the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



'NOW,' said Brum, as the freight train steamed into the town and came to a standstill, 'we must see the marshal.' With this end in view we walked towards the passenger depot, which, Brum informed us, was visited by the marshal several times a day, so that he might the better accost such tramps as were going through that town. We arrived at that place and stamped up and down the platform, to circulate our blood, for it was now snowing heavily, and the wind blowing in small gusts that discovered us shelter wherever we would.

How the snow falls in the north! Flake on flake falling incessantly, until the small dingles are almost on a level with the uplands. It throws itself on the leaves of Autumn, and holds them down in security from the strongest winds. It piles great banks against people's doors, and mothers and daughters are made prisoners to their own hearths, until fathers and sons set to and cut a path to the open thoroughfare. Special snow trains are at work clearing the track to make the way easier for passenger trains and freight trains that run on passenger lines, being loaded with cattle or other perishable goods; whilst other freight is often delayed for days, and sometimes weeks.

We had been here some fifteen minutes, when we saw the marshal coming down the road leading to the station, the bright star of his authority being seen distinctly on his breast. 'Now,' said Brum, 'let me be the spokesman, and I will arrange for a month's comfort.' By this time the marshal stood before us. 'Boys,' he began, 'cold weather for travelling, eh?' 'We don't feel the cold,' was Brum's reply. 'You will though,' said the marshal, 'this is but the beginning, and there is a long and severe winter before you, without a break. You would certainly be better off in jail. Sixty days in our jail, which is considered one of the best, if not the best, in Michigan, would do you no harm, I assure you.' 'As for that,' said Brum, 'we might take thirty days each, providing of course, that you made it worth while. What about tobacco and a drink or two of whiskey?' 'That'll be al right,' said the marshal, 'here's half a dollar for a drink, and the sheriff will supply your tobacco.' 'No, no,' objected Brum, 'give us a dollar and three cakes of tobacco, and we will take thirty days, and remember, not a day over.'. The marshal produced the three cakes of tobacco, seeming to be well prepared for these demands, and giving us a paper dollar, requested us to go to Donovan's saloon, which we would find in the main street, where he would see us later in the day; 'when of course,' he added, winking, 'you will be supposed to be just a bit merry'.

'What is the meaning of all this?' I asked Brum, as we went our way to Mr. Donovan's saloon. 'It simply means this,' he said, 'that the marshal gets a dollar each for every arrest he makes-in our case three dollars; the judge receives three or four dollars for every conviction, and the sheriff of the jail is paid a dollar a day for boarding each prisoner under his charge; we benefit by a good rest, warmth, good food and plenty of sleep, and the innocent citizens have to pay for it all'.

We had not much difficulty in finding Donovan's saloon, which we entered, and called for whiskey. It so happened that two strangers were there, who had made a considerable stake in the backwoods, and had come to this town to squander their earnings. We therefore came into many a free drink, through the liberality of these men. About an hour and a half had elapsed when we discovered ourselves to be alone in the bar, and without means of procuring more liquor. 'We had better be going,' said Brum, and we passed into the street. Brum saw the marshal coming up the road and began singing in a lusty voice, to the astonishment of some of the storekeepers. Australian Red, being the worse for drink, and forgetting that we had only to feign this part, began to roar like a bull, merry in earnest. On this the marshal quickly crossed the street and in the hearing of several citizens, shouted in an authoritative voice-'I arrest you for being drunk and disorderly,' and we followed him like lambs. We were then led to the sheriff's house, adjoining the jail. That gentle-man, being in, received us with open arms saying-'Welcome, boy; you want thirty days, and thirty you shall have, no more or less; and YOU will be none the worse for it, I promise you, at the end of the month.' He then made a few casual items in a large book roughly descriptive of our weight, height, and personal appearance and then led the way through two or three corridors, we were confronted by a large iron door. This he opened with an iron key, and we were ushered into a large room, where were assembled between thirty or forty prisoners. Some were reading, some were pacing to and fro, and several batches of there were playing cards. What a reception we had, bringing in a supply of information from the outside. 'Have you seen Detroit Fatty?' asked one. 'Or the Saginaw Kid?' asked another. Or Chicago Slim?' asked another. Brum, who seemed to know these wonderful persons, answered according to his knowledge.

In this large room, for the common use of the prisoners, were twenty or more cells, to which they retired for sleep, but were never locked in-except maybe, an occasional prisoner, who might be waiting trial under a charge of grand larceny, manslaughter, or murder. Supper was soon brought in, and it was a good substantial meal. Its quantity seemed to be more than idle men needed, if they had three such meals every day, and its quality would satisfy me in any position in life. What a pleasure it was that night to be in warmth, and with our minds eased of a month's anxiety. 'What time are you going to do?' asked one. Thirty days,' answered Brum. 'Plenty,' said the other. 'There is more jails than this, and not much difference in them, and to go out in the cold for a day or two makes us better appreciate the warmth and comfort within.'

Next morning we were taken by the sheriff to the courthouse, where a number of town people were assembled, owing to the more interesting trial of a local man. I have often thought with amusement of this scene. Despite the judge's severe expression, and his solemn deliberate utterance, we knew what to expect thirty days, no more or less. The sheriff whispered to the judge, and the judge nodded sagely, at the same time casting his eyes in our direction. We were charged with being drunk and disorderly, and with disturbing the public peace. 'He did not see,' he said, 'why peaceable citizens should be disturbed in this way by drunken strangers, and would fine us seven dollars and costs, in default of which we would be lodged in the county jail for thirty days.' We were then led back by the sheriff, and when we were again among the prisoners, they seemed to express very little curiosity as to our sentences, knowing it was our wish that we should receive thirty days, and that the judge was at our pleasure-we being in fact our own judges.

