For almost 150 years, the memoir of 19th-century Auburn Prison inmate Austin Reed seemed lost to history.
Now that the memoir has been recovered and published, its editor hopes it will be found in history classes everywhere.
Austin Reed's "The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict" tells the Rochester native's life story, from a middle-class childhood in 1820s Rochester to repeated larceny sentences at Auburn. He wrote the manuscript there in 1858-1859.
After that, it's not clear what happened to the memoir — until it surfaced at a Rochester estate sale years ago. It made its way to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where Caleb Smith and other researchers authenticated it through prison, newspaper and other records.
Smith, a professor of English and American studies at Yale, also edited the memoir for publication by Random House. The book will be released Jan. 26.
In a phone interview Thursday, Smith said a possible clue to the memoir's missing years lies in Auburn. A note in the manuscript addressed to prison chaplain Benoni I. Ives, of the Methodist Episcopal church in Auburn, said, "This is the first part of my book. Please don't lose it."
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However, Smith continued, it's more likely the memoir went back to Rochester with Reed, who was released from Auburn in 1866. It's unknown when he died.
The seller of the manuscript also declined to be identified, and wouldn't answer questions, Smith said.
Nonetheless, Smith and the team at Yale almost immediately saw the significance of the memoir's discovery: It is the earliest known prison memoir written by a black inmate.
Its setting positions Reed's work to be significant in another way, Smith said.
"The deepest significance of the story for us is the way Reed had already perceived, in 1858, the continuities between slavery and the prison system that was just taking its modern shape," he said. "That's the really striking thing. I don't believe we have any document from the 19th century that makes that connection so forcefully."
Set in state-of-the-art Auburn Prison in the final years of slavery, Reed traces the machinery of a system where, today, one in three black American men spend some portion of their lives.
He describes himself as "constantly in rebellion" against that system, and suffered dungeon stays, whippings and shower-baths (a primitive form of waterboarding) as a result.
Yet his tone is inventive and lyrical, Smith said, probably due to Reed's well-read teen years at Manhattan's House of Refuge juvenile reformatory. He was sentenced there at 10 for arson on the property of the Ladd family, to whom he was indentured a year prior.
"On one page he's writing in the somber tone of a temperance sermon, a few pages later he introduces what could be a playful passage from an outlaw ballad," Smith said.
That literary quality — plus the invocation of figures from Auburn history like William H. Seward and the fellow inmate he'd later defend, William Freeman — will make Reed's memoir worthwhile to readers both local and worldwide, Smith said.
"I hope it's widely read and widely taught at the university and high school levels," he said. "I think it could become a part of the way we study both American literature and American history."