The Inmate of the Dungeon by W. C. Morrow
After the Board of State Prison Directors, sitting in session at the
prison, had heard and disposed of the complaints and petitions of a
number of convicts, the warden announced that all who wished to appear
had been heard. Thereupon a certain uneasy and apprehensive expression,
which all along had sat upon the faces of the directors, became visibly
deeper. The chairmana nervous, energetic, abrupt, incisive
manglanced at a slip of paper in his hand, and said to the warden,
Send a guard for convict No. 14,208.
The warden started and became slightly pale. Somewhat confused, he
haltingly replied, Why, he has expressed no desire to appear before
Nevertheless, you will send for him at once, responded the
The warden bowed stiffly and directed a guard to produce the
convict. Then, turning to the chairman, he said,
I am ignorant of your purpose in summoning this man, but of course
I have no objection. I desire, however, to make a statement concerning
him before he appears.
When we shall have called for a statement from you, coldly
responded the chairman, you may make one.
The warden sank back into his seat. He was a tall, fine-looking man,
well-bred and intelligent, and had a kindly face. Though ordinarily
cool, courageous, and self-possessed, he was unable to conceal a strong
emotion, which looked much like fear. A heavy silence fell upon the
room, disturbed only by the official stenographer, who was sharpening
his pencils. A stray beam of light from the westering sun slipped into
the room between the edge of the window-shade and the sash, and fell
across the chair reserved for the convict. The uneasy eyes of the
warden finally fell upon this beam and there his glance rested. The
chairman, without addressing any one particularly, remarked,
There are ways of learning what occurs in a prison without the
assistance of either the warden or the convicts.
Just then the guard appeared with the convict, who shambled in
painfully and laboriously, as with a string he held up from the floor
the heavy iron ball which was chained to his ankles. He was about
forty-five years old. Undoubtedly he once had been a man of uncommon
physical strength, for a powerful skeleton showed underneath the sallow
skin which covered his emaciated frame. His sallowness was peculiar and
ghastly. It was partly that of disease, and partly of something worse;
and it was this something that accounted also for his shrunken muscles
and manifest feebleness.
There had been no time to prepare him for presentation to the board.
As a consequence, his unstockinged toes showed through his gaping
shoes; the dingy suit of prison stripes which covered his gaunt frame
was frayed and tattered; his hair had not been recently cut to the
prison fashion, and, being rebellious, stood out upon his head like
bristles; and his beard, which, like his hair, was heavily dashed with
gray, had not been shaved for weeks. These incidents of his appearance
combined with a very peculiar expression of his face to make an
extraordinary picture. It is difficult to describe this almost
unearthly expression. With a certain suppressed ferocity it combined an
inflexibility of purpose that sat like an iron mask upon him. His eyes
were hungry and eager; they were the living part of him, and they shone
luminous from beneath shaggy brows. His forehead was massive, his head
of fine proportions, his jaw square and strong, and his thin, high nose
showed traces of an ancestry that must have made a mark in some corner
of the world at some time in history. He was prematurely old; this was
seen in his gray hair and in the uncommonly deep wrinkles which lined
his forehead and the corners of his eyes and of his mouth.
Upon stumbling weakly into the room, faint with the labor of walking
and of carrying the iron ball, he looked around eagerly, like a bear
driven to his haunches by the hounds. His glance passed so rapidly and
unintelligently from one face to another that he could not have had
time to form a conception of the persons present, until his swift eyes
encountered the face of the warden. Instantly they flashed; he craned
his neck forward; his lips opened and became blue; the wrinkles
deepened about his mouth and eyes; his form grew rigid, and his
breathing stopped. This sinister and terrible attitudeall the more so
because he was wholly unconscious of itwas disturbed only when the
chairman sharply commanded, Take that seat.
The convict started as though he had been struck, and turned his
eyes upon the chairman. He drew a deep inspiration, which wheezed and
rattled as it passed into his chest. An expression of excruciating pain
swept over his face. He dropped the ball, which struck the floor with a
loud sound, and his long, bony fingers tore at the striped shirt over
his breast. A groan escaped him, and he would have sunk to the floor
had not the guard caught him and held him upright. In a moment it was
over, and then, collapsing with exhaustion, he sank into the chair.
There he sat, conscious and intelligent, but slouching, disorganized,
The chairman turned sharply to the guard. Why did you manacle this
man, he demanded, when he is evidently so weak, and when none of the
others were manacled?
Why, sir, stammered the guard, surely you know who this man is:
he is the most dangerous and desperate
We know all about that. Remove his manacles.
The guard obeyed. The chairman turned to the convict, and in a
kindly manner said, Do you know who we are?
