John Carter of Minnesota: The “Convict Poet” Who Won His Freedom


Stillwater State Prison c1912

Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater (c. 1912)

“Only the first ten years matter,” a Minnesota State Prison inmate told John Carter, and “[w]hether or not the first ten years are all that matter, there is no doubt that the first six months are by no means six little drops of time.” It was 1905 and as the 19-year-old Carter listened, he settled into his ten year sentence–arrested for burglarizing the station in Karlstad, MN, while hopping trains westward. He’d taken $24 to buy food and shelter.

Not much is known about John Carter—in fact, that’s a penname and the public record’s silent about his personal life. All we know is that he was an Englishman from a well-to-do family, and when he’d failed the family business he was sent to Canada. After he was arrested, like so many who pass through the prison system, Carter was on his way to spending his sentence hidden from the public eye. But this changed as, trying to pass the time, Carter wrote essays and verse, publishing them in the nation’s major magazines. Through his art he won public support and, eventually, even his freedom, leaving the state prison hailed as a brilliant, creative mind.

When Carter first arrived in Stillwater, as he later wrote in “Prison Life as I Found It” (Century Magazine, September 1910), he discovered quickly that there is no “pampering” in prison. Each day was heavily regulated with discipline doled out so as to ensure convicts knew “the necessity of absolute submission.” Protest meant solitary confinement, which is to say “placed on a scanty diet of bread and water and handcuffed to the door of a dark cell during working hours.” But for all its horrors it also had its privileges, including a library of books and magazines and—most impressively—even its own weekly newspaper, The Prison Mirror. Though such papers were not uncommon at the time, the fact that The Prison Mirror was edited and managed by inmates made it a unique outlet for Carter. (As a side note: Nearly a 130 years after its founding, The Prison Mirror’s still published today, making it the oldest prison paper in the United States).

Although Carter was a pianist by training and turned to creative writing simply as a way to “kill time,” he ran a column titled “Under the Lash.” Through it he published satirical essays meant to lighten the mood of the prison. In one he railed against the immoral, social evil of tobacco and suggested that “All those wishing to help on this great reform should leave their tobacco in the exchange box at the foot of the stairs.” (Of course, he and the librarians would see to it that it was disposed). Carter also applied his wit to more serious themes, writing in one essay his life philosophy:

“To live every minute of every day, without haste, without rest; to learn what may be learnt, and to be cheerfully ignorant of what does not matter to me; to love all women, and one in particular, and all men that I care to […] To pursue an ideal without talking about it. [… T]o avoid boring and being bored, knocking and being knocked. Not to preach and not to revile; […] to condemn no man nor principle unheard; to keep my faith between myself and the Almighty, or my unbelief, to myself alone. Rather a nice creed, don’t you think? But see where it landed me” (reprinted in The San Francisco Call, April 20, 1910)!

John Carter of Minnesota headline - 042110 San Francisco Call

The San Francisco Call, April 21, 1910.

When Carter wasn’t trying to score free tobacco or cracking jokes, he used his column to offer opinions on whatever caught his attention that week. On what made for good poetry: The “one virtue in modern literature […] is directness. To hit straight from the shoulder is well enough; no knockout can be given without it.” On John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism:  “[I]t will always remain a pity that so much sound sense was grounded on his absurd theory” (both reprinted in The San Francisco Call, April 21, 1910). Already he demonstrated his potential to accomplish more.

With his essays hitting the mark with his peers, Carter expanded to verse and submitted them to Century Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, The Smart Set, and others. Perhaps due as much to the novelty of his being a “convict poet” as the poems’ quality, many were accepted, turning Carter into a minor celebrity. Newspapers reprinted his work, prefacing them with praise for his vast knowledge of literature, history, and psychology. Readers marveled over the imagery of one man’s take on prison life:

Hard Labor (Part I; full text)

I work, and as the task is done I brood
On what has been and what is yet to pass,
A life spilt from an idly-handled glass,
And days as this, an endless multitude.

Labor and brooding—is there then no rest?
Day follows day, and in the silent nights
Throng ghostly memories of past delights,
Faces I loved, and lips that I have pressed,

Until the sullen, deep-toned morning bell
Wakes me to face a yesterday again
With all its bitter agony of pain.
Thou didst not linger, Dante, in thy hell.

They say the torture’s gone, the dawn’s arisen,
Mercy, to angered hearts a suitor strange,
Has begged her own; yet this they cannot change,
I have been free, and I am here in prison.

Ballad of Misery and Iron

Haggard faces and trembling knees,
Eyes that shine with a weakling’s hate,
Lips that mutter their blasphemies,
Murderous hearts that darkly wait:
These are they who were men of late,
Fit to hold a plough or a sword.
If a prayer this wall may penetrate,
Have pity on these my comrades, Lord!

Poets sing of life at the lees
In tender verses and delicate;
Of tears and manifold agonies—
Little they know of what they prate.
Out of this silence, passionate
Sounds a deeper, a wilder chord.
If a song be heard through the narrow grate,
Have pity on these my comrades, Lord!

Hark, that wail of the distant breeze,
Piercing ever the close-barred gate,
Fraught with torturing memories
Of eyes that kindle and lips that mate.
Ah, by the loved ones desolate
Whose anguish never can pen record,
If Thou be truly compassionate,
Have pity on these my comrades, Lord!

