In the midst of a dense woods, flanked on the east by a broken chain of low-lying hills, stood a convict mining camp, operated by a millionaire senator, wined and dined as a social magnate in the capital of the nation. Here, before man came to curse it with his cruelties, Nature exulted in surroundings the most picturesque and beautiful. All day long the pure mountain stream, gushing forth from a perennial spring in the solitudes of the forest, pitched over miniature Niagaras, dodged and frisked between sharp upturned rocks, grew thoughtful and sedate, as it paused for a moment of recreation, in the deep quiet waters shadowed by overhanging oaks and elms. The morning sun as he chased the shadows of night from this sequestered bower, surprised nature in a rude undress more entrancing than any clothing the facile pen or the artist's brush can depict. Here unmolested, the partridge built her nest, the squirrel cracked nuts and saucily licked his paws, while the timid deer lapped water from the laughing brook and lead through the devious pathways of the unbroken forest her brown-eyed young. Into this natural paradise, like the serpent into Eden, came man. He broke through the forest, tunneled the mountains, bridged and vitiated the stream, killed the game and in place of the song of the bird and the murmur of the stream, brought whistle of the engine and the weird murmurs of sadness and despair. On the banks of this stream in midwinter, years before the beginning of our story, about forty wretches, handcuffed two and two, with a chain passing through links on the chain that coupled them, were driven from the railway to the spot where they were to form the nucleus of a convict's camp. The neighboring hills were seamed with a vein of excellent coal and these men were brought to open and work in the new mines. They built a "cell house" first and afterward a number of other outbuildings for the deposit of such stores as a needed about a mine.
The "cell house" was built of logs. It was a long, low structure, covered with brush, without windows and having but a single door.
In this the prisoners ate and slept. Two platforms, one above the other, gently sloping toward the centre of the building, were erected on either side. When the work of the day was over, the prisoners, men and women, were driven into the cell house; made to take the places assigned them, and after eating required to be down. Half way between the upper and lower platforms, a chain was stretched, fastening on the outside of the cell house. This chain, called the "building chain," passing through a link on the end of the "waist chain" of each of the convicts, made escape almost impossible. Suspended from wires, throughout the building, were pine knots. These, when lighted, gave to the strange scene within a grotesque appearance. The front of the cell house was not fastened up as the other sides, but between the logs were spaces, across which strips of wood were nailed perpendicularly, through which the guard that stood without, could always command an excellent view of the interior. The building was surrounded by a palisade.
The sanitary conditions of such a place necessarily beggars description. The prisoners, with scarcely clothing enough to cover their nakedness, had no change until the clothes they wore fell apart by their own weight. Working in mud and water fifteen hours a day, with scarcely food enough to keep soul and body from divorcement, sleeping in an atmosphere thick with noxious exhalations, fetid with filth and teeming with vermin, death itself was a welcome relief. Nor was there any distinction of age or sex. Women and men, boys and girls, lived in this foul prison pen utterly regardless of the laws of morality.
The guards under a condition where no one was responsible, were cruel and vindictive. No report was given nor was any required. When a new batch of prisoners were driven in they changed their citizen clothes for the convict's stripes, were numbered and immediately set to work. Each morning the convicts were awakened at four o'clock, treated to a breakfast of salt pork and corn bread hurriedly prepared, and handcuffed in pairs, a squad chain running through links in the chain that bound them together, they were driven on a trot to the mines. Arriving at the mines they were separated into groups of ten or a dozen and hurried to the rooms or entries in which they were to work. Here from five o'clock until eight they worked without respite, not even stopping to eat. The day's work being done they were chained together as before and driven back to the cell house. The guards were armed with muskets, fitted with bayonets, and it any poor wretch too weak and hungry to keep up, chanced to fall, he was prodded with the bayonet as the squad dragged him along. The mortality was fearful. Hardly a morning's sun looked upon this scene, once a delectable garden of the gods, that did not behold a squad of "trusties" carrying some fortunate victim to his last resting place. The dead were buried in long shallow trenches. It was no rare thing to see scattered about the woods a grinning skull or a bleaching shin bone disinterred by dogs or other domestic animals.
