The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict Austin Reed

Austin Reed, "Front Pastedown with Original Title." The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.


The narrative was penned by Austin Reed and appears to have been finished in 1858, but until 2009, the manuscript was lost. It surfaced in 2009 at an estate sale in Upstate New York and eventually came to the attention of Yale University. At Yale, the editor, Caleb Smith, began research into who this mysterious writer was.

  • Born between 1823 and 1825 in New York
  • Descendant of Africans, Europeans, and freeborn people of color
  • Middle class, well educated
  • Father died when Reed was young, leaving the family in debt
  • Between age 8-10, went to work as an indentured servant
  • Attempted to burn down the mansion where he was indentured, landing himself in prison
  • Spent the rest of his life moving in and out of the prison system
Courtesy of Penguin

The backdrop for the text is a series of debates about the penal system and the treatment of inmates. There were two schools of thought that are significant in their implications for Austin Reed and his narrative: the Pennsylvania system and the New York system. In Pennsylvania, led by Quakers, reformers sought to create a system that would emphasize solitary confinement in attempt to move away from the uses of active torture and violence. The New York system, however, remained staunch in its use of the whip and extensive manual labor. The photo above shows one reform that was implemented in the effort to become more humane, the showering bath, which is essentially an early form of water-boarding. Unsurprisingly, this new method was soon deemed a torture device in its own right after the death of an African American inmate, Samuel Moore, who died following a session in the showering bath.

Their job, as they understood it, was to break the inmate's spirit and put him to work. Auburn was not a college or a chapel. It was a machine.–Caleb Smith

Given that the narrative is thought to have been finished in 1858, it does not address the Civil War, but the issue of slavery and forced, unpaid labor is present throughout the text. In letters thought to be written by Reed, he mentions being on the battle field of the war, but from prison records, it appears that he would have been incarcerated for the duration of the war, making it difficult to say where embellishments and exaggerations begin to overshadow fact in his writings. Nonetheless, Reed certainly endured staggering hardships over the course of his life and was in the middle of a system in which "black Northerners were already becoming subject to new forms of racialized social control through cycles of incarceration and custodial supervision" (DeLombard 36). Even with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, an exception was made allowing unpaid labor to remain legal in the case of punishment for crime (Smith xlvii). On the whole, the sort of penal system that Reed experienced fully emphasized retribution and labor, not rehabilitation.

Convict Labor Close to Home

The issue of convict labor is extremely present here at the University; the following letters concern John Moore, a African American man who was sentenced to labor in the construction of Clemson. This sentence came in response an alleged crime of arson, destroying the property of the Arnold family. Below are two letters concerning Moore's sentence to labor on the Clemson College property.

John Moore to Governor Tillman, 10 April 1894. Pardon Records, Governor Benjamin Ryan Tillman Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC.

The first letter is a plea from John Moore to Governor Tillman to pardon him, as the Governor had recently visited Clemson and told Moore that upon his return to Columbia, he would issue a pardon. In this letter, Moore makes his lack of autonomy extremely clear and shows a similar need to submit to the authority of the State that Reed finds so difficult to exercise.

Frank Arnold to Governor Tillman, 16 Dec. 1893. Pardon Records, Governor Benjamin Ryan Tillman Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, SC.

This excerpt of a letter shows Frank Arnold, a member of the family whose property Moore allegedly damaged, appealing to Governor Tillman to "Work [Moore] as long as [Tillman] can." Unsurprisingly, the tone of this letter is entirely different from that of the letter from Moore; here, Arnold sets himself as a powerful voter, who is simply offering benevolent advice about how Tillman ought to act in regard to this convict.


Reed's text shows the racism that pervaded the penal system even before the Civil war and the abolishment of slavery and challenges the notion that the North was immune from the prejudices that are so often associated more exclusively with the agricultural South. However, taken in conjunction with the letters concerning John Moore and the convict labor that took place in South after the abolishment of slavery, Reed's experiences show the systematic ways in which African Americans were exploited for labor outside the strict confines of slavery. Race is an unavoidable topic in discussing the text, as so much of the cruelty that Reed experienced seemed to be at least in part a product of the color of his skin, making an examination of the text quite relevant in modern discussions of the disproportionality of the representation of African Americans in the prison system. As DeLombard and Smith both make clear, an understanding of the past of the prison system of our country is extremely beneficial in examining the current issues and tensions that fill our concept of the modern penal system. From Reed's descriptions of the way that his time in prison seemed to break his spirit, to the devices used for punishment, to the constant cycle of reentry into incarceration, the text is full of concepts that would not be at all out of place in a modern news headline.

Discussion Questions

  1. Throughout the text, we see Reed constantly moving in and out of prison and heart wrenchingly relays how "those who might have done [him] a heap of good turned to be [his] destroyers" (207). What parallels can be drawn between the complete breaking of Reed's spirit by the prison system and the issues we face today with recidivism, the overwhelming relapse of released prisoners back into crime?
  2. How do Reed's experiences serve to complicate our understanding of the treatment of minorities in terms of forced, unpaid labor? Is it fair to act as though the North was entirely superior in its policies and attitudes when compared to the plantation filled South?

Works Cited

DeLombard, J. M. "Carceral Lives Matter." Reviews in American History, vol. 45 no. 1, 2017, pp. 33-39. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/rah.2017.0005

In this review of Caleb Smith’s edition of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict and Jen Manion’s Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America, DeLombard provides insight into the landscape of literature, film, and politics surrounding race and incarceration in recent years. Through this examination, DeLombard shows the growing prevalence of African American cultural criticism and how both the reviewed texts fit into the wider discussion of racism and systematic oppression. Before delving into either text extensively, the review outlines a few major moments in this cultural criticism, from the documentary Thirteen and other works condemning the shockingly high incarceration rates of African Americans, to the Black Lives Matter Movement, to the countless instances of widely reported police shootings of unarmed black men, to the intersectional #SayHerName campaign. Against this backdrop, DeLombard sets The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict as proof of the injustice towards African Americans that has been present in the American penal system since its inception. The voice of Austin Reed allows for a yet unheard insight into the experiences of a black man as he constantly moves in and out of prison.

Smith, Caleb. Introduction. The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed, edited by Caleb Smith, 2016, Penguin Random House, 2016, xv-lxii.

This introduction offered by Caleb Smith is a quite useful tool for understanding the context in which Austin Reed penned his text. Beginning by discussing the circumstances surrounding the discovery, research, editing, and publication of the manuscript, Smith then moves into a discussion of the various sections of Reed’s narrative. By separating out the different stages of Reed’s adventures, such as his apprenticeship, his time in the House of Refuge, the interlude in which he works as a servant, the time he spends in prison, and his eventual release, Smith is able to delve into the details of each stage and indicate the points where the narrative seems to stray from fact. The introduction as a whole argues for the significance of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict not just as the first prison memoir written by a black man, but also as a book that possesses the fast pace of a novel, a striking eloquence, and a compelling story that remains alarmingly relevant to this day.

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