lighted cells. For instance, the Prison Discipline Society of Boston’s twenty-first report, for May 1846, includes an article entitled “Plan of a New Prison” that outlines “some of the principal things to be secured” in a good prison, including the following physical features: “A good Site; Classification [division of prisoners according to their gender, age, or the type or severity of their offenses]; Separation [ability to ensure prisoners are not placed together]; Security; Supervision; Sunlight; Artificial Light; Heat, Natural and Artificial; Natural Ventilation; Artificial Ventilation; Water, Hot and Cold; Convenience for Notifying in Sickness; Relief in Necessity [provision of “water closets”]; Draining; [19] Cleanliness...” (8). The article provides a paragraph or two of description for each category to outline major criteria; for instance, the section on “Security” highlights escape-proof construction:

It is a Prison within a Prison — the most secure of all Prisons; because the only wall which can be broken, with any hope of escape, is exposed to observation from the guard-room; and even if that were broken, and the prisoner should escape the observation of the guard, he has another wall to break; so that the security is twofold. (9)

The section on “Separation” calls for “as many cells as there are supposed to be prisoners, so that it shall never be necessary to place two prisoners together at night,” the cells being “large enough for all purposes, day and night, which it is suitable and proper to provide for in the cells” (9). The model prison proposed by the author should have its galleries and corridors “open, on the sunny sides of the building, to a broadside of sunlight, through windows 9 feet wide and 25 feet high” (10); natural air should be admitted freely during the “pleasant season of the year, as spring, summer, and autumn,” whereas artificial ventilation should provide heated air and exhaust foul air through flues “appropriated to each cell” and connected to a central ventilation system (10). Although this model prison would certainly represent the ideal rather than the norm, it illustrates many of the qualities reformers were hoping to incorporate into prisons to ensure humane treatment and the conditions necessary to promote a spirit of penitence and reformation. 3

Some articles give particular attention to county jails which, lacking the scale and resources of the large penitentiaries, often lag behind the larger institutions in their accommodations, particularly in their ability to house convicts separately. A writer for The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy for July 1848 lamented that “while building and maintaining costly penitentiaries, we have left those essential and primary buildings, the county prisons, almost unchanged” (129). That same publication’s July 1845 issue republished Dorothea Dix’s “Memorial Soliciting a State Hospital for the Insane, Submitted to the Legislature of Pennsylvania, February 3, 1845,” which included her findings from an extensive tour of poor-houses, insane asylums, and county prisons that she had undertaken. Conditions at many county prisons were deplorable, she reported; her description of the Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) Jail highlights many of the problems she claims to have typically encountered: [20]

Inside front cover from Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1846-7.  [21]

The Lancaster County Jail is a substantial and somewhat extensive structure, built of limestone, but the plan is very defective, affording small opportunity for classifying or separating the prisoners. Of the thirty-one prisoners seen there in July and the first of August, three were insane, and four were females. Some of the jail rooms were nineteen feet by twenty, and ten high, often insufficiently ventilated by opening the windows. The area of the exercise yard covers two-thirds of an acre. The allowance of food is one pound of bread per day, with as much water as they choose. If they can afford to purchase other articles of provisions it is permitted, but these they work for themselves in the jail. I saw no beds — three blankets are allowed to each man. The punishments are fetters and collar — no solitary cells except the dungeons below, which are damp, and I believe disused altogether. (218)

Likewise, Dix toured the York County (Pennsylvania) Jail and found that although it was (like the Lancaster jail) relatively clean, with a spacious exercise yard, “The usual results of prison companionship were apparent here. I found the prisoners promiscuously associated, men and women — some in the yard, others in the apartments; none employed, except, as I think, a female prisoner” (220). Dix argued strenuously that “If it were the deliberate purpose of society to establish criminals in all that is evil, and to root out the last remains of virtuous inclination, this purpose could not be more effectually accomplished than by incarceration in the county jails, as they are, with few exceptions, constructed and governed” (218). Dix invites her readers to visit both state penitentiaries and county jails so “they can make a fair and full comparison between a good system and a bad system; between wholesome regulations and vicious influences; between institutions which are an honour to the morals and intellect of a community, and establishments which are a disgrace to both” (218).

