Jailbirds by Jim Tully – The American Mercury, 1928

Scanned and OCRed on Sept.8th, 2010 by Kevin I. Slaugther. Read “Thieves and Vagabonds” by Tully as well.



THE jail room was thirty-five feet long, twenty-five feet wide, and seven feet high. In this large cage were fifty prisoners. Some had been sentenced and were serving jail terms; others awaited trial, or removal to the penitentiary.

The floor was of thick sheet-metal. Around the walls and ceilings were heavy iron bars, painted a ghastly yellow. On each side of the cage was a row of cells, a dozen in all. Each cell was about five by six feet. There were four hammocks in each, one above the other, two on each side. Each hammock contained a filthy blanket.

The oldest inmates had the choice of blankets and hammocks. The prisoner in jail the longest was the court of last appeal in all disputes.

In case of his release, to go to the penitentiary—or freedom—, the next in order of seniority took his place.

Between the rows of cells was a long pine table. A bench was on each side of it. There was room for only sixteen men on the benches.

Cards were not allowed in the jail, but somehow there was always a game in progress. Cigarettes, cigars, and plugs of chewing tobacco were the stakes.

Each prisoner, upon his arrival, had been deprived of all his possessions, with the exception of tobacco and handkerchiefs.

The daily routine began at five o’clock in the morning.

A guard awoke the inmates by pounding on the steel bars with an iron weight.

There arose from hammock, benches, table and floor as disheveled and terrible a group as ever pleaded for justice before merciless judges.

Swollen from sleep and grim from life, each face was a study for a philosophical misanthrope.

The odor of unwashed bodies was accentuated by the complete lack of ventilation.

There was but one faucet, and at it fifty men washed their faces. They pushed each other out of line like free citizens boarding street-cars.

The senior prisoner was allowed to keep a safety razor. He would shave any of his brothers in misery for the equivalent of fifty cents in cigarettes or tobacco. He plied his trade with the grimness of an executioner.

The blade was duller than a sergeant of police. The water was cold. The only soap available was a cake of coarse yellow naptha. The operation was violent and bloody.

At five-thirty they were called to break-fast. Half the men had not had a chance to wash.

They now stood, two by two, at a steel door which opened into another tank, in which was a long pine table.

Steaming hot chicory in a tin cup, two slices of hard bread, a spoonful of hash and a raw onion made all un-happy for the day.

Ten minutes were allowed in which to eat. It was impossible to gulp the boiling chicory in that time.

While the prisoners breakfasted, trus-ties swabbed the cells. They returned to wet floors and the same odors.

Any cigarettes or trinkets accidentally left in the cells were gone–stolen by the trusties.

Old magazines and daily newspapers strayed into the jail. Every line was read.

If a prisoner had arrived since the preceding morning, he was tried immediately after breakfast by a kangaroo court.

The charge was that of breaking into the jail without the consent of the in-mates. As in the outside world, judge, lawyers and jury took their places in the curriculum of injustice.

The blindfolded prisoner was led before the assembly. The senior prisoner, who was the judge, subjected him to a series of questions.

What was his age? What was he in for? Would he have an auburn or a brunette maiden to ease the loneliness of prison? Did he have dandruff—or any of the nameless diseases? Would he desire his breakfast brought to him by the chosen maiden as he lolled in bed? Would he have his chosen maiden bow-legged or pigeon-toed, or both? Or did he prefer a youthful virgin with a darker skin?

When the poor devil tried to name his preference, he was told to shut up. A roar of mocking laughter followed.

He was then given his instructions and told the rules of the prison. The violation of those rules would mean the infliction of so many lashes with a leather belt from the hand of the senior prisoner.

He was placed upon a blanket in the centre of the room. Suddenly the blanket was jerked from under his feet . He sprawled, still blindfolded, upon the floor.

Never was more moronic entertainment offered in American lodges. After he had nursed his bruises, the bandage was re-moved from the new arrival’s eyes. He was then made one of the bunch.

If a prisoner offered resistance to the kangaroo court, he was given the silence. No one talked to him during the day.

The following morning he was called before the court again. If he still offered resistance he was given the silence again, until at last he bowed to the majesty of prison law.

Few held out more than one day.


Guards brought in and took out different prisoners from early morning until late at night.

Some would leave to face juries of their uncaught peers amid the ironical good wishes and ribald sneers of the other prisoners.

The clanking of the iron doors and the calling of convict names by guards and trusties were the oases in the steel desert of monotony.

The next meal was at two o’clock. Chicory, bread, stew or beans. It was the last meal of the day.

A huge, gorilla-like Negro was the comedian of the tank. His crooked black arms hung to his knees. His lips were the size of doughnuts cut in half.

He had been released from the penitentiary four months before. After serving ten years as a two-time loser, he was now sentenced again for burglary. He laughed from morning until night.

