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SAMUEL G. HOWE ON HIS IMPRISONMENT IN BERLIN, 1832.
Samuel Gridley Howe was entrusted by La Fayette with the distribution of funds sent from America for the relief of the Poles, and while carrying out this mission was arrested en secret by the Prussian authorities. His confinement became known to the American minister, who demanded his release. The police finally conveyed him across the frontier, and dismissed him with a warning never to return. See the memoir of Dr. Howe by Julia Ward Howe (Boston, 1876, pp. 14-16). The letter of Dr. Howe printed below is from the original manuscript in the Ford Collection in the New York Public Library. The first part was written with lead pencil and afterwards retouched with ink.
MY DEAR SIR,
From the Berlin Prison March 26, 1832.
I have often dated my letters to you from queer, out of the way places; from City & from Mountain, from camp & from cottage, but neer did it enter into my imagination that I should write you by stealth, with a pencil coaxed from a turnkey & by the little glimmer of light which comes through the narrow grated window of a prison cell. Yet so it is-here I am as sure & fast as bolts & bars & stone walls can make me; and here have I been for the last twenty days & here may I be God knows how many days or months longer. But that I am in prison is not all; that my cell is but eight feet wide is not the worst of it; my imprisonment is of a kind which to us ignorant beings in America, is unknown & is called the secret, that is no one can see me, no one can write to me, no one can send me a word of consolation; & to no one can I write; even a newspaper is prohibited lest by chance some notice there might tell me some one interested himself about Good Heavens " you will say "has the fellow plotted high treason, or shot one of the King's deer, or a fought a duel with a sprig of the blood?" my dear Sir, nor yet any other human law have I broken, nor any sin have I willingly committed. But though I have in vain called oft & again for a copy of the accusation against me, though I have demanded to know my offence, & begged for council in the matter & though an obstinate silence is observed on the subject still I cannot pretend ignorance of my crime; my offence is rank it smells to Heaven; I have administered some succour & consolation to that gallant remnant of the Polish army which took refuge in Prussia; I have distributed to them the generous contributions of the American public; my presence inspired some hope & confidence at a moment when they thought themselves abandoned by all the world: and the tangible proof which the poor & almost despairing fellows received of the sympathy of the American public (with the usual natural exageration no doubt) alike encouraged them, & enraged the Prussian authorities, & the latter have thus rewarded me. But I forget that you are probably unacquainted with what has been uppermost in my mind for the last two months, viz. the interesting the heroic situation of these gallant fellows. At the end of their struggle in Poland determined never to yield to the Russians, they entered the Prussian territories &
laid down their arms on the condition of not being forced to re-enter Poland. For the last two months however every effort has been used to force them to adopt that measure; arguments & entreaties & threats being alike useless as long as the officers remained with the soldiers—the former were separated from them & those who hesitated to go were driven off; a few only succeeded by disguising themselves as common soldiers in remaining with their men. No hope remaining of inducing the officers to enter Poland--they were sent off to France according to their desire. It was a sad sight to see these gallant fellows, without their swords, their splendid uniforms soiled and torn, seated by dozens on straw in the carts of the peasantry & transported along the high road, leaving behind their country & all that they held dear. I shall never forget the day when at Dirchau a little village near the Vistula, I met with three cart LOADS of these heroes, all young and splendid looking fellows; our stage coach had stopped at a tavern, & a dozen people were standing at the door,--as the carts passed the Germans gazed with their round unmeaning eyes—but not a voice was heard, not a hand was raised, not a hat was waved in the air; they had no sympathy, or if they had they dared not express it, for the Argus eyes of the Police were there; but I forgot everything but the feeling natural to man, & imprudently yielding to that impulse, waved my cap in the air & shouted "honneur! honneur aux braves!" The Poles instantly touched each other & pointing to me they cried as they raised their caps to return my salute "Vive la France"-they took me for a frenchman and seemed surprised poor fellows at this mark of sympathy; & I left the Germans to stare, and turned away to hide a womanish weakness. And I could put your fortitude too to the proof had I the talent to picture to you forcibly enough the situation of some of the soldiers of the Polish army; wandering on the high road, in the dept of