Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Prisoners' Feast

996 young inmates from the Indiana Reformatory become heroes when they save the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville from inundation during the 1913 flood—and the townspeople warmly show their gratitude in a way unique in the annals of prison history.

“Landslide!” With a massive rumbling, a 250-foot-long section of a Pennsylvania Railroad embankment suddenly slumps, carrying along two telephone poles and pulling down their wires. Several telephone repairmen clinging to the pole abandon their repair equipment and sprint for safety. But, in the driving rain atop the railroad tracks, 53-year-old David C. Peyton—balancing upright against the moving earth’s strong vibration—stands his ground,
“Half a dozen volunteers!” Peyton shouts. “Save that telephone cable! Don’t worry! I’ll personally stand guard and sound warning if there’s another break!” Instantly, heedless of the danger, nearly 30 young men—all of them clad in prison garb—jump down to the muddy base of the embankment and begin retrieving the communications lifeline that connects the town of Jeffersonville, Indiana, to the outside world.

The citizens of Jeffersonville, Indiana, fete the entire prison population of the Indiana Reformatory with a grand banquet after the 996 young men battle night and day for more than a week to keep two levees strong against the Ohio River's powerful floodwaters, saving the town; story is reported at length in the Jeffersonville Evening News
“Strike up the band!” Peyton commands unexpectedly. Having earlier sensed the convicts’ morale flagging, after four straight days in freezing rain, repairing levees against record-high Ohio River floodwaters, he sends a message back to the Indiana Reformatory calling out its 40-piece band—which, thankfully, has just arrived. Heedless of the rain pouring off the brass instruments, the prison musicians launch into a foot-tapping lively air. Looking down toward the strong young laborers extracting the telephone cable from the mud, Peyton sees shoulders straighten courageously under sodden prison shirts. Meantime, 150 other inmates keep unfurling tarpaulins over the remaining embankment, filling sandbags, and throwing them onto the tarps to shield the landfill from the erosive power of the churning floodwaters.
In turning these young felons loose to work—practically as free citizens—Peyton, General Superintendent of the Indiana Reformatory in the Ohio River town of Jeffersonville—knows he is risking his career. Days earlier, on Saturday, March 29, 1913, after nearly a week of intense rainfall, Jeffersonville’s Mayor Dr. E. N. Flynn pleaded with Peyton for the manual labor of the reformatory inmates to help the town’s able-bodied men build up the height of the government levee east of town against the rapidly rising Ohio River.

In 1913, the idea of outdoor work for prison inmates was still fairly new. So was the concept that young (ages 16 to 30) first-time offenders had simply made an unfortunate mistake and could be genuinely reformed into good citizens and turned away from a life of crime—if they were housed in a reformatory away from the influence of hardened prisoners (who were jailed in separate penitentiaries), and given opportunities to learn trades and receive education and moral training.
As a medical doctor and former brigade surgeon, with the rank of Major, in the Spanish-American War, Peyton believed his role as head of the Indiana Reformatory—the nation’s second largest reformatory with an incarcerated population of nearly 1,000—was effectively that of hospital administrator, research psychologist, and father. “We now know that punishment has no place in the reformative treatment of defective men,” he stated in the Indiana Reformatory’s annual report of 1913. “In its place we have substituted the broader and wholly humane scientific treatment.”

Thus, since becoming superintendent in 1909, Peyton abolished the use of dark dungeons for solitary confinement, converted cell blocks into roomy and airy dormitories, offered classes in reading and arithmetic, and established military discipline and calisthenics for exercise and erect posture. He also allowed the inmates time outdoors to raise fresh vegetable crops for the kitchen; encouraged recreations such as team sports, plays, and music; trusted the inmates on the honor system; and interacted with the young men (average age 21) with respect, affection, and pride. He also hired colleagues who shared his convictions, “with the result,” Peyton noted, “that there is a complete change for the better in the spirit of the inmates, both towards this institution and towards society.”
Those years of positive prison culture ground what unfolds in Jeffersonville during the 1913 flood, when on Saturday, March 29, Mayor Flynn pleads for prisoner labor.

By then, so many telephone and telegraph wires were downed by the Good Friday windstorm and the Great Easter flooding across the Midwest, that Peyton cannot reach Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston to secure official permission. Undeterred, Peyton takes immediate action, and marches 68 reformatory inmates to the government levee. After a short pep talk in which he appeals to their sense of right, duty, and better manhood, Peyton sets them to work, free of any chains or restraints. With strength and determination, relays of strong young inmates load hundreds of wagons with clay and other material to reinforce the levee.
The next evening (Sunday), word comes that west of Jeffersonville the railroad “fill”—a raised train embankment (30 feet wide at the top, 60 feet wide at the base, and topped with two tracks), which also served as a de facto second levee protecting the town—was weakening. Peyton and the reformatory’s chief engineer J.A. Carter hasten to inspect the fill, discovering hundreds of small leaks. When Carter declares the fill would not hold another 24 hours, Peyton secures 100 tarpaulins, plus cement, sand, and 170,000 sacks for sandbags from the U.S. Army quartermaster’s Depot, which fortunately is also in Jeffersonville. Afterwards, he marches the reformatory inmates from the government levee to the railroad fill.

Peyton absolutely trusts his strong young prisoners to rise to the emergency. “With my 150 inmates scattered over a wide range of territory at nine o’clock Monday night, the city lights went out,” Peyton later recalled, “but every man continued to work as best he could until our own [temporary line of electric] lights could be put into operation. This took half an hour, at the end of which I did not deem it necessary to line up our men and make a count because I felt sure of the situation.”
From March 29 through April 5, the inmates tirelessly work 24/7. “My associates and I went from place to place, encouraging the men and expressing our confidence in their faithfulness,” Peyton continued. “I have never seen better evidence of the qualities which make for good citizenship than that displayed by these men during the trying days and nights of dangerous work. Not one man made an escape, nor was there a single attempt to do so.”

