The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America

Larry Holzwarth - December 23, 2020

The European nations which sent settlers to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries already had a long tradition of imprisoning people for unpaid debts, both public and private. In Great Britain, whole families sometimes found themselves forced to live in prisons, in often squalid conditions. They remained there at the whim of the person or persons to whom they were indebted, further burdened with the necessity of paying the prison for their upkeep. In 18th century Britain, an average of 10,000 persons entered debtor’s prison each year, forced to remain until their creditor approved their release, usually upon receipt of payment, or through other arrangements.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
18th-century engraving of Marshalsea Prison, one of several which held debtors in London. Wikimedia

One such arrangement consisted of entry into indentured servitude, often to a person departing Britain for the colonies in North America. In short order, debtor’s prisons developed in the colonies, and they remained in business when the colonies became the United States. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence subsequently spent time in prison for indebtedness. One, James Wilson, became one of the first Associate Justices of the Supreme Court. While serving in that office he twice spent terms in debtor’s prisons, having been financially ruined during an economic downturn in 1796. Another lost his fortune financing the American Revolution and spent time in debtor’s prison while the President of the United States resided in his house. Here is the bizarre history of debtor’s prisons in Europe and America, and some of the more famous people who served time in them.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Prisoners often had to pay for services such as having their manacles removed by a jailer. Wikimedia

1. Debtor’s prisons varied in conditions and rules across Britain

From the early 12th century, debtor’s prisons peppered the landscape of the growing metropolis of London. Unregulated by the government and operated for profit, each prison had its own rules and practices, established by its warden. Inmates paid for their food, for their upkeep, and for services such as having their shackles removed. The inmate’s ability to pay affected the conditions he suffered while imprisoned. Those with enough money to ingratiate themselves with the warden lived in private rooms, had food and drink delivered from outside the walls, and often enjoyed their freedom during business hours. Some even lived outside the walls of the prison, in rooms nearby.

Those less fortunate ate what they were fed, slept on straw mattresses, and incurred further debt. Some prisons, including London’s notorious Fleet Prison, allowed inmates to beg through iron-barred windows, importuning passers-by for charity. In most cases time in prison did nothing to relieve the obligations of the debtors; release was not based on a set period of time, but on the ability of the debtor to obtain a release from the creditor. Even after it was received, some prisoners remained incarcerated until they discharged their obligations to the warden incurred during their period in his custody. Some wardens exhibited greater compassion for humanity than others, but for nearly all a term in debtor’s prison represented the depths of despair.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
A debtor begging through the window at Fleet Prison, London. Wikimedia

2. The terms for indebtedness varied as widely as the conditions in the prison in 18th century London

In London, during the year 1779, a person could be sentenced to debtor’s prison for an unpaid obligation of as little as five pounds. Depending on the judge, the length of the sentence for such a debt could be as little as three weeks, or as long as twenty. Recidivism built itself into the system. A person completing a three-week sentence left the prison with no ability to pay, unless it came in the form of support from family or friends. Those not so fortunate soon found themselves once again before the judge as a repeat offenders, liable to a longer sentence. Protection against double jeopardy did not factor in with cases of indebtedness.

Obviously, for many flight offered the only option to avoid lengthy imprisonment and the social stigma it carried. Throughout the 18th century, more and more fled Great Britain to the colonies, where they temporarily enjoyed safety from the sheriffs tasked with arresting debtors. Others sought safe havens in the Low Countries and France. In the late 17th century, Daniel Foe spent time in debtor’s prison. Upon his release he left England for several years, traveling in Europe and at sea. When he returned it was under an assumed surname, Defoe, under which he published his many works, including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
James Oglethorpe envisioned the colony of Georgia as a sanctuary for debtors. Wikimedia

3. James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia as a haven for debtors

The last of the original 13 English colonies in America, Georgia was established in 1732. By then, several colonies hungry for labor had passed laws providing protection from creditors for established periods. In the case of Virginia and North Carolina, debtors were sheltered for five years, much to the outrage of those to whom they were indebted. In the case of Georgia, the colony’s founder, James Oglethorpe, became interested in debtor’s prisons when a long-time friend, Robert Castell, died while incarcerated for indebtedness. As a member of Parliament, Oglethorpe led a committee in 1729 to investigate the conditions in London’s prisons, called “gaols”, and what he found appalled him.

