A Tramp Abroad

by Mark Twain

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Appendix C - The College Prison

It seems that the student may break a good many of the public laws without having to answer to the public authorities. His case must come before the University for trial and punishment. If a policeman catches him in an unlawful act and proceeds to arrest him, the offender proclaims that he is a student, and perhaps shows his matriculation card, whereupon the officer asks for his address, then goes his way, and reports the matter at headquarters. If the offense is one over which the city has no jurisdiction, the authorities report the case officially to the University, and give themselves no further concern about it. The University court send for the student, listen to the evidence, and pronounce judgment. The punishment usually inflicted is imprisonment in the University prison. As I understand it, a student’s case is often tried without his being present at all. Then something like this happens: A constable in the service of the University visits the lodgings of the said student, knocks, is invited to come in, does so, and says politely—

“If you please, I am here to conduct you to prison.”

“Ah,” says the student, “I was not expecting it. What have I been doing?”

“Two weeks ago the public peace had the honor to be disturbed by you.”

“It is true; I had forgotten it. Very well: I have been complained of, tried, and found guilty—is that it?”

“Exactly. You are sentenced to two days’ solitary confinement in the College prison, and I am sent to fetch you.”

STUDENT. “O, I can’t go today.”

OFFICER. “If you please—why?”

STUDENT. “Because I’ve got an engagement.”

OFFICER. “Tomorrow, then, perhaps?”

STUDENT. “No, I am going to the opera, tomorrow.”

OFFICER. “Could you come Friday?”

STUDENT. (Reflectively.) “Let me see—Friday—Friday. I don’t seem to have anything on hand Friday.”

OFFICER. “Then, if you please, I will expect you on Friday.”

STUDENT. “All right, I’ll come around Friday.”

OFFICER. “Thank you. Good day, sir.”

STUDENT. “Good day.”

So on Friday the student goes to the prison of his own accord, and is admitted.

It is questionable if the world’s criminal history can show a custom more odd than this. Nobody knows, now, how it originated. There have always been many noblemen among the students, and it is presumed that all students are gentlemen; in the old times it was usual to mar the convenience of such folk as little as possible; perhaps this indulgent custom owes its origin to this.

One day I was listening to some conversation upon this subject when an American student said that for some time he had been under sentence for a slight breach of the peace and had promised the constable that he would presently find an unoccupied day and betake himself to prison. I asked the young gentleman to do me the kindness to go to jail as soon as he conveniently could, so that I might try to get in there and visit him, and see what college captivity was like. He said he would appoint the very first day he could spare.

His confinement was to endure twenty-four hours. He shortly chose his day, and sent me word. I started immediately. When I reached the University Place, I saw two gentlemen talking together, and, as they had portfolios under their arms, I judged they were tutors or elderly students; so I asked them in English to show me the college jail. I had learned to take it for granted that anybody in Germany who knows anything, knows English, so I had stopped afflicting people with my German. These gentlemen seemed a trifle amused—and a trifle confused, too—but one of them said he would walk around the corner with me and show me the place. He asked me why I wanted to get in there, and I said to see a friend—and for curiosity. He doubted if I would be admitted, but volunteered to put in a word or two for me with the custodian.

He rang the bell, a door opened, and we stepped into a paved way and then up into a small living-room, where we were received by a hearty and good-natured German woman of fifty. She threw up her hands with a surprised “ach Gott, Herr Professor!” and exhibited a mighty deference for my new acquaintance. By the sparkle in her eye I judged she was a good deal amused, too. The “Herr Professor” talked to her in German, and I understood enough of it to know that he was bringing very plausible reasons to bear for admitting me. They were successful. So the Herr Professor received my earnest thanks and departed. The old dame got her keys, took me up two or three flights of stairs, unlocked a door, and we stood in the presence of the criminal. Then she went into a jolly and eager description of all that had occurred downstairs, and what the Herr Professor had said, and so forth and so on. Plainly, she regarded it as quite a superior joke that I had waylaid a Professor and employed him in so odd a service. But I wouldn’t have done it if I had known he was a Professor; therefore my conscience was not disturbed.

Now the dame left us to ourselves. The cell was not a roomy one; still it was a little larger than an ordinary prison cell. It had a window of good size, iron-grated; a small stove; two wooden chairs; two oaken tables, very old and most elaborately carved with names, mottoes, faces, armorial bearings, etc.—the work of several generations of imprisoned students; and a narrow wooden bedstead with a villainous straw mattress, but no sheets, pillows, blankets, or coverlets—for these the student must furnish at his own cost if he wants them. There was no carpet, of course.

The ceiling was completely covered with names, dates, and monograms, done with candle-smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil, and some with red, blue, and green chalks; and whenever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates. I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed apartment.

