The Separate System — Philadelphia and the Bastille

  • Philip Collins


On 8 March 1842, Dickens visited the most famous prison in the world — Cherry Hill, the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Opened only a dozen years before, it had become the international showplace for the Separate System, which the more advanced and articulate penologists of most countries tended to prefer: so when, seven months after that visit, Dickens published a long and uncompromising attack on it, he offended most leaders of professional opinion of this period. Nor could the friends of the system ignore this indictment by a writer of such international popularity. As the recent historians of Cherry Hill put it, they ‘rallied to its defence heroically, calling in experts whose opinions were far more authoritative than those of the British author’.1 The volume and persistency of the attempts to rebut Dickens’s judgment was a gratifying tribute to his prestige — and not only in the Anglo-Saxon world: for when a German professor undertook an international tour in 1846, to report to the King of Prussia on current penal experiments, he too felt impelled to quote and discuss Dickens’s American Notes chapter on Philadelphia, since the views there expressed would, he said, influence German public opinion about prison discipline. He honoured no other layman, of any country, with such an attention. ‘It is an unquestionable fact,’ wrote another of his critics, in 18459 ‘that the fictions of Mr Dickens have had, and are now having, a most prejudicial influence, not only on the public mind at home, but also on that of the Continent of Europe. In some of the French Reviews … even the hallucinations of Mr Dickens are referred to as weighty evidence!’2 As was mentioned earlier, his criticism of Philadelphia was still being professionally disputed half a century later. Most well-informed writers of the period, indeed, entirely disagreed with his judgment on this prison.


Separate System Professional Opinion Solitary Confinement Prison Official Lunatic Asylum 
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  1. 4.
    Adshead, 96–9; Richard Vaux, A Brief Sketch of the Origin and History of the State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, 1872, 111, quoted by Teeters and Shearer, 114. Dickens’s stay in Philadelphia was indeed very short: he arrived there in the late evening of Sunday 6 March, visited the Penitentiary on Tuesday, and left on Wednesday (William Glyde Wilkins, Charles Dickens in America, 1911, 152–9, 304).Google Scholar
  2. 17.
    Lord Cockbum, Life of Lord Jeffrey, Edinburgh, 1852, ii, 373–4, quoting Jeffrey’s letter to Dickens, 16 October 1842; Forster, 174.Google Scholar
  3. 19.
    John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions, 1875, ii, 2 (reprinted from Edinburgh Review, October 1840).Google Scholar
  4. 21.
    See Harriet Martineau, Society in America, 1837, iii, 181–5;Google Scholar
  5. Frederika Bremer, The Homes of the New World, translated by Mary Howitt, 1853, ii, 8–10; [Thomas Hamilton], Men and Manners in America, by the Author of Cyril Thornton, Edinburgh, 1833, i, 346–56;Google Scholar
  6. Captain Frederick Marryat, A Diary in America, 1839, ii, 262–300.Google Scholar
  7. See also George Combe, Notes on the United States, Edinburgh, 1841, ii, 3–20 and passim, inclining to the Auburn system, though critical of both;Google Scholar
  8. Francis C. Gray, Prison Discipline in America, a Bostonian attack on the Separate System, reprinted in London, 1848. For a general survey of the controversy, see Teeters and Shearer, Chapter vii, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Pennsylvania System’, and Barnes, Evolution of Penology in Pennsylvania, 174–8, with a useful bibliography of this Transadantic debate. As Dickens later pointed out, the Pennsylvania system did not spread in America (MP, 234–5); on the brevity of other American experiments with the system, see Barnes and Teeters, New Horizons in Criminology, 344.Google Scholar

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© Philip Collins 1994

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  • Philip Collins

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