Despite his recommendations to reform the system and the prisons themselves, and the endorsement of several powerful members of London society, little was done. The jailers and their benefactors had powerful friends too. Oglethorpe and others sought permission to establish a new English colony, situated between Spanish Florida and the Carolina colony, for the benefit of Britain’s “unemployed and unemployable”. He banned both slavery and alcohol from his new colony, attempted to establish good relations with the natives he found there, and enacted laws designed to prevent his settlers from irritating the Spanish to the south. Founded as a haven for debtors, Georgia evolved into a slave colony and state, and debtor prisons existed there before the American Revolution erupted 4 decades later.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Winchester Palace in the late 17th century. Wikimedia

4. Nobles and members of the clergy gained wealth through debtor’s prisons

London’s many prisons held debtors throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, for varying periods and in widely varying conditions. Fleet, Marshalsea, and King’s Bench were just a few of the many debtor’s prisons in the growing metropolis which gained notoriety for the conditions present within their walls. Another, Clink Prison on London’s Stoney Street, gave the English language the colloquialism, “in the clink” in reference to an incarcerated individual. The Bishop of Winchester received the income from Clink Prison, derived from debtors as well as the heretics which he had the authority to imprison there. Winchester Palace, the Bishop’s residence, stood next door.

In London’s prisons and jails (called gaols at the time), prisoners who were awaiting trial for offenses against the law also had to pay for their food and any services, such as being released from their shackles. Those without the means to pay cash ran up debts for their pre-trial tenure. If found not guilty of the offense with which they were charged, they still owed their prison time, and those not able to pay could be held as debtors until the obligation was discharged. Guards and jailers also extracted funds from the prisoners, in the form of bribes. They could be jailed by the bishop if their extraneous income, presumably unreported to the authorities, came to light.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
An 1833 map displaying King’s Bench Prison and Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Wikimedia

5. Some debtors were incarcerated with criminals awaiting execution

Horsemonger Lane Gaol was built at the end of the 18th century, on the grounds of another jail which preceded it, to serve Surrey. As the primary prison for the area, it housed both debtors and criminals. Little distinction between the two applied to life within the prison walls. Built to house about 300 inmates, it usually exceeded its capacity, with about half of its inmates incarcerated for indebtedness. Between 1800 and 1877, the year before the prison was closed and replaced, 131 convicts sentenced to death by the courts had their executions carried out there. Most executions were by hanging, and most were open to the public.

On November 13, 1849, Frederick and Maria Manning, a husband and wife convicted of murder, were executed via public hanging at the jail. Charles Dickens witnessed the hanging and wrote angrily of the behavior of the crowd in a letter to the The Times. Dickens’ himself was no stranger to the horrors of debtors’ prisons. In his letters, some of his novels, and in speeches on both sides of the Atlantic, he decried the practice of incarcerating debtors alongside criminals throughout his life. He gained his knowledge of debtor’s prisons early in his youth, in a manner which shaped many of the characters he later created in his novels and short stories.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Charles Dickens knew well the perils and pain of debtor’s prisons. Wikimedia

6. Charles Dickens’ father spent time in debtor’s prisons

Charles Dickens was the second-oldest child of John and Elizabeth Dickens. In 1824 John Dickens, after the sale of all of his household furnishings failed to generate enough cash to pay a debt, entered Marshalsea Prison. Elizabeth and the four youngest Dickens children had little choice but to join him there. Twelve-year-old Charles Dickens became the de facto head of the family and its principal breadwinner, leaving school and taking a job. Dickens earned six shillings per week, pasting labels on pots of boot polish. He worked ten hours per day, six days per week. He lived in a run-down boarding house run by a Mrs. Roylance.