Every morning the sheriff required half a dozen prisoners to sweep and clean the court-house, which was situated about half a mile from the jail. Australian Red and myself went with him several mornings, for a little fresh air, but prisoners could please themselves, and Brum, I know, never left the jail during the whole thirty days. It was an understood thing that any prisoner could discharge himself on these occasions, if inclined, without any fear of capture. The marshal and the judge had had their dollars for arrest and conviction, and I suppose, the sheriff charged for board and lodgings, without mention of a prisoner's escape. Perhaps they were afraid of bringing back an escaped prisoner, for fear he might make some awkward disclosures. At any rate, liberty could be had by a very deliberate walk and there was certainly no need to make a desperate dash for it. Of course, there was no reason why any prisoner should seek to escape these conditions, which were of his own seeking, and which, during this unpleasant time of the year, could not in any way be bettered by homeless men.

After serving our sentence, and the sheriff exacting a promise from us to return again that winter, if not the following, we sought another jail some twenty miles from the last, which prisoners had spoken highly of. We were told that there was no necessity at this place of going through the form of an arrest, but that we could go straight in out of the cold. The sheriff would at once receive us at his house, learn our wants, while the judge would attend to us on the following morning.

We arrived at this place, and everything turned out as described. This jail was no different from the other. We were catered for as customers that would, if treated with courtesy and good living, return winter after winter, and patronise this place in preference to visiting the more congenial climate of the south. At this place we sentenced ourselves to another thirty days. Our room, like the other, was a large iron cage, in which were twenty-four cells in a double row, main floor and gallery, like little cages within it. As we entered this large cage, the sheriff opening the iron door, a number of jail-birds were singing merrily, not for liberty, but enjoying such captivity. There was only one real prisoner here, who was waiting trial under a charge of manslaughter, and he was the one prisoner to be locked in his cell at night; and, in that cell, had waited trial a most cold blooded murderer. Here we had the usual amusements of card playing, singing and relating experiences.

The real prisoner-for none of the others had been guilty of any once, having entered of their own free will-was very unfortunate in having a pair of wags quartered in the cell above him, These two practical jokers made a figure of their bed clothes, and letting it down, dangled it in front of this prisoner's cell. The poor wretch, happening to be awake, and thinking this was Bill Henderson, murderer and late occupant of the cell, come to haunt him, leaped from his bed, crying with a horror-stricken voice-'Bill Henderson, by God!' Before he could recover from his fear and make a more calm investigation, the figure was withdrawn. All this happened as expected, and the prisoners were delighted, for they had been hinting all day about Bill Henderson's ghost, so that it might take hold of this poor wretch's nerves. Once only during the night was this accomplished, so that their victim might have no suspicion as to it's being a genuine ghost. Every time the sheriff appeared the prisoner complained to him of this ghost murderer, pleading for a removal, or an early trial. That gentleman invariably listened with a sarcastic smile, seeming to have some notion of the truth, by glancing at the faces of the other prisoners. How these sheriff~, marshals and constables despise cowardice, and how they respect the intrepidity of dangerous men. Many a sheriff, I believe, has surrendered his prison keys to the lynchers and the lawless mobs, forgetting his duty in disgust at the exhibition of fear in one for whom he is responsible. And many a sheriff would lay down his life to protect a criminal who with cool nerve faces his cell, callous and indifferent.

We visited, and were entertained, in several jails during this winter, and emerged from the last in the middle of April.

I have heard since that this system of boodle, as it was called, was in the following winter entirely squashed. A sheriff, it seemed, being of an avaricious disposition, had interfered with the quality and quantity of the prisoners' rations. Therefore, when respectable citizens visited the jail to speak a few sympathetic words to the prisoners, which they usually did on Sunday, those discontented jail-birds complained of insufficient picking; and informed the citizens that they had been guilty of no offence; that they had entered the jail through being promised enjoyment, and that those expectations had not been realised. On hearing this, the citizens formed a committee, and soon discovered the whole system to be rotten. Seeing how they had been robbed, they deposed several officers and the upshot of it was that travellers never again visited that part of America in quest of comfortable jails.

For a day or two the least exertion tired us, owing to our winter's inactivity, but take it all in all, we were certainly in good bodily condition. It was now that Australian Red made his first proposal. He knew a fruit farm, where he had been previously employed: 'in this very State,' said he, 'on the shores of Lake Michigan.' 'How long does the work last?' I asked him. 'All the summer,' he answered, 'and good pay for an active man.' 'All right,' I said, 'If I can make a pretty fair stake, I shall then return to England and home.' Brum agreeing to this, we lit a fire that evening near a water tank, intending to take the first freight train that came our way. When the train arrived, we still dallied at the fire, which was a considerable distance from the track. it whistled before we expected and began its journey. 'Break away,' cried Australian Red, making a rush for the departing train. The speed of the train was increasing and when I reached its side I was almost afraid to attempt to board it. Australian Red succeeded, but when we reached the next stopping place, we were greatly disappointed to find that Brum had been left behind. We got off and waited the arrival of other trains, thinking that he would soon follow us, but as Brum did not appear on any of them, we continued our journey, thinking to see him later. I never saw him again. He had complained of the year not being sufficiently aired for freedom, and had proposed another short term in jail. No doubt, after losing us he had done this.