In jotting down these recollections I have taken hold of the facts at random, without any attempt to line them up in order of time. In commencing the story my intention was to select such incidents of prison experience as would be likely to interest readers of Irish Freedom, especially those of the younger generation. Proceeding to carry out this idea was surprised to find that when dealing with some of the more vivid memories of those times there was brought back to my mind a number of minor memories that had lain sleeping for many a day – some of them, indeed, had been forgotten for years. I remark on this here as it has a bearing upon some of the incidents that will follow.
A day or two after having been sentenced the Governor, Chief Warder, and several other officers came to my cell in Milbank Prison. The Governor, as spokesman, explained the separation of convicts into two classes – one the Habitual Criminal Class, and the other composed of prisoners who had never been convicted previously.
In explaining the composition of the Habitual Criminal Class, he described them as a bad lot – bad in almost every respect – and not at all the class of individuals that I would wish to associate with for the remainder of my life. I know now his description of that class was not far out. I had previously informed him that I had never been convicted before. He referred to this, and told me it was necessary that the authorities should get a guarantee from two reputable citizens vouching for me in this respect before they could place me amongst the first offenders in the “Star Class.”
He inquired would I give him the names and addresses of two such citizens. I had no objection, and gave him the names and address of two of my friends in America. He wouldn’t take them – said it was necessary to have the names of persons resident in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Did I have any friends on this side who could answer for me? I told him I had, but would not give him any such names. “That being the case,” he said, “you will be classed as a Habitual Criminal and associate with convicts of that grade.” I told him I did not like the prospect of that, and could not see why an assurance from people of standing in America, who had known me all my life, should not satisfy all requirements necessary to prevent my being obliged to associate only with the Habitual Criminal Class, more particularly because of the reasons I had for refusing to give the names of any of my friends on this side. As a matter of fact, there was in the back of my mind a strong suspicion that the whole thing centred round the question of the authorities trying to find out what connection there might be between America and Ireland, as far as our case was concerned, with a view of locating our friends in Ireland.
It must be remembered that I was convicted under an assumed name, and up to the time of my conviction, and for long after, the authorities knew absolutely nothing about me – nothing beyond the fact that I had turned up in London and had been in Birmingham after having left a first trace in Liverpool. So I told the Governor I would give him no names on this side to assist the authorities to connect me with any person here. I would not be a party to having my friends persecuted by the attention of Scotland Yard. That, in the excited state the Government and English people were in owing to the arrest and trial of the Irish skirmishers it was absolutely certain that anyone known to be a friend of mine would be in for a disagreeable time of it because of the attention he would receive from the Government detectives. The interview ended by his giving me to understand there was nothing for it but to place me in the Habitual Criminal Class. Some time elapsed, and I found all my colleagues had been put in the First Offenders Class and were wearing the badge of that class – the Red Star – while I was isolated and wearing the ordinary convict dress. After a time, however, the Star was given to me and I was placed in the First Offenders division, and that, although no friend or acquaintance of mine had vouched for me.
Failing to get any information from me about my friends in “England, Ireland, or Scotland,” on the friendly (?) pretence of not having me sent to associate with the Habitual Criminals, another attempt was made later on to ascertain my friends. The Governor had me brought before him, and a list of things that were taken from me by the authorities after my arrest was read out to me. The Governor explained that being a convict I had no rights and could hold no property of any kind, the authorities would send this property (money, watch and chain, etc.), to any friend I wished, and he wanted to know who he was to send it to. I gave him the name and address of a friend of mine in New York – John J. Morrison, an old Dublin man, who had been an Orangeman early in life, but who on getting away to America – away from his former environment – became a splendid type of active Irish Nationalist – as reliable and sincere as one would wish to meet. He is now dead, but John Morrison’s name is still held in esteem by those of his old Nationalist colleagues who are still alive. The Governor informed me he could not send property to America, but would send it to anyone I would name in England or Ireland. I refused to give any such name and was taken back to my cell.
On another occasion later on the Governor had me before him again and asked me had I any sisters. I told him I had. He asked their names; I refused to tell him. He wished to know why I refused, and I declined to give him any reasons. “Well,” said he, “an application to visit you has been received from Maria J. Wilson, of New York, who says she is a sister.” I told him that was all right, she was a sister of mine, and I wished to see her. A few days later the Governor sent for me again to ask me would he turn over my watch and chain and other trinkets to my sister when she visited the prison. I told him by all means to do so, and also to let her have that money of mine which the authorities held. He said he couldn’t do that, as the money had been turned into the British Exchequer and was now irrecoverable. When my sister came to the prison the authorities gave her everything that had belonged to me except the money, and the matter rested at that for years when, on my release, it cropped up again, but that will be dealt with later on.