Thanks to the prisoners’ steadfast labor, under perilous conditions, both the government levee and the railroad fill hold against the pounding of the Ohio River’s angry floodwaters. Jeffersonville remains dry.
By Saturday, April 5, when the floodwaters were clearly receding, the Jeffersonville newspaper The Evening News reports that the question “on nearly every lip” is “What can we do to show our appreciation of the work of the inmates of the Indiana Reformatory?”—especially because “these inmates were working cheerfully and gratuitously for a city that was nothing to them, for it made not the slightest difference to them whether or not Jeffersonville was drowned and all her inhabitants with her.” The newspaper figures that the inmates’ labor, calculated at $2 per man-day, was worth at least $2,500, not to mention additional thousands of dollars in property saved. “It should be added the [land]slides always involved a possibility of death but these Reformatory ‘boys’ never flinched.”

During several town meetings, Jeffersonville’s citizens quickly conclude they should throw a huge banquet for the reformatory heroes. Estimating that such a huge feast would cost at least $500 to $600 (equivalent to between about $12,000 and $26,000 today), individuals and local  businesses donate so enthusiastically that fully $805.76—over 25% more—is raised in less than a week. The banquet date is set for Sunday, April 13, 1913. That weekend, the streets of Jeffersonville are fragrant with chocolate and vanilla as the town’s women bake 334 cakes.
After a morning program in the reformatory chapel, at noon the “Reformatory ‘boys’” sit down to a feast of baked chicken, sage dressing, giblet gravy, candied sweet potatoes, ice cream, cheese and crackers, and coffee. Afterwards, each man is allowed to take back to his dormitory room a third of a large cake, two apples, two oranges, and nearly a pound of candy.

For their own part, the inmates take up a collection among themselves, raising $100 (equivalent to about $2,500 to $4,500 today) with which they propose to present a gift to Peyton. Yes, that’s right—the felons want to give a present to their warden. He demurs, pointing out that a gift might be misunderstood by the outside world. But the men are not to be denied in showing their gratitude for his trust.
So, at the banquet, they present Peyton with a scroll, 21 feet long, signed by all 996 prisoners. It is a proclamation, recognizing Peyton as “a true friend who has shown himself to have our best interests at heart,” and declaring their unanimous intention to “maintain a clear record” for the rest of their time at the Reformatory, and to “support the administration in its splendid efforts for the best interests of this institution.”

©2012–2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at

Next time: Happy 2013! A Calendar of 1913 Flood Centennial Events - I

Selected References
Insightful background on the philosophy of David C. Peyton and his colleagues toward the inmates at the Indiana Reformatory is given in the letters of transmittal in the annual reports of the Indiana Reformatory to the Indiana Governor for 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1915. Amazingly, there is no mention of the 1913 flood incident in the annual reports, which are principally statistical documents except for the revealing cover letters. A biographical sketch of Peyton appears in Lewis C. Baird, History of Clark County, Indiana (Indianapolis, B.F. Bowen, 1909).

For statistics about the Indiana Reformatory at Jeffersonville compared to other reformatories in the nation (it was second in size only to Elmira in New York), see Frank Fielding Nalder, The American State Reformatory, With Special Reference to Its Educational Aspects (University of California Publications, vol. 5 (3): 289-467, March 10, 1920) In philosophy, Nalder summarizes, reformatives sought to “give each offender treatment according to his needs rather than punishment according to his crime” (p. 297). Referring to the 1913 flood incident, Nalder points out (p. 440) that it would have been to the inmates’ selfish interest to let Jeffersonville be inundated, as the act of moving the prison population to a safe place “could not have failed to furnish many excellent opportunities for escape.” The astonishing turn of events, where the town feted its prisoners, “was a valuable moral lesson both to the givers and to the recipients.”

Much detail about the 1913 flooding around Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the prisoners’ work on the government levee and the railroad fill is found on the front pages of the Jeffersonville newspaper The Evening News between March 21 and April 21, 1913. Because Peyton had not previously secured permission from Indiana Governor Samuel M. Ralston, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in print on April 9 as to whether or not the governor approved of the use of the prisoners. Ralston “replied to the effect that he did not know of the employment of the men until he saw about it in the papers but when the matter thus came to his knowledge he did not disapprove of it. The Governor gave the impression of being glad that such a course was pursued in a time of crisis without allowing red tape to delay for one minute the utilization of this means of protecting the city.”
Peyton’s recollections of the incident are quoted in “Reformatory Inmates Saved Town from Flood,” The Survey, vol. 30 (10): 317-319, June 7, 1913. The Survey, a weekly periodical of social work, also contains useful background articles about progressive-era prison reform in the early 20th century.

Sarles, Jane, Clarksville, Indiana (Arcadia Publishing, 2001) includes photographs of the Indiana Reformatory, David C. Peyton, and the inmates at work on the railroad embankment.
The figures of 100 tarps and 170,000 sandbags appears in Henry, Alfred J., The Floods of 1913 in the Rivers of the Ohio and Lower Mississippi Valleys. Bulletin Z. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Weather Bureau. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1913.

Pisciotta, Alexander W., Benevolent Repression: Social Control and the American Reformatory-Prison Movement (New York University Press, 1994) provides interesting background including to Peyton and the Indiana Reformatory.

Translating 1913 money values into today’s equivalents a century later is a challenge, but useful ranges are provided in online calculators. See Officer, Lawrence H. and Samuel H. Williamson, “Measures of Worth” and “Seven Ways to Compute theRelative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1790–2006” . See also How Much Is That?” and “Current Value of Old Money”.
Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me at )

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