What Really Happened to Thoreau in Prisons?
According to Civil Disobedience, Thoreau’s own account of his imprisonment, the night before he was put into prison, he spent some time with a group of apparently disenchanted artists who had been condemned to death by the government. It was during these conversations that they “envisioned” what they would do if they were thrown into prison. One of the conjectures of these artists was that they would go to jail, but would not do any hard labor as that would be too much of a “disgrace.” However, Thoreau said that if he was thrown into prison, he would do hard labor or none at all.
This bit of philosophy was very much appreciated by the prison authorities, who were in no way sympathetic to this hard labor idea. Thoreau spent his first night in prison in the Second Division close to Boston, which had more prisoners per square foot than any other cell. He was fully aware that this was not a place for a “fine gentleman.”
The next morning, Thoreau changed his clothes, and found himself sitting next to some famous criminals. He reported that these criminals included murderers, bank robbers and swindlers. He didn’t bother to ask their names, as he already knew what they were. They were all very happy to have Thoreau sitting next to them as having a “fine gentleman” at their table was a rare occasion.