Thoreau’s Incarceration (As Told by His Jailer)

By Samuel Arthur Jones

"There's the man that locked up Thoreau; I'll introduce him to you." The speaker was a Concord lady who was kindly acting as a guide to a stranger and pilgrim in that renowned village. We were returning from a visit to an ancient woman who had known the Thoreau family intimately, when my friend espied a man sitting on the porch of a fine looking dwelling upon the main street. I followed her through the gate, and as she approached the veranda a cheery voice said, "Good afternoon, Miss H." "Good afternoon, Mr. S.; are you enjoying this fine day? "

I was thereupon presented to a substantial, bluff-looking specimen of mankind who, though past sixty years of age, was exceedingly well preserved; which fact one was speedily led to ascribe to the good humor that fairly bubbled from every pore of him. He was evidently "at ease in Zion," and apparently he thought everyone else should be. It was not that boisterous humor which to a stranger would appear "put on," but a spontaneous outflow of spirits as unaffected as the ripple of a brook or the song of a bird.

Mr. S. was above the medium stature, straight as a pine tree, browned by outdoor life, 'well-fleshed enough to pass for a "solid" citizen, and time had dealt so kindly by him that he still had his own dark hair and lustrous brown eyes that fairly seemed to sparkle. Everything about him was in good keeping except the large diamond that flashed from a rather dirty shirt front and was silently reproached by the condition of the linen. In striking contrast to this misplaced luxury was his clothing, which was of good material, quiet in color and wholly free from that suspicion of foppery suggested by the glittering gem. His language fully explained the incongruous situation of the diamond, for that stone denotes the social extremes represented by culture and by vulgarity; and unfortunately the present wearer was in the vortex of the latter category. He impressed you as being a man who had learned his manners in the market-place rather than the drawing room and who, in the storm and stress of life, had kept his eye well to the windward, thereby escaping shipwreck. He had evidently prospered, whatever may have become of his companions in the struggle of life. Indeed, something about him said plainly enough, "I have no fault to find with fate; I can afford to gratify my desires; and, begging your pardon, I ask no odds of anybody." More than this, he made you feel that he regarded life as a huge joke; that he was wholly devoid of any conception of the tragic; that, in fact, he would have considered his own funeral us a part of the great and ever present joke. Yet with all, there was nothing disagreeably offensive about him; you could regard even the diamond discrepancy as only a pardonable vagary, -- in him.

When he learned that I was "one of them Thoreau fellows that comes 'round here every summer"  it seemed as if his every recollection of his famous townsman suddenly swarmed into his memory and was at my service. His flood of reminiscences constantly associated Emerson with Thoreau; but of all these I recall but one and perhaps that is remembered because  it presents Thoreau in an unsuspected character; that of a joker.

It seems that a question had arisen regarding the boundary line between land owned by Emerson and Mr. S. himself, which the latter told me had recently become his through a "dicker" with someone whose name I did not catch. Thoreau was employed to make the necessary survey ("and he did it right slick, I tell yon"); and having finished his work, he had appointed a meeting at Emerson's house to make his report. I can never forget how Mr. S. in his statement of that meeting made me feel the bland mildness of Emerson's nature. "He was a man, sir, that wouldn't hurt a fly," said Mr. S. moat emphatically. Then he went on to explain that there had been no "quarrel" between Emerson and himself; they only "just wanted to know, you know, which was which."

Thoreau was already at Emerson's house when Mr. S. arrived, and they plunged into business without delay. Much to Emerson's surprise, Thoreau said and proved by a map of the survey that his, Mr. Emerson's, partition fence intruded several feet upon the adjoining property; and without waiting for a word from the utterly unconscious intruder, he went on to declare that the appropriation of the land was intentional, only Mr. S. had proven too sharp to be imposed upon; and all these years you've been holding up your nose as an upright citizen and an example to everybody, yet every time you reset your fence you knowingly shoved it in a little farther and a little farther, until you've stolen land enough to almost feed a yearling heifer; but Mr. S. has been too smart for any of you sly fellows, and I'm glad to have a hand in exposing you; though its an awful disappointment to me."

