Date of Graduation
The prison reformers and fiction writers of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia wrote prodigiously about crime and punishment. In a correlative study, I explore juridical topoi in reformist and fictive texts familiar to republican Philadelphians. My analysis assumes a public sphere of writers and readers: while late eighteenth-century prison reforms and fictions came out of separate signifying systems, there was considerable promiscuity between them. I group areas of overlap around cultural concerns (science, murder, sex) and representational "spaces" (home, prison, nation). In either discourse, crime and punishment were useful to a post-Revolutionary aesthetic of nationalism. The scientific rhetoric of penitentiary punishment targeted the body, for example, but invoked the community. Simultaneously, crime excited a public fascination that transcended science. The killer figured prominently and his authority was epistemological: murder provided a vehicle for conveying ideas. That violent crime generated law was incorporated into a national mythology, and during the 1790's, foundational murder first became social in a modern sense. Like murder, sexual crime functioned metonymically for other (collective) forms of political, social and economic violation. Sexual crime also invoked demographic danger: ressentiment and declassement frequently presented as sexual crime in the novels of the period. The antidote of penitentiary imprisonment was sometimes more imaginary than real. "Prison utopia" seems an oxymoron; and yet images of ideal community were ubiquitous in the prison representations of early national Philadelphia. Moreover, the modern family and penitentiary prison were conceptually co-emergent; and in the Philadelphia fictions and reforms, carceral and domestic spaces frequently merged. Staged at the level of family (an originary utopia), representations of imprisonment suggested (imaginary) spatial solutions to (real) social contradictions. Incarceration emerged as a family affair at Walnut Street Prison, while domesticity was re-invented as an ideal form of incarceration. Primary sources for my investigation of early national topoi of crime and punishment include the reform tracts of Rush, Bradford, Lownes, Turnbull, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society, alongside the popular fictions of Brown, Rowson, Kilner, Collyer, "Manheim," and "Panther.".
Okun, Peter Thomas, "Crime and the nation: Prison reform and popular fiction in Philadelphia, 1786-1800." (1997). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 9532.