Several characters and names used in later novels came from this time, including Fagin, and Mrs. Roylance (Mrs. Pipchen from Dombey and Son). Dickens based the character of Mr. MacCawber in David Copperfield on his own father. John Dickens gained his release when his mother died, leaving him an inheritance of 450 pounds. Charles remained in his position pasting labels on pots for some time before returning to his education. His father’s first stint in debtor’s prison (he returned several years later, again broke) shaped much of the future novelist’s societal views and desires for reform. Dickens toiled for the elimination of jailing of persons for debt in the United Kingdom for decades.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
An illustration called “Mr. Caudle is called to a sponging house” from Punch Magazine. Wikimedia

7. Creditors had several tools at their disposal to threaten debtors with prison

After demanding payment and not receiving it, a creditor petitioned the local magistrate or sheriff to have the debtor detained. The debtor usually first encountered the legal system through incarceration in a “sponging house”. It was called this because they served to squeeze any available money from the debtor. Faced with the specter of debtor’s prison, those in debt often found a source of funds, squeezed out of them like water from a sponge. Conditions in sponging houses varied, though since they existed mainly to intimidate, they were seldom pleasant.

In 1787, Gilbert Stuart, whose famed portrait of George Washington was later rescued by the servants of Dolley Madison, found himself in a sponging house in England. In Stuart’s case, the house partially served its purpose. Through friends, he managed to raise some cash which, along with the promise of more to follow, persuaded his creditor to release him. He then promptly fled the country leaving the creditor and the friends who had helped him unpaid. It was but one of many times in the painter’s life when he relocated abruptly, leaving frustrated creditor’s in his wake. Stuart is one of the more prominent painters to spend his life avoiding creditors while running up considerable debts.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Debtors who found themselves pressed into the British Navy also found protection from creditors. Wikimedia

8. There were some methods of avoiding debtor’s prison available to the insolvent in Britain

Once a debtor appeared before a judge or magistrate for debt, he or she had little chance of walking out of the door. Still, the authorities were able to offer some options which allowed the miscreant to avoid the horrors and humiliation of prison in the 18th century. Military service, in either the Army or His Majesty’s Navy, presented a sort of freedom, though service in either bore striking similarities to incarceration. Transportation to the colonies, usually as an indentured servant, presented another alternative. Military service was offered prior to appearance before the court. If accepted, the court was powerless. Under the law members of the military could not be jailed for debt.

Many simply fled to the colonies ahead of their creditors, by whatever means available to them, including working their passage. Once in America, they were relatively safe from their creditors, since pursuit was costly. Travel to the colonies often included a change of name and profession, entering the New World with an entirely new identity. As the colonies grew, commerce between them centered on credit, since hard currency in America remained relatively scarce throughout the colonial period. Produce from America arrived in British ports and were exchanged for letters of credit, used to purchase material goods for return to the colonies. The system of credit soon led to the development of debtor’s prisons in America, decades before the American Revolution.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
First floor of the Old Jail, Barnstable, built by the New England colonies in 1629. Library of Congress

9. Prisons and jails did not usually serve as punishment for crimes in the 18th and early 19th centuries

In Great Britain and its North American colonies, prison sentences were not viewed as punishment for or deterrents for crimes. Far more effective punishments, such as the stocks for disorderly conduct, branding for thieves of lesser amounts, whippings, and other such activities were viewed as suitable punishments. The list of capital crimes in Great Britain was long and executions commonplace. Jails and prisons were viewed as necessary for housing the accused prior to trial, and for housing the indebted for non-payment of their debts. Relatively few prisoners convicted served a specified time of sentence incarcerated.

Some of the earliest public buildings in the English colonies in North America were jails, deemed necessities along the same lines as in Britain. Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony built the Old Jail in Barnstable in 1690. It housed debtors, as well as numerous notorious criminals and their consorts for over a century. Within a few years of the turn of the 18th century, every established county in colonial America had access to a jail. Usually, the jailer or sheriff lived on the premises or next door, and the authorities held court nearby. Imprisonment for debt in America followed the British model, and the ancestors of many-storied American surnames spent time in prisons for indebtedness.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. Wikimedia

10. Robert E. Lee’s father served time in prison for indebtedness

Henry Lee III was a member of Virginia’s Lee dynasty, who served in both politics and in the Continental Army. A commander of cavalry under George Washington, he earned the nickname, “Light-Horse Harry” during the Revolutionary War. Following the war, President Washington commissioned him to command the militia mobilized to quash the “Whiskey Rebellion“. Lee served in Congress as a Representative from Virginia in 1799. It was he who eulogized the dead George Washington as, “First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen”. He temporarily retired from public service in 1801, investing large sums in land speculation and the management of his plantation at Stratford Hall.