"Why," said Mr. S., "if Emerson hed been ketched pickin' pockets at town meetin' he could n't a looked more streaked. Thoreau was talkin' in downright earnest, and you could have heard him way out on the Lexin'ton road. I felt so all-fired mean, I could n't do nothin' but look at the floor; but whilst Thoreau was a rakin' of him and had just said somthin' darned haa'sh, I just had to look at him, and when I saw his eye I laughed 'til you could a heard it up to the top of the Hill buryin' ground. You see, he  was just guyin' Mr. Emerson, and when he see it, he did n't take it amiss at all. He was the nicest man that ever lived."

Surely, this surprising spirit at the expense of the "sage of Concord" will make a companion piece for that famous extemporized dance in Mr. Ricketson's parlor -- and yet this was the Thoreau of whom Lowell said, "he had no humor!"

Just how the matter of Thoreau's imprisonment entered into our talk I do not remember, for the jailer's reminiscences followed each other as indiscriminately as the autumn leaves that fell at our feet that day. In the flood tide of his recollections he said: "Henry knew that I had a warrant for him, but I did n't go to hunt for him, 'cause I knew I could git him when I wanted to."

Thoreau was arrested early in the evening, while on his way to get a shoe that was being repaired preparatory to his piloting a huckleberry party on the morrow. The serving of a warrant had no novelty in it for the reminiscential jailer, so he mentioned no details of the arrest, but simply stated that he locked up Thoreau up "and the rest of the boys" for the night. A little later he himself went up town on some business. During his brief absence someone rapped at the door of the jailer's private apartments. His daughter opened it, when a veiled young woman said: "Here is the money to pay Mr. Thoreau's tax," and immediately departed. The demand of the law being satisfied, Thoreau was no longer a culprit, and should have been instantly set free on the jailer's return; but when telling me of it, that worthy, in the coolest manner imaginable, said "I had got my boots off and was sittin' by' the fire when my daughter told me, and I was n't goin' to take the trouble to unlock after I'd got the boys all fixed for the night, so I kep' him in 'till after breakfast next mornin' and then I let him go."

It was indeed a surprise to learn how nearly the recalcitrant reformer had escaped his one night in prison, only for the free-and easy jailer's love of his ease we had lost the raciest experience that Thoreau has recorded. I said nothing at the time, though inwardly I questioned the jailer's statement; but on subsequently reading Thoreau's account of the event, I found that it tallied in the fact that he was discharged after having breakfasted in the Concord jail.

I asked Mr. S. if he knew who it was that paid Thoreau's taxes. He replied that he did not know, but believed it was Judge Hoar -- "the girl that brought the money had somethin' wrapped 'round her head so't you could n't see her face;" but he guessed it was Elizabeth Hoar. He said Thoreau was "as mad as the devil when I turned him loose."

I had long been interested in the fate of Thoreau's room mate on that uneventful night, and I enquired what became of him. "He was a first-rate fellow," replied Mr. S. and he went on to say that at the following session of the court he had been set free. He had been arrested  for arson, but was really innocent, as Thoreau had shrewdly surmised would be found to be the case.

When I left Concord in 1890 the question, Who paid Thoreau's tax? was unsettled, although I had made diligent research in all directions. Four years later I saw a newspaper article by Mr. Irv­ing Allen in which it was definitely stated that the veiled lady was Thoreau's Aunt Maria. I at once wrote to Mr. Allen to learn the source of his information, and received this reply:

Norwich, Conn., May 7, 1891.

My Dear Sir: -- In reply to yours of the 5th inst., received this morning I am compelled to confess that I can furnish no evidence of the exact truth of my statement regarding the payment of Thoreau's tax. The old ladies Jane and Maria Thoreau were intimate and valued friends of mine in my youth and I have no doubt that the statement was made -- to me or in my hearing by one of them.

When I wrote the article of which you speak, it did not occur to me to question the source of my conviction in this matter; it seems to me that I have known for years that it was good old Aunt Jane who came to the relief of her eccentric nephew; yet I cannot prove that I was right. I suggest that you write to Professor E. J. Loomis, Washington, D. C; he was a very intimate friend of the Thoreaus, and is quite likely to have evidence on the question at issue.

Professor Loomis wrote:

Washington, May 12, 1894.

