The “Given-Up” Man
It was a gloomy day; clouds hung low over the big city, and a fog stole in up the river to add a touch of chilly dampens to an atmosphere that weighted on one’s spirits, and rob the air of the electric influences that make life joyous and easy to live.
My little office is on the shady side of the building, and so overshadowed by other big structures that slight on the best of days cannot gain access to my windows. On such a day it is many shades darker, and the atmosphere becomes decidedly depressing. A big pile of accumulated mail lay head on the desk, and as often happens, by strange coincidence the tings therein seemed somewhat to partake of the depressing influences abroad in nature that day. Some letters refused requests I had made; others told sad tales that weighted my heart with their burdens; and yet others asked of me help that I could not possibly give. There were other d difficulties to face and burdens to carry that were not in the ail, and as the hours dragged along and the dampness and darkness germ without, so didi my heart droop within, until the barometer of my spirits registered a very low mark.
In the early afternoon a friend dropped in to see me and, knowing my love of flowers, handed me a bunch carefully wrapped in the wax paper that could defy the spoiling influences of the heavy weather. When I carefully untied the wrappings and shook out the blossoms, I found them to be golden fleur-de-lis, as perfect in form and color as careful cultivation could make them. NO wonder, I thought, as I looked at their stately erectness, the graceful curl of each fair petal and the delicate pencilings on the yellow, saffron and amber-tinted ground, that they were chosen as the royal emblem of France.
Carefully I arranged them in a bowl on my desk, and as I looked at the gorgeous mass it seemed to me that they were a cluster of imprisoned sunbeams come to brighten my office when earth-made clouds and ugly bricks and mortar had shut out the sun. All through the afternoon I would turn from my work from time to time and catch the bright smile of my flowers, and it was wonderful how they dissipated the gloom, lightened the atmosphere and cheered by somewhat drooping spirits. Sweet little messages from nature’s wonderful boo, how much they cheer our lives if we will but read their message aright!
When evening came and office hours were over, I thought with some anxiety of the journey before me. Every New Yorker knows the crush of the “rush hour,” when tired workers leave the city and its whirl fo business for their suburban homes. Very tenderly I wrapped up my glorious flowers, and carried them as carefully as I could, but it seemed to me that night as if I had never been so jostled by the crowd, and I feared for the delicate petals that could so easily be raised and crumpled as a result. When I reached the train and put them u in the little rack above my head, I feared that the stifling heat of the car would further wilt them, and so, the journey through, little things I should hardly have noticed became all of them formidable as a menace to the treasures that I sought to guard.
Arrived at home, i carefully arranged my flowers in a bowl and looked them over to see what damage had been done. Here and there a petal was bent or crumpled, but otherwise they seemed unhurt and adorned our table with their glorious colors, like a flock of golden butterflies poised for a moment on the green stems — so light and airy that one might expect them to rise and flit away.
The next morning as I looked at them more closely I noted a small change: the freshness was a little past, and here and there, where a petal had been bruised, a slight brown discoloration was visible; still, through that day they were very bright and pretty. Twenty-four hours later I mourned over faded flowers. The golden tints had passed to palest yellow, and a brown stain was marring every petal where it has been crushed or crumpled. The following day, what had been a bunch of royal flowers was nothing ut a wilted mass of poor little brown rags, hanging limp and withered to each green stem.
I stood disconsolately mourning over the fact that what had been so pure, so right, so beautiful, could now be so defaced and worthless. A careless passer-by, caring little for the flowers or their message, might have said, “Don’t waste your time in regrets. Throw them away. Their day is done; they are only an unsightly mass of rubbish in your room.” But, as I looked, I saw something that changed the whole aspect of the case and brought a thrill of hope for the future. Beneath each poor, faded flower was a firm green bud-sheath, and at the tip of each bud a tiny gleam of gold was visible. In a moment I was at work with my scissors, cutting away the faded blossoms. Then I trimmed the stems, gave them fresh water, and my bouquet was a mass of tall green stalks. There was nothing more I could do; no human hand was delicate or tender enough to let out those imprisoned petals, but I knew that what I could not do, another power, silent, tender but strong, could surely accomplish.
I took the bowl and placed it on the window-sill, where the bright rays of sunshine could warm the buds and call this imprisoned blossoms out to the freedom and sweetness of life. Twenty-four hours later a mass of yellow fleur-de-lis brightened my room again, each royal flower perfect in form and color, untouched, unsoiled, as fair as when they had first come to gladden my office. Turning from my flowers, I looked up into the sunshine and thanked God for the lesson, and I seemed to hear the sweet message of hope and love ring out with new force and meaning.