There was scarcely any hospital arrangements. In fact, the haggard, starved victims of this cruel system rarely ever had any use for a hospital. A rude shanty covered with brush and filled with damp straw and vermin was appropriated to serve in that capacity. An accident in the mines often brought this building into use, but the convicts were worked until they were so near dead that death usually relieved them in the cell-house. It was no uncommon occurrence to a man to find when roused in the morning, that he had been sleeping all night beside a corpse. The prisoners for the most part were Afro-Americans.
The question would naturally be asked if, from a pecuniary standpoint alone, it would not have been better to treat these poor convicts more humanely? The only object the lessee had was to get every hour's work out of these men possible while breath was in their bodies. The state was glad to dispose of the expense of keeping them, whatever the consequence. And it was frequently mooted among those who knew, that whenever by reason of death hands were scarce at the mines, agents trumped up petty accusations against able bodied Negroes and secured long time sentences to the shame of justice, in the convict mines. More than one man has received a ten years' sentence for stealing a chicken, and that after the most shameful prostitution of every form of law.
Dr. Lotus Stone had not arrived at the camp before he beheld a scene that made his blood run cold and served to prepare him for what he was soon to see so often as to scarcely occasion a passing notice. When the squad of which he formed a part alighted from the train, they were taken to the commissary department, clothed in stripes and numbered. On their way to the camp they came upon a man hanging by the thumbs. The poor fellow had been there some time and writhed in mortal agony. It is customary when administering this punishment, after a short time, to lower the culprit. In this case the guard, wishing to make an example of a troublesome disobedient convict, left him hanging an hour or two beyond the usual time. He ceased to move as the squad with which Lotus came passed. They cut him down soon after—he had received his last punishment. His face seamed, his muscles knotted with excruciating pain, the haggard, half-starved wretch had passed through to that bourn from which no traveler ever returns.
"99," as Dr. Stone was numbered on the prison roll, entered the cell house that day as a man condemned to die enters murderers' row to await the day of execution. He knew after glancing around the room that unless kind heaven or the crack of doom interposed, he would never leave that place alive. The attendants about the prison regarded every new man with suspicion. He must be "broken in," as they express it.
"99" was therefore put in the first couple the morning after arriving, and when the gate of the palisade flew open, led the squad on a run for the mines. Lotus Stone had never before entered a coal mine. He had no more notion of the work he was expected to do than a man reared in a balloon. As he hurried down the incline that morning he resolved to do the best he could. He would not give up to die was long as there was an ounce of active muscle unused in his body. When the worst comes, as it surely will, "I will sink out of sight without a complaint," he said to himself.
He had hardly worked all that long day in the mud, under the constant drip from the black roof above him, before, hungry and tired, he wished for death. His room-mate, a tall raw-boned man, showed him every kindness. Taught him the art of "bearing in" and using the drill, in a way not so expensive to nerve and sinew. At the close of the first day, stiff, hungry and uncomfortable, Lotus dragged himself to the main entry and in the lead, as before, started on a trot for the camp. He kept this up the first two or three hundred yards and then endurance could bear it no longer. His head swam, his muscles relaxed and he fell prostrate. The men behind him stumbled over his prostrate form and the squad, rolling over each other, amid prods from the guard's bayonet and the terrible execrations on the head of the man who caused the accident, the prisoners scrambled to their feet. Poor Lotus tried in vain to rise, but so weak was he from hunger and overwork that try as he might he could not get up. The guard, after kicking him and sticking his bayonet the poor tired shoulders, unfastened the squad chain and placing the first couple in the rear, ordered the men forward. In this manner, poor Lotus, more dead than alive, was dragged into camp. Shivering in every limb, he stretched himself upon his hard bed, too miserable and exhausted to attempt to eat.
The next morning when ordered out he could not rise. He attempted it but fell back in his place. "I know what you need," said the guard, "You are one them high-toned city niggers, but I'll take the shine out of you." So saying he dragged Lotus from the platform and taking him into the yard made him get down on his hands and knees. Stripping his shirt down, he applied the rawhide to his back until the blood oozed out and ran to the ground in streams. Then washing the gaping wounds with salt and water, he ordered him to rise and start on a trot for the mines.
