Seven Wives and Seven Prisons; Or, Experiences in the Life of a Matrimonial Monomaniac



We went back to the Scheimer homestead and were favorably received. There was no special enthusiasm over our return, no marked demonstrations of delight; but they seemed glad to see us, and all the unpleasant things of the past, if not forgotten, were tacitly ignored on all sides. We passed a pleasant evening together in what seemed a re-united family circle—one of the brothers only was absent—and next morning we met cordially around the breakfast table. I really began to think it was possible that all the old difficulties might be healed, and that the pleasant picture Sarah painted, at Goshen, about settling down happily in Pennsylvania, could be fully realized.

After breakfast I took a conveyance to go three or four miles to see a man who owed me some money for medical services in his family, and was away from Scheimer's three or four hours. During this brief absence I could not help thinking with genuine satisfaction of the happiness Sarah was experiencing in the gratification of her longing to return home again. Surely, I thought, she must be happy now. No more homesickness, and a full and complete reconciliation with her family; all the anger, abuse, and blows forgotten or forgiven; she restored to her place in the family; and even her objectionable husband received with open arms.

But what an enormous difference there is between fancy and fact. During this brief absence of mine, had come home the brother who had always seemed to concentrate the hatred of the whole family towards me for the wrong they assumed I had done to the youngest daughter who loved me. On my return I found the peaceful home I left in the morning a perfect pandemonium. Sarah was fairly frantic. The whole family were abusing her. The returned brother especially, was calling her all the vile names he could lay his tongue to. I learned afterwards that he had been doing it ever since he came into the house that day and found her at home and heard that I was with her. They had picked, wrenched rather, out of her the secret I had confided to her that I had another wife from whom I was "separated," but not divorced. My sudden presence on this scene was not exactly oil on troubled waters; it was gunpowder to fire. As soon as Sarah saw me at the door she cried out:

"O! husband, let us go away from here."

Her mother turned and shouted at me that I had better fly at once or they would kill me. Meanwhile, that mob, which the Scheimer boys seemed always to have at hand, was gathering in the dooryard. I managed to get near enough to Sarah to tell her that I would send a man for her next day, and then if she was willing to come with me she must get away from her family if possible. I then made a rush through the crowd, and reached the road. I think the gang had an indistinct knowledge of the situation, or they would have mobbed me, and perhaps killed me. They knew something was "to pay" at Scheimer's, but did not know exactly what. Once on the road it was my intention to have gone over to Belvidere, and then on to Oxford, where I should have found a sure refuge with my friend Boston Yankee.

Would that I had done so; but I was a fool; I thought I could be of service to Sarah by remaining near her; might see her next day; I might even be able to get her out of the house, and then we could once more elope together and go back again to Goshen where we had been so happy. So I went to a public house three miles above Scheimer's, and remained there quietly during the rest of the day, revolving plans for the deliverance of Sarah. I thought only of her. It is strange that I did not once realize what a perilous position I was in myself—that, firmly as I believed myself to be wedded to Sarah, I was in fact amenable to the law, and liable to arrest and punishment. All this never occurred to me. I saw one or two of the gang who were at Scheimer's about the hotel, but they did not offer to molest me, and I paid no particular attention to them. I did not know then that they were spies and were watching my movements. At nine o'clock I went to bed. At midnight, or thereabouts, I was roughly awakened and told to get up. Without waiting for me, to comply, five men who had entered my room pulled me out of bed, and almost before I could huddle on my clothes I was handcuffed. Then one of them, who said he was a constable from Easton, showed a warrant for my arrest. What the arrest was for I was not informed. I was taken down stairs, put into a wagon, the men followed, and the horses started in the direction of Easton. By Scheimer's on the way, and I could see a light in Sarah's window. I remembered how in, all the Bedlam in the house that morning she still cried out: "I will go with him." I remembered how, only a few months before, she had been brutally flogged in that very chamber, to "get the devil out of her." I remembered, too, the many happy, happy hours we had passed together. And here was I, handcuffed and dragged in a wagon, I knew not whither.

