Yale Scholar Edits the Earliest-Known Manuscript of an African American Prison Inmate

ReedBookA manuscript that is the earliest-known memoir of an African American prison inmate was acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in 2009. The manuscript, written by Austin Reed more than 150 years ago, has been edited by Caleb Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Yale, and has been published as The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict (Random House, 2016).

In the memoir, Austin Reed, an indentured servant who was born free in Rochester, New York, describes his experiences in the 1830s through 1858 in New York’s House of Refuge, a juvenile reformatory. He was originally convicted of arson and was sentenced to the reformatory and then released on several occasions.

Professor Smith stated that “I think Reed’s book is the most fascinating piece of prison literature, both for its historical interest and its literary power. He sees the aspects of the industrial prison in 1858 that it will allow it to become a weapon of racial domination after the Civil War. And he also understands, intimately, the promises and limits of rehabilitation.”

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