English writer Charles Dickens died on June 9, 1870, when he was in the process of writing his last novel Edwin Drood. To this day, the mystery of this character’s passing remains.

edwinMany have tried to finish the book and in 1873, a young printer called Thomas James even claimed to have channeled Dickens’ spirit to ‘ghost-write’ the ending.

The question remains and Crime writer Steven King wrote recently on Twitter that he wished the dead could tweet so the Drood mystery would be elucidated. Personally, I prefer the unknown to guessing games. This is one literary fictional perpetrator that will escape justice after all.

In his books, Dickens did much more than weave complicated webs of humor, satire and keen observation of character and society; he was also a social activist who defended fiercely the rights of children and the underprivileged. He had an interest in the reform of socioeconomic and labor conditions, the rigors of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor.

This is why when asked if there are people I would like to meet that have passed, I instantly think of Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln and Elizabeth Fry. All defenders of human rights opposed to harsh punishment and champions of the rehabilitation of lost souls.

debtor's prison

Marshalsea debtor’s prison

Dickens’ father had been forced by his creditors to go to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Southwark London in 1824 for unpaid bills and his wife and youngest had joined him as was the custom at the time.

On Sundays, with his sister Frances, he would spend the day at Marshalsea to visit his family. He used this prison as setting in his book Little Dorrit. A few months after his imprisonment, John Dickens’s paternal grandmother died and left him the sum of £450.

On the expectation of this legacy, Dickens was granted release from prison. Under the Insolvent Debtors Act, he arranged payment of his creditors and he and his family left the prison. Strangely, debtor’s prison is a trend reappearing in the United States these days.

But it left a mark on Charles Dickens that would be a springboard for some of his work and social action. In 1842, Dickens and his wife made their first trip to the United States and Canada. With his usual taste for the unusual, he toured prisons, hospitals and was very vocal about their conditions.

He expressed a powerful condemnation of slavery, correlating the emancipation of the poor in England with the abolition of slavery abroad. That same year, in American Notes, he talked about the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired….He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years….

And though he lives to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated; what kind of men there are about him; whether in the long winter night there are living people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail, with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.’’

He visited several prisoners, including one who was about to be released after two years in solitary confinement. Dickens remarked to his guide that “they trembled very much.”

inmate-shakingWell, it’s not so much a trembling,” was the answer—“though they do quiver—as a complete derangement of the nervous system. They can’t sign their names to the book; sometimes can’t even hold the pen; look about ’em without appearing to know why, or where they are; and sometimes get up and sit down again, twenty times in a minute. This is when they’re in the office, where they are taken with the hood on, as they were brought in. When they get outside the gate, they stop, and look first one way and then the other: not knowing which to take. Sometimes they stagger as if they were drunk, and sometimes are forced to lean against the fence, they’re so bad:—but they clear off in course of time.”

After what he witnessed at Eastern State Penitentiary, Dickens wrote forcefully about what he clearly considered a cruel and inhuman form of punishment.

inmate-despairI believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.’’

The longer Dickens rubbed shoulders with Americans, the more he realized that they were simply not English enough, said Professor Jerome Meckier, author of Dickens: An Innocent Abroad.

He began to find them overbearing, boastful, vulgar, uncivil, insensitive and above all acquisitive.”

As well as the scathing travel writing of American Notes, he satirized the country viciously in a section of Martin Chuzzlewit, his next major novel.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

To the American press, the books were a libel on their country.

We are all described as a filthy, gormandizing race,” raged an article in the Courier and Enquirer, which was edited by James Watson Webb.

It described Dickens as a “low-bred scullion… who for more than half his life has lived in the stews of London“.

Many of the friends Dickens had made in America, such as the novelist, Washington Irving, were also outraged and struggled to forgive him for ridiculing their country in print.

Americans felt they’d welcomed Dickens into their country as a hero,” says Prof Meckier, “and now there was a sense he was a traitor.”

But his books continued selling like hotcakes in the U.S.

Kingston penitentiary -1901

Kingston penitentiary -1901

His visit in Canada was more positive. He was enchanted by Niagara Falls where he vacationed and he also visited Toronto and Kingston where he toured the Kingston Penitentiary. He recorded that he saw this “beautiful girl of twenty who had been in jail for several years.” She had, he wrote, “quite a lovely face though there was a lurking devil in her bright eyes which looked out pretty sharply from between her prison bars.” The young woman had acted as a courier for William Lyon Mackenzie and his compatriots when they occupied Navy Island. When on one occasion she attempted to steal a horse, she was caught, convicted as a rebel and jailed.

While Dickens was in Montreal he produced, directed and acted in three plays, two comedies and a farce of which he modestly declared, “I really do believe I was very funny.” Shortly after this acting interlude Charles and Catherine visited my home town of Quebec City which he found entrancing.

Dickens found Canada delightful after the disappointment of the United States. On occasion it was a little too Tory for his liking and the inns left much to be desired – one in Montreal being the worst he had ever encountered – but on the whole he found it a pleasant surprise.

“Canada has held and always will retain a foremost place in my remembrance.’’

Dickens made a mention of Kingston Penitentiary in his book American Notes, inexplicably writing “There is an admirable gaol here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” The shock of the American prisons probably made him look at Kingston Pen favorably because the inmates were taught some trades and had better conditions at the time than their American counterparts.

Urania Cottage

Urania Cottage

In 1846, Dickens founded a home in England for the redemption of fallen women to replace the punitive regimes of existing institutions with a reformative environment conducive to education and proficiency in domestic household chores.

It was named “Urania Cottage’’ and he managed and interviewed prospective residents. Emigration and marriage were central to Dickens’s agenda for the women on leaving Urania Cottage, from which it is estimated that about 100 women graduated between 1847 and 1859.