winter, their feet swollen, shivering with cold, without a copper in their pockets, ignorant of the language of the country, pointing to the west & inquiring by signs the road to France; poor fellows! they imagined it was but a few leagues, & they were on the banks of the Oder! Government says it protects the refugees, & the newspapers will tell you that they are well treated; but I trust you know me well enough to believe that such scenes exist, when I tell you that with my own eyes I have witnessed them, although as many newspapers as would fill Noah's Ark should say the contrary. I will tell you more of this when I shall have something better than this stub of pencil to write with; I would fain hope they are but individual cases, & it may be, for but few soldiers have been allowed to leave the army; the rest are kept in the eastern parts of Prussia, & near the frontiers of Poland. Resisting the attempts or what the poor fellows imagined to be the attempts of the Prussian Government to force them into Poland & into the clutches of Russia— the Polish soldiers to the number of 5000, gave much trouble to the authorities who refused them permission to go to France. Separated from their officers, ignorant of the intentions of the Prussians, & justly suspicious of them, is it to be wondered at that they should resist the attempt to make them approach the frontiers of Poland; is it not rather heroic that they should have thrown themselves into the forests, & arming themselves with clubs have conceived the apparently mad scheme of beating down the bayonets of the Prussians & forcing their way to France? At Marienburg they refused to budge an inch toward Poland-the Prussian troops were drawn up-the muskets were levelled-the Poles had not
even clubs still they flinched not-the volley rang & many a brave & unarmed soldier fell weltering in his gore! And what did their companions do? they took up the bleeding bodies & bearing them on their shoulders to the Prussian General laid them down before his door-saying behold the protection you promised us! I comment not on this act, I condemn nor defend-let history do her duty; but when I looked on the wounded I could but pay them tribute of humanity. But I forget that I should be telling my own story, & that my bit of paper is a scanty one. Well! you know that the contributions sent from the U. States for the aid of the Poles came too late to be sent to Poland, she was in her grave & her children scattered; so Lafayette & the Committee thought the best thing that could be done with the money would be to assist those Poles who were wandering in Germany & seeking their way to France; as it was known I was about to visit Germany they requested me to take charge of a sum of money & distribute it at my discretion— I did so most gladly. Other affairs led me as far as Berlin-from whence I went to satisfy myself with my own eyes about the situation of the 5000 men to whom I have alluded, & who were near Dantzig; hoping to be able there at once & on proper objects to dispose of the charities committed to my care. I found the soldiers suffering morally and physically, & I was surprised to find I could not give them any assistance without demanding permission. This I did do of Gen. Schmidt, who could not refuse me-yet granted a growling unwilling assent. Before I could get shirts & clothes made however, for I wished the contract to be public I received an order from the authorities instantly to leave the place & the neighbourhood with some soldiers to enforce it; they heeded not my remonstrances, they refused me permission to give anything to the Poles even in the presence of a Prussian officer; and said I must leave my distribution to Prussian agents. I wished to tell the poor fellows whence this charity came; I wished to let them know the interest & symyathy which the American public had felt in their fate: but I was hurried off by my aid de camp. I came to Berlin then to attend to my other callings-& to my utter astonishment was arrested stripped of every scrap of paper & shut up in this cell where I have been ever since. My paper is almost filled however and I must close-or else I would write away for hours; alas, that I should wish to wile them away, but they are too heavy. Do what you choose with the information I have given you, but do not publish my name I am sick of the way it has been thrust upon the public; but if by the next packet you should not hear of my liberation, then for God's sake do what you can for me to get an intercession from Government. I keep up a bold face & look careless but I own my heart sinks at the thoughts of wasting away my strength in this miserable cell. We have no Ambassador here, & I am cut off from communication with any one; perhaps too I have not been prudent here, for I cannot root out what is bred in my very bones, republicanism; they could not refuse my demand of appealing to the King-perhaps my indignation & passion showed too plainly through the uucourtly style of my petition. My answers too to the numerous secret examinations I have undergone, may have been too bold & free for the atmosphere: but my word to you as a gentleman and a Christian I have done nothing to merit the outrageous treatment I am receiving. I am in the hands of arbitrary men who have no responsability. I cannot think they will long keep me here but it may be they will do so. They have the same right to imprison me twenty months as
