Reader, do you know the heart of a prisoner? Are you a friend of convicts?
This year, The Hayner Public Library District is memorializing the 175th anniversary of Elijah P. Lovejoy’s murder with a new display at the Genealogy & Local History Library. In addition to many new and old items related to Lovejoy, the library has quite a few hidden gems written or published by the great activists with whom he collaborated. One such publication is the descriptively titled Prison life and reflections, or, A narrative of the arrest, trial, conviction, imprisonment, treatment, observations, reflections, and deliverance of Work, Burr, and Thompson, who suffered an unjust and cruel imprisonment in Missouri Penitentiary, for attempting to aid some slaves to liberty.
Written by George Thompson during his time as a prisoner, Prison life and reflections describes the hardships faced by Thompson, Alanson Work, and James E. Burr after they were arrested for attempting to help five slaves escape into the free state of Illinois.
In October 1837, Elijah Lovejoy and Edward Beecher (brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe) held the Illinois Anti-Slavery Convention at the Upper Alton Presbyterian Church and at Thaddeus Hurlbut’s Rock House. George Thompson and Alanson Work were present at the Convention, and both men admired Lovejoy. (Work went so far as to name his son Edwin Lovejoy Work.) Pro-slavery rioters murdered Lovejoy in Alton less than a month later, on November 7, 1837, for printing an anti-slavery newspaper, the Alton Observer. This martyrdom inspired many other abolitionists to action, Thompson, Work, and James Burr among them.
Thompson, Work, and Burr gained notoriety when they were arrested at gunpoint near the town of Palmyra, Missouri, on July 12, 1841, for aiding in the slave escape attempt. The escape had been planned in advance, but the slaves themselves betrayed Thompson, Work, and Burr to their masters. It is still unclear whether they voluntarily told of the escape plan or had it whipped out of them, but Thompson believed that the slaves likely thought the three men were kidnappers instead of abolitionists. The slaves came to see the men at the Palmyra prison, and Thompson states that “they looked very much ashamed, and seemed to regret what they did, since they have ascertained that we were friends, and wished to do them good.”
At the time of their arrest, Burr and Thompson were studying for the ministry at the Mission Institute, near Quincy, Illinois. All three men were deeply religious. Thompson commented in a letter,
Lovejoy’s death probably did more good than he could have done by his life. I have expected that there must be more sacrifices upon the altar of slavery, before it would come to an end, and if God sees fit to select one, so unworthy of the honor as myself, to suffer or die in this cause, I say, Amen.
The trio stayed shackled in their cell for the 58 days between their arrest and trial. Thompson was the unofficial secretary of the group. He mentions often that he has to write letters on the margins of newspapers and keep his journal on scraps of old letters. Friends brought the men paper, but the sheriff and guards would not give it to them. During the trial, a mob built a gallows outside the courthouse and planned to hang the men if they were acquitted. Ultimately, the three were sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for larceny of slaves, though they had broken no written Missouri laws. One of the jurors who convicted the three was John M. Clemens, father of Mark Twain.
Though Thompson, Work, and Burr were sent to the Missouri Penitentiary, they arrived with glowing letters of introduction. Thompson tells his readers,
The jailer . . . wrote a letter to the Warden, commending our good conduct while with him, approving of our character, &c. The Judge also wrote to the Warden, stating that he believed us honest, conscientious men, who meant to do right in what we did—and he believed if we were at liberty, would do the same again. He thought we should not be treated as common felons, as other prisoners, but more leniently, &c.
The men remained behind bars for several years, ministering to sick prisoners and holding religious services, until they were finally pardoned separately by the Governor of Missouri. By then, they had been jailed for approximately 3 ½ years (Work), 4 ½ years (Burr), and almost 5 years (Thompson, who was considered the most radical and outspoken). Work was pardoned on the condition that he travel back to his home state of Connecticut and never return. The Missouri statute that made it illegal to abduct, attempt to abduct, or entice slaves to freedom was only signed into law in 1845.
A historical note: there was another 19th century abolitionist named George (Donisthorpe) Thompson. He was born in Liverpool, England, in 1804 and was a speaker and activist in the United States. The George Thompson who was imprisoned in the Missouri Penitentiary was born in New Jersey in 1817 and grew up in Ohio.
To learn more, come see Prison life and reflections at the Genealogy & Local History Library, call number IR 306.362 THO.
An identical copy of the book can be found online. The Internet Archive offers digitized versions of many old volumes at www.archive.org. Prison life and reflections can be accessed at http://www.archive.org/details/prisonlifereflec7216thom. It is available to read online, as a PDF, on your Kindle, or in other formats.