“I’s a bad niggah, I is! Tain’t no use lettin’ dis niggah free no moah, nohow. I jist go percolatin’ ’round wit’ a gat an’ gits in trouble agin. I’se too bad a niggah to be loose exceptin’ on a chain.”

His eyes glistening with mirthful tears, he would laugh at his monstrous joke like a film comedian.

“I jis’ do a little burglin,’ an’ hot damn, de cops git me! An’ now dey takes dis heah niggah back home to de Big House agin.”

He would laugh again, louder than be-fore, his great lips shaking.

A pyromaniac was in the jail.

A tall, thin ghost of a man touching the shores of fifty, his eyes were blank, his mouth open. He faced a twenty-year sentence for arson. His gray hair straggled over a scar on his forehead. One shoulder drooped. One leg was shorter than the other.

He shuffled like a man paralyzed.

The ends of his fingers were blistered from holding burning matches. His eyes followed every match that lit a cigarette or pipe, in the hands of other prisoners. He did not smoke. He borrowed matches whenever possible. He would hold the burning piece of wood beneath his fingers. The blaze was lost in the blistered flesh. Prisoners would give him matches just to watch him sit in the corner and strike them on the floor.

Each hour was livened by a song from the Negro:

Standin’ on Fouth street,
Lookin’ up Main,
Cop come along
An’ ask me mah name.

I tol’ him mah name,
It was Dennis McGee,
I got seben wild wimmen
Aworkin’ foh me!

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?

A group would soon gather around him. To the stamping of feet and clapping of hands, the Negro would sing:

He took her to de tailah shop
To have her mouf made small,
She swallowed up de tailah,
De tailah-shop an’ all. . . .

Massa had no hooks an’ nails,
Nor anything like dat,
So on dis darky’s nose he used
To hang his coat an’ hat.

Ashes to ashes
An dus’ to dus’,
Was dey eber a woman
A burglah could trust?


A conglomerate gathering of frayed ras-cals, they were completely detached from the outside world. Regardless of color, innocence or guilt, they fraternized one with the other. Some tried to keep hearts from breaking; others tried only to kill the monotony of the hours. Thrown to-gether by the steel bars of circumstance, they snarled, quarreled, and cursed. Many seemed to bear all their burdens easier than propinquity.

One man among them held himself aloof.

Accused of forgery, with the certainty of conviction and a long term, he walked nervously up and down the tank. Even in misery he made no comradeship with more illiterate and braver rascals. His body was taut, his eyes swollen and strained at a door that did not open—for him.

Slowly the madness came upon him. Each night he sobbed and groaned. He may as well have thrown particles of ice at the sun.

Each time the iron door clanged he would suddenly rush forward and ex-claim, “Yes, sir! I’m ready!”

All but the pyromaniac laughed.

The door would let another prisoner out or in—and clang shut.

The forger would stand transfixed for a moment, and gaze at the iron-grey door. At last it opened for him.

One trusty took his head, another his feet. He was hurried out one morning with a leather strap around a swollen purple throat—a suicide.

The Negro laughed as he told his decrepit mates: “He’ll git up to Heaven and de good Lawd, He’ll say, `What foh you done fohged ma name foh? Ahse goin’ to put you to writin’ down de names of de preachehs an’ judges who keeps comin’ to Hell forebeh and ebeh.’ . . .”

A trusty brought in a paper which con-tained the picture of the forger’s wife and daughter. The young girl was posed by the photographer so as to show her beauti-ful legs. Her picture was fastened to the wall.

Otherwise life went on in the prison as though the forger had not lived among the men who knew of neither dawn nor dusk.

All day the electric lights burned. At night, all of them save a dim bulb over the door were switched out.

The pyromaniac would sit on his cot and bum a last match before going to sleep.

At intervals in the night, the main lights were switched on and off. The door clanged open and shut. A new face appeared in the morning.

A dope fiend, eaten with disease, was always well supplied with “snow.” The guards either knew or feigned ignorance for money. The prisoners knew. A stool-pigeon told a guard. No action was taken.

A friend regularly brought him clean handkerchiefs. The hem contained cocaine. Sometimes a spot soaked in morphine would be marked with a lead pencil. The saturated cloth would be soaked in a spoon of water. A match under the spoon, a safety pin jabbed into the arm, … dreams again!

Tobacco smoke circled, heavy as fog, about the steel room.

Men paced up and down, up and down, like automatons on a wire stretched across the empty chasm of life. It was night al-ways—with never a ray of day in the jail. . . or in their hearts. The Negro burglar alone was happy.

After many days the monotonous hum of voices would tell on their nerves.

They ached for solitude away from iron bars and caged men.

Each night a trusty came with a large can of Epsom salts. Coarse food, no exer-cise, bad air and overwrought nerves made indigestion king.

