“Some Probabilities of the Southern Chain-gang System” American Sentinel 10, 35, pp. 273-275.

September 5, 1895

LAMST May a Seventh-day Adventist of Austell, Ga., was sentenced to twelve months in the chain-gang for private work done on his own farm on Sunday. 326

And now, as appears from the letter printed on page 275, like sentences of ninety days each, are hanging over W. A. McCutchen, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and E. C. Keck, a Seventh-day Adventist teacher.

Nor is this all. The Austell Adventist is again threatened with arrest, as are also others of the same faith in Georgia. These facts, together with recent revelations of horrible cruelties practiced upon helpless convicts by the chain-gang authorities suggest the awful possibilities, yea, even probabilities, of the Southern chain-gang system.

As yet no man, so far as we know, has actually served in the Georgia chain-gang because of his religious opinions and practices, but men have so served in both Henry and Rhea counties, Tennessee: and at the date of this writing, seven Seventh-day Adventists are so serving in the latter-named county: and, like Mr. Allison, these men are threatened with further persecution in case they refuse to violate conscience and surrender their God-given and constitutional rights.

These convicted Adventists have been as humanely treated as it is possible to treat men who, for no offense against their fellow-men, are taken from their homes and families, and required to subsist upon prison fare, and to work ten hours per day under a southern sun, for daring to obey a command of God. But such a denial of sacred rights is itself barbarous cruelty.

In both Henry and Rhea counties, Tennessee, the chain-gang had fallen into disuse because it was found to be unprofitable, and it was revived specially for the punishment of Seventh-day Adventists. This is indicative of the temper of the Tennessee authorities.

The constitution of Tennessee provides that “No person shall in time of peace be required to perform any service to the public on any day set apart by his religion as a day of rest.” Shielded by this wise and humane provision of the fundamental law of that State, no effort has been made in Tennessee to compel Seventh-day Adventists to labor upon the seventh day, the Sabbath of the Lord. 327 But the constitution of Georgia contains no such provision, and in view of the revelations of horrible cruelty already referred to, it is easy for the imagination to picture the treatment in store for the conscientious Christian who, being sentenced to the Georgia chain-gang for loyalty to the Sabbath, refuses to labor upon that day.

Some of the abuses of the Georgia chain-gang system have just been brought into public notice by a suit which has been entered by an ex-convict against the penitentiary lessees for damages, for injuries inflicted upon him by the barbarities to which he was subjected while serving in the chain-gang.

This man, Harvey Merritt, a negro, was, when he entered the chain-gang, strong and healthy. He was pardoned recently by the governor, only a shadow of his former self, being a complete physical wreck. Shortly after being placed in the chain-gang, Merritt was taken down with rheumatism and was unable to work. His legs and hips were so swollen that he could not walk; and yet he was refused medical assistance, and was subjected to the most inhuman treatment. We [274] quote his own words as they appeared in the New York Herald, of August 18:—

Dr. McCown, who was in charge, said I wasn’t sick at all, and would not treat me. But all the five weeks, each morning they dragged me out to the works [a brickyard], which were about a half a mile out, and let me lie there all day. Then they dragged me back at night. They dragged me head first on my breast, and wore the skin all off of my belly and breast.

“For the first ten or fifteen days this man was not whipped. Then one of the lessees,” says the Heralds correspondent, “visited the camp and ordered the whipping boss to give him a hundred lashes a day for three months, or, until he would work. In vain did the poor convict explain that he was sick.”

The next day the doctor and the lessee came to where Merritt was lying, in front of the building.

“Get up and walk,” ordered the lessee.

The negro complained that he could not.

Then Captain James, who was whipping boss, took a heavy pole and beat the negro with it. “I was lying down,” he says,” James hit me on the back of the head and shoulders. He was beating me when the doctor told him to stop, saying that anybody could see that I was sick.”

Subsequently, this man was given seventy-five lashes. When cold weather came on he was refused shoes or sufficient clothing, and both his feet were badly frozen.

This man has employed as his attorney Col. E. N. Broyles, one of the best lawyers in Georgia, a man notably conservative, and one who does not figure in sensational cases. Colonel Broyles hesitated for some time to take this case because the statements made by the negro seemed to be incredible. He began an investigation, however, and was soon fully satisfied that the man was telling the truth.

The case of Merritt is an extreme one, but by no means isolated. Last winter there were numerous cases reported from Georgia, in which convicts suffered severely from insufficient clothing: some were compelled to work almost naked in icy water until their feet were frozen, and they were permanently crippled. Some lost portions of their feet, and in one or two cases, legs had to be amputated.

Such are the abuses to which, under the Sunday law of Georgia, God-fearing men, good citizens, 328 good neighbors, kind husbands and fathers, are liable to be subjected at any time; for while the abuses cited have occurred in connection with the penitentiary system, it is stated by the Herald that—

If the abuses in the penitentiary proper are bad, the abuses in the collateral branch, known as the county chain-gangs, are infinitely worse.

The men who are sentenced by the courts to short terms for misdemeanors—the men who, in the eyes of the courts, are not guilty of crimes [felonies]—fare worse than do the convicts in the penitentiary proper.

One of the editors of the AMERICAN SENTINEL visited Georgia recently for the express purpose of learning for himself the truth about the chain-gang system, and seeing for himself convicts actually at work in chain-gangs. He saw, in the city of Atlanta, working in the Exposition Grounds and on streets adjacent thereto, several hundred convicts, each man wearing a chain: and watching each gang was a guard, with a Winchester rifle or a double-barreled shot-gun, ready to shoot down any man or boy who might attempt to escape.

