Bandits & Bibles:  Convict Literature in Nineteenth-Century America by Larry E. Sullivan

[2 April 2003]

By Teresa DiFalco

They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To

“We rob banks.”
— Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde

In January, The New Yorker published an article by David Gann titled “The Old Man and the Gun”. It was a profile of Forrest Tucker, a professional bank robber who at 79 had likely been pinched for the last time. For six decades he was a model robber—nice to the ladies, a sharp dresser, and by all accounts very polite on the job. He also had 18 prison escapes under his belt. Warner Brothers snatched the movie rights to the article less than a month after it was published. Everyone loves a good outlaw. Bandits and Bibles: Convict Literature in Nineteenth-Century America predates Forrest Tucker, but it captures his era—when bad guys wore black and good women fell for them. Though a serious and thoughtful collection, there’s a certain nostalgia hovering—a snapshot of the glory days of crime.

The book, edited by Larry E. Sullivan, is written by criminals and is as complete a story of crime and punishment in the era you can hope to find. It covers it all—from how to pay off a cop to a glossary of prison slang. Sullivan has a unique devotion to the criminal writing genre and is particularly qualified to pull these pieces together. In addition to his day jobs as Professor of Criminal Justice at City University of New York and Chief Librarian of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he is a serious collector of convict writing. “I began collecting convict literature in the 1970s” he notes casually in his introduction, and his narrative is peppered with phrases like “the great criminal writers”. His expertise and soft touch frame the stories nicely, adding the right dose of gravitas without distracting from the prisoner’s voice.

The book is divided into four parts; each made up of related essays: “Bandits, Outlaws and Rogues”, “Convicts on Convicts”, “Life Behind the Bars” and “Bibles and Reform”. The tales are cinematic and the crimes are simple—train robberies, pickpockets, money laundering. Even the murders are straightforward eye-for-an-eye types.

The stories are loaded with unassuming, yet riveting detail. In “My First Crime”, for instance, from “Part II: Convicts on Convicts” a young man describes leaving home for his first day of jail:

“On arriving at the penitentiary . . . our measurements and descriptions were taken. We were shown how to march, with folded arms and with hands on the shoulders of the one in front, in the manner of convicts. We were next taken to the tailor department where the citizen’s clothes were changed for a suit of stripes . . . not a new suit but a second-hand one, well-worn and patched, blackened and begrimmed with the dirt of the mines . . . After putting on my striped suit, I was conducted to what is called the north wing cell house and incarcerated in a cell of the regular size—four feet wide, eight feet long and seven feet high.”

There are anecdotes to support Sullivan’s note that, unlike contemporary campuses, “the 19th-century prison was a place of dread and terror . . . a place designed to remind the convict of the wages of sin.” In “Prison Diary” (Part III: Life Behind the Bars), Seth Payne describes the prison dungeon:

“The prisoner is hung up by his wrists; the tips of his toes just touching the floor; then three thick, heavy doors are locked and bolted against him . . . the hours pass: his arms begin to swell . . . he grows weaker and weaker. He feels the cords in his wrists and arms giving way; his head sways from side to side; his throat ceases to utter any but a gurgling sound . . . a tremor runs through his whole frame; his head falls forward between his bleeding, swollen arms, and he is as unconscious of pain as he was before this awful punishment.”

The level of detail and sensible frankness is remarkable and consistent throughout the book. Absent of political or psychological rhetoric (it hadn’t been invented yet), the stories are candid day-in-the-life accounts.

Justice, not surprisingly, takes a beating in these pages. One convict describes “cough(ing) up coin” to the ubiquitous “percentage coppers” as a necessary survival tactic. There are many tales of a prejudiced court but in a time before television, electronic billboards, and telephones for the most part, it’s surprising any criminals were caught. And by the same token, unlikely they were the right ones. The voice of those who claimed to be falsely accused has a notable tone of resignation. “The world, in general . . . imputes to him, who has been once in a fault, the commission of 100 others,” writes Stephen Burroughs in “What Comes of a Bad Name?” It seems understood in this criminal community that guilty verdicts, as arbitrary as they seemed, were simply part of the game. These men had all at some point committed a crime and expected to sometimes pay for someone else’s. In stark contrast to contemporary court drama where the accused routinely plead innocence against mountains of incriminating evidence, it is curious to read men writing openly of their crimes. They may question the degree of justice that prevails, but are pragmatic in their guilt.

The nature and methods of crime seem much darker today, though time and Hollywood tend to polish rough edges. Still, you don’t run across a Forrest Tucker every day. The men in this book are the kind you might sit next to in a diner, sharing a day’s gripes over coffee before heading off to work. They were mostly working stiffs like us, whose jobs were, inconveniently, against the law.

Bandits and Bibles offers a distinctive historical angle. It’s informative and engaging—a must-have for any serious con-lit collector.

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