1850s Prison Memoir of African American Is First of Its Kind

The unique 304-page manuscript is believed to have been written by Austin Reed, a black man imprisoned in a New York prison more than 100 years ago.

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A rare manuscript discovered years ago in Rochester, N.Y., is believed to be the first recovered memoir written by a black prisoner, the New York Times reported.

The memoir, dated 1858, was authenticated by Yale University to put in its Beineke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 

"The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison" details the life of Austin Reed, a prisoner in upstate New York, from the 1830s to the 1850s.

"It’s still a very unusual thing for us to find any previously unknown document from this period by an African-American writer," Caleb Smith, an English professor at Yale, told the Times. "From a literary point of view, I think there’s no other voice in American literature like the voice of this penitentiary narrative, which has a very lyrical quality. And from a historical perspective, what makes this so fascinating at this moment is the deep connection between the history of slavery and the history of incarceration.”

According to Smith, news articles, court records and prison files from the same time period supported the stories detailed in the memoir. Beineke library curator Nancy Kuhl added that the memoir "significantly enriches the canon of 19th-century African-American literature and deepens our understanding of all 19th-century America."

Experts believe that Reed was born a free man near Rochester and was sent to juvenile reform school in Manhattan, the New York House of Refuse, where he learned to read and write. A string of thefts led to his imprisonment in the 1830s in Auburn, N.Y.

The New York Times describes the memoir, written under the name "Rob Reed," as being written with "the dramatic flair of a natural storyteller," but also as being riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. It tells of Reed's childhood and leads up to his time in the Auburn prison.

"Stripping off my shirt the tyrantical curse bounded my hands fast in front of me and orderd me to stand around," Reed wrote at one point, describing the punishments he received in the prison. "Turning my back towards him he threw Sixty seven lashes on me according to the orders of Esq. Cook. I was then to stand over the dreain while one of the inmates wash my back in a pail of salt brine."

According to the Times, it is believed that Reed had hoped that his book would be read by an audience, and at various points he addresses the reader directly.

"We know that this was never printed, but certainly Reed wanted it to be," he said. "He’s not writing for intimates, he’s not writing for himself. He’s writing it for the public," said Smith, who is preparing the manuscript for publication.

Read more at the New York Times.

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