Fallen women of Urania

Fallen women of Urania

Even if the funds were provided by Miss Coutts who was a philanthropist millionaire, the idea and organization were all Dickens’s, and for 12 years he managed the Home in spite of his busy schedule as a writer, running a weekly magazine, his numerous social outings, raising nine children as well as money for charitable organizations.

He kept the name Urania bestowed by the previous owner even if it was inappropriate and ironic because it is another name for Aphrodite, goddess of love and the ladies were former prostitutes. Dickens was not one to bother with conventions.

Dickens took the French view and wanted to keep religious preaching to the minimum. He even arranged for his friend John Hullah, a fine musician, to come to instruct the girls in singing. The girls were taught to read, write and cook well in order to find them a husband and a new life.

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry visiting prisoners

Elizabeth Fry visiting prisoners

Elizabeth Fry was also English, but contrary to Dickens, grew up in a wealthy British family. Seeing that she had an easier life than most she began visiting patients at local hospital to bring them solace.

When she became older, she visited women inmates at Newgate Prison. She did her best to make their surroundings healthier and to provide them with ways to improve their lives and receive some kind of education. She recruited others to help and started the biggest prison reform movement in history. 

The first Elizabeth Fry Society in the world was founded by Agnes Macphail in Vancouver, Canada in 1939. Agnes Macphail was a prison reformer who was also the first woman to be elected into the House of Commons. Macphail founded the Elizabeth Fry Society under the same guidelines and principles that Fry believed in: the fair and humane treatment of women in prison.

Shortly after the Elizabeth Fry Society was founded, similar organizations began to develop across Canada. In 1978, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) was implemented. The purpose of CAEFS is to act as an umbrella organization through which each of the independent Elizabeth Fry Societies can communicate with each other regularly. They also have EFS in the US.

Spencer Johnson wrote the Value Tales series where he teaches us the value of kindness by examining the life of Elizabeth Fry. (1780 – 1940)

Closing quote: “Perhaps, like Elizabeth Fry, you might like to think about how good you feel when you are kind. Of course, you may decide to bring kindness into your own life in a very different way, indeed. But whatever you decide to do, let’s hope it is something that will make you a happier person… Just like our good friend Elizabeth Fry.”

The book was written for adults and children as a form of civic lesson.

Abraham Lincoln

Abe Lincoln

Abe Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky and he served as the Republican American President from 1861-1865. He was shot at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington in D.C. on April 15, 1865. His nickname was ‘Honest Abe.’

Abe Lincoln is a historical figure whose legacy still exerts influence. Protesters against injustice have adopted his notion of ”government of the people, by the people, for the people” all over the world; in Hungary in 1956, Tehran in 1979, and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Leo Tolstoy, during the 1909 centennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth, described him as “a humanitarian as broad as the world”. To Gandhi, he was a true cosmopolitan who “regarded the whole world as his native land”. Several African countries put his image on postage stamps as soon as they had freed themselves from colonial rule and he was looked on as a model by Nelson Mandela. Jawaharlal Nehru kept a brass mold of Lincoln’s right hand near him while Mao respected and admired the “Great Emancipator”.

Lincoln recognized that the abolition of slavery, the preservation of the Union, and the survival of a democratic government in the United States would have worldwide repercussions. He also understood how severely the “peculiar institution” of slavery compromised America’s international standing and undermined the nation’s constitutional principles.

President Lincoln was considered such a compassionate man that many requests for pardons and deferrals of executions came to him. During his presidency, he reviewed over 1600 cases of military justice. Mr. Lincoln called many cases of military cowardice his “leg cases” because “if Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs how can he help their running away with him?

When in doubt, President Lincoln tended to delay his decision on such cases: “I must put this by until I can settle in my mind whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living.” David R. Locke, a journalist and humorist observed: “No man on earth hated blood as Lincoln did, and he seized eagerly upon any excuse to pardon a man when the charge could possibly justify it.”

The men asking for pardons would attach to their request, letters of recommendations from supporters. One time, Lincoln noticed that one soldier who wrote to him had no support letters. He said if this man has no friends, I will be his friend and gave him a pardon.

If one person personifies the adage ‘Only the good die young’, it’s Honest Abe.

The House of the Rising Sun

house-of-rising-sun The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional folk song about a life gone wrong in New Orleans. It was first recorded in 1937 under the title ”The Rising Sun Blues” and later made famous in 1964 by the new version of the Animals. Country singer Dolly Parton sang it as well as many others and it became a hit in the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Canada.

Was the House of the Rising Sun a brothel? A tuberculosis hospital? Slave quarters on a plantation? A chain gang? An antebellum syphilis clinic for prostitutes? (Really, that’s an actual theory!) The lyrics have been changed so much over the years, it’s really hard to tell.

A reform school or a prison is the best bet according to the lyrics and the wailing of the music, but the House of the Setting Sun might have been a better choice of words as the Rising Sun usually has an uplifting connotation.

So I decided that creating the House of the Rising Sun should be about a House not in New Orleans but anywhere in the world where humanity and the legacy of Dickens, Fry and Abe could prevail.

The Real House of the Rising Sun should be a place for prison reform and restorative justice for all.



This blog is a compilation of numerous researches done online and excerpts from several articles published in newspapers or on the Internet. The author does not claim to have done the original research, to have conducted interviews or to be the original source of the information. The goal is to put together a good summary and to do so, and because facts or history cannot be modified (and are basically the same in every article), it is essentially necessary to paraphrase the content of published information and to use public domain quotations from different articles covering different aspects of the subject.  No animals or reporters were harmed in the writing of this blog.

I do not cite sources as it would be an exercise in futility. (Google)