Many of these men worked in an aimless, hopeless sort of way as though all the spirit was crushed out of them. Some wore double sharp tones, which indicated that they would brook no disobedience; and altogether the scene was one never to be forgotten.

Each country is allowed to work its misdemeanor convicts in chain gangs, and they are put to work on the roads or streets. It is not an unfamiliar sight to see men and boys wearing heavy shackles, working upon the roads, or upon the streets of cities; and, as in the case of the chain-gangs already described, each squad has its guard armed with a Winchester rifle or a double-barreled shot gun and a six shooter. The State has no reform school, and the writer saw boys of twelve or fourteen years of age wearing striped suits and working with other convicts in the chain-gang in Atlanta. Some of these boys looked like anything but hardened criminals, and were probably more sinned against than sinning. The younger ones did not wear chains while at work. Not long since, one of these boys was beaten to death by an inhuman overseer. A correspondent of the New York Herald, speaking, August 18, of the youthful convicts working in county chain-gangs, says:—

A Dodge County boy who was convicted of a misdemeanor, was sent to a chain-gang in Laurens County. He was needed in Dodge to testify in another case, and he came back there practically a physical wreck. It was shown that he had been so badly beaten that he could scarcely walk. There were great welts all over him. The evidences of cruelty were so marked that the county authorities at once presented the facts to the governor, and the boy was pardoned.

Another instance of cruelty in a county chain-gang, is thus reported by the same writer:—

William Griffin, a white convict, was interviewed by the Yaldosta Times, and told the story of how, on Christmas Eve, he saw one of the convicts flogged so badly that he died that night. This was in one of the private chain-gangs, which are operated in some of the smaller counties. The county itself has not enough convicts to warrant running a chain-gang of its own. Some enterprising individual succeeds in leasing these convicts and those from other small counties near by, and there he operates it, the absolute monarch, without any restraint whatever. Instances have been cited where these men have held convicts beyond the time for which they were sentenced.

Griffin thus tells of the rations served in some of the county chain-gangs:—

For breakfast, half a pone of corn bread and a [275] small slice of meat; the same amount of bread and a slightly larger slice of meat for dinner; half a pone of bread and a little syrup for supper. Sometimes a small amount of greens at dinner, not half as much as a man would want to eat.

The term “meat” means here the side of hogs, almost all fat and heavily salted. The complaint is universal among the men that they do not have enough to eat.

As might be expected, the accommodations for sleeping are no better than the rations. At night the convicts are kept in ill-smelling, vermin-infested stockades. There is one such in Atlanta. The convicts are packed together like sardines in a box. A central chain runs through the building, and to this all the convicts are fastened by the leg-chains which they are required to wear constantly. Many stories are told of shameful neglect of these chained men. In fact, horrors equaling the stories of the sufferings of Russian exiles to Siberia are of every-day occurrence in the chain-gangs and stockades of Georgia.

These details are revolting even when we know that the men who suffer these things are justly deprived of their liberty and required to render services to the public; but revolting as are such scenes, they pale before the scenes which are almost certain to be witnessed erelong in the State of Georgia, when honest, God-fearing men shall be driven in the chain-gangs of that State and most barbarously treated for refusal to work upon the divinely-appointed Sabbath of the Lord.

Such injustice in milder form has been witnessed already in other States. But Georgia presents an unusually promising field for revolting outrages against religious liberty, from the fact that the laws of that State provide that one guilty of violating the Sunday law, may be “punished by a fine not to exceed $1,000, imprisonment not to exceed six months, to work in the chain-gang upon the public works, or on such other works as the county authorities may employ the chain-gang, not to exceed twelve months; and any one or more of these punishments may be ordered, at the discretion of the judge.”

Persistent refusal to work in the chain-gang would be counted insurrection, and might be punished with death; and would certainly be punished very severely by the grasping contractors. It is fearful to contemplate the probabilities growing out of the Georgia Sunday law; for Seventh-day Adventists convicted under that law would certainly refuse to work on the Sabbath; and judging by the treatment accorded to other prisoners, they could expect no mercy from their inhuman overseers. And yet we are living in the closing decade of the nineteenth century, in “free America,” a so-called Christian land.

The question has been asked, “What if Christ should come to London, or Chicago, or to Congress?” But is it not equally pertinent to ask, What if he should come to Tennessee or Georgia, and there find in prisons, stockades, and chain-gangs, Christian men condemned for loyalty to the “Sabbath of the Lord”? Would he not say:—

I have come, and the world shall be shaken

Like a reed, at the touch of my rod.

And the kingdoms of time shall awaken

To the voice and the summons of God:

No more through the din of the ages

Shall warnings and chidings divine,

From the lips of my prophets and sages,

Be trampled like pearls before swine.

I turn from your altars and arches,

And the mocking of steeples and domes,

To join in the long, weary marches

Of the ones ye have robbed of their homes;

I share in the sorrows and crosses,

Of the naked, the hungry and cold,

And dearer to me are their losses

Than your gains and your idols of gold.

I will wither the might of the spoiler,

I will laugh at your dungeons and locks.

The tyrant shall yield to the toiler,

And your judges eat grass like the ox.

For the prayers of the poor have ascended

To be written in lightnings on high,

And the walls of your captives have blended

With the bolts that must leap from the sky. 329

“Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” But deliverance is none the less certain. The justice of God slumbereth not.

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