I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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Literary frontier jails– B. Traven and William Faulkner

Ben’s remark about Requiem for a Nun drove home for me how strong the similarities are between the description of the frontier jail in Jefferson is to the jail B. Traven describes in the first of his Jungle Novels, Government.

You may be somewhat familiar with Traven from his novel Treasure of the Sierra Madre (or perhaps the John Huston movie staring Humphrey Bogart).  That novel is one of a large body of work.  In the thirties, Traven wrote a series of novels about the Mexican Revolution, the Jungle novels.  Here’s his account, from the first of the Jungle novels, Government, of the construction of a jail in a Indian community in the years just before the Mexican Revolution:

The door of the prison was made of roughly hewn planks, which were fitted together without nails.  The grating consisted of heavy pieces of wood, cut out at the intersections so they fit into one another.  Each opening was wide enough for a prisoner to put his head through if he wanted to.

The door had no lock.  There was an iron staple on the door-post, so emaciated by rust that it seemed to have galloping consumption.  If anyone had put a stick through this staple and given it a twist, it would have yield up  the ghost with a faint crack and been of no further use in this world or the next.

There was a chain looped around the bar of the grating nearest the doorpost.  It suffered from the same tubercular complaint as the staple.  Its links were so eaten away with rust that any of them could have been crusthed between the finger and thumb.

A padlock was passed through the last link of the chain and the staple.  The lock did not work, for its mechanism was rusted and immovable, but that did not enter into the question, for don Gabriel had no key.  When he shut a prisoner in he merely lowered the hoop of the padlock as far as it would go.  Since the works of the lock had long since fallen out of the race, there was no click to show that it had gone home.  When don Gabriel released a prisoner he simply raised the hoop of the padlock.

This really brought to mind the account of the settlement of Jefferson and the Square in William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, where notorious bandits are caught and placed in the..

…log-and-mudchinking jail, which until now had had no lock since its clients so far had been amateurs– local brawlers and drunkards and runaway slaves– for whom a single heavy wooden beam in slots across the outside of the door like on a corncrib, had sufficed.  But they had now what might be four– three– Dillingers or Jesse Jameses of the time, with rewards on their heads.  So they locked the jail; they bored an auger hole through the door and another through the jamb and passed a length of heavy chain through the holes and sent a messenger on the run across to the postoffice-store to fetch the ancient Carolina lock from the last Nashville mail-pouch– the iron monster weighing almost fifteen pounds, with a key almost as long as a bayonet, not just the only lock in that part of the country, but the oldest lock in that cranny of the United States, brought there by one of the three men who were what was to be Yoknapatawpha County’s coeval pioneers and settlers…

Fifteen pounds of useless iron lugged a thousand miles through a desert of precipice and swamp, of flood and drought and wild beasts and wild Indians and wilder white men, displacing that fifteen pounds better given to food or seed to plant food or even powder to defend with, to became a fixture, a kind of landmark, in the bar of a wilderness ordinary, locking and securing nothing, because there was nothing behind the heavy bars and shutters needing further locking and securing; not even a paper weight because the only papers in Holston House were the twisted spills in an old powder horn above the mantel for lighting tobacco; always a little in the way, since it had constantly to be moved; from bar to shelf to mantel then back to bar again until they finally thought about putting it on the bi-monthly mail-pouch …. which came from Nashville every two weeks by a special rider who did nothing else and was paid a salary for it by the Federal Government; and that was the second phase of the monster Carolina lock’s transubstantiation into the Yoknapatawpha courthouse….  until the next morning, when the first arrivals were me by a scene resembling an outdoor stage setting which was how the legend of the mad Harpes: a thing not just fantastical but incomprehensible, not just whimsical but a little terrifying (though at least it was bloodless…): not just the lock gone from the door nor even just the door gone from the jail, but the entire wall gone, the mud-chinked axe-morticed logs unjointed neatly and quietly in the darkness and stacked as neatly to one side, leaving the jail open to the world like a stage….  [T]he whole settlement gathered… until one of the Holston slaves… ran into the crowd shouting, “Whar de lock, whar de lock, ole boss say whar de lock.”

It was gone (as were three horses…).  They couldn’t even find the heavy door and chain, and at first they were betrayed into believing that the bandit had had to take the door in order to steal the chain and lock…

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