Monday, February 27, 2012

Dancin' To The Jailhouse Rock!

Last night I was watching The Old Curiosity Shop (Charles Dickens) on PBS Masterpiece Classics. There was a scene that took place in the Debtor's Prison, that prompted me to look into that horrible institution during the 18th Century. Of course, the concept goes much further back in history, but reached its pinnacle later on. (Above: Hogarth's famous painting, The Rake's Progress)
The sad fact was that once the debtor was behind bars, he had little chance of raising the capital to be released. Ususally, he was at the mercy of another family member or patron, who could help set him free, once the monies were paid. Only then he could be released. Sometimes, whole families were situated within the walls of the prison, and if no one came to their rescue, there they remained, to live out their days.
In England, however, these prisons varied in the amount of freedom that the prisoner was allowed. With a little money distributed to the proper person, one could buy some latitude, even so far as conducting a bit of business. If a family member was not the cause of the debt, but living within the walls, then that individual could leave the gates by day, earn their living, and come back before the doors were once again closed for the night. As a matter of fact, someone visiting a prisoner had to take great care to leave before nightfall, otherwise they, too, were locked in overnight. They then had to pay for a bed until morning. Ahhh! Another, subtle source of income for the jail!

Life within the prison was not pleasant, and beside the debt owed in the outside world, the prisoners had to pay for their keep within! See below, an interesting account:

Samuel Byrom, son of the writer and poet John Byrom, was imprisoned for debt in the Fleet in 1725, and in 1729 he sent a petition to his old school friend, the Duke of Dorset, in which he raged against the injustices of the system:
What barbarity can be greater than for gaolers (without provocation) to load prisoners with irons, and thrust them into dungeons, and manacle them, and deny their friends to visit them, and force them to pay excessive fines for their chamber rent, their victuals and drinks; to open their letters and seize the charity that is sent to them! And when debtors have succeeded in arranging with their creditors, hundreds are detained in prison for chamber-rent and other unjust demands put forward by their gaolers, so that at last, in their despair, many are driven to commit suicide... gaolers should be paid a fixed salary and forbidden, under pain of instant dismissal, to accept bribe, fee or reward of any kind... law of imprisonment for debts inflicts a greater loss on the country, in the way of wasted power and energies, than do monasteries and nunneries in foreign lands, and among Roman-Catholic peoples... Holland, the most unpolite country in the world, uses debtors with mildness and malefactors with rigour; England, on the other hand, shows mercy to murderers and robbers, but of poor debtors impossibilities are demanded.

One of the most famous of these debtor's prisons was the Marshalsea, the one written of in Charles Dickens' novels, especially in Little Dorrit. In the story, Little Dorrit's father establishes himself in a hierarchy of sorts within the prison, enjoying his reputation as the "Father of the Marshalsea". When he is released by the goodness of an anonymous friend, he is quick to want to put the whole affair behind him to such a degree that one is prompted to say that Mr. Dorrit learned absolutely nothing during his imprisonment.

Eventually, these prison's went away. Today, of course, there are other ways of relieving debt, including the once-humiliating declaration of bankruptcy. Now, every other person who lives well beyond their means, just declares, and goes about the same pattern once they can get ahold of some new "plastic". I'm being facetious, but many folks never learn the responsibility of money management, and credit cards, even at high interest rates, seem to be a great way to buy what you want and think about paying some time in the future.

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