In the long interval that elapsed between badgering me to get on the track of local friends, and the time when I was released – a matter of many years – time dragged along slowly through an atmosphere clouded with misery – weeks dragged along into months, year piled on year, and meanwhile the Treason Felony Prisoners had been dying off one by one, or had been released after most of them had been driven insane. In the early years there had been over twenty of us in Chatham Prison, and I was one of the first of them convicted. In the latter days there were only two of us in Portland, Henry Burton and myself. He was ill and had been taken into the infirmary, and I was then the sole occupant of the Treason Felony section of the Penal Cells – I was then up against the dreariest spell of the entire imprisonment.
It was then “strict silence” to the very letter – all the more keenly felt because of the contrast between then and the previous years, when staunch comrades were giving aid and comfort to me. John Daly had been released months before, and James Egan had been gone for some years. But the usual routine of prison life went on in the same monotonous fashion; the warders unlocking gate and door and roaring out words of command in the usual aggressive fashion; the escort marching me off and reporting to each superior officer he passed what his “party” consisted of. “One man, sir,” until he turned me over to other warders to be searched and put to work, and after work to be searched again, after which to be turned over to other warders to be marched back to my cells for meals or for bed, and all this carried on without a detail of prison ceremonial omitted. As the time went on, month after month of it, I felt that my imprisonment was something like the sailor’s rope that had no end to it.
Of the three comrades who stood in the dock with me and received the same sentence, Dr. Gallagher and Whitehead had been released years before, hopelessly insane, while Curtin had been released long before them suffering from a ruptured vesicle of the heart. Even yet I can’t quite understand why the “reserved service” in my case. But this I do know, that no word or act of mine during that imprisonment has ever caused me any regret. I was then what I had been, and what I am still, an Irish Nationalist. I asked no favours, I got none, and I am proud of it.
During that dreary spell in the Penal Cells, when I was “bird alone” in the Treason Felony section, there was one other prisoner kept there permanently in the same building whose case caused quite a sensation when he was convicted. His name was Lee, and he was “Cleaner” in the Cells Building. Lee had been sentenced to death, but after the failure of several attempts to hang him he was reprieved and sentenced to penal servitude for life. The warders used to bring me out to clip Lee’s hair, and he had to clip mine. On one of these occasions, while the warders were engaged together doing something or other, and with their eyes off us, Lee got an opportunity to tell me the story of these several attempts to hang him. He described the escort on the morning of the execution, coming into the death cell with the chaplain, the pinioning of his arms behind his back, the arranging of the bag-like covering over his head, and the procession starting out from the cell to the scaffold, the chaplain all the while reciting aloud some prayers (the burial service, I think, he said). He graphically told of the frenzied feeling of fear that took possession of him as he got up on the platform of the scaffold and was placed standing upon the trap whilst the warders and executioner tied his legs and adjusted the rope around his neck.
From the time he got on the scaffold he appeared to be dazed, and an awful stillness seemed to surround him; the sounds around him as he stood there with his head covered seemed to be at a distance, but through it all the beating of his heart seemed to thunder in his ears. In fact, it seemed as if his heart had moved up to his ears. This was the state he was in when he heard a muffled voice in the distance say “Ready,” and almost simultaneously he heard with terrible distinctness a bolt pulled back. He became collected immediately, and expecting the trap to give way – it didn’t – after a second or two he heard someone say, “My God,” and then could hear some whispering around him. Then he heard someone near him banging at the trap as if to drive it down; some others got around the trap and tried all together to send it down by stamping on it, but all to no purpose, the trap wouldn’t move. His legs were then untied, and he was taken back to the death cell and the hood removed from his head. He sat there for some time and could hear the hammering that was going on at the scaffold as they were putting things right.
At length the escort came for him again, and off they started exactly as on the previous occasion – slow march, chaplain reciting the prayers on to the scaffold, legs tied, noose adjusted around his neck. On this occasion he seemed to take it all as a matter of course up to the point when he heard the word “Ready” given and the bolt snapped. His heart seemed to stand still, but again the trap refused to go down. He heard them dancing on it again, and they got a hammer and banged on it. No good. Off they took him again to the death cell. The chaplain intervened and begged the Governor to postpone any further attempts until the facts were communicated to the Home Secretary. The Governor consented, with the result that the Home Secretary reprieved Lee and sent him to penal servitude for life. He was released from Portland several years ago.