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John Howard was born in Hackney, Middlesex County, England, September 2, 1726. The only existing record of this fact is the inscription upon his monument in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. His parentage came through a somewhat obscure family, his father being sometimes mentioned as an upholsterer and sometimes as a merchant of moderate means. Of his mother we know only her name--Chomley--and that she died when her second child, and only son, was an infant. The father was a strict, sturdy, honest, severe Puritan, the marks of whose character ever remained on the character of the son.
Howard relieving a Prisoner.
When twenty-five, his health entirely failed, and he was prostrated by a severe fit of illness, through which he was nursed by his landlady, Mrs. Loidore. Upon his recovery he made her his wife, in testimony of his gratitude, though history records that she had neither beauty, money, nor health, having been an invalid for twenty-two years, and was twenty-seven years his senior.
Two or three years after this seemingly ill-suited marriage, which, strange to say, seems to have been a not unhappy one, Mrs. Howard died. Immediately Mr. Howard, then twenty-eight or nine years of age, again left England for a second extended tour. This being the year of the great earthquake of Lisbon, he naturally turned his steps thitherward.
Setting sail from England for Spain, he was captured on the high seas by a French privateer, and for two months suffered the hardships and indignities of prison life in those times. Upon his release he used all his influence to secure the exchange of the remainder of his vessel's company, and was successful. This prison experience he never forgot.
Three years later (1758) he married Henrietta Leeds, a lady of fine character, and one to whom he was sincerely attached. Indeed, so fearful was he that their married life might not be entirely without jars, that he made a bargain with her, in advance of their marriage, that on all disputed points the adjustment should be according to his judgment. One is at a loss which member of a couple the most to admire, the man who could make such a proposition, or the woman who would bind herself with such bonds! But, like his first marriage, his strange contract with his second wife seems to have led only to happy results.
They settled in Cardington, upon the Howard estate, and for the next seven years led the uneventful life of landed gentry of the times. The husband and wife were united in their efforts to improve the morals and general condition of their tenantry. Rightly believing that the beginning of all reform was to improve the physical condition, Howard spared no expense in rearing new cottages upon new and improved plans, held his tenants removable at will, and through their improved conditions ruled over them with an almost despotic sway, tempered and made bearable in that all his restrictions and requirements were on the line of their temporal and spiritual advancement.
How strange is the making of history! Had the gentle, loving, well-governed, dependent Mrs. Howard lived on, this would no doubt have been the continuation, the aim, and the end of John Howard's life--to constantly advance and improve the interests and condition of his tenantry, and to wisely govern and administer his estate. But it was not so to be. The happy home must be broken up, and the man whom God needed must, through the sting of his own sorrow, be sent out again upon his wanderings to do the work reserved for him in the broad field not of his own choosing. The birth of the only child, a son, preceded the death of its mother by but a few days, and Howard was again alone. To the end of his life he remained a sincere and constant mourner for the wife to whom he owed the happiest, if not the most useful, seven years of his life. It is said by some of his biographers that he always kept the anniversary of her death as a solemn day of fasting and prayer.
Come we now to the point in his career where, all unknown to himself, Howard took up the work which was to startle the whole civilized world, and place his name in the roll of those whose memories die not.
But first let us remember the son whose life began where his mother's ended, and ended where it was well his mother had not lived to see it.
It would seem that the loss of his beloved wife and the sad recollection of his own motherless unloved boyhood, would have made of John Howard a tender and pitiful, as well as devoted father. Such was not the case, if we may judge from the vehemence with which some of his biographers deny the charges of undue severity to the infant, and forgetfulness and neglect of the growing-up boy, and the silence of others on the same subject.
The real truth probably was, so far as we can judge, that the man had nothing in his stiff nature and puritanical education, certainly nothing in his own early life, to make him respond to the uninteresting helplessness of infancy.
So we find him doing his duty by the crying infant of a few months, in a manner which would be amusing if it were not pathetic. He takes him from the nurse, lays him across his knees, and sits unmoved and unmovable until the tempest exhausts itself, and the child is silent from exhaustion, when he hands him solemnly back to the nurse, and feels that, by so much at least, has he cast out of the young child the spice of Old Adam, which is the birthright of us all! A few such experiences, we are told, and the child would at once cease its struggles and be silent. One would surely think it would!
