The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict
“That this is the earliest known prison memoir written by an African American, just one year after the Dred Scott decision and on the eve of the Civil War, alone signifies its singular historical importance. But Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict does far more than challenge the timeline of the black literary tradition. Its stories, as engrossing as they are horrific, invite us to peer behind the bars of a prison system at its developmental stage, when the lines between liberty and slavery, punishment and servitude, were as bent as the justice meted out by its practitioners. This extraordinary first-person account, from New York’s House of Refuge to the Auburn State Prison, exposes the roots of a prison culture that continues to haunt far too many black families today. We owe a great debt to Reed for writing it and to Caleb Smith for unraveling the mysteries of identity and authentication after its discovery a century-and-a-half later.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
“The discovery story behind this memoir by a black prisoner—written 150 years ago and hidden for generations—is a modern gumshoe plot, and the tale it tells of perennial jail for the crime of blackness reads like a case study from today’s age of mass incarceration.”—Edward Ball, author of the National Book Award winner Slaves in the Family
“The voice of Austin Reed, a black man in early nineteenth-century America who was incarcerated at the tender age of ten, rises up and speaks to us now, in artful, picaresque tones, to tell of his own unbelievable suffering. He’s a riveting figure. Reed’s testimony, plucked from the void, found by chance at an estate sale, reminds us, forcefully, that people are not functions of historical narrative—the prisoner in prison, the slave in slavery—but singularities.”—Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers
“[A] candid and stirring autobiography . . . Reed’s unique story is highly recommended to anyone interested in African American history or the history of crime and punishment in the United States.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A moving, significant narrative that affords both an elegantly produced glimpse of nineteenth-century prison life and a new chapter in African-American history through a convict’s eyes.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Reed’s account of his troubled youth, written in the nineteenth century but never before published, provides a fascinating look into the prison system of antebellum America. . . . A remarkable accomplishment [and] a remarkable discovery.”—Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Austin Reed was born in Rochester, New York, in 1823. He wrote this memoir around 1858–59, during his incarceration in Auburn State Prison. The date of his death is unknown.
Caleb Smith is a professor of English at Yale University and the author of The Prison and the American Imagination and The Oracle and the Curse.
David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author of Race and Reunion, A Slave No More, and the forthcoming Frederick Douglass: A Life.
Robert B. Stepto is a professor of African American studies, American studies, and English at Yale University. His publications include From Behind the Veil, Blue as the Lake, and A Home Elsewhere.