The young American economy suffered a major downturn during the Panic of 1796-97. Lee’s heavy debts from land speculation proved unmanageable. He struggled with his debts in vain for years before finally being sentenced to two years in Virginia’s debtors’ prison in Montross. His family, including two-year-old Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon their ancestral home and move to smaller quarters in Alexandria. Light-Horse Harry’s finances never recovered, and the specter of indebtedness haunted his son Robert for the rest of his life. When Robert inherited Arlington Plantation, its indebtedness led him to sell off many of its slaves, raising cash to pay past due bills.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Thomas Gage, a major figure in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Wikimedia

11. The patriarch of American Ranger troops served time in debtors’ prison

Robert Rogers formed his famous Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War. Originally one company of accomplished woodsmen, their efficiency caused their ranks to expand several times during the war. Rogers outfitted his men in green buckskins, incurring considerable expense, for which he received the promise of reimbursement. Rogers paid his men out of his own pocket, at a time when many American militia units saw little money coming their way. He borrowed heavily to meet his obligations to his men, certain his invoices would be honored by the colonial government or the British Army after the war. His confidence was misplaced.

After the war, Rogers did not receive compensation for his services, and he found himself imprisoned for debt in New York. He escaped (with the help of former Rangers) and after further years of service to the crown on the frontier traveled to London, where he attempted to collect his due. In 1769 he was again sent to debtor’s prison, that time at the behest of British Lt. Colonel Thomas Gage, a political enemy. In turn, Rogers sued Gage for false imprisonment, arguing that he was responsible for paying Rogers for his services during Pontiac’s Rebellion. The American Ranger finally obtained his release, and a promise of a British Major’s half pay for his services, directly from Gage.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Robert Morris’s house was used as the President’s House while its owner languished in debtor’s prison. Library of Congress

12. Robert Morris, the Financier of the American Revolution, went to debtor’s prison

One of the forgotten Founding Fathers, Robert Morris, sacrificed his considerable fortune to the American Revolution. He served in the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and created the office of Superintendent of Finance. After the war, he signed both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. When offered the role of President Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury, he turned it down and suggested Alexander Hamilton in his stead. In 1790, he offered Washington the use of his home as the Presidential Mansion in Philadelphia. His family moved to a smaller house nearby.

Despite, or maybe because of, his long service to the country and its fledgling financial system, Morris found his personal finances crippled in the early 1790s. In an attempt to rebuild the fortune he had made as a merchant before the Revolution, Morris participated in land speculation, purchasing tracts in the west with borrowed money. The Panic of 1795-96 wiped him out. His creditors, with their own fortunes threatened by the downturn, pressured him for payment. In February 1798, while the President of the United States lived in his Philadelphia home, Morris entered debtor’s prison following his arrest. He remained there for three and a half years. After his release, he lived quietly in Philadelphia until his death in 1806.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Charles Goodyear, for whom Goodyear Tire and Rubber was named, spent most of his life in debt. Wikimedia

13. Charles Goodyear knew the inside of Philadelphia’s debtor’s prisons

Charles Goodyear is known as the man who discovered the process of vulcanizing rubber. This rendered it useful in a variety of applications. But many do not know he began these experiments while in debtor’s prison. It was neither his first term of imprisonment for debt, nor his last. In the 1820s, rubberized garments enjoyed a brief burst of popularity, but in hot weather, they melted, became unbearably smelly, and were often buried. Goodyear attempted to develop a valve for rubber life vests in the 1820s, but the manufacturers of the vests went bankrupt. He returned to his home in Philadelphia, where he was imprisoned again, over a debt to a local merchant. While in prison he acted on the advice of the life vest manufacturer and studied the means of improving latex-based rubber for year-round use.

