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Charles Dickens

Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From American Notes:, Excerpt From American Notes, What Happened Next . . .

Excerpt from American Notes

Reprinted from Charles Dickens: American Notes for General Circulation, edited by Patricia Ingham

Originally published in 1842; excerpt taken from 2000 reprint

With the U.S. Constitution protecting American citizens from cruel and unusual punishment, a search for more humane forms of punishment began in the late 1800s. The idea of incarceration had been in use since the late 1700s, but by the early 1800s two different types of prison systems were being tried in the United States. One was known as the "Philadelphia" plan and the other, the "Auburn" plan. They were named after the cities where two new state prisons were located—in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Auburn, New York.

"The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."

Under the Philadelphia plan, also known as the Separate System, prisoners were kept isolated in their cells both day and night. They were allowed certain books, especially the Bible, and sometimes allowed to perform certain handcrafts. Most of all they were left to think about their crimes. Food was pushed into the cell through hatches. Prisoners never saw or spoke with anyone except the prison guards who did not know their names or why they were there. Prisoners exercised in their own individual yards, and very few visitors were allowed. Critics called this prolonged solitary confinement cruel and unusual punishment, especially for those serving sentences of many years.

English author Charles Dickens. After visiting the United States in 1842, Dickens wrote an account disapproving of what he called intolerably cruel conditions in the American prison system, which relied heavily on solitary confinement. (AP/Wide World Photos)

In January 1842 thirty-year-old Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine set sail from Liverpool, England, to begin a tour of America. Internationally famous for his novels, Dickens was well received upon his arrival in the port of Boston. Given his personal interest in criminal law and prisons, U.S. officials gave him tours of several modern American prisons.

Among the prisons was the world famous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia known as Cherry Hill. Opened in 1830 Cherry Hill was an international showplace for using methods of prisoner isolation. Dickens visited Cherry Hill on March 8, 1842, and denounced the Separate System as intolerably cruel in American Notes, published in October 1842. He was convinced the prison inflicted far more harm on its victims than other prison systems.

For More Information


Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. London: Macmillan & Company, Ltd., 1962.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Kaplan, Fred. Dickens: A Biography. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1988.

Silverman, Ira. Corrections: A Comprehensive View. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001.

Web Sites

"Charles Dickens: Novelist." The National Archives Learning Curve. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRdickens.htm (accessed on August 19, 2004).

"National Institute of Corrections (NIC)." U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.nicic.org (accessed on August 19, 2004).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law