This for thoughts—in the way of action, was all the while trying to get my handcuffs off, and at last I succeeded in getting one hand free. Waiting my opportunity till we came to a piece of woods, I suddenly jumped up and sprang from the wagon. It was a very dark night, and in running into the woods I struck against a tree with such force as to knock me down and nearly stun me. Two of the men were on me in an instant. After a brief struggle I managed to get away and ran again. I should have escaped, only a high rail fence brought me to a sudden stop, and I was too exhausted to climb over it. My pursuers who were hard at my heels the whole while now laid hold of me. In the subsequent struggle I got out my pocket knife, and stabbed one of them, cutting his arm badly. Then they overpowered me. They dragged me to the roadside, brought a rope out of the wagon, bound my arms and legs, and so at last carried me to Easton.

It was nearly daylight when I was thrust into jail. There were no cells, only large rooms for a dozen or more men, and I was put, into one of these with several prisoners who were awaiting trial, or who had been tried and were there till they could be sent to prison. It was a day or two before I found out what I was there for. Then a Dutch Deputy Sheriff, who was also keeper of the jail, came and told me that I was held for bigamy, adding the consoling intelligence that it would be a very hard job for me, and that I would get five or six years in State prison sure. I was well acquainted in Easton, and I sent for lawyer Litgreave for assistance and advice. I sent also to my half-sister in Delaware County, N. Y., and in a day or two she came and saw me, and gave Mr. Litgreave one hundred dollars retaining fee. My lawyer went to see the Scheimers and when he returned he told me that he hoped to save me from State prison—at all events he would exercise the influence he had over the family to that end; but I must expect to remain in jail a long time. Precisely what this meant I did not know then; but I found out afterwards.

Soon after this visit from the lawyer, the Deputy Sheriff came in and said that he was ordered "by the Judge" to iron me, and it was done. They were heavy leg-irons weighing full twelve pounds, and I may say here that I wore them during the whole term of my imprisonment in this jail, or rather they wore me—wearing their way in time almost into the bone. I had been here a week now, and was well acquainted with the character of the place. It was indescribably filthy; no pretence was made of cleansing it. The prisoners were half fed, and, at that, the food was oftentimes so vile that starving men rejected it. The deputy who kept the jail was cruel and malignant, and took delight in torturing his prisoners. He would come in sometimes under pretence of looking at my irons to see if they were safe, and would twist and turn them about so that I suffered intolerable pain, and blood flowed from my wounds made by these cruel irons. Such abuse as he could give with his tongue he dispensed freely. Of course he was a coward, and he never dared to come into one of the prisoner's rooms unless he was armed. This is a faithful photograph of the interior of the jail at Easton, Penn., as it was a few years ago; there may have been some improvement since that time; for the sake of humanity, I hope there has been.

After I had been in this jail about six weeks, and had become well acquainted with my room-mates, I communicated to them one day, the result of my observation:

"There," said I, showing them a certain place in the wall, "is a loose stone that with a little labor can be lifted out, and it will leave a hole large enough for us to get out of and go where we like."

Examination elicited a unanimous verdict in favor of making the attempt. With no tools but a case knife we dug out the mortar on all sides of the stone doing the work by turns and covering the stone by hanging up an old blanket—which excited no suspicion, as it was at the head of one of the iron bedsteads—whenever the Deputy or any of his men were likely to visit us. In twelve days we completed the work, and could lift out the stone. The hole was large enough to let a man through, and there was nothing for us to do but to crawl out one after the other and drop down a few feet into the yard. This yard was surrounded by a board fence that could be easily surmounted. I intended to take the lead, after taking off my irons (which I had learned to do, and indeed, did every day, putting them on only when I was liable to be "inspected") and after leaving these irons at the Deputy's door, I intended to put myself on the Jersey side of the river as speedily as possible.

