Charles T. Woodman, A Prison Experience

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

Autobiographical stories by reformed drunkards were a common form of temperance advocacy. Charles T. Woodman’s story is a characteristic one. Born in 1802, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, he led a wandering—and drinking—life for many years. He was finally led to total abstinence, and by the early 1840s was an active advocate for the temperance cause. He used his own life as an example of what his audience and readers should not do. In this section of his life story, he describes his experiences in the Boston House of Correction after being arrested for public drunkenness.

Transcription of Primary Source

I shall not go into a detail of all the doings, right or wrong, which came under my observation while I was a prisoner, but I will mention some of the modes of punishment, and particularly one which is a disgrace even to barbarians, much more in the enlightened city of Boston…

This mode of punishment, which is not only destitute of any good effects, but injurious to soul and body, and instead of producing subordination to rule, has to my knowledge, had a contrary effect, I feel compelled, (and call on God to witness the purity of my intentions in disclosing the fact), to show the public, and if it is still used, to beg that it may be discontinued. The mode is showering with cold water. But, says the reader, this is not only healthy, but rather a luxury. Well, reader, if you think so, go to South Boston, and put yourself under the charge of the master of the House of Correction—then neglect to perform some duty that will get you a showering, and if you ever after pass by a sign painted bathing, and not feel as if a mad dog was in pursuit of you, than I am mistaken.

I will give a description of the luxury of bathing in the House of Correction. Imagine, reader, a tall box some twenty feet high; on the top of the box is a large strainer with holes big enough for bullets to pass through; then a barrel by its side, hung on a swivel, so that you can haul a string below, and turn the barrel, filled with water, on the strainer below; then a hole dug under this box under ground, some three or four feet, in order, when the individual to be bathed steps into the box, his or her head will be about two feet above ground; then the head is put in a frame which is made of wood, and holes bored in it to let the water through. Imagine, reader, (to give you a clear conception), a round hole bored through a table cover, and a man getting underneath and putting his head through like one in the pillory. There are iron gags, something like a horse’s bit, with an iron clapper to hold the tongue down; then their hands tied behind them, the men in a perfect state of nudity. Imagine them on a cold winter’s day thus standing to receive a hogshead of ice−cold water upon them without the privilege of holding their hand to their eyes, or in any way warding the descending torrent, and you have a correct picture of the showering punishment as inflicted on male and female in the House of Correction at the time I left the institution. The women were dressed in a gown made for the purpose, and I have seen their garments stiffen by the cold before they got to the house, after a showering

I will here notice the different feeling manifested toward the prisoner by the visitors of the institution. Some would express great indignation at the narrow, confined cells, and speak and look kindly toward the prisoners; but one thing I learnt: it was always the rich man’s wife, dressed in silks and satins, that was the sham lady. I recollect a very rich man’s wife came to visit the House of Correction with some of the nobility of the city of Boston; and when viewing the bread in the bakehouse, this lady looked with a turned up lip toward me, and then to her companions, exclaiming, as she took a view of the bread, “this is as good as the virtuous poor have at the House of Industry!” casting, at the same time a disdainful look toward me. This was more than I could stand. I broke over the rules, and looking direct in her face, exclaimed, “whom do you call the virtuous poor, madam? Be it known to you, those virtuous poor at the House of Industry, called so by you, have been, a greater part of them, inmates of this same House of Correction or the State Prison, through the influence, directly or indirectly, of alcohol; and after the enemy had crippled their limbs so that they were no longer able to labor, the magistrate handed them over to the overseers of the poor, or as a dernier* resort, they obtained a permit, and voluntarily sought that place as an asylum for the alleviation of their poverty and wo; and thus much for your judgment, Madam.” She looked, as I uttered these words, as though she could have slain me.

How often has it pained me to see parties of ladies looking at the prisoners as they marched to the prison lock−step, and enjoy the sight with a hearty laugh.

I have lectured in South Boston twice since I have been a reformed man, and I informed the audience that I have visited that afternoon my former home, the House of Correction, on foot.


  • dernier − last, final, ultimate

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Narrative of Charles T.Woodman, A Reformed Inebriate, Written by Himself
63−66, 71−72
Theodore Abbot
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village