In this cracked glass-plate photograph, prisoners enjoy a Fourth of July celebration in the yard at Joliet, not long after McClaughry spoke at Monmouth.

Monmouth audience learned of prison life in 1886

Jeff Rankin
4 min readJun 15, 2021


MONMOUTH, Ill. — I have written previously about Maj. Robert Wilson McClaughry, the pioneer prison reformer who graduated from Monmouth College in 1861 and for a time lived in Monmouth. From his appointment in 1874 as warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet to becoming the first warden of the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1899, he was considered a groundbreaker in modern penal theory.

Robert McClaughry as warden of Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Recently, I came across an account of an 1886 lecture that McClaughry delivered in Monmouth on the topic of “Prison Life” at Joliet. The details provide insight into McClaughry’s philosophy of and commitment to prison reform.

A measure of that commitment can be gleaned from a eulogy delivered by Monmouth College president T.H. McMichael at McClaughry’s funeral in 1920. McMichael, who likely attended the 1886 lecture when he was a senior at Monmouth College, said of McClaughry:

“He was a ‘humane warden’ in the day when to be a humane warden was not a popular thing. His heart went out to the unfortunate and he said, “Some better thing can be worked out for those who have fallen in crime, and folly, and sin.’ He pushed out in what was then a new line of endeavor. Wherever we go up and down this country and even to foreign countries we find men who knew him, and who recognize and appreciate his far reaching service to humanity.”

McClaughry began his lecture by describing what at the time were considered the principal “classes” of criminal.

The first class, he said are “born criminals,” and he described how they advance from a first offense to an advanced position such as a skillful burglar. Of this class, he called the “fence,” or receiver of stolen goods, worse than the average criminal — noting that these offenders seldom reach the penitentiary.

The second class of criminals, McClaughry said, were those who were drawn to crime through avarice or keeping unsavory company, while the third class was those forced by circumstance to commit crime. Into the latter group he placed embezzlers, who begin to take money in a small way to keep up appearances and eventually become hardened felons.

A fourth class of criminals, McClaughry explained, were boys who leave home when young and because of their immaturity develop unfortunate habits.

McClaughry then moved to the topic of life at the prison, which at that time had a population of 1,605 inmates and encompassed 16 acres. It had a staff of 70 officers, keepers and guards, and prisoners worked an average of 10 hours per day, depending on the season. They annually consumed 443,665 pounds of meat, 3,455 barrels of flour, 9,000 bushels of potatoes and a ton of cabbage.

Seventy percent of the prisoners were under age 30, a majority of them being moderate drinkers, having no religious beliefs and being poorly educated. He said that the previous year, 106 repeat violators were admitted, one of whom was entering his seventh term.

What causes led to incarceration? McClaughry enumerated them as “yellow covered literature” (reading dime novels and trashy magazines), liquor, gambling (which frequently began with draw poker played in parlors), a want of home life and idleness.

The penitentiary was a self-supporting institution, deriving income from prisoner labor in the manufacture of such items as clothing, shoes and furniture. McClaughry noted that labor was important for prisoners, as without it the penitentiary would be “changed into an asylum.”

McClaughry said that of the 2,500 prisoners received at Joliet the previous year, not many were “punished” — only 142. Looking into the background of 19th-century prison punishment, it appears it was applied primarily to prisoners who did not properly behave or conform to prison rules. Illinois outlawed the use of the lash in 1867, but by the 1880s, solitary confinement was common — consisting of handcuffing a man to the cell door in a standing position during the working hours. His only meal was two ounces of bread and eight ounces of water.

Prisoners who toed the line and avoided trouble were treated civilly, McClaughry said, but he also emphasized that unless a criminal behavior is addressed in its early stages, permanent reform is unlikely.

McClaughry spoke to a packed house at the Unity Church, with attendees paying 25 cents for admission.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.



Jeff Rankin

Retired editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter.