KanColl Books
   The Twin Hells, by John R. ReynoldsTable of Contents



A KANSAS HELL.


CHAPTER II.

THE COAL MINES.

     I WAS next taken to the coal mines. These mines are located just outside of the prison enclosure, and are surrounded by high stone walls and stone buildings, which by their location, take the place of walls. The coal yards are separated from the prison campus by a partition wall, which constitutes the south wall of the coal department and the north wall of the prison.

     Passing from one of these departments to the other, through a large gateway, the gate being kept by a convict, an old man who murdered his son, and who has a life sentence. Reader, how would you like to spend your entire life, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, in the monotonous employment of opening and closing a large gate? When my escort and myself reached the mines, I was placed in charge of Mr. Dodds, the official in control of the mines at the surface. Mr. Dodds is a very competent officer, and has been on duty at that place more

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than twenty years. From this officer I received a mining cap. This piece of head-wear was turban-shaped, striped, of course, with a leather frontlet, on which was fastened the mining lamp. This lamp, in shape, resembled an ordinary tea-pot, only it was much smaller. In place of the handle was a hook, which fastened to the leather frontlet. The bowl of the lamp contained the oil; a wick passes up through the spout, at the end of which is the light. The miner carrying his lamp in this position has it out of his way. With the cap on my head and lamp lighted, I stood on the verge of a ten by twelve hole in the earth, that was almost eight hundred feet deep. We think that a well one hundred feet deep is quite a distance down into the ground, but here was a hole eight times deeper. In the mining vernacular this hole is termed a shaft -- the term that will be employed in speaking of it hereafter. There are two of these shafts, about one hundred yards apart. Each shaft is divided by a wooden partition which descends from the top to the bottom. Two elevators, or cages, as they are called, ascend and descend along the shaft. While one cage is coming up the other is going down. They derive their motor power from

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two large engines, one for each shaft. The officer in charge inquired, before making my descent into the mines, if I ever fainted. "Never," was my reply. Persons sometimes faint in going down this shaft. "Step into the cage," was the order given. I obeyed, and, reaching up, took hold of some iron bars that went across the top. The signal was given, down I started. After I had descended a few feet a current of air coming up from below put out my light, which left me in the darkness of an Egyptian night. Down, down, down I went. There are a great many things in life that I have forgotten. There are a great many more that I expect to forget, but that first ride down the coal shaft I never can forget. Thug! I had struck bottom. It is said that when one starts down hill in this world he keeps on going until he strikes bottom. My readers will certainly agree with me that reaching a resting place eight hundred feet under the surface I had found the lowest round of the ladder. Whatever I may be in the future, to whatever heights I may ascend, I shall not forget that my starting point was nearly a thousand feet under the Kansas penitentiary. Water seeks its level. You may force one below the sur-

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face, and to whatever depth you please, to the extent of your power, but if he does not belong there, you cannot keep him down: in the course of time he will rise.

     It was six long, dreary months before I was able to reach the first round in the ladder. Through that period I lay in the penitentiary mines, or at the bottom of "The Kansas Hell." It is said the old fashioned Hell has fire and brimstone; while the "Kansas Hell" has no fire, one thing is certain, it has plenty of material out of which to make it, and an abundant supply of sulphur.

     At the end of my descent I found an officer there on duty. He told me to step off and occupy a seat on a small bench near by. He desired to impart some information. He advised me that while I was there, a convict, it would not be proper to assume the warden's privileges or endeavor to discharge his duties. In other words, the best thing to do was to keep my place, revolve about in my own orbit, carefully regarding all laws, both centripetal and centrifugal; otherwise, I might burst by the natural pressure of too highly confined interior forces! I confess that, though not subject to such infliction, I very nearly fainted over

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these ponderous polysyllables! He also informed me that the beautifully paved highway to popularity in the coal mines was to excavate large quantities of the carboniferous substance contained in the subterranean passages of the mine; the more coal I got out the more popular would I be!