Ignorance and false pride sustained the inmates. Pride and hope. Alone, they might have given way to tears.

The Negro hoped for chicken again—in fifteen years.

Minds dulled with too much revery, with too much smoking, too many incessant tunes, often took on the illusion that they had always been behind the bars.

Among the two or three-time losers there was always much talk. Notes were com-pared. Denver Shorty, Texas Gyp, and Gimp the Red, each with a coterie of friends about him, talked of robbed banks and bullets in the night.

Young first offenders, actuated by the ego that makes the Pope and the yegg twin brothers, listened with awe.

“I blazed it out with the rube marshal and heard him fall in the alley. Another yap threw a bullet against the wall in back o’ me. . . . We got away with twenty grand—but Sailor Pete fell. A rube dis-trict attorney took three thousand an’ got him off with a little rap of a year. We sprung him in ten months.”

And Denver Shorty called, “Ain’t that so, Gimp?”

Gimp answered, “Yeah—what is it?”

In this world of iron bars and dim lights, ego paraded with braggadocio. Many lies were told.

“My kid brother’s only twelve years old, but he’s the best thief you ever saw,” was Texas Gyp’s contribution.

Young lads never before in jail told tales of long incarcerations for desperate crimes. Like snobs the world over, they wished to edge into the society which they admired.

Two brothers were in for automobile stealing. The younger, not over eighteen, was taken out of the jail one morning at nine o’clock.

The older brother walked the jail, mum-bling: “If those cops are givin’ the kid the third degree, I’ll kill ‘em.”

A guard brought the boy into the jail that afternoon. His face was black and blue. He staggered from exhaustion.

Ferocious hulks of life gathered about guard and boy. Among them was the brother. The guard, to whom the beaten boy had been delivered by the police, now met a heavy fist with his jaw.

A riot started. Other guards dragged their comrade out of the jail. The young criminal’s brother was knocked unconscious with a blackjack, and dragged out of the door. He died next day in a hospital.

The younger brother, bleeding and groaning all night, was taken away in an ambulance.

Added to the charge of stealing against him was the new one of resisting an officer.

The trusties were really the rulers of the little world. Their unpaid services added to the graft of the jailer. Like others of their kind, they assumed a great dignity with their little authority.

Prisoners serving jail sentences, they had privileges. They could run errands.

They had ample time to eat their meals. They were given as much food as they liked. Nonentities in the outer world, they were despots in a shutaway wilderness of iron.

Many of them were reluctant to leave when their terms expired. One had been a trusty at alternating periods for twenty years. Old, hopeless, broken, derelict, he would purposely commit small crimes in order to reenter the jail and become a trusty again.

He had never been in the Big House, or penitentiary. He scorned all those who had. Like most criminals, petty and great, he was really a moralist at heart.

Nearing seventy, bent double, with an awful leer on his face, he was known as Old Babyface in mockery. Intensely a Christian, he pored over his Bible with fanatical eyes. As bitter as St. Paul, and meaner in heart than Calvin, life had put glue on his fingers.

They stuck to everything.

He told everything to the guards . . . stole every-thing from the men.

Youths facing the State penitentiary the first time eagerly asked him questions about the Big House. He told them be-tween sneers of the hard way of crime.


A newcomer slept in a heroin stupor.

There was blood on his hands and clothes. The morning paper came. A man was dead.

He was the murderer. The prisoners stared at his neck in silence.

He slept peacefully in the last moments of untroubled oblivion he was ever to have.

His hat was on the floor beside him. His shirt was torn to the belt. His collar was gone. His four-in-hand scarf was in a hard knot, as though a hand had pulled it tight.

He did not remember the quarrel.

A clean-shaven fellow had been brought into the jail with the murderer. His eyes were furtive and rheumy. His manner was a conciliatory apology. He told with weak gusto of being caught in the at-tempt to rob with a deadly weapon. He established himself on terms of familiarity with everybody in the jail. But the two-time losers, with an air of suspicion, with-drew from him.

“They got ‘im in here to pump the guy that bumped the fellow off. Then they’ll use it agin him at the trial,” was Gimp the Red’s comment.

It went around the jail, like gossip at a woman’s club. The new arrival was a stool-pigeon.

Gimp the Red and Denver Shorty were in the wash-room with a dozen other prisoners.

The loquacious fellow with the furtive eyes was among them.

There was a sudden groan. A fist crashed at the base of his brain. His eyes went tight shut with pain. Blows whistling with sudden speed smashed his face and body. A foot caught him in the groin. Bleeding, twisted, groaning, he writhed on the slippery floor.

The prisoners regained composure and washed themselves in the nonchalant manner of men at a hunt club.

A guard came, asked many questions, made many threats.

No one seemed to know who hit the stool-pigeon.

The bleeding mongrel was taken away. The prisoners went without breakfast that morning.

