Hellraisers Journal: Modern-Day Slavery, American Style: Convicts Sold to Highest Bidder, Dice Thrown for First Choice

There are no limits to which
powers of privilege will not go
to keep the workers in slavery.
-Mother Jones


Hellraisers Journal, Monday January 31, 1898
Albion, Florida – “Great Annual Sale of Convict Labor”

From The San Francisco Call of January 30, 1898:

Headline Convict Sale Florida, SF Call, Jan 30, 1898

Great Annual Convict Sale Florida Crpd, SF Call, Jan 30, 1898

Convicts Sold in Florida, SF Call, Jan 30, 1898

After a fashion slavery still exists In the United States! Only the other day at Albion, Fla., 430 men, women and children were sold into a bondage worse than death, and the State of Florida to-day is richer by $21,000.

To be sure, these poor wretches were convicts, and had broken the laws. But they were none the less human beings. You might have had some difficulty in realizing this could you have seen them as I saw them in all the misery of their hopeless, squalid dejection. And they were bought, body and soul, for the period of one year. The State sold them to four contractors, who had made the highest bids. Next year they will hare other masters.

They have no penitentiary in Florida, and so the convicts are sold into slavery. To build penitentiaries means the expenditure of money, and this the legislators are not willing to vote for, even were the property owners willing to be thus taxed. So the State of Florida, instead of providing accommodations for its criminals, derives a pecuniary benefit from a form of traffic which is appalling in this age of civilization and in this land of the free.

It isn’t called slavery in Florida. There is no auctioneer to cry: “How much am I offered for this man?” There is no bidding and raising of bids. The bidding has already been done to the State officials, and the entire lot has been knocked down to the highest bidders. Oh, no, it is not the selling of slaves, they will tell you. The scene I witnessed was merely the “annual division.”

Every year this is done. Albion is the headquarters camp for the State convicts, and for several years previous to my arrival gangs of shackled wretches had been coming in from the various phosphate mines and turpentine camps where they had been slaving during the past year. There were 430 of them, all told, crowded into the foul, miserable little stockade. And there were still more to come, as the books show that on January 1 Florida had 687 State convicts. The others were to be driven up later—driven is the word, for they arc handled like cattle-and the “division” made when convenient to the parties most interested, which, of course, does not mean the convicts themselves.

They were a pitiable lot, as I found them, huddled against the stockade. Some were black and some were white, some men, some women, and a few children. They had been convicted of nearly every crime in the calendar, from petty larceny up to murder, arson and rape, the latter three capital offenses in Florida. These graver offenders had escaped the full penalty of the law, either through some technicality or the clemency of the Governor. Some of them looked as though they wished the law had taken its natural course.

They were ranged along the stockade, where they had been huddled together for two days and nights, like so many sheep driven to the slaughter pen. They had been crowded together into a stockade built for less than one-half the number, and fully one hundred of the number had been compelled to sleep on the cold ground, with the frosty air and clear sky for a blanket. Still, this may have been better than was the lot of the others, who were wedged into the little building, breathing the foul and putrid air over and over again.

The convict clothes were tattered rags. Many of the men were without shoes. All were dirty, and there was not a face in which could be detected the slightest gleam of hope. They knew their fate. They knew what the past had taught them, and what the future had in store. The contractors whose leases had just expired had used the greatest efforts to get the most work possible out of their purchases.

The old leases had expired, and the new ones for the year 1898 had been negotiated. The new “lessees”—they don’t like to be called slave drivers-are J. A. Cranford, S. L. Varnadoe, W. N. Camp, and West Brothers. They had decided upon a division of the convicts, and they actually drew lots to see who should have the first choice and the Wests and Camps followed in the order named.

Cranford chose his man, then the others followed, selecting the strongest of the miserable looking beings arrayed before them. Of course there is always a desire to secure the long-term men; that is, those who are serving life sentences, or whoso sentences have years to run. For at the last session of the Legislature a new lease of four years was decided upon. And four years is s long time to live under such conditions!

It was not until nightfall that the four dealers in human beings had decided upon their various choices. One man was employed to check off the names and keep the record of the convicts as they were chosen by the contractors. This man was Alexander Campbell, who is serving a life sentence for murdering his sweetheart, pretty Mamie Joseph, at St. Augustine several years ago. The tragedy was one of the most shocking that has occurred in the history of the state, the young girl being pursued in the shrubbery at her home and shot down. Campbell pleaded insanity and he saved his life to spend it in penal servitude.

