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Prisoners for debt.

The suffering of prisoners for debt, which impelled General Oglethorpe to propose colonizing a region in America with them, was terrible in the extreme. The writings of Howard and the pencil of Hogarth have vividly depicted them; yet these do not convey an adequate idea of the old debtors' prisons of England. The merchant, unfortunate in his business, was often plunged from affluence and social honor and usefulness to the dreadful dens of filth and misery called prisons. Oglethorpe had stood before one of the victims of the cruel law. He had been a distinguished London alderman, a thrifty merchant, and highly esteemed for his integrity and benevolence. As a “merchant prince,” he had been a commercial leader. Great losses made him a bankrupt. His creditors sent him to prison. In a moment he was compelled to leave a [302] happy home, delightful society, and luxurious ease for a loathsome prison-cell, there to herd with debased and criminal society. One by one his friends who could aid him in keeping famine from his wretched abode disappeared, and he was forgotten by the outside world. He had been twenty-three years in jail when Oglethorpe saw him. Gray-haired, ragged, laggard, and perishing with hunger, he lay upon a heap of filthy straw in a dark, damp, unventilated room. His devoted wife, who had shared his misery for eighteen years, had just starved to death, and her body lay in rags by his side, silent and cold. An hour before he had begged his jailer to remove her body to the prison burying-ground. The inhuman wretch, who was acquainted with the prisoner's history, had refused with an oath, and said, with cruel irony, “Send for your alderman's coach to take her to Westminster Abbey!”

The scene led to the foundation of the colony of Georgia (q. v.). The fate of this London alderman was worse than that of the debtors of Greece and Rome, who were sold into slavery by their creditors. Laws for the imprisonment of debtors disgraced the statute-books of our States until within a comparatively few years. When Lafayette visited the United States in 1824-25 he found Colonel Barton, the captor of General Prescott in Rhode Island, in a prison for debt, and released him by the payment of the creditor's demand. Robert Morris, whose financial ability was the main dependence of the colonies in carrying on the war for independence, was a prisoner for debt in his old age. Red Jacket, the Seneca chief, once saw a man put in jail in Batavia, N. Y., for debt. His remark— “He no catch beaver there!” —fully illustrated the unwisdom of such laws; for surely a man in prison cannot earn money to pay a debt. Public attention was thoroughly aroused to the cruelties of the law when John G. Whittier wrote his stirring poem, The prisoner for debt, in which he thus alluded to Colonel Barton:

What hath the gray-haired prisoner done?
Hath murder stained his hands with gore?
Ah, no! his crime's a fouler one—
God made the old man poor.

For this he shares a felon's cell,
The fittest earthly type of hell!
For this, the boon for which he poured
His young blood on the invader's sword,
And counted light the fearful cost—
His blood-gained liberty is lost!

Down with the law that binds him thus!
Unworthy freemen, let it find
No refuge from the withering curse
Of God and human kind!
Open the prisoner's living tomb,
And usher from its brooding gloom
The victims of your savage code
To the free sun and air of God!
No longer dare as crime to brand
The chastening of the Almighty's hand!

—See debtors.

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