twenty days-and I shall not be the first who has languished in Prussian prison for attempting to forward the interests of humanity. I say then if by the next Packet you hear not of my liberation, then do what you can to cause instructions to be sent to our Minister at Paris to take strong measures in my favour-it will require a long time, & this little cell, & the muggy foul prison air which I breathe may knock me up. I hope not however; I am tough, & have come unscathed through worse affairs than this & hope tells me I shall again. I have tried to get news to my friends there & may fail however & if by any chance this comes to hand let them know my health & spirits are good-they need have no alarm for my life. I shall do my best to get this out of prison to a friend in town who will send it off— & God grant it may reach you. I have not dared speak in the terms I would about the manner in which I am treated-nor to say what I think is the motive or what influence is at work-what I write may fall into the hands of the Philistines who persecute me I would not enrage them unnecessarily; it may be that the [sic] I have gained in appearance only the good will of some persons who within a few days have treated me more kindly & now wink at my my writing for what I began with pencil some days ago, you see I am finishing with pen, & my candle came to day from the grocer wrapped in good writing paper. I say all this may be a trap to catch me; but I am a Yankee-& they will have their match. Do for me what you can-though I would fain hope that it will not be necessary for you to do any thing I am assured that people are at work for me without.
S. G. Howe.
I have not yet been able to send off this to my friend without-I have received assurance however that people are at work for me—perhaps I have to thank chance for this-it was ordered that I should be arrested immediately on my entering Berlin-the officer missed me somehow or other & did not find me untill eleven oclock at night. I had returned at 5, & spent the evening with some friends, on my return to my hotel, & entering my chamber, in came the officer with a soldier. I had no idea of going off at that hour, & succeeded partly by coaxing, partly be threatening in getting them out of my room. I fastened the door upon them -they did not like to make a noise in forcing it, & did not like the sound of preparation I made within, so they passed the night in the entry, and in the morning at dawn I went willingly off with them thinking it would be only an examination before the police. I was clapped into prison however without being able to send word to any one. The matter leaked out however & my friends got wind of it: I say friends, but there is only one person here who knows me well & he a young man the only American in Berlin, & little known himself; still publicity enough has been given to the matter already to prevent my getting foul play. It is not of the size of my cell or the quality of my rations that I complain. I can sleep in a cloak as well as on a couch & live on sorrel upon a pinch-but it is the outrageously illegal & unjust restraint of which I complain, that they keep me so long & in such severe confinement without even telling why or wherefore. Then the mysterious way of doing the business-why do you know that my first
examinations & cross questioning were just in the style of those we read about in the Spanish Inquisition-the solemn scribe who was ushered into my cell the first day sat for hours scribbling away the history of my life-aye he began before my birth asking me about my father & mother, and scratching down the words as fast as I could speak them without ever lifting up his eyes from his paper. I shall have my biography written at least said I, trying to jest; the fellow raised his shaggy eye brows and looked at me as much as to say is that observation to be written down, and then went on again. And then the cross examinations—the answers written down the door locked-bolts drawn & I left for several days to forget perhaps what I had said when came another set of questions. You may imagine that with my raw yankee notions of justice-they had no right to pump me in this way even supposing me criminal—and that I supposed I had a right to know my offence to be confronted with my accusers & to be judged in a reasonspace of time-alas! poor Yankee you remonstrated & protested & muttered & threatened all to no purpose-they locked the door no less cooly upon you & kept you not the less fast-so I have constantly come to the conclusion at last that as I have offended the powers that be I must wait till they are appeased or untill the stronger man cometh. They have granted me pen & ink & two sheets of paper to write to our Minister at Paris. I know not however whether they will send-all must pass open through their hands. I send you a copy of this by another day, that one may reach.
S. G. H.