Goodyear had no training in chemistry, and little in mechanics, but he had plenty of time while imprisoned. It took him five years of hit-and-miss research to discover the secret of vulcanization, which caused rubber to retain its properties in cold and hot weather. But he never discovered the secret of financial stability. In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III of France awarded Goodyear the Legion of Honor for his contributions to science and industry. The Emperor learned, to his chagrin, that Goodyear was at that time in a French debtor’s prison near Paris. Throughout his life, Goodyear found himself at the mercy of his creditors, and several terms in prison for debt marked his career. At his death in 1860, he owed creditors more than $200,000. The company which bears his name was founded almost 40 years later, by Frank Seiberling in Akron, Ohio.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Daniel Boone eluded debtor’s prison, but his brother Squire had worse luck. Wikimedia

14. Both Daniel Boone and his brother Squire Boone faced debtor’s prison in Kentucky

One of the prevailing myths about American frontiersman Daniel Boone is that he constantly moved about because the areas he settled became too crowded for his taste. Daniel settled in developed towns on more than one occasion, including a stint as a tavern keeper and merchant in what is now Maysville, Kentucky. Following the American Revolution, both Daniel and his brother Squire engaged in extensive land speculation in Kentucky. Disputes over land titles and inaccurate surveys led to both falling deeply into debt. Daniel eventually moved to Missouri, then Spanish territory, in order to avoid debtor’s prison. From there he worked for the rest of his life to pay off his debts.

His brother Squire was not so lucky. Squire also left Kentucky for Missouri, though his family remained behind, fed up with his many relocations. In 1804 Squire returned to Louisville, where his debtors imprisoned him. Like Daniel, Squire held many political connections in Kentucky, and his friends used their influence to obtain his release, after which he fled his debtors and moved to the Indiana Territory, establishing a settlement in today’s Harrison County in 1806. Fifteen years later, Kentucky became the first American state to abolish imprisonment for indebtedness, other than for those miscreants who failed to pay their taxes.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
DeWitt Clinton, Father of the Erie Canal, drew his inspiration from a man writing in debtor’s prison. Wikimedia

15. A man imprisoned for debt helped inspire the construction of the Erie Canal

A flour merchant in Geneva, New York by the name of Jesse Hawley first envisioned what became the Erie Canal in 1805. Hawley encountered high costs and slow delivery times shipping his flour to markets. He invested heavily in a company created to improve river traffic, via a system of locks, to Seneca Falls, where he milled his flour. The company went bankrupt, his investments were lost, and Hawley found himself in debtor’s prison in 1806. There he began a series of articles and essays, publishing them in the Genesee Messenger, proposing the construction of a canal across upstate New York, connecting Albany to Lake Erie by water. Hawley had no training as an engineer, but his analyses of the difficulties encountered during construction proved remarkably accurate.

So did his assessments of the economic value of the project to New York and the nation. During his 20 months in debtor’s prison, Hawley wrote 14 essays extolling the value of a canal. Among the luminaries he inspired were DeWitt Clinton and Joseph Endicott, political supporters of such a project. Hawley failed as a merchant, though he became a revenue collector for the Port of Genesee in 1817. In 1840 Hawley returned to writing, with a tract examining the need to expand and improve the canal which he had largely inspired while in debtor’s prison. Hawley’s contribution to the creation of the Erie Canal is largely forgotten today, though he was one of the first to suggest its construction and describe its benefits to the world.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Charles Hall developed theories condemning capitalism while in Fleet Prison for 9 years. Wikimedia

16. An economist and early proponent of socialism spent time in debtor’s prison

An English physician and student of economic theory, Charles Hall developed a theory condemning capitalism for its inadequate consideration of the poor and working classes in the early 19th century. In 1805 he published his treatise The Effects of Civilization. The work, which was later expanded upon by Karl Marx in Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, included Hall’s belief that, “wealth consists not in things but in power over the labor of others”. Hall’s belief that the rich exploited the poor led him to conclude that “the wealth of the rich and the misery of the poor increase in strict proportion”. His beliefs have led economists and historians to consider him one of the founders of socialism.