The convict got himself together a little and looked steadily at the
chairman. No, he replied, after a pause. His manner was direct, and
his voice was deep, though hoarse.
We are the State Prison Directors. We have heard of your case, and
we want you to tell us the whole truth about it.
The convict's mind worked slowly, and it was some time before he
could comprehend the explanation and request. When he had accomplished
that task he said, very slowly, I suppose you want me to make a
Yes,if you have any to make.
The convict was getting himself in hand. He straightened up, and
gazed at the chairman with a peculiar intensity. Then firmly and
clearly he answered, I've no complaint to make.
The two men sat looking at each other in silence, and as they looked
a bridge of human sympathy was slowly reared between them. The chairman
rose, passed around an intervening table, went up to the convict, and
laid a hand on his gaunt shoulder. There was a tenderness in his voice
that few men had ever heard there.
I know, said he, that you are a patient and uncomplaining man, or
we should have heard from you long ago. In asking you to make a
statement I am merely asking for your help to right a wrong, if a wrong
has been done. Leave your own wishes entirely out of consideration, if
you prefer. Assume, if you will, that it is not our intention or desire
either to give you relief or to make your case harder for you. There
are fifteen hundred human beings in this prison, and they are under the
absolute control of one man. If a serious wrong is practised upon one,
it may be upon others. I ask you in the name of common humanity, and as
one man of another, to put us in the way of working justice in this
prison. If you have the instincts of a man within you, you will comply
with my request. Speak out, therefore, like a man, and have no fear of
The convict was touched and stung. He looked up steadily into the
chairman's face, and firmly said, There is nothing in this world that
I fear. Then he hung his head, and presently he raised it and added,
I will tell you all about it.
At that moment he shifted his position so as to bring the beam of
light perpendicularly across his face and chest, and it seemed to split
him in twain. He saw it, and feasted his gaze upon it as it lay upon
his breast. After a time he thus proceeded, speaking very slowly, and
in a strangely monotonous voice:
I was sent up for twenty years for killing a man. I hadn't been a
criminal: I killed him without thinking, for he had robbed me and
wronged me. I came here thirteen years ago. I had trouble at firstit
galled me to be a convict; but I got over that, because the warden that
was here then understood me and was kind to me, and he made me one of
the best men in the prison. I don't say this to make you think I'm
complaining about the present warden, or that he didn't treat me
kindly: I can take care of myself with him. I am not making any
complaint. I ask no man's favor, and I fear no man's power.
That is all right. Proceed.
After the warden had made a good man out of me I worked faithfully,
sir; I did everything they told me to do; I worked willingly and like a
slave. It did me good to work, and I worked hard. I never violated any
of the rules after I was broken in. And then the law was passed giving
credits to the men for good conduct. My term was twenty years, but I
did so well that my credits piled up, and after I had been here ten
years I could begin to see my way out. There were only about three
years left. And, sir, I worked faithfully to make those years good. I
knew that if I did anything against the rules I should lose my credits
and have to stay nearly ten years longer. I knew all about that, sir: I
never forgot it. I wanted to be a free man again, and I planned to go
away somewhere and make the fight all over,to be a man in the world
We know all about your record in the prison. Proceed.
Well, it was this way. You know they were doing some heavy work in
the quarries and on the grades, and they wanted the strongest men in
the prison. There weren't very many: there never are very many strong
men in a prison. And I was one of 'em that they put on the heavy work,
and I did it faithfully. They used to pay the men for extra work,not
pay 'em money, but the value of the money in candles, tobacco, extra
clothes, and things like that. I loved to work, and I loved to work
extra, and so did some of the other men. On Saturdays the men who had
done extra work would fall in and go up to the captain of the guard,
and he would give to each man what was coming to him. He had it all
down in a book, and when a man would come up and call for what was due
him the captain would give it to him, whatever he wanted that the rules
One Saturday I fell in with the others. A good many were ahead of
me in the line, and when they got what they wanted they fell into a new
line, waiting to be marched to the cells. When my turn in the line came
I went up to the captain and said I would take mine in tobacco. He
looked at me pretty sharply, and said, 'How did you get back in that
line?' I told him I belonged there,that I had come to get my extra.
