A rare book dealer purchased an old hand-written journal at an estate sale and sent it to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. The meticulous script on 304 pages of antique paper was intriguing, and the text even more so. It appeared to be a first-hand account of one Austin “Rob” Reed, titled The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. Reed tells about his life in a Manhattan juvenile facility and later Auburn State Prison. He completed the journal in 1858.
“The big question was what exactly we were looking at,” says Caleb Smith, a literature professor at Yale, and one of three experts asked by the Beinecke to evaluate the manuscript. “Was it a novel? Was it a memoir?”
An expert in prison literature, Smith felt sure that the book was written by someone with firsthand knowledge of 19th-century correctional facilities. And if Haunted Convict was a genuine account, it would be groundbreaking: the earliest-known narrative penned by an African-American prisoner. Moreover, it had been unearthed at a propitious time. Nationwide, criticism of the costly and overcrowded prison system was growing, as was anger at soaring incarceration rates, especially among young black men.
The experts at Yale set out to authenticate the journal and find out more about Reed. Read about that process at Smithsonian. The short version of Reed’s life is at The History Blog. You can download the original manuscript at Yale University’s Beinecke Digital Collections. And the book is now available at Amazon. -via Metafilter
(Image credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library /Yale University)