Against the wall hung a placard containing the prison laws. I made a note of one or two of these. For instance: The prisoner must pay, for the “privilege” of entering, a sum equivalent to 20 cents of our money; for the privilege of leaving, when his term had expired, 20 cents; for every day spent in the prison, 12 cents; for fire and light, 12 cents a day. The jailer furnishes coffee, mornings, for a small sum; dinners and suppers may be ordered from outside if the prisoner chooses—and he is allowed to pay for them, too.

Here and there, on the walls, appeared the names of American students, and in one place the American arms and motto were displayed in colored chalks.

With the help of my friend I translated many of the inscriptions.

Some of them were cheerful, others the reverse. I will give the reader a few specimens:

“In my tenth semester (my best one), I am cast here through the complaints of others. Let those who follow me take warning.”

“III Tage Ohne Grund Angeblich Aus Neugierde.” Which is to say, he had a curiosity to know what prison life was like; so he made a breach in some law and got three days for it. It is more than likely that he never had the same curiosity again.

(Translation.) “E. Glinicke, four days for being too eager a spectator of a row.”

“F. Graf Bismarck—27-29, II, ‘74.” Which means that Count Bismarck, son of the great statesman, was a prisoner two days in 1874.

(Translation.) “R. Diergandt—for Love—4 days.” Many people in this world have caught it heavier than for the same indiscretion.

This one is terse. I translate:

“Four weeks for misinterpreted gallantry.” I wish the sufferer had explained a little more fully. A four-week term is a rather serious matter.

There were many uncomplimentary references, on the walls, to a certain unpopular dignitary. One sufferer had got three days for not saluting him. Another had “here two days slept and three nights lain awake,” on account of this same “Dr. K.” In one place was a picture of Dr. K. hanging on a gallows.

Here and there, lonesome prisoners had eased the heavy time by altering the records left by predecessors. Leaving the name standing, and the date and length of the captivity, they had erased the description of the misdemeanor, and written in its place, in staring capitals, “FOR THEFT!” or “FOR MURDER!” or some other gaudy crime. In one place, all by itself, stood this blood-curdling word:

“Rache!” [1]

1. “Revenge!”

There was no name signed, and no date. It was an inscription well calculated to pique curiosity. One would greatly like to know the nature of the wrong that had been done, and what sort of vengeance was wanted, and whether the prisoner ever achieved it or not. But there was no way of finding out these things.

Occasionally, a name was followed simply by the remark, “II days, for disturbing the peace,” and without comment upon the justice or injustice of the sentence.

In one place was a hilarious picture of a student of the green cap corps with a bottle of champagne in each hand; and below was the legend: “These make an evil fate endurable.”

There were two prison cells, and neither had space left on walls or ceiling for another name or portrait or picture. The inside surfaces of the two doors were completely covered with Cartes De Visite of former prisoners, ingeniously let into the wood and protected from dirt and injury by glass.

I very much wanted one of the sorry old tables which the prisoners had spent so many years in ornamenting with their pocket-knives, but red tape was in the way. The custodian could not sell one without an order from a superior; and that superior would have to get it from his superior; and this one would have to get it from a higher one—and so on up and up until the faculty should sit on the matter and deliver final judgment. The system was right, and nobody could find fault with it; but it did not seem justifiable to bother so many people, so I proceeded no further. It might have cost me more than I could afford, anyway; for one of those prison tables, which was at the time in a private museum in Heidelberg, was afterward sold at auction for two hundred and fifty dollars. It was not worth more than a dollar, or possibly a dollar and half, before the captive students began their work on it. Persons who saw it at the auction said it was so curiously and wonderfully carved that it was worth the money that was paid for it.

Among them many who have tasted the college prison’s dreary hospitality was a lively young fellow from one of the Southern states of America, whose first year’s experience of German university life was rather peculiar. The day he arrived in Heidelberg he enrolled his name on the college books, and was so elated with the fact that his dearest hope had found fruition and he was actually a student of the old and renowned university, that he set to work that very night to celebrate the event by a grand lark in company with some other students. In the course of his lark he managed to make a wide breach in one of the university’s most stringent laws. Sequel: before noon, next day, he was in the college prison—booked for three months. The twelve long weeks dragged slowly by, and the day of deliverance came at last. A great crowd of sympathizing fellow-students received him with a rousing demonstration as he came forth, and of course there was another grand lark—in the course of which he managed to make a wide breach of the city’s most stringent laws. Sequel: before noon, next day, he was safe in the city lockup—booked for three months. This second tedious captivity drew to an end in the course of time, and again a great crowd of sympathizing fellow students gave him a rousing reception as he came forth; but his delight in his freedom was so boundless that he could not proceed soberly and calmly, but must go hopping and skipping and jumping down the sleety street from sheer excess of joy. Sequel: he slipped and broke his leg, and actually lay in the hospital during the next three months!

When he at last became a free man again, he said he believed he would hunt up a brisker seat of learning; the Heidelberg lectures might be good, but the opportunities of attending them were too rare, the educational process too slow; he said he had come to Europe with the idea that the acquirement of an education was only a matter of time, but if he had averaged the Heidelberg system correctly, it was rather a matter of eternity.


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