Hall practiced medicine in addition to his writings, but in 1816 a creditor prosecuted him over an unpaid debt of 157 pounds, equivalent to approximately $20,000 today. Sent to debtor’s prison over the debt, Hall remained incarcerated for nine years in London’s notorious Fleet Prison. While there he continued to publish his theories of economic and societal practices. Karl Marx cited Hall in his own works, as well as the British economist Adam Smith. Hall died in 1825, shortly after his release from prison, though the exact date of his death is uncertain.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
John Hancock used debtor’s prison to help silence a critic of Boston’s patriots before the Revolution. Wikimedia

17. The founder of Boston’s first circulating library went to debtor’s prison, with John Hancock one of his creditors

John Mein of Edinburgh, Scotland, learned the bookselling trade before relocating to Boston, Massachusetts in 1764. There he published a catalog of the books available for loan in his shop. He named his shop The London Bookstore, and both sold and loaned books, as well as sold beer he imported from Scotland. He also published a newspaper, The Boston Chronicle, in which he supported the Loyalists against the rising patriotic fervor in Boston. His political views alienated him from many influential Bostonians, including John Hancock. In 1769 Hancock received a letter from Mein’s book supplier in London, asking him to recommend an agent to help him procure payments for debts owed by Mein. Hancock happily took the role himself.

Mein, meanwhile traveled to England, where he promptly went to debtor’s prison, spending a year in King’s Bench Prison. In Boston, Hancock hired John Adams as his attorney and obtained an attachment on Mein’s property, including the newspaper he found so annoying. Hancock sold the properties for about half of the total debt owed by Mein. The latter returned to Boston upon release from prison, only to find his properties disposed of, and was imprisoned again for the remainder of the debt. Mein eventually returned to London, where he died penniless. Adams and Hancock, two major proponents of American liberty, thus used the courts to dispose of a perceived enemy for exercising his right to freedom of the press.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
Emma Hamilton, mistress of Britain’s Lord Nelson, went to debtor’s prison in the years following his death. Wikimedia

18. Lord Nelson’s mistress went to debtor’s prison less than a decade following his death

Emma Hamilton and Horatio, Lord Nelson maintained a less than discreet affair during the last few years of his life. Hamilton’s husband, Sir William knew of the affair, as did most of Neapolitan and later London society, though neither party acknowledged it publicly. Not even the birth of Nelson’s daughter, Horatia, in 1801, led him to publicly admit to the affair, though newspapers openly discussed it, and Nelson’s wife confronted him over it. After Nelson’s death during the Battle of Trafalgar, his will bequeathed most of his estate to his family. He included an admonition to the British government to care for Emma and Horatia, as the daughter of a British hero. The government ignored the request.

By 1810, Emma was destitute. Most of the following year and the next she resided under sentence to King’s Bench Prison in London. She received the freedom to reside outside the prison walls, a sentence is known as living “within the Rules”, the rules referring to the area immediately outside of the prison. She had incurred debts of more than 15,000 pounds. Rather than spend the rest of her life in debtor’s prison, Emma escaped to France in 1814. There she threw herself into the charity of the Catholic Church. She died in France in January, 1815, having gone from being the de facto Queen of Naples to a charity case in just fifteen years.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
A map depicting the “Rules” of King’s Bench Prison circa 1830. Wikimedia

19. Incarceration for unpaid debts began to wane in the United States in the early 19th century

In 1821, Kentucky became the first state to outlaw the use of incarceration as a means of punishing debtors, or of forcing them to honor their debts. The state allowed the incarceration of those using fraud to avoid payments. Ohio followed suit in 1828. In 1831 Massachusetts ended the practice of locking up women for indebtedness, as well as for men with smaller debts. Earlier laws in the United States placed the burden for the costs of caring for a prisoner on the creditor who sued for incarceration, if the debtor swore under oath they were indigent. If the creditor failed to pay the support, the debtor was freed, though the debt was not discharged.