When we look out over the lives of those whose souls have been soiled, who talents and very manhood have been prostituted to evil, whose hopes and chance sin life are blighted, we are prone to be hopeless concerning their future. If the shadow of prison walls is around them, and the sigma of detected crime has blackened their name and character, the world says of them, “That man is done for; he has thrown away his chances; he will never make anything of life after this.” If he be one who has lived long in crime, who has been especially reckless, hardened and desperate in character, one for whom no one has a good word and who has been but a denizen of the under-world, then the world will indeed say that the case is hopeless, that efforts would be wasted in trying to touch the hardened heart or seeking to kindle the star of hope in the dark night that has closed in around the “given-up” man’s miserable wretch of a life. Fortunately, the world’s harsh judgment is often hasty, and based more on what is seen of the difficulties of a situation than upon the possibilities that underlie the surface.
There is an old saying that is often glibly passed from lip to lip and uttered even by good people, who would feel deeply incense if charged with falsehood, and yet it is cruelly, wickedly false, “Once a thief, always a thief; once a convict, always a convict.” When first I undertook to study the questions that involve the present and future welfare of our country’s prisoners, this fallacy was quoted to me by those who said that I was entering a field where only bitter disappointment and failure awaited me, and that those who had upon them the taint of crime were beyond hope. Then it was that my heart gloried in the fact that those of us who go as messengers of the great King of love and mercy can vie the poor, sin-stained, self-wretched lives of men from His standpoint, and not from that of the world. Beneath the very evident failure and wrong, we may look deep down in the poor, hopeless heart for the bud of promise that, all unknown to themselves, may yet be awaiting the touch of a higher, stronger power than any that has yet reached them. I believed when I first went to a prison, and I believe a hundredfold more intensely now, that in every human heart there is something to reach, and that there is an Influence above that will step in where human love and work and effort t could not avail to bring about much-needed awakening and unfold a revelation of future possibility Yes, thank God, there is a sunshine that can force its way through prison bars and work wondrous and unexpected miracles bringing forth beauty of life, earnestness of purpose, and a genuine chance of heart where such results seemed the most utterly unlikely and impossible.
I was visiting one of our largest prisons in the Eastern States on a certain Sunday about a year after our work had been begun there. The warden, as was his won’t, met me with his carriage at the depot. His greeting was a very cordial one, and almost at once he began to talk of the work as he had seen it within his own prison. “Yes,” he said, “Mrs. Booth, we are glad to welcome you here, because your work makes our work easier. Hardly a day passes but that some officer remarks to me on the improvement in the behavior of the “boys.” There is no doubt that your Volunteer Prison League is a great help to the prison discipline. Many of your boys” are doing well, and they are often those who were the very worst and most unmanageable among our prisoners.” I told hi how glad I was to receive so good an account of our League members, and then he said, “By the way, Mrs. Booth, you have had a loss since you were last here.” I answered that I was aware that one of our League members had died, and he inquired if I knew the man’s history. On my answering that I knew him only by the very earnest letters that he had written to me from time to time, the warden told me the story of his life, adding that the opinion of all who knew hi in the prison, concerning the wonderful change that had come to him, was that it could be spoken of as nothing short of a miracle.
So far as the authorities could learn ,this man had been from childhood an unruly an incorrigible spirit. In boyhood his malicious mischief had been the annoyance of the neighborhood in which he lived, and with the growth of years he became more and more a terror to the neighborhood, being foremost amid his companions in every devilry and evil that it was possible to contrive and perpetrate. He was at last caught and charged with a crime that meant State Prison. At the trial he behaved with all the impudent nonchalance of one utterly hardened and indifferent, and made the worst impression on the judge and jury. As other crimes, for which he had not been caught, were suspected against him, and his evil life was easily proved, the verdict in this particular case went very hard against him. he was sentenced to two and a half years in the State Prison. when the sentence was imposed, the prisoner was so incensed that he gave vent to a violent fit of rage. He made scene in the court-room, abused the judge, using the most improper and vile language. For this action two and a half years were added to his sentence, as the judge felt that the mercy he had been inclined to show was not deserved. He was removed with difficulty, but apparently cooled down and became sullenly tractable. It so happened that when he was taken to the depot to e removed to the State Prison, the judge who had sentenced him was also waiting on the platform for a training coming in an opposite direction. Watching his opportunity when the noise and confusion fo the two incoming trains diverted the guard’s attention, he wrenched himself loose, flung himself upon the unsuspecting judge, trying to throw him beneath the approaching engine. In the struggle, however, with the assistance of the guard, he was worsted, and the officers removed him, violent with rage, to the jail again. brought once more into court for this assault, he had five years added to his sentence, and reached the prison with ten years to serve.