Dear Sir: -- In regard to the question who paid Henry Thoreau's tax, I have always understood that it was paid by his aunt, Miss Maria Thoreau, not Jane, who was very deaf, and all matters concerning either of them were attended to by Maria.

I have tried to recall to my mind whether Maria Thoreau ever told me that she paid the tax, but although I fully believe she did, I cannot say positively that she told me so. But in order to have something definite and authentic to tell you I have written to a friend in Concord to find the fact and let me know. As soon as I hear from him I will write you again. The question of the payment of the tax rests between two persons, Miss Maria and R.W. Emerson.

Mr. Emerson visited Thoreau at the jail, and the meeting between the two philosophers must have been interesting and somewhat dramatic. The account of the meeting was told me by Miss Maria Thoreau -- "Henry, why are you here?" "Waldo, why are you not here?"

I received yesterday a photograph of Henry which is quite different from Rowse's crayon likeness.

I was at Mr. Thoreau's house spending the summer at the time Rowse was making the portrait, and Henry and I walked, boated and talked over the whole of old Concord. Those were ambrosial days to be always remembered by me.

Excuse this rather gossippy letter; I hope to have something definite to write you soon.

The Concord friend to whom Professor Loomis proposed to write proved to be a correspondent of mine, and from him came this communication:

Concord, May 17, 1894.

My Dear Doctor: I had a letter from Professor Loomis after sending him one of the photos of Thoreau, in whioh he asked in regard to the payment of Thoreau's tax " for a gentleman from Ann Arbor."

I called on Mr. S., the jailer, last evening, and he told me that he committed Thoreau about sundown; that about nine or half past, while he was away from the house, a lady called at his front door, and on his daughter answering the bell, this lady handed her an envelope with the remark, "that is to pay for Henry Thoreau's tax." His daughter did not recognize the lady, as it was dark and she had a veil on. He said he always thought it was Elizabeth Hoar. I wrote to Judge Hoar in regard to it and his answer is that he was out of town at the time, but he always understood that it was Aunt Maria who paid it. He does not believe his sister did. There is one sure thing about it; Emerson did not.

S. thinks that Emerson could not have seen Thoreau in jail, as he was committed at sundown, or thereabout, and the jail was soon locked up. The tax being paid that evening, Thoreau was turned out immediately after breakfast -- as S. expressed it, "'as mad as the devil." He says he always liked Henry Thoreau; that he was thrown in with him a great deal in running the lines of different farms, etc.

When I told him for whom I wanted the information, he burst out laughing, "Oh, yes, that little fellow with the G.A.R. suit on." Then he gave me a resume of his talk with you, saying. "Tell him he must not place too much dependence on what I say, for when I get to talkin' I am apt to say more than I mean."

If Professor Loomis says Aunt Maria told him Emerson visited Thoreau in jail, I should call it so, as the story is too good to lose and also shows the difference between the men. "Henry, I am sorry to find you here.' "Mr. Emerson, why are you not here?" I repeated this to S., with the remark that Thoreau was ready to back up his principles, while Emerson was not. "Yes, X., that is so," was his reply."

It is seen that Judge Hoar (Senator Hoar) corroborates Professor Loomis in regard to the paying of Thoreau's tax. The fact was not mentioned during Thoreau's life, as he would have bitterly resented it; so that matter may be considered settled.

As to the Emerson-Thoreau interview in Concord jail, Professor Loomis writes:

Washington, May 21, 1894.

"Dear Sir:  -- I have just heard from Mr. X., of Concord, Mass., to whom I wrote for information regarding the payment of Thoreau's tax, and his information, which I understand he has already forwarded to you, agrees with my own recollection of the story as told me.

In regard to the meeting of Mr. Emerson and Henry Thoreau in Concord jail, that story was told me by Henry's Aunt Maria; " Henry, why are you here?" "Waldo, why are you not here?"

I have heard her tell the story several times, and always the same, never varying a word."

There is no reasonable doubt of its truth. It was first told in print in 1862, by George William Curtis, in an obituary notice of Thoreau -- Harper's Monthly, vol. xxv, p. 279. It has never been contradicted, and it is characteristic of the men. Emerson was the man of thought, Thoreau of action. It was Thoreau, not Emerson, that first raised his voice in defence of Captain John Brown.

Source: The Inlander (December 1898) pp. 96-103