These are pawns that the hand of Fate
Careless sweeps from the checkerboard.
Thou that know’st if the game be straight,
Have pity on these my comrades, Lord!

Judge John W Willis St Paul Minnesota

Judge John W. Willis (c. 1900)

The fanfare surrounding Carter’s art and story caught the attention of St. Paul Judge John W. Willis, a well-known orator and supporter of the arts, who traveled to Stillwater to meet the poet. There he “found him an anemic appearing man, seemingly forty years old rather than twenty-four.” Even with the celebrity he’d garnered, Carter had long given up hope for early release, and it took much work on Willis’ part to convince him otherwise. Coincidentally, as soon as the two met it became personal for Willis who, it was soon revealed, was Carter’s sentencing judge five years earlier. He could see now that not only was the punishment too severe for the crime, but because of his actions he’d confined a bright, promising man to spend his youngest years behind bars.

As news spread of Carter’s seeking pardon, many newspapers voiced their support but were hardly unanimous. The Chicago Evening Post chastised Carter’s supporters for obsessing over the poet in particular and not the thousands of others who, all across the country, have been unfairly jailed. The Pittsburgh Dispatch worried about the precedent a pardon would set and, not pulling their punch, added that Carter’s poetry wasn’t even that good:

“There are enough bad poets now without turning every convict in the country to poetizing in the hopes of enlisting magazine editors in a campaign for his release. Some poetry is a crime anyway. That furnished by the Minnesota convict may not be in that class, but if the magazinists are so thrilled by it as their interest would indicate, their ability to judge of poetry is exactly on a level with his to write it–not very high.”

When at last John Carter appeared before the Board of Pardons, he was joined by Judge Willis and a petition circulated by the editors of the major magazines, including Century’s Robert Underwood Johnson, and signed by many local leaders and college professors. Not “claiming his liberty on the ground that he is a poet” (The New York Times), Carter based his plea on the work he planned to do in literature and music. Able now to support himself, he argued, there was no need to return to the life that landed him in prison in the first place. Fortunately, the Board agreed, and cited in its pardon both the peculiar circumstances of the crime and the severity of the sentence for the crime committed.

After five years in prison, on April 18, 1910, on what happened to be his twenty-fourth birthday, John Carter walked away a free man—a look of relief on his face and, reportedly, a celebratory cigar in his mouth.

Following Carter’s release newspapers downplayed the notion that it was due to his poetry. Instead, for many, as the New York Evening Post wrote, sympathy lied not with Carter’s work but rather “because it seems to us in itself a crime to imprison a boy of nineteen for ten years for $24 at a time when he was starving.” Carter’s case was a focusing event, then, and the excessiveness of his sentence—he stole the equivalent of ~$600 in today’s dollars—raised questions about the state’s minimum sentencing laws. The New York Daily Tribune editorialized:

“Is Minnesota the only commonwealth in which a judge is not permitted to take account of extraordinary circumstances, such as youth, distress of mind and body, a first offence and a plea of guilty? It is sometimes said that the law punishes crimes against property more sternly than crimes against life. If there is truth in the accusation it is a deep reproach” (4/18/1910).

In his article “Prison Life as I Found It,” commissioned by the editor of Century Magazine, Carter echoed this widespread criticism of Minnesota’s sentencing and pardoning system. Unlike today’s parole boards, which take a more holistic view of the inmate’s risk for recidivism, at the turn-of-the-century the pardoning board considered only the circumstances of the crime committed. As Carter wrote, this “put the most important point of all out of consideration–the present character of the applicant. Not what he was five, ten or twenty years ago, but what he is now should obviously be the real test of his fitness to rejoin his fellowmen” (emphasis mine). The response to Carter’s article was such that it provoked a response from the Stillwater prison’s warden, who admitted that “the history of his case is not a wholesome reflection upon the judicial and law-making powers of our good state” (Century Magazine, December 1910). Clearly, Minnesota’s prison system had ways to go.

Hard Labor and Other Poems by John Carter - Country Life Magazine 1911

Advertisement for Hard Labor and Other Poems in Country Life Magazine (1911).

What happened to John Carter after he left the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater is unknown. Though he stayed briefly in St. Paul with Judge Willis, no longer behind bars Carter dropped from the newspapers. In 1911, his poems were collected into the volume Hard Labor and Other Poems (Baker & Taylor), which was well-reviewed but, like so many volumes of poetry, it too faded away. If one digs, one can find it online (here) but it, like Carter’s story, lives only in archives now. Perhaps someday John Carter’s real identity will be discovered, and if so, I look forward to reading about what future was found by a man who, at such a young age, demonstrated so much literary potential.

I’ll close here with an excerpt from the last poem in Hard Labor.

 

Freedom (Part I; full text)

I will go back to those for whom I cried,
Outcasts and thieves and slayers of their kind,
I will go back with a contented mind,
For there, in bondage, may rich truth abide.
There, at the least, is hate not deified,
And those I welcomed as my friends were free
Of that inexpiable infamy
By whose dread weight o’erburdened, Ferrer died.

No need have I of joy, no fear of pain,
There, in the stillness, none may chain my thought.
Your trivial liberty, so dearly bought,
Freely and gladly I give back again.
I pray you, comrades, open wide your gate,
Nay, pity not, I was with you of late.

 

 

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