In The Ways of the Hour, Cooper in describing the jail at Biberry seems sufficiently forward-thinking and aware of some of the “best practices” of his day for security and humane comfort. He describes the jail as being “a recent construction” and “built on a plan that is coming much into favour, though still wanting in the highest proof of civilization, by sufficiently separating criminals, and in treating the accused with a proper degree of consideration, until the verdict of a jury has pronounced them guilty” (110). Cooper then describes the “simple” construction of the jail with an eye toward its security and comfort: he details stone construction that renders digging “nearly impossible” and [22] causes the prisoner to be “encased in stone” so that “nothing can be more hopeless” than an attempt to escape. The inner structure is surrounded by higher outer walls, creating “an imperium in imperio; a house within a house.” Cooper also mentions that the jail is subdivided to ensure at least a degree of separation: “Iron grated gates” partition the space so that “those within any one compartment may be concealed from those in all of the others, but the two that immediately join it.” As for the jail cells themselves, Cooper notes, “The cells were not large, certainly, but of sufficient size to admit of light and air,” and 

The breezes are admitted by means of the external windows, while the height of the ceiling in the galleries, and the space above the tops of the cells, contribute largelv to comfort and health in this important particular. As the doors of the cells stand opposite to the windows, the entire gaol can be, and usually is, made airy and light. Stoves in the galleries preserve the temperature, and effectually remove all disagreeable moisture. In a word, the place is as neat, convenient, and decent as the gaol of convicts need ever to be[.] (110-111)

This description satisfies most of the criteria that the philanthropic societies advance — enough to make me wonder whether Cooper might have been reading prison philanthropy journals himself; yet Cooper closes his description by noting again the jail’s most significant shortcoming:

[B]ut the proper sort of distinction is not attended to between them [convicts] and those who are merely accused. Our civilization in this respect is defective. [...] [T]he public mind is quiet on the subject of the treatment of those whom the policy of government demands should be kept in security until their guilt or innocence be established. What reparation, under such circumstances, can be made to him to whom the gates are finally opened, for having been incarcerated on charges that are groundless? (110-111)

The prison journals do give some attention to the issue of how to treat accused individuals being held while awaiting trial. They tend to emphasize that the accused — as well as witnesses who are being held — should be placed in individual cells, especially to avoid contamination from the criminal element. For example, an article on county jails in the Prison Discipline Society of Boston’s 1848 report laments the moral hazards that arise from mixing prisoners in some county jails:

In this diversity of classes, some will be found whose habits are orderly and industrious, others who are idle and vagrant; some [23] whose education has been moral and whose tastes are refined; others who are rude, coarse, filthy, and ignorant; some whose language and deportment are chaste and decorous; others whose utterance and gesture are profane and obscene. ... (123)

Likewise, Dorothea Dix’s “Memorial,” reprinted in the July 1845 Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy, notes that

the prisoners are sometimes detained for months, waiting trial, without employment — left to idleness, that nurse of crime, and to evil communications, which corrupt the juvenile offender, and plunge yet deeper into ignominious habits, the old transgressor. (218)

The New York Prison Association’s sixth report — filed in March 1851, nearly a year after The Ways of the Hour appeared on 10 April 1850 — expresses similar concerns but encourages remodeling of prison facilities to prevent unwholesome influence upon those who may not even be criminal:

[W]hat shall we say to the more fearful wrong, of actually placing the young and the innocent in the very jaws of the destroyer? And this we are doing. Large numbers of those arrested on suspicion are the mere victims of circumstance or of malice; found perhaps in evil company; and that it may be unintentionally, or marked for sacrifice by a vindictive or jealous spirit. Thrust into the society and companionship of felons, and goaded to desperation by the wrong inflicted on him, the poor being readily listens to the teachings of his new associates. And if he leaves his den, desirous to forget what and whom he has seen or heard yet he is not forgotten. They remember him, search him out perhaps, recognize him, and tell of him as a prison bird. The brand is on him for life. Can it be wondered at, that the laws of society are broken, and that fraud and violence abound amongst us?

The remodelling of our detention prisons, and the reformation of the whole system of dealing with the accused, underlie all attempts to improve prison discipline in our State. We cannot too earnestly press this matter upon the consideration of the public, but especially, of those in office. It is of vital importance, involving on the one hand, the moral conservation of society, and on the other, the promotion and extension of vice and immorality. The people of our sister states are arousing themselves to it. Within the past year, Boston, with less than one third the population of our own city, has spent [24] $500,000, to secure this object; an expenditure which although enormous in itself, will pay a still more enormous interest in the increased safety and protection it will afford to virtue, and the checks, discouragements, embarrassments and limitations it will throw around vice and crime. (43)

To an extent, then, the article’s author shares some of Cooper’s concern and notes society’s growing awareness of the need to make better provision for the accused. Still, despite journalists’ concerns to assure individual separation of the accused, especially from the convicted, they do not seem to express interest in making the physical surroundings of cells for the accused any more comfortable than those for the convicted (most journalists seem content to have accused individuals housed in regular prison cells). So, Cooper’s claim that philanthropists have overlooked the comforts of the accused seems justified, and his argument does seem distinctive here, going a step beyond what the reformers were proposing.

