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Scenes from a Silent World. Skene, Felicia, 1821–1899.
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Do the darkness and the terror plot against you? We also plan. Those who love you are more than those who hate you— Trust God, O man.

—From the Koran.





MDCCCLXXXIXAll Rights reserved


THESE Papers originally appeared in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine,’ and are now reprinted with an Introduction, large additions, and a new chapter upon Capital Punishment.


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THIS work is the result of a real experience within the unseen prison world. It contains no element of fiction from beginning to end: it tells, as clearly and accurately as may be, the true histories of some who have lived and suffered and died in that hidden region of remorse and pain. Where the actual words they have used have not been quite distinctly remembered, the substance of their meaning has been given as plainly as possible. Whether the deductions we have drawn from these cases are correct or not, the facts themselves speak with the voice of truth; and we claim for that voice that it has a right to be heard by all who desire to help and benefit their fellow‐creatures. There are many such, happily, in these page: x days; but it may be said that among the seething masses of the poor within our crowded cities, in the workhouses, and hospitals, there is misery and anguish enough to exhaust all philanthropic energies, without seeking an aliment for them in the storehouses of criminals.

It is in the hope that we may be able to create a different impression by our Scenes from the Silent World, that we have brought them forth from their well‐regulated obscurity.

If in all the distress and grief we see around us, that which is the most exceptionally bitter and hopeless has the greatest right to our sympathy and assistance, we may well claim it for the mournful wreckage of human life which is cast up on the gloomy prison strand from the ocean of this world’s boundless suffering. There are elements in the agony of life as it is meted out to the inmates of a prison which have no place in the sorrows, cruel as they often are, of the poor and helpless without its walls. First and direst of the evils that weigh like a curse on the prisoner’s existence, is the brand of crime, page: xi stamped on his inmost soul, no less than on his outer life, and all the more torturing that it is self‐created. Is there any misfortune or trial, however heavy, which a man may not bear with serene courage, when he can hold his head erect in self‐respect before his fellow‐men, and with clear conscience look up to the free heavens and trust that they may yet smile on him with the sunshine of the love of God? But the blackness of the shadow which hangs for ever over the convicted criminal is that of a despair which seems to him irremediable both here and hereafter. Never while his mortal life lasts can the dark stain of his iniquity be hidden any more from the open gaze of his fellow‐creatures; and he dares not hope that it can ever be effaced before the eyes of the Eternal Justice, if his mind be capable of imaging a life beyond the grave. Shame and disgrace will follow him when he passes through the prison gates. “Jail‐bird,” “felon,” “convict,”—these are the epithets he will read in every look that meets him, if even he does not hear them loudly hurled at him. No man page: xii will trust him; none will have any dealings with him; he will be shunned by all: no honest employment will come within his reach; he must starve, or sin again to win a morsel of bread. Would that any words of ours could adequately reveal the depth and extent of a prisoner’s utter hopelessness! Despairing of life, despairing of death, which he believes can lead to no heaven of hope for him,—does the world contain a more helplessly forlorn and desolate being than the guilt‐convicted criminal? Does his anguish lack yet one sting?—it is in the thought that his wretchedness is all self‐caused. Once he too was innocent, and could look up with fearless eyes to the wide pure skies: his own hand has dealt the death‐blow to his honour and peace and freedom, and severed with keen relentless stroke the ties that bound him to his fellow‐creatures. He is friendless for evermore; he has killed also the love and respect of those most dear to him; he is no longer the object of their affection; he is their disgrace;—for their own sakes he must strive that they shall never look upon his face again. Is this man page: xiii deserving of no pity, no help, no effort to lift him out of the black gulf of his despair and set him upon the delectable hills, from whence he may yet catch a glimpse of the mercy of God and the sympathy of man? Surely of all who writhe in pain upon this lower earth, he most sorely needs the touch of human beneficence! But does he obtain it? Does not the world in general go on its way amid fair sights and engrossing interests, without one thought of those who are lying pent up in the perpetual gloom and silence of the prison walls? Unless some startling crime or exciting trial calls public attention to the Silent World, its denizens are left to pine out their dreary lives unheeded and unaided. We do not for a moment wish to ignore or undervalue such agencies as do exist in the present day for the relief and benefit of convicts,—prisoners’ aid societies, police court missions, and other institutions, admirable so far as they go,—but these all deal with the criminal only after he is discharged from durance, when many opposing influences stand in the way to mar their efficacy. They cannot touch the man page: xiv condemned to death, or to the harder fate of penal servitude for life, or even to a lengthened sentence. We know of no attempt among these agencies to reach prisoners during their period of incarceration, excepting one solitary effort in the shape of pious letters which are sent to prisoners at Christmas‐tide, in order that they may have some little share in the goodwill and brotherly love called forth by that season. It is a kindly plan; but the writers of these well‐meant epistles are, to the convicts, but nameless strangers,—they have never known them, and never will. The letters can only appear to them in the same light as a printed tract, and serve mainly to while away a few hours of the great annual festival which the prisoners spend exactly like a Sunday, no alteration even in their ordinary uninviting food being allowed to them.

Further, these efforts, such as they are, emanate from what may be called a handful of people, in comparison with the large majority we earnestly desire to interest in the Silent World and its inhabitants. It may be asked, through what means page: xv could any active interest be shown to them by the general public, when they are hidden away from their very knowledge behind immovable bolts and bars? This is undoubtedly true at present, but it is for that very reason that we have been anxious to make known the histories contained in this volume; for we cannot doubt that if public opinion were once aroused to the claims of these criminals on the charity and help of their fellow‐mortals, the subject would be brought, perforce, under the consideration of those in authority; and we might then reasonably hope that it would have the desired effect of making the prisons in our land, homes of reformation and improvement, no less than of punishment. There are many different ways by which we believe this end might be attained, but the most efficacious would be the appointment of a properly constituted band of visitors, who would make personal acquaintance with every individual prisoner, and study his case in all its bearings, past and future, with a view to his amelioration.

Such a suggestion will be met by the conviction on the part of most persons who have thought on page: xvi the subject, that it would only tend to create hypocrites and impostors among those of our “jail‐birds,” who are so hopelessly vicious and degraded that they are completely impervious to all good influences. We do not deny that such exist in the shape of professional thieves and villains, whose chief pleasure when at liberty is in cruelty and ruffianism of all kinds; but if only a small percentage of the prisoners were radically or permanently benefited, would not such a result be well worth all the efforts that could be made? And even in the case of those apparently utterly hopeless—who can say whether, at some stage of their after career, the memory of wise and true words spoken to them within the prison cells might not come back on them, to bear fruit in a tardy repentance?

There are, of course, many weighty considerations as to the treatment of criminals and the management of our penal establishments on which it would be manifest presumption in us to offer an opinion; but we do desire most earnestly to combat the theory put forward by some writers, that the subject is one which ought to be tabooed page: xvii in polite society—that no good can possibly be done by prison revelations—that details from the lives of convicts are “nauseous” and “gruesome” (we quote expressions we have seen used), and that the most hopeless and wretched of all God’s creatures ought to be left in well‐merited oblivion by their happier brethren of the human race.

We cannot believe that such narrow and selfish views will long hold a place in this generation, when the best and noblest of its children are fired with the enthusiasm of humanity; and we venture to hope that the days are not far distant, when practical sympathy and earnest effort will follow the words which echo week by week from so many churches in our land—“That it may please Thee to show Thy pity upon all prisoners and captives.

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