Liberty was within reach of every man in that room, and the night was set for the escape. But one of the crowd turned traitor, and, under pretence, of speaking to the Deputy about some matter, managed to be called out of the room and disclosed the whole. The man was waiting transportation to prison to serve out a sentence of ten years, and, with the chance of escape before him, it seemed singular that he should reveal a plan which promised to give him liberty; but probably he feared a failure; or that he might be recaptured and his prison sentence increased; while on the other hand by disclosing the plot he could curry favor enough to get his term reduced, and perhaps he might gain a pardon. Any how, he betrayed us. The Deputy came in and found the stone in the condition described, and forthwith we were all removed to the dungeon, or dark room, and kept there on bread and water for twelve days. We heard afterwards that our betrayer did get five years less than his original sentence for subjecting his comrades in misery to twelve days of almost indescribable suffering. We were not only in a totally dark and frightfully filthy hole, but we were half starved, and the Deputy daily took delight in taunting us with our sufferings.

At the end of the twelve days we were taken back to the old room where we found the stone securely fastened in with irons. Moreover, we were now under stricter observation, and at stated hours every day, an inspector came in and examined the walls. This soon wore off, however, and when the inspection was finally abandoned, about two months from the time of our first attempt, we managed to find another place in the old wall where we could dig out and we went to work. We were a fortnight at it, and had nearly completed our labor when we were discovered.

This time we spent fourteen days in the dungeon for our pains.

And now comes an extraordinary disclosure with regard to my imprisonment. A few days after my removal from the dungeon to the old quarters again, the Deputy, in one of his rare periods of what, with him, passed for good humor, informed me that Sarah had been confined, and had given birth to a fine boy; that she was crying for my release; that Lawyer Sitgreave was interceding for me; but that the old man Scheimer was still obstinate and would not let me out. Passing over my feelings with regard to the birth of my son, here was a revelation indeed! It will be remembered that I had only been told that I was under indictment for bigamy. I had never been brought before a justice for a preliminary examination; never bound over for trial; and now it transpired that old Scheimer, a Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, had the power to put me in jail, put me in irons, and subject me to long months, perhaps years of imprisonment. I had something to occupy my thoughts now, and for the remaining period of my jail life.

Next came a new dodge of the Scheimers, the object of which was to show that Sarah's marriage to me was no marriage at all, thus leaving her free to marry any other man her family might force upon her. When I had been in jail seven months, one day the Deputy came in and said that he was going to take off my irons. I told him I wouldn't trouble him to do that, for though I had worn them when he and his subordinates were around till the irons had nearly killed me, yet at other times I had been in a habit of taking them off at pleasure; and to prove it, I sat down and in a few minutes handed him the irons. The man was amazed; but saying nothing about the irons, he approached me on another subject. He said he thought if I would sign an acknowledgment that I was a married man when I married Sarah Scheimer, and would leave the State forever, I could get out of jail; would I do it? I told him I would give no answer till I had seen my counsel.

Well, the next day Lawyer Sitgreave came to me and told me I had better do it, and I consented. Shortly afterwards, I was taken to court, for the first time in this whole affair, and was informed by the judge that if I would sign a bond not to go near the Scheimer house or family he would discharge me. I signed such a bond, and the judge then told me I was discharged; but that I ought to have gone to State prison for ten years for destroying the peace and happiness of the Scheimer family. Truly the Scheimer family were a power, indeed, in that part of the country!

My lawyer gave me five dollars and I went to Harmony and staid that night. The next day I went to an old friend of mine, a Methodist minister, and persuaded him to go over and see what Sarah Scheimer's feelings were towards me, and if she was willing to come to me with our child. He went over there, but the old Scheimers suspected his errand, and watched him closely to see that he held no communication with Sarah. He did, however, have an opportunity to speak to her, and she sent me word that if she could ever get her money and get away from her parents, she would certainly join me in any part of the world. I was warned, at the same time, not to come near the house, for fear that her father or some of her brothers would kill me.

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