Cornhill Magazine,  7 (1863), 638–48.

Revelations of Prison Life

[Henry W Holland] and [Frederick Greenwood]




Crime, Telegraphy, Sound, Hospitals, Pharmaceuticals, Medical Practitioners

    Reports that 'there is one system of prison converse which distances all others for ingenuity: it is known as the telegraph. Prisoners are often heard tapping more or less gently in their cells. It sounds like the objectless occupation of idle hands, or an accompaniment to some wearily whistled tune, which no warder is bound to take cognizance of. In fact, it is the clicking of the telegraph'. The system works because the 'staples upon which the bed-hooks hang penetrate the walls that divide the cells; and iron is so facile a conductor of sound that, for that matter, there might just as well be no masonry between the prisoners at all. The slightest tap on a staple in one cell is distinctly heard in the other; and it is only necessary, therefore, to arrange a code of alphabetical rap-signals, and conversation is easy enough, though not very fluent'. (642) Although this system of telegraphy must, of course, be 'very slow at first [...] time is only worth killing in gaol, and when once the prisoner has become familiar with the telegraph, he works it with astonishing rapidity'. Also notes how, in order to 'secure the enjoyment of nothing-to-do in hospital, with the snugger lodging and better food of that institution', prison inmates often resort to 'feigning' illness, and 'Soap-pills taken in sufficient quality are highly esteemed as productive of a large amount of showy but safe sickness'. (643). Although the prison doctor 'often sees through the plot of course', the antagonistic atmosphere that pervades most gaols means that 'medical men concerned with the criminal classes are obliged to make doubtful concessions now and then "for the sake of peace"' (644).

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