Prof. Caleb Smith, English and American Studies, Yale University, presented his research on the process of uncovering the identity and story of Rob Reed, the author of an 1858 memoir that has intrigued scholars ever since its discovery. The autobiography provides a rare look into the life in 19th century American prisons for an African American man.
Smith discovered in 2013 that Austin Reed — whose identity became an ongoing mystery after the 2009 discovery of an 1858 memoir by the pseudonym Rob Reed — was born a free man in Rochester, New York, but later became an indentured servant and an inmate of the nation’s first juvenile reformatory. He was also a prisoner at New York’s Auburn State Prison.
Smith said there was initially no record of Rob Reed, which made research into the identity of the author difficult.
“In 2009, I started working with curators and researchers to find out about anything we could about the document and its author,” he said. “We searched New York State prison records but there was no sure sign of any Rob or Robert Reed who could conform to the story we had read.”
The research group turned to New York City’s House of Refuge, and though they could not find a Robert Reed, they found another Reed, which “helped to open up the mystery.” Smith and his colleagues found two 1895 letters to the superintendent signed by Austin Reed, which solved the mystery.
In his presentation, Smith split Reed’s life into three major parts: his time as an indentured servant, his time in the House of Refuge and as an inmate at Auburn State Prison.
“Early in life, [Reed] had become familiar with the hard facts of poverty, servitude and punishment,” Smith said. “But he also developed a deep knowledge about gains and power, a feeling for words and images. He knew that the whip in 19th century America was not only a weapon but also an emblem of slavery. He understood that fire was a symbol of insurrection.”
At a young age, Reed was sent to the New York House of Refuge — a juvenile reform school in Manhattan — where it is believed Reed learned to read and write.
After leaving the refuge in 1839, Reed spent most of the next 20 years in New York’s penal institutions.
“He became the object of some of 19th century America’s most elaborate experiments in the punishment of crime and the management of human character,” Smith said. “He became a victim … of torture and grinding cruelty.“
Smith said the book is important because it offers a rare glimpse into 19th century prison life. Reed’s autobiography, titled “The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict,” will be published by Random House in January.
“Thousands of people were locked up in similar institutions but very few would write their own stories,” Smith said. “There was nothing with such literary power, no other memoir by a black writer that could suggest such profound connection between the penal system and the plantation slavery.”