He looked at his book, and he said, 'You've had your extra: you got
tobacco.' And he told me to fall into the new line. I told him I hadn't
received any tobacco; I said I hadn't got my extra, and hadn't been up
before. He said, 'Don't spoil your record by trying to steal a little
tobacco. Fall in.' ... It hurt me, sir. I hadn't been up; I hadn't got
my extra; and I wasn't a thief, and I never had been a thief, and no
living man had a right to call me a thief. I said to him, straight, 'I
won't fall in till I get my extra, and I'm not a thief, and no man can
call me one, and no man can rob me of my just dues.' He turned pale,
and said, 'Fall in, there.' I said, 'I won't fall in till I get my
With that he raised his hand as a signal, and the two guards behind
him covered me with their rifles, and a guard on the west wall, and one
on the north wall, and one on the portico in front of the arsenal, all
covered me with rifles. The captain turned to a trusty and told him to
call the warden. The warden came out, and the captain told him I was
trying to run double on my extra, and said I was impudent and
insubordinate and refused to fall in. The warden said, 'Drop that and
fall in.' I told him I wouldn't fall in. I said I hadn't run double,
that I hadn't got my extra, and that I would stay there till I died
before I would be robbed of it. He asked the captain if there wasn't
some mistake, and the captain looked at his book and said there was no
mistake; he said he remembered me when I came up and got the tobacco
and he saw me fall into the new line, but he didn't see me get back in
the old line. The warden didn't ask the other men if they saw me get my
tobacco and slip back into the old line. He just ordered me to fall in.
I told him I would die before I would do that. I said I wanted my just
dues and no more, and I asked him to call on the other men in line to
prove that I hadn't been up.
He said, 'That's enough of this.' He sent all the other men to the
cells, and left me standing there. Then he told two guards to take me
to the cells. They came and took hold of me, and I threw them off as if
they were babies. Then more guards came up, and one of them hit me over
the head with a club, and I fell. And then, sir,here the convict's
voice fell to a whisper,and then he told them to take me to the
The sharp, steady glitter of the convict's eyes failed, and he hung
his head and looked despairingly at the floor.
Go on, said the chairman.
They took me to the dungeon, sir. Did you ever see the dungeon?
Perhaps; but you may tell us about it.
The cold, steady gleam returned to the convict's eyes, as he fixed
them again upon the chairman.
There are several little rooms in the dungeon. The one they put me
in was about five by eight. It has steel walls and ceiling, and a
granite floor. The only light that comes in passes through a slit in
the door. The slit is an inch wide and five inches long. It doesn't
give much light, because the door is thick. It's about four inches
thick, and is made of oak and sheet-steel, bolted through. The slit
runs this way,making a horizontal motion in the air,and it is
four inches above my eyes when I stand on tiptoe. And I can't look out
at the factory-wall forty feet away unless I hook my fingers in the
slit and pull myself up.
He stopped and regarded his hands, the peculiar appearance of which
we all had observed. The ends of the fingers were uncommonly thick;
they were red and swollen, and the knuckles were curiously marked with
deep white scars.
Well, sir, there wasn't anything at all in the dungeon, but they
gave me a blanket, and they put me on bread and water. That's all they
ever give you in the dungeon. They bring the bread and water once a
day, and that is at night, because if they come in the daytime it lets
in the light.
The next night after they put me init was Sunday nightthe
warden came with the guard and asked me if I was all right. I said I
was. He said, 'Will you behave yourself and go to work to-morrow?' I
said, 'No, sir; I won't go to work till I get what is due me.' He
shrugged his shoulders, and said, 'Very well: maybe you'll change your
mind after you have been in here a week.'
They kept me there a week. The next Sunday night the warden came
and said, 'Are you ready to go to work to-morrow?' and I said, 'No; I
will not go to work till I get what is due me.' He called me hard
names. I said it was a man's duty to demand his rights, and that a man
who would stand to be treated like a dog was no man at all.
The chairman interrupted. Did you not reflect, he asked, that
these officers would not have stooped to rob you?that it was through
some mistake they withheld your tobacco, and that in any event you had
a choice of two things to lose,one a plug of tobacco, and the other
seven years of freedom?
But they angered me and hurt me, sir, by calling me a thief, and
they threw me in the dungeon like a beast.... I was standing for my
rights, and my rights were my manhood; and that is something a man can
carry sound to the grave, whether he's bond or free, weak or powerful,
rich or poor.
Well, after you refused to go to work what did the warden do?
The convict, although tremendous excitement must have surged and
boiled within him, slowly, deliberately, and weakly came to his feet.
