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Prisons and Punishments: The Treadmill Song

Treadmill - small

From the Amateur
The Treadmill Song

The stars are rolling in the sky,
The earth rolls on below,
And we can feel the rattling wheel
Revolving as we go,
Then tread away, my gallant boys,
And make the axle fly;
Why shouldn’t wheels go round about,
Like planets in the sky?

Wake up, wake up, my duck-legged man,
And stir your solid pegs;
Arouse, arouse, my gawky friend,
And shake your spider legs;
What though you’re awkward at the trade,
There’s time enough to learn–
So lean upon the rail, my lad,
And take another turn.

They’ve built us up a noble wall,
To keep the vulgar out;
We’ve nothing in the world to do,
But just to walk about;
So go it now, you middle men,
And try to beat the ends–
It’s pleasant work to rumble round
Among one’s honest friends.

Here, tread upon the long man’s toes,
He shan’t be lazy here–
And punch the little fellow’s ribs,
And tweak that lubber’s ear–
He’s lost them both–don’t pull his hair,
Because he wears a scratch,
But poke him in the further eye,
That isn’t in the patch.

Hark, fellows, there’s the supper bell,
And so our work is done;
It’s pretty sport–suppose we take
A round or two for fun.
If ever they should turn me out,
When I have better grown,
Now hang me, but I mean to have
A treadmill of my own.

Even though the tone of this poem is satiric, it still does not convey the true working conditions of the treadmill. Time spent on the treadmill was mind-numbing. This boredom combined with fatigue could often lead to injury. While the fact that those working the treadmill had no idea whether their labor was productive or not was lauded by its advocates–if the grain supplies being milled with the treadmill ever ran out, for example, the punishment could continue on–critics of the treadmill pointed out that the prisoners never saw or experienced the fruits of their labor, and consequently could not derive any satisfaction from it.

To reduce fatigue, convicts regularly traded working on and off the treadmill at regular intervals, but they were subjected to this exhausting punishment for hours at a time. There were no standards in the construction of the treadmills or in the time convicts spent on them, so what was considered reasonable punishment was left to the discretion of the individual jail wardens. Naturally, some wardens had different ideas of what constituted reasonable punishment and were more brutal than others.


  • Norwich Courier, September 22, 1830, vol. IX, issue 26 p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

Saddened and Angered by the Newtown Tragedy?: Join Me in a Simple Act

Over the years of writing this blog, I have resisted as much as possible the temptation to use this forum as a means of promoting my political views. But the mass shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, CT last week is a tipping point. My sadness for the families of the victims in this tragedy and my anger over a political climate where our country’s leaders cannot so much as hint at discussing gun control without fear that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will organize heavily against them forces me into action.

I am not going to use my blog to address specific arguments about gun control laws; it is my hope that such a discussion will take place in other, more appropriate, media outlets. But I am tired of the seemingly unfettered power of the NRA and how its logically fallacious “slippery slope” arguments have effectively limited political speech and discussion of gun regulation.

If you, like me, are angered by our current political environment–where both mass shootings and daily killings appear to be repeatedly tolerated in the absence of sensible debate over meaningful steps that we can take to limit such senseless gun violence–please consider following my lead. A one-year membership in the NRA costs $35.00, and a “Junior Membership” costs $15.00. In my humble attempt to provide an antidote to this powerful lobbying organization, I am donating the equivalent cost of a one-year membership to the NRA to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for myself and for each of my family members.


One hundred percent of the money donated to the Brady Campaign goes towards passing gun control legislation (consequently, the money is not tax deductible). But $3.75 of NRA membership dues goes towards a subscription to a magazine put out by the organization; Junior Members receive a special subscription to a magazine called Insights, which is specifically written for those under the age of 15. In addition, NRA members receive an “official NRA members-only Shooter’s cap,” as well as an NRA decal. So I figure that because the Brady Campaign does not offer similar “perks” for supporting its lobbying efforts, the money I donate will have a proportionally greater influence on politicians than would a regular NRA membership.

My contribution is modest, but if more people join me in this simple act and encourage others to do the same, perhaps we can have an impact on changing gun laws so that all our families can live in a safer world. Please donate an “NRA equivalent membership” ($35.00 or $15.00) either to the Brady Campaign or to some other worthy organization interested in spurring debate on, or advocating for, gun control laws. The shootings in Newtown, CT and elsewhere demand action, or, at the very least, meaningful debate. Do not, like I have until now, sit on the sidelines and allow the NRA to set our country’s gun control agenda while more tragedies involving guns occur every day.

