Forward to the Past: Debt and Debtor's Prisons

Randall Stephens

How will historians understand the rise in unemployment and the increase in bankruptcy when they look back on our era? (See the graph here from What are the historical and cultural ramifications of the economic downturn? Cycles of recession and depression mark major turning points in American history. The panics of 1837 and 1857 upset family life, toppled businesses, and can be charted through the rise in suicide rates and bankruptcies. The depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s shook the world.

In ages past one way to deal with all those folks who could not pay up was to throw them into the clink. If you gambled away your money and lived a profligate life in the 18th century, there was no safety net to catch you.

An entry in Mitchel P. Roth's, ed., Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2006) sheds light on London's famous debtor's prison:

FLEET PRISON. Built in the twelfth century, Fleet Prison became London's most famous debtors' prison and was the first building in London constructed for the specific purpose of being a gaol (jail). 11 was rebuilt numerous times and by the fourteenth century was holding; debtors, individuals convicted in the Court of Star Chamber, and those charged with contempt of the Royal Courts. Among its most distinguished prisoners was the poet John Donne, who spent a stint in Fleet Street in 1601, and later William Penn. It was demolished by the Great Fire of 1666 and then rebuilt. Partly because of its prominence as a jail for debtors and bankrupts, it was burned down once more during the 1780 Gordon Riots.

The Fleet Prison had a well-earned reputation for cruelty and corruption. The office of warden, or keeper, was considered a hereditary position. The position of keeper was a highly lucrative position with opportunities to earn fees for providing prisoners with food, lodging, and even short-term release. In the eighteenth century an individual purchased the office of the Keeper of the Fleet for 5,000 pounds. When he stepped down, he then sold the position to the deputy warden for the same price. During its heyday prisoners of both sexes mingled freely, leading one observer to describe it as the "largest brothel in England." Here women could improve their conditions by selling their bodies. The prison was usually overcrowded. In 1774 it held 243 debtors along with 475 members of their families who had nowhere else to go. The prison was finally closed in 1842. (105-106)

How did all fare in the colonies? Peter J. Coleman writes of the state of things in Pennsylvania in his book Debtors and creditors in America: Insolvency, Imprisonment for Debt, and Bankruptcy, 1607-1900 (Beard Books, 1999)

The early treatment of poor and insolvent debtors was not significantly more liberal or humane than in New York, New Jersey, or in some of the New England colonies. To be sure, the Frame of Government of 1682 embodied enlightened principles-that prisons should be workhouse-reformatories rather than mere places of punishment, and that prisoners should not have to support themselves or pay fees-but the legislature modified these concepts almost immediately (1683 and 1684) by requiring debtors to support themselves and by introducing the system of servitude for debt. Nevertheless, it proved exceedingly difficult to formulate acceptable rules governing debtor-creditor relations. The colonists quarreled among themselves and with the proprietor and his governors, and the Crown disallowed many of the early laws, including the act establishing the support and servitude systems and another of 1700 establishing (141)

Reformers began to challenge the system in force in the 19th century. (Click to enlarge the reformist paper to the right.) The following comes from the fabulously useful Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. This portion is from "Guided Readings: Pre-Civil War Reform":

Imprisonment for debt also came under attack. As late as 1816, an average of 600 residents of New York City were in prison at any one time for failure to pay debts. More than half owed less than $50. New York's debtor prisons provided no food, furniture, or fuel for their inmates, who would have starved without the assistance of relatives or the charity of humane societies. In a Vermont case, state courts imprisoned a man for a debt of just 54 cents, and in Boston a woman was taken from her three children as a result of a $3 debt.

Increasingly, reformers regarded imprisonment for debt as irrational, since imprisoned debtors were unable to work and pay off their debts. Piecemeal reform led to the abolition of debtor prisons, as states eliminated the practice of jailing people for trifling debts, and then forbade the jailing of women and veterans.

Here's a question to ask history students in the classroom. Could something like a debtors' prison come back in the western world? If so, what social or economic forces could lead to that. Is that an impossibility? If so, why?