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William Walker and Thomas S. Gaines
Buried Alive (Behind Prison Walls) for a Quarter of a Century: Life of William Walker
Saginaw, Mich.: Friedman & Hynan, 1892.

Summary

Buried Alive (Behind Prison Walls) for a Quarter of a Century is a mysterious text for a number of reasons. First, nothing is known about the text's editor, Thomas S. Gaines, including the nature of his relationship to author William Walker. The text is further complicated by repeated narrative shifts—from first to third person—that make it difficult to know precisely who is narrating the tale at any given moment. Finally, nothing is known about Walker's life outside of what is provided in Buried Alive.

According to the narrative, Walker was born into slavery in Virginia in 1819 or 1820. As a young adult, Walker was sold to an absentee slave owner in Louisiana who used a notorious "Negro tamer" overseer (p. 14). Walker suffered a miserable existence in Louisiana, and made a failed attempt at escape. After the plantation collapsed under the weight of poor management and a deadly tornado, Walker was sold to a kind owner in Missouri. Still desiring freedom, Walker escaped to Canada but eventually returned to the U.S. in search of employment. After Emancipation, Walker settled in Michigan, where he witnessed his white neighbor, Dick Sholtz, brutalize his wife, Susan. When Sholtz attempted to kill his wife, she ran to Walker's shed; the resulting confrontation between Sholtz and Walker ended with Walker shooting Sholtz, allegedly in self-defense. Walker, Susan Sholtz, and Walker's hired man were all found guilty of first-degree murder, and the remainder of Walker's narrative outlines his experiences in Michigan's Jackson State Prison. At the end of Buried Alive, Walker remains alive but imprisoned.

The first section of Buried Alive is narrated in Walker's first-person point of view and outlines his experiences in slavery. While he reveals little about his childhood, Walker does indicate that he was sold away from his parents in 1841. He also describes the horrors of the transport vessel that took him from Virginia to Louisiana: "Think of six hundred human beings living six weeks in the hold of a vessel 180 feet long, 40 feet wide and 10 feet high" (p. 10). Yet, for Walker, the true horror begins after the ship reaches port in Louisiana. After being purchased for "nine hundred and fifty dollars in pure gold," Walker is moved to the "Purgoo Kingdom . . . [a plantation of] eleven thousand acres" owned by Frenchman E.D. Purgoo and run by Dick Fallon, "the most inhuman being that God ever permitted to walk the earth" (p. 15). Known for his cruelty, Fallon's most despotic action includes the murder of an infant with his whip as he informs the mother, "D—n you; I will stop that brat's crying and set you to squalling in its place" (p. 18).

Witnessing this infanticide serves as the final catalyst for Walker's attempted escape. Walker crosses the Mississippi river into Mississippi before being captured. He spends almost two months in jail before Fallon learns of his whereabouts. Upon his return to the plantation, Walker is chained and given 125 lashes. While still chained, Walker is subjected to a swarm of irritated bees: "immediately my bare and bleeding back was completely punctured by their stings" (p. 29). Walker eventually returns to work. A change in his circumstances comes later with the "most destructive cyclone that ever horrified the Southern States" (p. 37). The tornado renders the plantation non-functional and, given the debt Fallon has accumulated without the knowledge of the plantation owner, "financial ruin was inevitable" (p. 41).

Following the bankruptcy of the plantation, Stephen Cary, a Missouri planter, purchases Walker and a man named Tom. Cary is known as "the most humane planter in the State of Missouri," and Walker writes that, to the best of his knowledge, "not a slave had ever been known to attempt escape from his plantation" (pp. 52, 53). William and Tom, however, make their escape in June of 1859, eventually reaching Windsor, Ontario. Within a few months, Walker moves to Detroit to find work. After more than two years of employment, he buys ten acres of land. Following Emancipation, he establishes a "humble dwelling" and begins "the cultivation of my small farm" in the hopes of finding his parents alive and bringing them to live with him (p. 57).

Soon after, Dick and Susan Sholtz rent the twenty acres adjoining Walker's property. Walker frequently sees Susan plowing the fields while Dick "was lying intoxicated at home" (p. 58). Dick also abuses Susan in the fields and attempts to purchase animals from Walker at absurdly low prices. When Walker refuses to sell, he finds almost all of his poultry dead from poisoning. He accuses Sholtz of killing them, but without concrete proof, Sholtz is not charged.

The narration then shifts briefly as Susan Sholtz speaks in the first person and describes the events of the night she was almost murdered. Her husband enters their home with a club and a butcher knife and tells her he is going to kill her. Susan, having feared such an incident, jumps out the window. She runs to Walker's property and hides in the woodshed. The narration then unexpectedly switches back to Walker's perspective as he, unaware of Susan's predicament, finds Dick Sholtz on his doorstep. Walker alleges that Sholtz threatens him and, in self-defense, Walker shoots him. Fearing no one would believe their story, Walker, Susan Sholtz, and Walker's hired hand hide the body in a swamp. The body quickly surfaces, and the court views the concealment of the body as evidence of premeditated murder. The three are found guilty of murder in the first degree, and Walker is sentenced to "solitary confinement for life" (p. 66).

The remainder of the narrative outlines Walker's experiences in Jackson State Prison, from the horrors of solitary confinement (which is eventually banned at Jackson) to the changes made to the prison with each new warden. Walker goes into great detail regarding every aspect of prison life, describing abusive work contracts, the escape attempts of others, and the madness that prison life can foster. He frequently tells the stories of other convicts—from the reasons for their incarceration to their behavior in the prison.

It should be noted that while the narrative poses unique difficulties—especially its routine shifts between the first and third person—there does not seem to be any change in the prose style, suggesting that one author may have written the entire text. Given Walker's lack of any formal education, the text's precision and eloquence suggest an outside writer, perhaps Gaines. Yet Walker remains in prison at the close of the text, and so the reader is left to question how the information in the narrative might have been relayed to Gaines. The lack of outside biography for either of these men further complicates the narrative, ultimately leaving the reader with many unanswered questions.

Meredith Malburne

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