From the hour of his arrival, the officers were made aware of his violent, desperate and evil disposition, and he soon gained a reputation of being the worst man in the prison. He could never be trusted a moment, was up to ever evil and insubordinate act possible, gave every one all the trouble he could, and was constantly reported for punishment. Those who watched him could see no redeeming point in his character. He was a typical case of the “given-up” man, for whom n one has any faith and in whom they would not dream of finding any spark of good. He cared for neither God nor man, and seemed utterly indifferent regarding himself. Punishment seemed only to make hi worse, and he made every possible excuse to get out of the work which the law required him to do.
The day of my first meeting with the prison population came at a time when that prison could boast of no chapel for the accommodation of those who wished to listen to a message of better things. Improvised seats were placed in one of the long cell-houses, and a small platform erected at one end transformed it on Sundays into a temporary chapel. How well I remember that day of my first introduction to those I was to visit so often and to learn to know so well. The warden and chaplain accompanied me to the platform, and the Hon. Foster L. Voorheses, later twice governor of the State, was with us an an onlooker.
What an audience it was! The men, dressed in the hideous red and black stripes, since abolished, sat crowded in solid row after row down the long corridor. Many of the faces showed unmistakably the hard life and hopeless experience that had for years held them prisoners of fate. The wondrous message of Christ’s evangel has in no way lost th old-time power that thrilled listening crowds in Galilee and old Jerusalem. Where the heart is them most needy, the should smarting the most bitterly under its wounds and misery, the message is the most welcome; and it is there that I have often found it the most quickly heeded. There is a saying, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Instead of speaking of the prisons as the most unlikely place for hearts to be reached and touched, we should realize that those who have reached and crossed those portals of doom are just where we can really their weakness, folly and sin, and where they are most likely to cry out, as did the thief on Calvary’s cross, “O Lord, remember me!” Before the close of that service tears coursed their way down many cheeks. Heads are bowed in shame and penitence, and when a call was made for those who were ready to quit the old life and start out in a career of new purpose and promise, many, regardless of watching guard or laughing companion, took a bold public stand for the right.
There had been a discussion before the service between the warden and his officers as to the possibility of letting their especially bad prisoner attend in the chapel. Was it not possible that he would use this occasion for stirring up trouble? Could he be trusted even right under their eyes to behave in a decent manner? Might he not try to stir up a riot among the men? It was determined, however, to give him the benefit of the doubt, and their surprise can be imagined when he was seen to rise with the tears streaming down his cheeks as he declared silently but resolutely his determination to live a new life. Hope had reached that poor, unlikely heart. A beam of heaven’s light had penetrated the darkness of sin and ignorance that had shut him in a miserable narrow world so apart from his fellow-men.
Was it my voice he heard, my bidding he obeyed? A, ho; the human hand cannot unfold the bud or bring forth the beauty of the hidden flower in the soul quickened to new life. It is the Divine touch that is needed ere the greatest of all miracles can be accomplished. We could not hear the cry of that poor soul as he stood there, silent, with bowed head and tear-stained cheeks, but all unknowingly it voiced again the words of that other guilty, hopeless, “given-up” man, breathed in Calvary’s death agony. We cannot doubt the answer, all-forgiving, tender, loving and strong, “This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” To the poor soul in a hell of its own making, what a wonderful revelation of the new life! What a peace after storm! What a guiding star to future life and hope and victory must be to it that message of the martyred Christ.
“From that hour,” said the warden, “this prisoner was an absolutely changed man. From being the worst, most insubordinate under our charge, he became as gentle and tractable as a little child. He was industrious at his work, patient, willing, goodo-temebered, and in every way lived up to the profession he had made.”
As I listened to the warden’s testimony, the letters which this “boy” had written to me came back very vividly to my mind. They had been very simply and earnestly written, and had shown wonderfully the development and efforts, the trials and victory, of a would struggling out into the light, earnestly seeking to follow “the gleam” upon a new and, at first, difficult path.