But the silent, lonely man, bereft of the loving companionship of the gentle wife, who would so differently have soothed and silenced the crying infant, could not long bear the solitude of his broken home, and so began the years of wanderings, which lasted as long as his life, and through which he seems so largely to have lost sight of his young son at his most impressionable age, save to provide for his material wants, and to some extent, also, his education. When with him in later years he appears to have enjoyed his society, or at least the evidences which he gave of implicit, unreasoning obedience, illustrated by his remark, "I believe if I told the boy to put his hand in the fire he would obey me."
At four the boy was put into a boarding-school, and the home was broken up. The later glimpses which we get of his career are vague, unsatisfactory, or decidedly bad, until the end came, and "Jack" was incarcerated in a mad-house when but twenty-two, where his unfortunate life went out after twelve years' confinement in a darkness that darkened also the last years of his good, if injudicious, father, with a sorrow beside which all common bereavements should seem like blessings.
In 1769, then, we see the Cardington home broken up, the boy placed in a boarding-school, and John Howard setting forth upon what to him was but an aimless journey, in search of consolation, amid new scenes, for the shattered fortunes of his home. He travelled over large portions of Italy, and returned again to England, where in 1773 he was elected High Sheriff of Bedford. No sooner had he entered upon the duties of his office, than he was struck with the gross injustice of the practices, especially as affecting those prisoners held for debt. Many heads of families were held for months and years, not for the original debt for which they were incarcerated, which in many cases had been forgiven or paid, but for an accumulation of fees due to jailer and divers other officers of the prison, who drew their salaries from this source. Much astounded by such a state of things in a Christian land, but supposing it to be a peculiarity of his own county, he made a journey into some of the surrounding districts, to learn from them, if possible, some better method. It but augmented his indignation and distress to find their condition and methods worse even than at home, since in some he actually found the fees wrung from these unhappy prisoners to amount to so much that the office of jailer was sold to the highest bidder, the sum paid for the position often amounting to as much as #40 per annum.
On this tour Howard, now thoroughly awake on the subject, could not but observe the miseries of the prisoners from other sources, besides extortions. This might have been borne, but for the terrible crowding of herds of men and women, without regard to age, sex, character, or crime, into foul underground dungeons, damp, dark, unventilated, often unwarmed, with insufficient and unfit food and clothing, without beds, and many in chains. Such were the sights which met his gaze at every turn, and moved his soul with shame for his country, and a slow but deadly anger that, once kindled, died only with his life. Thoroughly and systematically he continued his investigation of the jails and prisons of England, until he had been over them all, which consumed nearly a year's time (travel was a different matter a hundred years ago, from now), and then made his report public, for which labor he was called before the bar of the House of Commons and received the thanks of that august body.
More satisfactory still, he had the pleasure of seeing two bills passed, one making the office of jailer a salaried position, thereby abolishing the whole iniquitous system of special fees from prisoners, the other having reference to improvements in ventilation and other sanitary matters.
The text of these bills he had printed in large bold type at his own expense, and sent them to every jail and prison in England. A few months later, being desirous of seeing whether or not the requirements of the new laws were being put into execution, he made personal inspection, riding by chaise or on horseback from city to city and from town to town.
Toward the last of this year, 1774, Howard made his first and last venture into the arena of political life. Being a man of strong, stern political convictions, and feeling it his duty to stand by his principles, he listened to the advice of friends, and made a stand for the House of Commons. Fortunately for the world he was defeated by four votes.
On such small hinges swing the doors of life. Had he been elected he would doubtless have sunk out of sight and been forgotten, and his great work would have been given to some other agent.
Though greatly disappointed at his failure, Howard's mind at once returned to the question of prison reform, and his next journey led him over Ireland and Scotland. The former he found worse and the latter better than England.
Being desirous of publishing a book upon his investigations and their results, he at the close of this year left England to examine the prisons of France, Flanders, and Holland. It surprises us much to learn that he found the prisons of Holland almost models, while France is declared far in advance of England, although these were the days of the Bastille! He also journeyed into Switzerland and again made a survey of the jails of England and Wales. Feeling at last that he had sufficient material he returned to England and began upon his book. For eight months he labored incessantly upon this work, correcting proofs, collating and arranging statistics, etc., although for the literary part he was obliged to call in the assistance of some of his learned friends, who, better than he understood the use of the king's English.