     After his lecture was over the officer gave a low whistle, and out from a dark recess there emerged a convict in his stripes. His face and hands were covered with coal dust. He came out grinning, showing his white teeth. As I caught sight of him I thought, surely, this is a fiend from the lower regions. Take one of those prisoners with his striped clothes, a light burning on his head, his face black and shining like ebony, behold him in the weird darkness of the mines, and if he does not call to your mind the picture of one of the imps of Eternal Night there is nothing in this world that will. This prisoner was the runner or messenger for this officer at the foot of the shaft. Each officer in the penitentiary who has charge of a division of men has a messenger to run errands for him. When this messenger came up to the officer he made his obeisance. Convicts are taught to observe good manners in the presence

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of the officials. He was told to take me to another officer in a distant part of the mines, a Mr. Johns, who would give me work. From the foot of the shaft there go out in almost all directions, roadways or "entries." These underground roadways are about six feet in width and height. I could walk erect in most of them. Along these entries was a car track, over which the small coal cars pass to and from the rooms where the coal is taken out, to the shaft, and hoisted to the top with their load of coal. Some of these entries extend more than a mile out into the earth from the base of the shaft. As my fellow-prisoner and I were passing along one of these roadways to the place where I was to work, he asked my name and the nature of my offense. At this place let me inform the reader that the prisoners are given permission to converse with each other in the mines. Their instructions are to the effect that they are not to talk about anything but their work, but in the penitentiary the same rule holds good as on the outside: "Give a man an inch and he will take a yard." So, when permission is given to the convict to talk about his work, he talks about everything else. In answer to my escort's question as to the

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length of my sentence, I informed him that I had eighteen months. He dryly remarked that was nothing, and if the judge who sent me up could not give me a longer term than that, he should have sent me home to my family. He also remarked that he was afraid I would get into trouble in the mines on account of my short sentence. There were a great many long-term fellows down there, who were envious of short-term men, and were likely to put up jobs on them by reporting their mistakes and violations of regulations to the officer in charge, and thus get them punished. I informed my guide that I thought I would get along some way with the prisoners, and keep out of trouble. I then inquired of him as to the length of his sentence.

     "Twenty-five stretches," was his reply. I did not know what he meant by the term "stretches," and asked for information. "That is the prison term for years, a stretch meaning a year," was his reply. I learned that my companion, having twenty-five stretches, was carrying about with him a twenty-five years' sentence. A quarter of a century in prison! This was a young man. He had been in the prison for three years. When

Digging Coal


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he entered this living tomb he had the bloom of youth upon his cheek. When he goes out, at the end of his term, if he lives so long, he will be an old, broken down man. He will not be likely to live that long. The average life of a convict is but fourteen years under the most favorable surroundings, but in the coal mines it cannot exceed five years at most.

     Let me tell you of this man's crime, and then you can determine for yourself how easy it is to get in the penitentiary. This young fellow is the son of one of the most respectable farmers in the State. He attended a dance one night in company with some of the neighbor boys at a village near by. While there, he got under the influence of strong drink, became involved in a quarrel over one of the numbers with the floor managers, and in the fight that ensued he drew his knife and disemboweled the man with whom he was fighting. In a few moments the wounded man died. The young fellow was tried, convicted of murder, and sent to the penitentiary for twenty-five years at hard labor. It is awful to contemplate. Young man, as you read this, had you not better make up your mind

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to go rather slow in pouring whisky down your throat in future?

     As we passed along through the mines I thought about that word "stretch," and as I did not like the idea of having jobs put up on me, came to the conclusion that I would render myself popular by telling the prisoners in the mines who might ask me as to my sentence, that I had eighteen "stretches." I did not think that calling a month a "stretch" would be "stretching" my conscience to such a degree as to cause me any particular distress, for I knew that by the time I had served out a month it would seem equivalent to a year on the outside.

     After following along the entry for some distance, almost a mile, we came to that portion of the mines where I was to work. Coming up to the place where the officer was seated, the headquarters of this division, my guide made a low bow, and informed the officer in charge that he had brought him a man. Then bowing himself out, he returned to his place at the foot of the shaft.

     The officer in whose division I was to work now signaled his messenger, and there came

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out of the darkness another convict, stripes, cap, lamp and all.

     "Get Reynolds a set of mining tools," said the officer.

     These were soon brought, and consisted of a pick, a short-handled shovel, two iron wedges and a sledge hammer.

     "Take him," said the officer, "to room number three, and tell George Mullen, who is working in that room, to teach him how to mine."

     I got my arms around those implements of coal warfare, and following my escort, passed along the entry for some distance, possibly two hundred yards, when the roadway in which we were walking suddenly terminated, and instead, there was a small hole that went further on into the earth. When we came to this place my guide dropped down on his hands and knees and passed into the room. I halted. I had never been in such a place before. I did not know what there was in that dark hole. Soon my escort called out, "Come along, there is nothing in here to hurt you." So I dropped down on my hands and knees and into the dark hole I went.