If Lotus was too ill to go when first ordered to do so, it would seem that after this he would have been utterly incapacitated. But not so; the human will, when wrought upon by fear of death, exercises a tremendous influence over the body. After two or three desperate efforts, Lotus rose, and although verily believing every step would be his last, at the prod of the bayonet and the storm of abuse that followed him, he staggered off to the mines. He worked that day and for weeks afterward, believing each night as he lay down on his hard bed, that before the morrow death would come to his relief. Days rolled into months and still Lotus bore up under the severe trials through which he was passing. His only solace was his working mate. Often he would have given up, or brooding over this injustice of his lot would have taken his own life, but for the hope his partner, No. "47," breathed into his ear.
At last one morning after No. "99" had been in the camp about five months, when ordered out he was unable to rise. Aching all over he tried in vain to sit up and go through the farce of dressing. When breakfast had been served and the guard was going through a process called "chain search," No. "99" was not in rank.
With a muttered oath, the guard went into the "cell-house," and catching "99" by the collar, snatched him down into the middle of the room. "You lazy devil," he cried, in towering rage, "get out there in your place or I'll brain you."
Poor Lotus tried to rise. He pulled himself up by the assistance of the platform, but when he attempted to walk, staggered and fell into the guard's arms. Kicking him off with an oath, "Don't try your fits and starts on me, you miserable nigger. I'll beat your face into a jelly!" So saying, he struck Lotus in the face, felling him to the earth.
"Can't you see that man is sick?" said Lotus' partner.
He had hardly got the question out of his mouth before the guard struck him down with a pine knot that lay on the floor. "Get up, you rascal—now open your mouth again and I'll send you to hell."
The man staggered to his feet the blood streaming from the would the jagged pine knot had left.
"Are you going?" he said, turning to Lotus, "or will I have to kill you to conquer your obstinacy?"
"I would go if I could, indeed I would. I can't stand up. Can't you see I am sick? Have you no heart, no pity?"
"Shut up your whining or you'll be sicker than you are now before I get done with you."
He called another guard to take the men to the mines; then turning on Lotus, who still lay on the floor, having tried time and again to sit up, but try as he might, each time Mother Earth would snatch him to her cold bosom, said: "I'll see if water won't help you. If you are sick, a little washing out will do you good."
Lotus by this time was too sick to know or care what became of him. The man soon returned with a wooden pail filled with water. He lifted Lotus up and sat him against the platform. "Open your mouth," he said.
Lotus mechanically obeyed. He then began that most cruel of all the punishments practiced by the Spanish Inquisition, pouring water down a victim's throat through a funnel until the stomach distends, and pushing up against the heart and other vital organs, produces a pain not less severe than death itself. This the villainous guard continued until the head of the tortured man fell over, his arms relaxed, then became rigid, and the pallor on Lotus' face made him remove the funnel and drop the cup with fright. Rolling the poor fellow over on his face, the guard, in his excitement, did unwitting the only thing that could have saved his victim. The water spurted out of his mouth in a stream, and after some time Lotus opened his eyes.
"Where am I?" he said. "Oh, Clement, my boy, I knew you would some to see me."
The guard lifted the slender body back on the platform and with the wild talk of Lotus ringing in his ears, left him to his fate. By night Lotus was raging with an attack of fever. The guard, conscious that his last punishment had hastened the attack, begged the captain to have the man placed in the hospital. The request was granted. Here Lotus was carried and all night and for many nights afterward, his life hung on the turning of a hair. To the guard who in his ignorance and meanness had treated Lotus so illy is due the fact that he finally recovered. His chain partner was allowed to sleep at the hospital and administer what comfort his presence would afford. Hospital men were usually allowed more privileges than those in the "cell house." The habitues of the hospital were, as I have said before, men who had been severely injured in the mines and would hot as a general thing have escaped if opportunity offered.
When Lotus had been in the hospital about three weeks and was beginning to sit up a little every day, his partner was brought in one night, when the squad returned, dangerously injured.
Chapter 25 -- Chapter 27