This book made a most profound sensation throughout the civilized world. That it might reach a more extended circulation, it was sold at less than the cost of production, and large numbers were given away among the officials. All this expense was borne by Howard out of his own private purse, as were at all times his immense and constant outlay in travel. Not only his whole private income, but the fortune of #15,000 received from his only sister at her death, was expended in the same manner.
Subsequently Howard published a second volume, in 1780, as an appendix to the first, and in 1784 a third and last, which was a compilation of the first two, with much added material acquired during his continuous travels over every part of Europe.
During the earlier and idler parts of his life, Howard had been pleased to dabble somewhat in medicine, after the manner of the gentlemen of his time. This stood him in good part upon his travels, and made him familiar with the various forms of disease that especially afflicted prisons and the people at large. For jail fever and typhus he rightly judged that the sanitary and food conditions were sufficient cause and attacked them from this basis. But having in a measure finished his jail and prison work, to his mind, he became possessed with the idea that he might search out and find a remedy for the dreadful plague that was filling all Europe with dismay. The methodical habit of the man's mind is evidenced by noting that he followed exactly the same method in this as in his former undertaking, namely, personal investigation and experience. He left home in July, 1789, and it is surprising that for six months he literally lived in the poisonous atmosphere of the pest-houses, pest-ships, and lazarettos of Europe, and escaped contagion. In January, 1790, however, in a little Russian village near the Crimea, he was called upon to prescribe for a young lady, ill with some low malignant fever, from which visit he contracted the same disease. Being then sixty-four years of age, naturally frail, worn down by sixteen years of hard, exhaustive toil, depleted by a diet that found no place for meats or stimulants, he had nothing upon which to rally, and rapidly sank into the long slumber which at last gave him what he had so many years denied himself--rest.
His remains were buried there in Russia in the village of Dophinovka. After his death a monument was erected to his memory, being the first placed in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. This was appropriately inscribed to his memory, although it was his latest expressed wish that he should be left to sleep in an unmarked, unknown grave.
A just estimate of the character of John Howard can only be arrived at by a careful consideration of the times in which he lived and the peculiar circumstances of his life. The natural inherited sternness of his character never felt the modifying influences of a mother's love or the companionship of brothers or sisters. His ill health added to his restless desire for travel and change, but unfitted him for close or continued application to any special line of thought or interest, while his early independence in the management of his fortune placed in his way strong temptations to extravagance and idleness.
It is therefore more than an ordinary indication of an inborn principle of humanity when we find him, upon his first settlement upon his father's estates, devoting time, thought, and money to the amelioration of the condition of his neglected and suffering tenantry. Model landlords were not in fashion in those times, and a man who so administered his affairs must have done so in the face of much criticism, ridicule, and contempt among his peers.
But none of these things seem to have moved him from the even tenor of his way. Yet there was no sentimentalism in his dealings with his tenants, as we find him holding them to a strict accounting for the use made of their improved conditions.
So of his prison work. It seemed to be all and altogether for the masses, and not for individuals. No record is left of personal almsgiving, save when resorted to as a ruse to obtain entrance to the French prisons. That his interest was not in individuals is further shown by the calm and deliberate manner in which he prosecuted his investigations, taking years for the accumulation of materials and months to their careful watching through the press. It was the principle of justice ingrained in the man's deepest nature that forced him to know all that could be known or said upon both sides before speaking. It was this thoroughness, this absolute fairness, that made of his work and of his inartistically constructed books the tremendous and lasting success which they were.
Deeply religious, he naturally reflected the spirit of the religious teachings of the times, which savored more of the terrors of the law than of mercy and forgiveness to evil-doers; that found more worship in denying self the indulgences of soft living than in the partaking of the harmless pleasures and sweets of life, giving a good God thanks for His good gifts. Through all the life and writings of Howard one constantly hears the minor chord of infinite sadness wrought into his life by his motherless infancy, his unloved boyhood, his years of invalidism, his ceaseless mourning for his wife Henrietta, the bitterness of death in the cup held to his lips by his unfortunate son, and over and above all, the constant atmosphere of crime, cruelty, sin, and suffering in which he spent the last sixteen years of his life. Life to him came to mean sin, suffering, and sorrow in the world about him, and for himself work, work, incessant work, in the effort to do what one man could to lift or lighten the burden under which the whole earth groaned. Death came to him where he would have most wished it might, and took him directly from labor to reward. And throughout the coming ages the world will be the better because in the last half of the eighteenth century there lived, labored, and died in the midst of his labors one John Howard, the Philanthropist.
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