Prisons and Punishments: Inventive Ways to Cut Prison Costs

Cutting government budgets is on the minds of almost everyone nowadays. All levels of government seem to have empty coffers and are looking for new ways to save money in the midst of persistent societal needs. This situation is prompting many state governments to reexamine how they punish their criminals and to look for creative ways to reduce the heavy burden that strict sentencing laws and mass incarceration over recent years has had on taxpayers.

A Long and Vexing Problem

On November 10, 2012, the New York Times drew attention to these new approaches by publishing an editorial entitled, “How to Cut Prison Costs,” which supported steps taken by various states to contain expenditures on prisons by reducing recidivism through expanded drug treatment programs, improved post-prison supervision, and retooled parole systems.

Chip Corwin, a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, responded to the NYT editorial by arguing that along with implementing these cost-cutting programs, we as a society need to rethink the use of lengthy prison terms as punishment and should instead put away only those who “pose a grave risk to public safety.” He called for a new emphasis on “results over retribution,” a philosophical change that he maintained could restore communities, aid in paying restitution to victims, and “could frustrate the private prison industry’s unconscionable efforts to profit off mass incarceration.”

The New York Times asked readers to write responses to Corwin’s letter and published the resulting dialogue under the heading “How We Punish Crime.” All of the published letters supported Corwin’s view and added even more ideas for how to reform our dysfunctional U.S. prison system.

The issue of how to punish criminal offenders has long been a vexing problem. Today in our Age of Budget Cutting, government officials are using the need for cost savings to find new and better ways to deal with convicted felons. So perhaps it is natural that government officials in the Age of the Industrial Revolution turned to machinery for help in solving their prison problem.

An Industrial Solution

Beginning in 1822, a celebratory article began to appear in numerous American newspapers that described a device invented in England and recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. This new machine, the article claimed, would solve once and for all the problem of employing prisoners and act as a preventive punishment that would sharply reduce the prison population and save the state money.

The invention was a treadmill, or treadwheel. The idea was to have a line prisoners step on boards attached to the sides of a long cylinder in the form of a paddle wheel, which would in turn provide power for grinding wheat or corn or for pumping water up from the ground. The effect for the prisoners would be like climbing an endless flight of steps, in the way that modern-day step machines function in health clubs today. (Suddenly, I have a great idea for a new revenue stream for gyms!)

The Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

The treadmill was the invention of Samuel Cubitt of Ipswich, and one of the first was erected at the House of Correction in Brixton, England. The treadmill article that appeared in American newspapers notes that even though the treadmill had only been in operation for a short while, it had already shown great promise as a means of punishment. For one, the treadmill solved the problem of providing “regular and suitable employment for prisoners sentenced to hard labor.” And even if the supply of corn that needed grinding fell off or the water reserves were sufficient, it was not necessary to suspend the labor of the prisoners. In fact, it was not even necessary to inform the inmates of these circumstances. They could continue to fulfill their sentence of hard labor in the absence of productive need and not even know it.

Another advantage was that the operation of the device required minimal supervision. In Brixton, a series of ten treadmills radiated out like spokes on a wheel from the Governor’s house, which gave the governor a complete and continuous view of their workings. The operation of the machine was also so simple that prisoners did not need instruction in how to use it, nor did it require any tools, which might otherwise be “liable to waste on misapplication, or subject to wear and tear.” Even more, the machine automatically policed the prisoners’ productivity. If the speed with which the prisoners worked ever dropped below a certain level, the slow pace would cause a bell to ring and alert the governor or the taskmaster.

The treadmill could also save the state money. Even though an initial expense was required to build and put the machines into operation, they would have the overall effect of reducing the number of prisoners through deterrence. According to the celebratory article, “many prisoners have been known to declare that they would sooner undergo any species of fatigue, or suffer any deprivation, than return to the house of correction, when once released.” Imagine these prisoners’ reaction if they were told that one day people would actually buy or pay to use exercise machines that essentially mimics this form of punishment!

The Reality

For a short time, the use of treadmills in prisons proliferated in England. But the conditions created by their operation were brutal. The machines ran for ten hours a day at many institutions, with prisoners alternating between 20 minutes of rest and 20 minutes of work for hours on end. In a drive towards productivity, officials sometimes forced pregnant women and inmates with bad legs onto the treadmill, and fatigued prisoners were at times crushed and mangled in its gears.

The treadmills were not that productive either. The power that could be generated by the inmates fell well short of what could be produced by a water-driven wheel. And if indeed the machine did accomplish its goal of reducing the number of prisoners, what would happen if that number fell below what would be needed to operate the treadmills?

