Bandits and Bibles

Bandits and Bibles

Edited by Larry E. Sullivan


Now here’s an interesting book you might never pick up, just due to the subject matter. Editor Sullivan has spent many years researching and collecting writings of convicts from 100 years ago, and assembles them into a fascinating narrative of just how bad things can really be inside. The source material is hard to find, as few prisoners were literate, and jailhouse writing is never encouraged. However, from this unpromising field comes a sprightly book filled with tales of crimes and punishments, and stories of how the political world and the underworld coupled closely in the 19th century. Some of the authors you’ve heard of, such as Cole Younger and John Wesley Harding. Most of the others were famous in their day, but not to the point they’ve become enmeshed in popular culture, like Light Fingered Jim or “Number 1500.”

The book is divided into four parts. The first part on “Bandits and Rouges” is most fun to read, filled with short but exciting narratives of how jobs were planned and executed, captures and breakouts. It’s the sort of thrilling stuff you see in westerns, and paints a decidedly unpleasant picture of the 19th century. Part 2, “Convicts on Convicts” is a bit more somber, covering the life of convicts and the experience of entering and leaving jail. The stories here tend toward the sad, with the main thrust being “once you’re in this business, you’re stuck for life.” Part 3 is the saddest, focusing on the day-to-day grind of jail life. This is the sort of stuff that never makes Hollywood’s roster, as the focus of life is on boredom and humiliation. The final section, “Bibles and Reform” is shortest, and covers those prisoners who found God behind bars, and did something more positive with their life after release. These are the distinct minority.

While an easy read, the book brings up a number of thought-provoking points. One con recommends that anyone receiving more than a 30 day sentence be summarily shot, as it would be kinder than locking him up for years. Another constant subtext is the lack of any real success at reforming men once incarcerated — once stamped with the mark of a felon, it is almost impossible to ever return to a normal civic life on the outside. Besides the stigma of jail time, there is no real chance for a man to improve himself in jail. If he was bad going in, can you expect him to be any better upon release if nothing is done to improve his morals, skills or education? Bandits and Bibles is one of the more reasonable treatises on the topic of jailing your fellow man, where you expect remorse, or you just want him out of the way for a few years. And as thought pieces go, it’s the most readable I’ve seen in ages.

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