Finally the convicts were divided into four lots, according to the choice of their respective owners. And the next day they were still further divided, as they were apportioned off to the sublessees. For these contractors, be it known, reap no small profit in renting their slaves to other masters who have not the necessary funds to deal directly with the State.

I was rather interested in knowing that a man convicted of murder was the fist choice. Cranford admired his physique. He looked like a man who could stand almost anything, so Cranford took him. His name is James Kelly, and while a policeman in Jacksonville, two years ago, he shot down and killed a man from St. Louis. Death only can release him from the shackles that bind him unless executive clemency shall interfere with the sentence passed upon him.

An average of a little more than $30 per head had been paid for this year’s labor of each man, woman and child convict in the State—surely a pittance when it is considered that they are fed on the cheapest and coarsest of food and clothed in the scantiest of raiment in winter and very little in summer.

Of the 630 convicts thus disposed of at Albion ninety-four were white and the remainder were negroes. Of the whites there were ninety-one men, two boys and one woman. Of the negroes twenty-one were women, thirty-one boys between the ages of 12 and 16, and the remainder were men.

The convicts are employed principally in the phosphate mines and turpentine camps of the State. They are worked under guard, and generally with shackles on their legs to prevent them from running away. Besides this there is always an armed force of guards over them, according to the number of convicts, and in the case of an attempted escape the guard does not hesitate to shoot. Four were killed in this manner during the last year.

A guard is kept busy during the entire year gathering up the convicts us they are sentenced in the various counties. The number frequently requires several assistants. When being taken from the County Jail they are handcuffed together, and frequently a dozen or more will be seen being marched to the station in this manner. They are taken to the headquarters at Albion, where they are provided with the striped suit, and then marched off to the camp where they are to work off their sentences. If the camp is more than twenty miles from Albion they are taken on the train, but otherwise they marched through the country. Arriving at the camp, they are set to work doing whatever the contractor desires.

The work is hard, particularly to men who are not accustomed to it, and especially under the conditions that they have to work, with shackled feet, the chain being only sufficiently long to permit them to take a step of about one foot at a time. In the phosphate mines some dig the rock, while others wheel it,out on barrows. In the turpentine camps they must first box the trees, and afterward gather in the turpentine and prepare it for market. The working hours begin at sunrise and continue till sunset, though it is often long after this when the men reach their camps, their work possibly having been several miles away from headquarters.

At the time the State Legislature was in session last spring a committee of Senators was appointed to visit the several camps of the State. This committee reported some of the camps to be in extremely bad condition. The report of one camp read as follows:

We went out to where the prisoners were at work in the woods, examined the buckets of food, found that it was not wholesome; bread sour and very scarce at that, being unsifted and no salt in it; found very small piece of meat with rations. Health tolerably good; beds fair. We found at the camp that the meal was made up sour, but the camp in fair condition otherwise.

In another case the camp of the prisoners was found to be in a palmetto and cypress swamp. Here was another report:

Condition of camp bad; food poor; bedding poor; prisoners overworked. We found the prisoners at supper. They had only bread and syrup, and an insufficient quantity. There is also at this camp an insufficient arrangement for water for bathing purposes.

Here was another one:

We found condition of camp bad, white and colored convicts being in the same cells; prisoners ill fed; bedding poor; poor food, insufficient and of poor material; health bad, and treatment and discipline bad.

The criminals convicted of minor offenses are sentenced to serve terms in the county jails, and this means, in most of the counties of the State, that they are to be worked upon the county roads. In Duval County, which has the most criminals of any in the State, having the largest population, from forty to sixty prisoners are worked in this manner the year round. The county pays a man forty cents a day to guard, feed and work them. The work being on the public roads, the county gets the benefit of their labor, which is considered to cost ten cents a day. Even under this system the convicts are compelled to undergo many hardships.

Such is the convict system of Florida-a system which educes prisoners to the level of slaves, upon whose labors the contractors profit and grow rich.


From the Tampa Weekly Tribune of January 15, 1898:

Weekly Tribune states there was no “sale” of convicts in West Palm Beach nor anywhere else in Florida.