The early description of the treadmill that appeared in American newspapers was glowing. But did criminal justice officials in America buy into these arguments and race to implement this new invention in their prisons in the same way that those in England did? Stay tuned. An answer to this question will appear in another post on Early American Crime.


“Description of the Tread Mill.” Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822, vol. XXXVI, issue 83, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

“How to Cut Prison Costs” (Editorial). The New York Times, November 10, 2012. Website:

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Lienhard, John H. “Prison Treadmills.” Engines of Our Ingenuity, no. 374. Website:

“Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime.” The New York Times, December 1, 2012. Website:

Weekly Eastern Argus, April 8, 1823, vol. XX, issue 1048, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

In the Media: Insights into Researching Early American Crime

Go to In the Media

When I speak at libraries, historical societies, and other groups about early American crime, I am often asked where and how I find information about these historical criminals.

The short answer is that I generally use a combination of databases that are freely available on the Web and subscription databases that I access through local libraries. I also use a handful of print resources. Regular readers of this blog probably know this information already, because I always include a list of the sources I consulted during my research at the end of each article.

But if you are interested in gaining even greater insight into how I approach my research, you can read an article I wrote that just appeared in the November 2012 edition of the Readex Report entitled, “Digging Up Crime Stories from America’s Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar.”

The Readex Report is the official newsletter of Readex/Newsbank, the company that publishes two important subscription databases for my research, America’s Historical Imprints and America’s Historical Newspapers. History buffs might also enjoy the other articles in the newsletter, which include a story about a late nineteenth-century African-American cycling champion and another one about the first Egyptian mummy to be commercially displayed in America.

Crime Poems: Robert Young’s True Character

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Fifteen year-old Robert Young used his time in Dublin in 1765 to find his true character. He decided that he was “an absolute hater of all sorts of strong liquor,” but he also discovered that he was “much inclined to the company of women.” This inclination moved him to try his hand at seducing one of his master’s maids, who at first resisted his advances until his persistence and the “large promises” he made finally weakened her.

Young’s father had sent his son to Dublin from Carrick, Ireland to work for George Reilly, a wholesale merchant. He had educated Young with the expectation that the boy would eventually follow in his footsteps, and he believed that his son would gain valuable experience in the business world by working for Reilly. But Young came away from his time in Dublin with a worldly education that was not what his father had intended.

Young’s Education

Once Young attained his goal of seducing Reilly’s maid, he used his close connection with the merchant to have her discharged to ensure that the illicit relationship would remain a secret. Young then turned his attentions to “lewd women,” and with their influence he lost any noble spirit he originally possessed and “in a short time learned to drink to excess.”

Reilly soon discovered how Young was spending his time away from the warehouse, and he threatened to tell Young’s parents about it if he did not quit his current lifestyle and apply himself to learning the ways of business. Young responded by leaving Reilly and traveling to Liverpool, England for a two-week vacation. After he returned to Dublin, he enlisted in the army.

Young committed “all manner of debauchery” while in the army, and before he left Dublin with his regiment, he was treated in the hospital for syphilis, his first of many such treatments. As Young moved from place to place as a soldier, he continued to seduce and abandon women along the way. He eventually landed in Canada under General Burgoyne, and as the army wintered in Quebec, he came up with a scheme to supplement his meager earnings. He developed a relationship with a widow, who supplied him with money that he then used to buy liquor and spend time with bad company. When it came time for his regiment to go to Ticonderoga, the widow pleaded with Young to stay behind with her, but in perfect step, he marched on.


Young saw action in two battles but came out of both unscathed. After marching with his regiment to Hadley, MA, a woman he met talked him into deserting the army. He took her advice, spent the night with her, and then continued his rakish ways as he traveled around New England.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 11, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

Young landed a job as a schoolteacher in Greenfield, MA, and after two months went back to his “old practices of seducing the young women,” although he never explicitly says whether any of them were his students. One girl in town took a particular fancy to Young, and she often visited him “in private.” Her parents tried to keep the two apart by refusing to allow Young in their house, but their efforts came to no avail. And when Young eventually left Greenfield, the girl continued to slip away to visit him.

Teacher Opening

Young moved around acting as a schoolteacher in several towns, when he learned that there was an opening for a teacher in Brookfield, MA. When he arrived there in 1779, he decided to keep the fact that he had deserted the British army a secret so as to avoid any problems. Young opened a school on the property of Samuel Green, and not surprisingly he soon struck up relations with Green’s daughter, Anne. When Anne’s parents found out about the relationship, they were furious, especially because they knew that Young was having similar contacts with other women in town and on many nights never came home.