The old plan of the police to have one criminal win another’s confidence and be-tray him had been frustrated.

A few weeks later the murderer returned from the court-room. In his ears still rang, “To be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul!”

His hands, in steel bracelets, were before him. His eyes stared unseeing.

The handcuffs were removed. His cell door was closed. The guard left.

He fell wearily to his cot. His head sagged low. As if unable to hold it up, he placed his elbows on his knees and rested his jaw in the palms of his hands, in the manner of Rodin’s “Thinker.”

Only the pyromaniac noticed him.

He looked at the bent-over figure for several minutes. Walking to his cell door, he asked, “Have you got a match?”

The man lifted his furrowed face.


He rose unsteadily and handed the pyro-maniac a small box of matches.

The incendiary’s eyes glowed. “Thanks—thanks!” And then, “Is it all over?”

“Yeap —I drew the rope. They’re stretchin’ it now, I suppose.”

The pyromaniac lit a match. It burned into his fingers as he watched.

“Well, it don’t make much difference,” he finally said. “Everybody kicks the bucket sooner or later.”

The condemned man rolled a cigarette. The pyromaniac held a match for him.

He watched the blaze while the murderer smoked feverishly.

“You know,” he said, lighting another match, “I wouldn’t be afraid to die. I’d rather like it. I wish this place’d burn up now.”

“But I’d want the judge in it,” snapped the murderer, “and that damn pie-faced jury. I raved in my sleep last night at the hangman—he painted my neck white where it was swollen an’ purple. . . an’ he put me in an iron coffin an’ gave me a hammer, sayin’, ‘Here, pal, you kin pound your way out.’ They dropped me through the trap—and I laughed and wriggled my way outta the rope.” He felt his throat. “I wish to God it was over.”

“It don’t take long,” said the pyromaniac. “Not over a minute.”

“No, it’s the waitin’ that kills. I gave the guy I bumped a better deal. He only died once.”

“O’ course you’ll have a preacher at the last,” suggested the pyromaniac.

“If they send me a preacher they’ll hang me twice,” was the answer.

Over his face passed clouds of reality.

“But, Bralen,” continued the pyromaniac, “it wouldn’t do no good to have the judge and jury die. . . they’d just get others.”

The murderer looked at the incendiary between puffs of smoke.

“Besides, you shouldn’t feel that way about ‘em. They hain’t no worse’n us—just different.”

He struck another match.

“If you die feelin’ happy towards every-body, you’ll wake up in tother world with your soul clean like fire.”

“Maybe you’re right,” answered the man about to die.

The incendiary walked to a group of prisoners.

“Bralen got the rope,” he said.


It was evening.

The Negro was starting for the peni-tentiary. He sang like one going on a glori-ous adventure:

Hang up de fiddle and de bow,

Lay down de shovel and de hoe,

Deys no moah stealin foh pooh ol’ Ned,

He’s goin wheah de bad niggah’s go.

He walked about getting ready, an antediluvian monster with the gift of laughter, his doughnut-lipped mouth open from ear to ear.

With crooked short legs, gigantic chest and baggy green-striped pants, the frayed bottoms of which dragged on the floor, and with a collarless shirt that was grimy and tom, he faced the meaningless futil-ity of his chaotic life with the laughter of a fool.

The fat guard waited, his hard lower lip and undershot jaw twisted in a smile at the Negro.

“Come on here, Rastus—time to go. They cain’t wait your Pullman all night, you know.”

“Dat’s all right, Mistah Guand. Tell ‘em foh me dat Geohge Washington Jones’ll be comin’ right along, an’ tell none o’ dem boys to come to de train to meet me, ’cause I’se been deah befoah.”

His eyes turned to the murderer’s cell.

“Ah’ll be waitin’ foh you, boy.”

“Go on, you black devil—an’ chew on a bone like an ape!”

The Negro laughed louder than ever.

“jis’ heah dat white boy talk! You bettah jist say all you kin, ’cause dey’s goin to buhn youh neck till it pops, an’ make it all red!”

The murderer stood up, his hands grip-ping the cell door until his fingers were white.

His heavy lantern-jaw was hard set. He scowled at the Negro. The Negro went on: “Bettah grin a little, white boy . . . ’cause you’se goin’ to dance till youh knees cave in—an’ you bettah pray hand too, Mistah Man, ’cause deys gonna hang you so fast it’ll be three days befoah de Lawd knows you’se daid.”

“Come on, Rastus,” laughed the guard.

The Negro put a shapeless hat on a bul-let head and shouted, “So long, eberybody! See you all in jail! Why dey allus takes you away at night so’s you cain’t see no purty country is moah’n I know.”

Guard and convict moved toward the door. It opened. Another guard entered. “Bring Bralen,” he said.

The murderer’s cell was opened. He was handcuffed to the Negro.

One smiled. The other frowned.

They marched away.