Book Review: 'The Devil in the Marshalsea' by Antonia Hodgson
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.
Review bySusan Grigsby
Marshalsea Prison, 1773 Click to enlarge
On June 1, 1729, William Acton, one-time butcher and deputy warden of Marshalsea Prison was indicted for high crimes and misdemeanors in the murder of four prisoners consigned to his care. The indictment came after General James Oglethorpe (the one who went on to found the New World colony of Georgia), a member of Parliament, demanded and then joined a committee which explored the abuses at the notorious debtors' prisons of Marshalsea and the Fleet.
You see, a young friend of Oglethorpes, sent to the Fleet prison for his debt, died from smallpox when, his funds completely exhausted, he was forced to share quarters with men who were known to be suffering from the disease. Already weakened by his time in prison, he quickly fell ill and died.
Daniel Defoe thought there were more prisons in London "than any City in Europe" in the 1720s. He listed twenty-two “public gaols,” added “Five Night Prisons, called Round Houses” and ended his list “&c.” Around these often ancient institutions clustered a dense penumbra of private prisons where those under arrest were held awaiting bail or commitment to prison proper.
Private prisons, and their depredations, are nothing new. They have been around, greedily feeding on the misfortunes of the poor, for hundreds of years. And not only the poor. People of means could find themselves in the Marshalsea for running afoul of the powers that be, so it was not uncommon for book publishers, writers, and politicians to be living on the Master's Side of the Marshalsea. If they had means, it was a barely tolerable existence.
It they didn't, and if they had no friends or family members willing to help, it was often a death sentence, through starvation or disease.
And this is where Antonia Hodgson set her debut novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea.
Tom Hawkins is a rather feckless young man of twenty-five living the high life in London of the 1720s. The son of a country vicar, he rejects the plan that would have him follow his father's footsteps into a life in the Church, as is expected by his father, the Church and society at large, choosing instead to seek his fortune in the city. And for a few years, his luck at cards and his easy charm kept him afloat.
Until one night it didn't. And he found himself committed to the Marshalsea prison for a twenty pound debt. Taken under the wing of fellow prisoner and publisher, Samuel Fleet, who intimidates most of the other inmates, he is introduced to life on the Master's Side of the Marshalsea. Hawkins is assigned to the bed of Captain Roberts, who was believed to have been murdered by Hawkins' new room mate, Samuel Fleet. Roberts' widow is still on the Master's Side, and an encounter with her leads Tom Hawkins to investigate the murder of her husband. The murder investigation broadens in scope and reward as the warder, Bill Acton, takes note of Hawkins' efforts.
Intricately plotted, The Devil in the Marshalsea takes advantage of known history about the Marshalsea prison and the characters who lived there in 1727. Perhaps it is the characterization of the prison itself that seems to overshadow some of the people in the story. But that is merely a quibble. The story itself is sound, the red herrings nicely done and the conclusion satisfying, if not unexpected.
But where Antonia Hodgson really shines is in her depiction of the prisons of London in the 18th century. And as so often happens when I read fiction, it led me to explore the reality of the Marshalsea. From the essay noted above:
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the prison in the life of Georgian London. Next to churches, prisons we’re the most important public buildings in the metropolis. Indeed, their even greater importance to the body politic demanded that prisons be rebuilt before the churches or almost any other public institution after the Great Fire. They were the only new City building to be awarded parliamentary subsidy.
Now I am sure that Antonia Hodgson did not mean to draw any parallels between the debtors' prisons of London, and the massive investment that the United States has made in prisons for profit. But in California alone, we built 23 new prisons and just one new university campus between 1980 and 2013.
And I strongly suspect that Ms Hodgson was unaware that a contractor, Aramark, fed prisoners in Michigan and Ohio maggot laden food, perhaps seeking to increase their profits just a little bit more, when she wrote about how Acton and his cohorts would rob the begging bowls of the Common Side and provide in exchange enough rotten food to make the starvation last a little longer.
And when she wrote about the well-to-do prisoners of the Marshalsea being allowed to leave the prison grounds during the day to conduct private business in the City she was probably completely unaware of the upgrades granted to those able to pay in some American municipal jails. Including daytime liberty.
Sick ward at Marshalsea
Since she lives in London, she could not possibly have been aware that in the United States, we run prisons, or rather, pay profit making companies to run prisons that are so overcrowded that we stack them in bunk beds, in buildings with overflowing sewage.
What the ACLU found during their investigation of Willacy was "overwhelming despair." They found overcrowded conditions, bunk beds stacked within three feet of each other, 200 inmates to a 200-foot-long Kevlar tent, with five bathrooms with toilets that did not always work. There was no privacy in these crowded, filthy units that the inmates could not keep clean with the two ounces of cleaning solution that was all that was provided for each tent. Insect infestations were common, as scorpions and spiders made their way through the holes in the Kevlar tents. Prisoners' uniforms were washed with cleaning rags and mop heads, but without detergent. Toilets frequently overflowed, and lacking adequate ventilation, filled the tents with the odor of human waste. Racial epithets were commonly used by the guards, and prisoners suffered physical abuse at their hands.
The reason I can safely make all of these assumptions about Ms Hodgson's intent, is that we don't have debtors' prisons in America. We outlawed them a hundred and fifty years ago. Aren't we lucky that we don't live in a society where people can be put into jail for a mere debt, and be expected to pay it off, as well as pay for their room and board while in prison?
Although Antonia Hodgson never makes quite clear who, exactly, the Devil in the Marshalsea is, my best guess would be that the devil is the greed that drives those who would profit from the misfortune of others. The devil is the authorities who knowingly allow profit to be made while shirking their responsibility to provide adequate care for those in their charge. And the elected representatives who protect the system as a whole.
She doesn't preach. She just tells a story. A very readable story.