But this time was different. Young believed he was truly in love with Anne. He promised to quit his relationships with the other women and offered Anne marriage. He even told her that he belonged to the British army and assured her that he would never go back to it. Anne’s parents and friends tried their best to derail the relationship, but she held firm to her intention to marry Young. Young himself, though, made sure that the marriage would never happen.

On September 3 with their marriage only a few days away, Young got drunk and then raped one of his students, Jane Green, Anne’s eleven year-old sister.

Young was tried at the Superior Court in Worcester, and the Massachussets Spy reported that

the evidence of his crime was clear and striking. The jury found him guilty, and he received sentence of death on Saturday last. It is supposed that greater influences of brutality and barbarity, were never exercised in a crime of this kind, than were exhibited by said Young in the perpetration of this inhuman deed. The circumstances of which decency forbids us to publish in a public news paper.

Before Young was executed on November 11, 1779 at the age of 29, he wrote a poem called, “The Dying Criminal,” although it also offers little detail about what happened on that fateful evening in September.

(Library of Congress)


By ROBERT YOUNG, on his own Execution, which was on Thursday last, November 11th, 1779, for a RAPE committed on the Body of Jane Green, a Child eleven Years of Age, at Brookfield, in the County of Worcester, on the 3d Day of September last. Corrected from his own Manuscript.

ATTEND, ye youth! if ye would fain be old,
Take solemn warning when my tale is told;
In blooming life my soul I must resign,
In my full strength, just aged twenty-nine.

But a short time ago, I little thought
That to this shameful end I should be brought;
But the foul fiend, excepting God controuls,
Dresses sin lovely when he baits for souls.

Could you the monster in true colours see,
His subject nor his servant would you be;
His gilded baits would ne’er allure your minds,
For he who serves him bitter anguish finds.

Had I as oft unto my Bible went,
As on vain pleasures I was eager bent,
These lines had never been composed by me,
Nor my vile body hung upon the tree.

Those guilty pleasures that I did pursue,
No more delight—they’re painful to my view;
That monster, Sin, that dwells within my breast,
Tortures my soul and robs me of my rest.

That fatal time I very well remember,
For it was on the third day of September,
I went to Western, thoughtless of my God,
Though worlds do tremble at his awful nod:

With pot-companions did I pass the day,
And then direct to Brookfield bent my way,
The grand-deceiver thought it was his time,
And led me to commit a horrid crime.

When it was dark I met the little fair,
(Great God forgive, and hear my humble pray’r)
And, O! dear Jane, wilt thou forgive me too,
For I most cruelly have used you.

I took advantage of the dark’ning hour,
(For beasts always by night their prey devour)
This little child, eleven years of age,
Then fell a victim to my brutal rage;

Nor could the groans of innocence prevail;
O pity, reader, though I tell the tale;
Drunk with my lust, on cursed purpose bent,
Severely us’d th’unhappy innocent.

Her sister dear was to have been my wife,
But I’ve abus’d her and must lose my life;
Was I but innocent, my heart would bleed
To hear a wretch, like me, had done the deed.

Reader, whoe’er thou art, a warning take,
Be good and just, and all your sins forsake;
May the Almighty God direct your way
To the bright regions of eternal day.

A dying man to you makes this request,
For sure he wishes that you may be blest;
And shortly, reader, thou must follow me,
And drop into a vast eternity!

The paths of lewdness, and these base profane,
Produce keen anguish, sorrow, fear and shame;
Forsake them then, I’ve trod the dreary road,
My crimes are great, I groan beneath the load.

For a long time on sin should you be bent,
You’ll find it hard, like me for to repent;
The more a dangerous wound doth mortify,
The more the surgeon his best skill must try.

These lines I write within a gloomy cell,
I soon shall leave them with a long farewell;
Again I caution all who read the same
And beg they would their wicked lives reclaim.

O THOU, Almight GOD, who gave me breath,
Save me from suffering a second death,
Through faith in thy dear SON may I be free,
And my poor soul ascend to dwell with Thee.

The Massachusetts Spy, November 24, 1779 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)


  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place. August 20.” Connecticut Gazette, October 27, 1779, vol. XVII, issue 833, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Worcester, October 14.” Massachusetts Spy, October 14, 1779, vol. IX, issue 441, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Young, Robert. The Dying Criminal: A Poem. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. New London, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • —. The Last Words and Dying Speech of Robert Young. Worcester, [1779]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.