He placed his right foot on the chair, and rested his right elbow on
the raised knee. The index finger of his right hand, pointing to the
chairman and moving slightly to lend emphasis to his narrative, was the
only thing that modified the rigid immobility of his figure. Without a
single change in the pitch or modulation of his voice, never hurrying,
but speaking with the slow and dreary monotony with which he had begun,
he neverthelesspartly by reason of these evidences of his incredible
self-controlmade a formidable picture as he proceeded:
When I told him that, sir, he said he'd take me to the ladder and
see if he couldn't make me change my mind.... Yes, sir; he said he'd
take me to the ladder. (Here there was a long pause.) And I a human
being, with flesh on my bones and the heart of a man in my body. The
other warden hadn't tried to break my spirit on the ladder. He did
break it, though; he broke it clear to the bottom of the man inside of
me; but he did it with a human word, and not with the dungeon and the
ladder. I didn't believe the warden when he said he would take me to
the ladder. I couldn't imagine myself alive and put through at the
ladder, and I couldn't imagine any human being who could find the heart
to put me through. If I had believed him I would have strangled him
then and there, and got my body full of lead while doing it. No, sir; I
could not believe it.
And then he told me to come on. I went with him and the guards. He
brought me to the ladder. I had never seen it before. It was a heavy
wooden ladder, leaned against the wall, and the bottom was bolted to
the floor and the top to the wall. A whip was on the floor. (Again
there was a pause.) The warden told me to strip, sir, and I
stripped.... And still I didn't believe he would whip me. I thought he
just wanted to scare me.
Then he told me to face up to the ladder. I did so, and reached my
arms up to the straps. They strapped my arms to the ladder, and
stretched so hard that they pulled me up clear of the floor. Then they
strapped my legs to the ladder. The warden then picked up the whip. He
said to me, 'I'll give you one more chance: will you go to work
to-morrow?' I said, 'No; I won't go to work till I get my dues.' 'Very
well,' said he, 'you'll get your dues now.' And then he stepped back
and raised the whip. I turned my head and looked at him, and I could
see it in his eyes that he meant to strike.... And when I saw that,
sir, I felt that something inside of me was about to burst.
The convict paused to gather up his strength for the crisis of his
story, yet not in the least particular did he change his position, the
slight movement of his pointing finger, the steady gleam of his eye, or
the slow monotony of his speech. I had never witnessed any scene so
dramatic as this, and yet all was absolutely simple and unintentional.
I had been thrilled by the greatest actors, as with matchless skill
they gave rein to their genius in tragic situations; but how
inconceivably tawdry and cheap such pictures seemed in comparison with
this! The claptrap of the music, the lights, the posing, the wry faces,
the gasps, lunges, staggerings, rolling eyes,how flimsy and
colorless, how mocking and grotesque, they all appeared beside this
simple, uncouth, but genuine expression of immeasurable agony!
The stenographer held his pencil poised above the paper, and wrote
And then the whip came down across my back. The something inside of
me twisted hard and then broke wide open, and went pouring all through
me like melted iron. It was a hard fight to keep my head clear, but I
did it. And then I said to the warden this: 'You've struck me with a
whip, in cold blood. You've tied me up hand and foot, to whip me like a
dog. Well, whip me, then, till you fill your belly with it. You are a
coward. You are lower, and meaner, and cowardlier than the lowest and
meanest dog that ever yelped when his master kicked him. You were born
a coward. Cowards will lie and steal, and you are the same as a thief
and liar. No hound would own you for a friend. Whip me hard and long,
you coward. Whip me, I say. See how good a coward feels when he ties up
a man and whips him like a dog. Whip me till the last breath quits my
body; if you leave me alive I will kill you for this.'
His face got white. He asked me if I meant that, and I said, 'Yes;
before God I do.' Then he took the whip in both hands and came down
with all his might.
That was nearly two years ago, said the chairman. You would not
kill him now, would you?
Yes. I will kill him if I get a chance; and I feel it in me that
the chance will come.
He kept on whipping me. He whipped me with all the strength of both
hands. I could feel the broken skin curl up on my back, and when my
head got too heavy to hold it straight it hung down, and I saw the
blood on my legs and dripping off my toes into a pool of it on the
floor. Something was straining and twisting inside of me again. My back
didn't hurt much; it was the thing twisting inside of me that hurt. I
counted the lashes, and when I counted to twenty-eight the twisting got
so hard that it choked me and blinded me; ... and when I woke up I was
in the dungeon again, and the doctor had my back all plastered up, and
he was kneeling beside me, feeling my pulse.
The prisoner had finished. He looked around vaguely, as though he
wanted to go.
And you have been in the dungeon ever since?
Yes, sir; but I don't mind that.
On bread and water?
Yes; but that was all I wanted.
Have you reflected that so long as you harbor a determination to
kill the warden you may be kept in the dungeon? You can't live much
longer there, and if you die there you will never find the chance you
want. If you say you will not kill the warden he may return you to the
But that would be a lie, sir; I will get a chance to kill him if I
go to the cells. I would rather die in the dungeon than be a liar and
sneak. If you send me to the cells I will kill him. But I will kill him
without that. I will kill him, sir.... And he knows it.