     These rooms where the miners work are

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about twenty-eight inches in height, twenty four inches wide, and about fifty feet long. Think of working in such a place as that! Oh, how often have I sighed for room enough to spread myself! How I would have made that coal fly had the vein been on top where I could have stood on my feet and mined. George Mullen, the convict who was to teach me to mine, was at the farther end of the room at work when we entered. We crawled on our hands and knees to him, and when my guide had delivered his message he withdrew and hastened back to his headquarters near the stand where his officer sat.

     After he had gone and my room-mate and myself were left alone, about the first question that George asked me was, "How long have you got?"

     "Eighteen stretches," was my quick reply. George loved me dearly from that moment. I very soon discovered that I was very popular with him on account of my long sentence.

     "How long are you in for? " said I to him.

     "Always," was his answer.

     He was a life prisoner. At one time he was marshal of a Kansas town, and while acting in that capacity he killed his man. He was try-

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ing to arrest him, so he informed me, and the fellow showed fight, when he took out his gun and shot him. It was claimed by the authorities that the shooting was unprovoked, and the man could have been arrested without him. Aside from the fact that he had killed his man, I must say that I never met a man for whom I had a higher regard. He was kind to me, very patient, and made my work as easy for me as he possibly could. I remained with him for nearly a month, when, having learned the business, I was taken to another part of the mines and given a task.

     "Have you ever mined any?" inquired my instructor.

     "No; I never was in a coal mine before coming here."

     He then gave me my first lesson in mining. I lay on my right side in obedience to his orders, stretched out at full length. The short-handled shovel was inverted and placed under my right shoulder. This lifted my shoulder up from the ground a little distance and I was thus enabled to strike with my pick. The vein of coal is about twenty-two inches in thickness. We would mine out the dirt, or fire-clay as it was called, from under the coal to the distance of

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two feet, or the length of a pick-handle, and to the depth of some six inches. We would then set our iron wedges in above the vein of coal, and with the sledge hammer would drive them in until the coal would drop down. Imagine my forlorn condition as I lay there in that small room. It was as dark down there as night but for the feeble light given out by the mining lamp; the room was only twenty-eight inches from the floor to the ceiling, and then above the ceiling there were eight hundred feet of mother earth. Two feet from the face of the coal, and just back of where I lay when mining, was a row of props that held up the roof and kept it from falling in upon me. The loose dirt which we picked out from under the coal vein was shoveled back behind the props. This pile of dirt, in mining language, is called the "gob." I began operations at once. I worked away with all my might for an hour or more, picking out the dirt from under the coal. Then I was tired completely out. I rolled over on my back, and, with my face looking up to the pile of dirt, eight hundred feet thick, that shut out from me the light of day, I rested for awhile. I had done no physical work for ten years. I was physically soft. To put

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me down in the mines and set me to digging coal was wicked. It was murder. Down in that dark pit how I suffered! There was no escape from it. There was the medicine. I had to take it. I do not know, but it seems to me that when a man is sent to that prison who has not been in the habit of performing physical labor, he should not be put to work in the mines until he becomes accustomed to manual labor. It would seem that it would be nothing more than right to give him an easier task at first and let him gradually become hardened to his work at coal digging. Nothing of this kind is done. The young, the old, the middle-aged are indiscriminately and unceremoniously thrust into the mine. Down there are nearly five hundred prisoners. Among them are boys from seventeen to twenty years of age, many of whom are in delicate health. Here are to be found old men, in some cases sixty of age. I do not wish to be understood as casing any reflections upon the officers of this institution. They cannot help these things. If Warden Smith could avoid it there would not be a single man sent down to that region of death. The mines are there and must be worked. Let this blame fall where it

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belongs. I must say in justice to our common humanity, that to work these two classes, the boys and old men, in those coal mines is a burning shame and outrage. It is bad enough, as the sequel will show, to put able-bodied, middle-aged men to work in that pit. The great State of Kansas has opened those mines. Her Legislature has decided to have them worked. It becomes the duty, therefore, of the prison directors to work them as long as they are instructed to do so, even if scores of human beings are maimed for life or murdered outright each year. The blame cannot rest on the prison officials, but upon our lawmakers.




My Initiation and Crime      [The Coal Mines, Continued]     [table of contents]