The number of convicts in the state prison at the beginning of the present year was 687, an increase of 37 for 1897. There were 262 convicts received during the past year and 253 discharged, 6 were pardoned, 31 died, 1 was sent to the insane asylum, 4 were killed in attempting to escape, and 44 escaped, of which 11 were recaptured. Of the present inmates, 91 are white men, 1 white woman, 21 colored woman and 574 colored men.

In this connection, it may not be out of order to deny the press dispatches recently wired all over the country to the effect that over 400 convicts were auctioned off at West Palm Beach on Jan. 7. There is not word of truth in the dispatch. There was not a convict within 300 miles of Palm Beach on the date named, and there never was a convict sold or auctioned in the state of Florida. When a person slanders a single man, he is amenable to law, and may be punished. In this instance a man slanders an entire state. Could not the efficient state attorney for that circuit, Hon. James D. Beggs, discover this slanderer and make an example for him?


Note: Apparently the auction did not take place at West Palm Beach, as earlier reported. However, the Tampa Weekly Tribune of Jan. 8th did report that a “division” of convicts took place at Albion, Florida, on Jan. 3rd:

The headquarters camp of the State convicts at Albion has been crowded with convicts for the last three days. Several squads from various camps have been brought in, and the total number present on the morning of Jan, 3 was 430. A new lease for four years went into effect on Jan. 1, and the “big division” was made on the 3d among J. A. Crantord, S. L. Varnado, , W. F. Camp and West Bros., the lessees for the ensuing four years. The state will receive for the hire of convicts $1,000 per year. On Jan. 3, L. B. Wombwell announced that the former lessees were relieved of their responsibility, and the new lessees were in charge. A new guard line was formed around the stockade and the 430 convicts arraigned in single file along the side of the stockade. The lessees drew lots for first choice. J. A. Cranford secured the first pick, followed by Mr. Varnado, West Bros;. and W. N. Camp in the order named.

From The Leader-Democrat of Springfield, Missouri, of January 14th:

It appears that the story was reported from West Palm Beach, but that the actual sale of convicts took place in Albion, Levy County, Florida.

Gambling With Convicts as a Stake in Florida.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Jan. 10.-The phospate mines of Levy county for the last four years have been the abiding place of the state convicts, with Albion as stockade headquarters. There the convicts were ill-treated, half starved and exposed to the weather with scarcely enough clothing to cover their nakedness.

The last legislature appointed a committee to investigate the prison and the outcome was a change of lessee.

On January 1 the convicts were sold to the new lessees. The prisoners were placed in line in front of a stockade. The four lessees threw dice for the first choice, selecting one each until the entire lot was exhausted, examining them as a drover would if buying stock.

The number of convicts sold was 687. This included 91 white men, one white woman, 21 colored women, 33 boys between 12 and 16 years old and one colored girl of 15.

Note:This story was also reported in London, England,
-by The Church Weekly of January 28th:

Convicts as Slaves

Newspapers throughout America are making a great outcry against the horrible system of slavery existing in several of the Southern States, notably in Florida.

The State authorities, to save the expense of maintaining prisons, are leasing convicts as labourers, knocking them down to the highest bidders at public auctions.

Four hundred and thirty men, women, and children, whites and negroes, were recently sold at Albion, Florida, for 21,000 dollars to work in phosphate mines.

An eye-witness, describing the auction, says in the New York World that convicts were punched and prodded like cattle by prospective purchasers and made to show their agility, the fattest and strongest bringing the best prices.

The leased convicts work in striped uniforms and are usually heavily shackled. The treatment often received would not be tolerated in a Siberian prison.




The San Francisco Call
(San Francisco, California)
-Jan 30, 1898

The Weekly Tribune
(Tampa, Florida)
-Jan 15, 1898
-Jan 8, 1898

The Leader-Democrat
(Springfield, Missouri)
-Jan 14, 1898

The Church Weekly
(London, England)
-Jan 28, 1898

See also:

Hellraisers Journal, Sunday January 23, 1898
West Palm Beach, Florida – On Sale: Men, Women, and Children Sold to Highest Bidder at Auction

Biennial Report of the Department of Agriculture of the State of Florida
State of Florida, 1899
State Prisons (1897 & 1898)

Today in Levy County History: The Albion Phosphate District

1890 Map of Levy County shows Albion next to #11