The Dash-Fire Days of Private Deviney (Part II)
A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement.
-Charles Dickens, ‘Little Dorrit’
Sitting there in his rattling irons, on a winter train headed straight away from everything he had ever known, the world was sliding by, freedom slipping away with every passing mile. Farms like the ones he’d wandered by and worked on all his young life so far, they came up into his vision for just a moment or two before they slid behind the barreling train, into the void of the world he could no longer enter. Patches of dead weeds standing tall at the corners of old bank barns, he would have ignored them to no end not long ago. But now they seemed angelic and beautiful and he craved to just hop off this damn train right now, even as it moved along at a good clip, just to tumble down into these foreign fields and pick himself up and go to sit there in the random nature, in a stranger’s weeds, as a show of remorse. As a signal that he was sorry for the crime. Or for getting caught, at least.
Kids throwing snowballs at the passing train, he’d see them through the dirty glass of the windows, out there laughing in the slate afternoon. Their arms bent down to their knees, frozen in position as their powdery artillery shells moved from their free mittens through the free air towards the free train itself/ some slashing/ some arcing/ some seemingly stopped in the sky for an instant or two before it began its descent back down towards the free land and the free train and the unfree people in it’s path. Prisoners, onetwotreefourfive, in the window seats near the guards with the rifles, they would have watched as the free snowballs hit that free glass with soft force/ a kind of thud-thud-thudthud-thud/ like the canons in the war of the years to come would sound to him. Someday.
County after county, town after town, river after stream and stream after river, a train moves a man from somewhere to somewhere else and depending on the timbre of the journey, on the reason for traveling, it can be either an uplifting journey primed by the excitement of a coming unknown/ or it can be a dreadful, horrifying thing/ moving you ever closer to a dead body of a loved one/ or the words of an unexpected goodbye/ or, as in our case here, closer/ ever closer/ to an impenetrable fortress of punishment. To a kind of un-freeing that has always been, up until now, simply unimaginable.
Miles from his country home then, as the afternoon sun began to sink into the lazy gauze of a dying day, the looming skyline of Philadelphia must have appeared like a fantastical kingdom in the eyes of the 21-year-old Deviney.
It was early January, 1859, and the city was surely ashen and smoky and unwelcoming. After all, everything that awaited my wife’s great 3x grandfather that day was steeped in mystery and fear and shrouded in regret.
The lad, as it goes, was headed to prison. Far, far from home: in a city the likes of which he had never even tried to imagine, let alone laid eyes upon. Mid-winter January afternoons on the eastern seaboard historically has me betting that the old town was frigid and dank that day he arrived. True, true, there are no guarantees, of course. Unable to find any official weather reports for that exact period, I’m basing a lot on nothin’ at all/ leaning hard into speculation based on what hardly registers as true history anymore: my own personal experience.
Still, I’m not totally without merit here. I mean, I have known some January days in that city in my time. More than a few, quite frankly. Most of them have been wickedly cruel, with little rest from slamming train-like winds into the faces of the people who turn certain corners onto certain avenues when certain gusts are being born out by the Delaware River in order to invade and maraud with no quarter upon every cursing hunched-over street walker it can find.
And so it goes that, here, in my imagined history of a true history, I make it cold as hell for the country boy the first moments he steps off the train. In shackles, perhaps/ in cuffs for certain. He’d been tried and convicted of larceny not long before. And true to the manner of a freshly rested court, I suppose, his post-holiday sentencing, in the days just after Christmas and New Years, had found him sentenced in Perry County on the 5th of January and quickly shipped off to Philadelphia. To Eastern State Penitentiary. A stranger in a strange land if there ever was one.
He must have been scared as hell.
And he must have been doing everything in his power to hide that fact from everyone.