As the above passages suggest, one other question prison philanthropists raised about the accused was about how they should spend their time as they awaited trial. Since the accused were not yet convicted, they typically seem not to have been assigned labor, because that might be considered a form of punishment; however, the accused might then be left with nothing worthwhile to do. An article in the July 1848 Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy on “Separation of Untried Prisoners” (reprinted from a British publication) expresses worry that consigning unconvicted prisoners to “idleness” would render their punishment “more severe and their condition more penal than that of the convicted” (132). In an interview featured in the Prison Discipline Society of Boston’s 1848 report, H.N. Morgan, keeper of the county prison in Hartford, Connecticut, is careful to note that “All convicts are compelled to labor, and many who are waiting trial, labor from choice,” to “pass away time better” (90, 104). Elsewhere in the journals, prison libraries and other measures for cultivating the mind receive emphasis, so perhaps Cooper is responding in kind here, too, with Mary Monson’s books, harp, and other cultural stimulation, which seem to extend well beyond the more meager ideals of the reformers to a much higher degree of cultural polish and attainment. Mary’s exuberance certainly violates the principles of silence and even separation the reformers advocate.

Based on these and other intersections with ideas expressed in prison philanthropy journals, I think it safe to say that in The Ways of the Hour, Cooper demonstrates an awareness of and engagement with [25] contemporary prison philanthropy that is greater than might first be suspected. Considering that eight years prior, in The Wing-and-Wing, Cooper belittled the “mistaken, not to say a mawkish philanthropy” that preached the heresy that “‘the object of punishment is the reformation of the criminal’” (2.22), or that just five years prior, in The Chainbearer, Cooper’s first-person narrator Morduant Littlepage (granted, a man of the eighteenth century) lamented the disappearance of public whipping-posts (2.33-34), Cooper’s arguments and portrayals in The Ways of the Hour also invite further study of how his views on criminal justice may have been evolving during the final years of his life. For all Cooper’s suspicion of philanthropists, perhaps, in his own way, he was becoming one himself.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Chainbearer. New York: Burgess, Stringer, & Co., 1845. 2 vols.
  • ------. The Ways of the Hour. New York: George Palmer Putnam, 1850.
  • ------. The Wing-and-Wing. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1842. 2 vols.
  • Dix, D[orothea]. L[ynde]. Remarks on Prison Discipline in the United States. 2 nd ed. Philadelphia: Joseph Kite & Co., 1845.
  • Franklin, Wayne. James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
  • Gray, Francis C. Prison Discipline in America. Boston: Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1847.
  • Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The ennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy 1, nos. 1-4 (January, April, July, October 1845).
  • ------. The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy 2, nos. 1-4 (January, April, July, October 1846).
  • ------. The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy 3, nos. 1-4 (January, April, July, October 1847) [26]
  • ------. The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy 4, nos. 1-4 (January, April, July, October 1848).
  • ------. The Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy 5, nos. 1-4 (January, April, July, October 1849).
  • Prison Association of New York. Fifth Report of the Prison Association of New York: Including a List of the Officers and Members. Albany: Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1850.
  • ------. First Report of the Prison Association of New York, December, 1844. New York: Jared W. Bell, 1845.
  • ------. [Fourth] Report of the Prison Association of New-York: Including a List of the Officers and Members. Second Edition. Albany: Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1849.
  • ------. Second Report of the Prison Association of New York [for 1845]. New York: Published by the Association, 1846.
  • ------. Sixth Report of the Prison Association of New York: Including a List of the Officers and Members. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1851.
  • ------. Third Report of the Prison Association of New York [for 1846]. New York: Published by the Association, 1847.
  • Prison Discipline Society of Boston. Fifteenth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston. Boston: Society’s Rooms, 1840.
  • ------. Twentieth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1845 . Boston: Published at No. 1 Ashburton Place, 1847.
  • ------. Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1846-7. Boston: Published at No. 1 Ashburton Place, 1848.
  • ------. Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1849 . Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1849.
  • ------. Twenty-Third Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1848 . Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1848.


1 See, for instance, Wayne Franklin’s recent discussion in James Fenimore Cooper: The Later Years, 491-493.

2 It is worth noting that Cooper knew several members of the Prison Association of New York personally: its officers included John O’Sullivan (editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review) and Theodore Sedgwick (brother of Catharine Maria Sedgwick).

3 Numerous articles express similar concerns; see, for instance, “County Prisons: Boston New Jail; Mechanical Description, by the Architect, Mr. G. J. F. Bryant” in the Twenty-Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Boston, May 1849.