Weird Stuff

Of Lost Time Collection Features Famous Letters Written From Behind Bars

posted by Chris Valentine

Of Lost Time, the non-profit literary division of Future Science Group, is an organisation that publishes famous letters of note in a growing catalogue of curated collections, as well as offering finely tuned supporting academic videos, books, and blog materials. Their Letters for the Ages: Behind Bars anthology focuses on revelatory letters written from important incarcerated historical figures. 

While not every scribe who’s penned a prison missive is a household name, many of the things that landed the accused in lockup remain relevant and newsworthy today. Word of their struggles encapsulate a moment in time, often capturing prevailing attitudes and prejudices. Shedding light on prisoners’ hopes and fears, sharing their emotional journeys, and learning about their sometimes torturous day-to-day experiences from firsthand reportage offers insights into the social mores of the times in which the letters were written, and puts the idiosyncrasies of the criminal justice system with which prisoners were dealing in sharp historical focus.  

Of Lost Time’s Letters for the Ages: Life Behind Bars anthology presents written testimony from all stratas of society. Along with missives from the expected criminal element, the collection features letters from every walk of life — from artists and activists to doctors and politicians, women and men, old and young. 

Letters for the Ages: Life Behind Bars is a compendium of correspondence that contains historic and famous letters addressed to family members, lawyers, the press, and even the occasional co-conspirator. Some of the letters were pecked out on a prison typewriter; others were written in pencil, or penned in ink… and for a desperate few, etched in blood. From tales of brutal maltreatment to hopes for freedom to tacit threats to tear-stained good-byes from the condemned, this collection captures the true zeitgeist of life behind bars.  

Letters for the Ages: Life Behind Bars Gives Voice to the Historically Voiceless

History offers many famous examples of letters written by noteworthy citizens during their stints behind bars: As an inmate, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the outside world from the confines of a Roman dungeon. “De Profundis,” Oscar Wilde’s collected correspondence from Reading Gaol, is a heartfelt homage to Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Unjustly convicted of treason, French army officer Alfred Dreyfus writes to his family, urging them to remain strong, convinced even in his degradation, that he will eventually be exonerated, and “we will manage to discover the truth… on the tragic affair.”

One of the freedoms those in the enlighted world take for granted is the freedom to communicate. While people may not heed our words, when we speak, we expect at the very least to be listened to. As free individuals our voices have weight and meaning… but in prison that is not the case. Prison mail is often censored, but throughout history, those with a tale to tell have found many ways to do so —  even from the confines of a cell. 

Of Lost Time Highlights a Suffragette’s Struggles Through Historic Letters 

Sometimes these clandestine conversations recount systemic cruelty at the hands of prison staff and reveal how an inmate’s futile attempts to resist are met with even greater brutality… Worse yet, it’s all done in the name of adhering to accepted cultural strictures and given a stamp of approval while the public turns a blind eye. 

Nowhere are such atrocities more telling than in the historical first-person accounts of imprisoned suffragettes. This faction of female political prisoners challenged the status quo. They refused to remain chattel and demanded not just the right to vote, but the right to be heard. Boldly challenging societal norms, the suffragettes stirred up anger, indignation, and vitriol. They were considered by many to be mentally unbalanced. The backlash, especially for female inmates, could be humiliating on an emotional level and excruciating on a physical level.  

One particularly harrowing accounting of real-life prison horrors was written in 1913 by British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst in a letter to her mother, Emmeline, who along with her sister, Christabel, were at the forefront of the suffragette movement. Pankhurst, then 31, was able to get the letter smuggled out of the infamous Holloway Prison. It was later published by the Daily Mail. 

In it, Pankhurst then on hunger strike in a bid to gain attention for her cause as well as protest inhumane treatment, detailed the routine force feedings she endured for months on end as prison staff routinely pried open her jaws, inserted a rubber feeding tube into her oesophagus, and flooded her stomach with a liquid meal. 

“Dearest Mother,” Pankhurst wrote, “I am fighting, fighting, fighting. I have four, five and six wardresses every day as well as the two doctors. I am fed by stomach-tube twice a day… I resist all the time… I am afraid they may be saying we don’t resist. Yet my shoulders are bruised with struggling while they hold the tube into my throat.”

It was a procedure that spoke to torture, presaging modern-day waterboarding and other merciless methods employed in the attempt to coerce cooperation from prisoners of war. At the time however, it was considered a perfectly reasonable way to deal with unreasonable women.

Of Lost Time Brings a Modern Ear to Historic Voices

Letters for the Ages: Life Behind Bars is just one collection of iconic voices from the past. Some Of Lost Time other collections and publications include:

  • The Selected Letters of Sir Winston Churchill, examines Britain’s most famous 20th-century prime minister’s wit and leadership via his wartime correspondence and in the years beyond.
  • Christmas Cards for the Ages offers a curated historical selection of festive cards including one Winston Churchill sent to his American-born mom, cards delivered to WWI soldiers, a holiday greeting sent to James I of England, and the last known Christmas card U.S. President John F. Kennedy ever signed.
  • Letters for the Ages: Sport is an illustrated anthology of letters that encompasses a wide swath of sporting history penned by athletes, fans, and the occasional kidnapper. (The hate mail sent to the suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson after she interrupted the 1913 Epsom Derby is not to be missed.) More than merely a look at what happens on the pitch, this collection offers insights from scientists, authors, and political leaders on the impact of sports on the world at large.
  • Enrico Caruso: By Himself, a biography of world-renowned Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso. The archive includes numerous letters, postcards, and ephemera from the great impresario, translated into English.

Of Lost Time is on a mission to connect readers with the past by giving a home and a context to historic famous letters they might otherwise miss. By publishing these letters, Of Lost Time hopes to illuminate the key moments in history that continue to inform current global events in the fields of the arts, science, and politics. 

You may also like