In one letter he told me of the wonderful comfort he gathered from the little Day Book, which is the “Daily Light” section fo Scripture passages. To one who had never had the bible, who had never come under church or Christian influences, every message in the little book was absolutely new. With a simple, childlike faith, he accepted it as a letter direct to his heart from his Father in Heaven. He told me very simply how, each morning, when he arose, he would red the portion for the day on his knees; and how, in the difficulties and temptations of the day in the workshop, the messages would come to his heart over and over again, like notes of warning and whispers of encouragement. Then, at night, when he knelt to pray, most tired and depressed sometimes after the struggle through which he had passed, it would seem to him as if his Saviour spoke, through the written page, words of comfort and cheer which would ring sweetly in his heart until the night brought the unconsciousness of sleep.
Though many years separated him from liberty, he looked forward with a pathetic longing to the Home we had opened for those who left State Prison determined to do right Hope Hall was indeed to him “home, Sweet Home,” and while he prepared himself to make the most of all the Home would offer him, he counted the years and months and days that were before him, as a child might count the days of a long term before the glad return to home and dear ones.
So this very humble follower of the saner-loving Christ carried his cross and lived earnestly up to its light within the shadow of the State Prison, one little unit in the great League that was to link men’s hearts, from prison to prison, all her this big country of ours, in a new, good purpose for honesty and uprightness. Nearly forty thousand men since his day have joined the League, but who shall say that the one unseen life-link was not of vital important in the forming of the great chain?
All unexpected, one night, a messenger passed down the stone corridor, one to whom no watching guard could deny admittance. He stopped at the bared door of this prisoner’s cell, and even those stern bars could not hinder his entrance. The call was clear; the touch that bid the prisoner follow was not to be disregarded, for he looked up into the face of the Angel of Death. Oh! why do we, in our earthly blindness, paint this celestial messenger as a grim specter, with bony hand and cruel scythe? Why the trailing black robes and grinning skull? Surely, to many he is an angel of light, with tender touch and loving voice, and arms that gently carry the wary soul to the heavenly land of sweet peace and rest; lips that proclaim liberty to the captive, victory to the struggling warrior, and life everlasting, joyous and sweet, to those whose earthly pat has been amid the shadows. So came God’s messenger to that prison cell. A few hours of suffering, patiently borne, and then the dropping to sleep for the great awakening in the sunshine of another world.
An officer who had taken much interest in him told me of those last hours. He had hastened to the hospital cot to which the prisoner had bene removed, and asked if there was anything he could do for him. “there is only one thing I want,” had been his response, “Ffetch me the little Day Book that has been such a comfort to me. I want to have it near me.” The dimming eyes could no longer see the words, but the little boo was laid on the pillow where the hands, growing cold in death, could reach up nd feel it. Hoping that he might yet recover, and thinking to rouse, him, the officer said, “Cheer up, you will soon b better; I’m going to eep your own cell for you.” He knew that even a cell can become something of a home-corner to the long-time prisoner when the walls are hung with the few treasures a man possesses, and when upon it stones he had often knelt to utter prayers that have made a dreary place sacred. A smile flitted one rthe prisoner’s face a he answered, ‘I shall want it no more; my pardon has come”‘ and it had come, signed by no pen of human governor, but signed and sealed by One who has said, “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions ,and, as a cloud, thy sins; renter unito Me; for I have redeemed thee.”
It was some weeks afterward that I received the good-by message of the comrade gone to form one of our first League-links to the other world. .A man who had served fifteen years in that prison had just come home to Hope Hall, and I had gone over to dine with my “boys” in honor of the occasion, for it means much to a man who has long looked forward to that wondrous day of liberty to feel that others rejoice with him also. He told me, as he sat at my side amid the happy crowd around our tables — representing, by the way, six or seven state prisons — that he had been at the death-be of this friend. Just before he died, he called him close and whispered, “Give my love to the Little Mother, and say that though I cannot come to the Home she has prepared for me, to which I have so looked onwards, I have gone to another Home, the one that my Saviour has prepared. Tell her that i will be waiting and watching for her at the gate.”
When I reach that gate and see again the face of that once hopeless man, bright with the joy and glory of the glad new world, I think I shall forget the world’s jeering prophecy of failure, the toil and tears, the difficulties and disappointments; and, as each soul is precious and worth a king’s ransom, I shall say, “It was worth while.”
Source: American Oratory of To-Day, ed. Edwin DuBois Shurter (Austin: South-West Publishing Company) 1910, pp. 196-198.
Also: Little Mother Stories, (New York: The Volunteer Prison League), 1906, pp. 36-52.