In 1833, changes to federal law made debtor’s prisons entirely under the control of the states. Sheriffs pursuing a debtor across state lines had no jurisdiction in another state, and reciprocal arrangements varied. The states and the federal government created numerous bankruptcy laws during the 19th century, though most at the federal level were short-lived. Nonetheless, societal changes to the debtor-creditor relationship evolved to the point that by the decade before the Civil War, imprisonment for unpaid debts became rare in the United States and its territories. It remained common in Great Britain and across the British Empire.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
England of the Victorian Age considered unpaid debts exhibitive of a lack of moral character. Wikimedia

20. Great Britain continued to imprison for debt into the 20th century

Despite steady pressure from reformers to end the practice entirely, British judges continued to send debtors to prison throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th. The number of prisoners dropped for a time, then increased again, so it is possible to obtain a glimpse of Britain’s economic cycles through its incarceration rates for debt. In 1869, Parliament passed the Debtor’s Act of 1869, limiting the abilities of judges to incarcerate debtors, but not eliminating them. Bankruptcy through the courts allowed a debtor to avoid prison, but not all debtors could be found bankrupt, and the option did not present itself to all debtors. The cost of pursuing bankruptcy in British courts approached 20% of the annual workingman’s yearly income.

Despite the provisions of the Act of 1869, populations in debtor’s prisons remained high. The prisons themselves did not show much improvement either, despite pressures from the reformers. At the turn of the 20th century, over 11,000 inmates resided in British prisons solely for the crime of indebtedness, more than 2,000 more than had been imprisoned in 1869. In Victorian and Edwardian Britain, indebtedness beyond the means to repay appeared as a lack of morality on the part of the debtor. As such, it required correction via punishment. Far from abolishing debtor’s prisons, the Act of 1869 merely refocused who could or could not use the law to their benefit by staying out of prison for debt.

The Reality of Debtor’s Prisons in Britain and North America
The “new” Massachusetts State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch, in part while he served time in debtor’s prison. Wikimedia

21. Charles Bulfinch, America’s foremost architect of his day, went to debtor’s prison

Charles Bulfinch served as the architect for some of Boston’s most notable buildings in the 18th and 19th centuries. He designed Boston Common, the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill., numerous churches and hospitals, and University Hall at Harvard in Cambridge. Bulfinch designed and supervised the construction of several private dwellings, served as a city selectman for several terms, and designed buildings in other New England communities. Despite being in demand as an architect, particularly among wealthy New England families, Bulfinch found himself insolvent numerous times throughout his life. During the period in which he worked in the Massachusetts State House, he was jailed for debt, working out of Boston’s City Jail.

Such was Bulfinch’s reputation that President Monroe brought the architect to Washington to supervise the rebuilding of the Capitol after the British burned it during the War of 1812. Despite being rewarded handsomely in fees, and salaries from Boston and in Washington, Bulfinch could never avoid debts, often the result of investments in land and buildings. It is often reported that Bulfinch spent his time incarcerated for debt in a prison of his own design. There is little evidence to support the assertion. Still, throughout his career as an architect, Bulfinch juggled money between landowners, tradesmen, and investors. He remained always on the brink of financial collapse, and the threat of another term in debtor’s prison.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Fleet Prison”. Old and New London, British History Online.

“Daniel Defoe”. Article, The British Library. Online

“James Edward Oglethorpe”. Article, Oglethorpe University. Online

“The Rich and Gory History of the Clink Prison”. Article, the Clink Prison Museum. Online

“The horrible history of Horsemonger Lane Gaol”. Article, Elephant and Castle Partnership. Online

“Charles Dickens (1812-1870)”. Article, BBC History. Online

“Henry Lee (1756-1818). Colin Woodward, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“War on the Run”. John F. Ross. 2009

“Robert Morris: The Financier of the American Revolution”. Adam Zielinski, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“Charles Goodyear”. Richard F. Snow, American Heritage Magazine. April/May, 1978

“Boone: A Biography”. Robert Morgan. 2007

“Erie Canal’s jailhouse roots”. Denise Champagne, Daily Messenger (Canandaigua NY). July 16, 2017

“Socialism, Radicalism and Nostalgia”. William Stafford. 1987

“John Hancock: His book”. Abram English Brown. 1898

“Nelson: Love and Fame”. Edgar Vincent. 2003

“Charles Dickens, Social Worker in his Time”. Arlene B. Andrews, Social Work Magazine. October, 2012

“The Financial Misadventures of Charles Bulfinch”. Jay Wickersham, The New England Quarterly. September, 2010