Page:Life of John Boyle O'Reilly.djvu/83

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HIS LIFE, POEMS AND SPEECHES.

severe physical punishment ordained in their sentence. Every reader of Dickens remembers the description in his "American Notes," of the Eastern Penitentiary at Philadelphia, and its "Solitary System." It was the same system, in its absolute seclusion of the prisoner from his fellows, as that which prevailed in Millbank. All that Dickens says of the prison in Philadelphia applies equally to Millbank:

"I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore, I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying 'Yes' or 'No,' I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honors could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree."

The condemnation of the great novelist is sweeping, the words which I have italicized above showing that he did not measure the horror of the punishment by its duration. Self-satisfied reformers have pooh-poohed his verdict as that of a sentimentalist who had enjoyed no personal experience of the system. That their experience of it had been wholly impersonal also, made no difference in their judgment of its merits. Other supporters of the system have pointed triumphantly to the fact that the convict Charles Langheimer,—"Dickens's Dutchman," as he was called,—whom the author of the "Notes" had described dramatically among the victims of the system, served his