Without concealment, but open, deliberate, and implacable, thus in
the wrecked frame of a man, so close that we could have touched it,
stood Murder,not boastful, but relentless as death.
Apart from weakness, is your health good? asked the chairman.
Oh, it's good enough, wearily answered the convict. Sometimes the
twisting comes on, but when I wake up after it I'm all right.
The prison surgeon, under the chairman's direction, put his ear to
the convict's chest, and then went over and whispered to the chairman.
I thought so, said that gentleman. Now, take this man to the
hospital. Put him to bed where the sun will shine on him, and give him
the most nourishing food.
The convict, giving no heed to this, shambled out with a guard and
* * * * *
The warden sat alone in the prison office with No. 14,208. That he
at last should have been brought face to face, and alone, with the man
whom he had determined to kill, perplexed the convict. He was not
manacled; the door was locked, and the key lay on the table between the
two men. Three weeks in the hospital had proved beneficial, but a
deathly pallor was still in his face.
The action of the directors three weeks ago, said the warden,
made my resignation necessary. I have awaited the appointment of my
successor, who is now in charge. I leave the prison to-day. In the mean
time, I have something to tell you that will interest you. A few days
ago a man who was discharged from the prison last year read what the
papers have published recently about your case, and he has written to
me confessing that it was he who got your tobacco from the captain of
the guard. His name is Salter, and he looks very much like you. He had
got his own extra, and when he came up again and called for yours the
captain, thinking it was you, gave it to him. There was no intention on
the captain's part to rob you.
The convict gasped and leaned forward eagerly.
Until the receipt of this letter, resumed the warden, I had
opposed the movement which had been started for your pardon; but when
this letter came I recommended your pardon, and it has been granted.
Besides, you have a serious heart trouble. So you are now discharged
from the prison.
The convict stared and leaned back speechless. His eyes shone with a
strange, glassy expression, and his white teeth glistened ominously
between his parted lips. Yet a certain painful softness tempered the
iron in his face.
The stage will leave for the station in four hours, continued the
warden. You have made certain threats against my life. The warden
paused; then, in a voice that slightly wavered from emotion, he
continued: I shall not permit your intentions in that regardfor I
care nothing about themto prevent me from discharging a duty which,
as from one man to another, I owe you. I have treated you with a
cruelty the enormity of which I now comprehend. I thought I was right.
My fatal mistake was in not understanding your nature. I misconstrued
your conduct from the beginning, and in doing so I have laid upon my
conscience a burden which will embitter the remaining years of my life.
I would do anything in my power, if it were not too late, to atone for
the wrong I have done you. If, before I sent you to the dungeon, I
could have understood the wrong and foreseen its consequences, I would
cheerfully have taken my own life rather than raised a hand against
you. The lives of us both have been wrecked; but your suffering is in
the past,mine is present, and will cease only with my life. For my
life is a curse, and I prefer not to keep it.
With that the warden, very pale, but with a clear purpose in his
face, took a loaded revolver from a drawer and laid it before the
Now is your chance, he said, quietly: no one can hinder you.
The convict gasped and shrank away from the weapon as from a viper.
Not yetnot yet, he whispered, in agony.
The two men sat and regarded each other without the movement of a
Are you afraid to do it? asked the warden.
A momentary light flashed in the convict's eyes.
No! he gasped; you know I am not. But I can'tnot yet,not
The convict, whose ghastly pallor, glassy eyes, and gleaming teeth
sat like a mask of death upon his face, staggered to his feet.
You have done it at last! you have broken my spirit. A human word
has done what the dungeon and the whip could not do.... It twists
inside of me now.... I could be your slave for that human word. Tears
streamed from his eyes. I can't help crying. I'm only a baby, after
alland I thought I was a man.
He reeled, and the warden caught him and seated him in the chair. He
took the convict's hand in his and felt a firm, true pressure there.
The convict's eyes rolled vacantly. A spasm of pain caused him to raise
his free hand to his chest; his thin, gnarled fingersmade shapeless
by long use in the slit of the dungeon-doorclutched automatically at
his shirt. A faint, hard smile wrinkled his wan face, displaying the
gleaming teeth more freely.
That human word, he whispered,if you had spoken it long
ago,ifbut it's allit's all rightnow. I'll goI'll go to
There was a slightly firmer pressure of the hand that held the
warden's; then it relaxed. The fingers which clutched the shirt slipped
away, and the hand dropped to his side. The weary head sank back and
rested on the chair; the strange, hard smile still sat upon the marble
face, and a dead man's glassy eyes and gleaming teeth were upturned
towards the ceiling.