Research Programs: Public Scholars

Period of Performance

9/1/2021 - 8/31/2022

Funding Totals

$60,000.00 (approved)
$60,000.00 (awarded)

The Trials of William Freeman (1824-1847): A Story of Murder, Race, and America's First Industrial Prison

FAIN: FZ-279968-21

Robin Bernstein
President and Fellows of Harvard College (Cambridge, MA 02138-3800)

A history of incarceration in Auburn, New York through the story of William Freeman, convicted of a quadruple murder in 1846.

My book is a narrative history, based in archival research and intended for general readers, of a quadruple murder that occurred in 1846 in New York State. I use this event to revise the stories we tell about the origins of prison for profit—and subsequently the roots of anti-Black racism. Well-known scholars argue that the American prison industry developed as a Southern effort to re-install slavery after the Civil War. In contrast, I show how the antebellum North originated for-profit convict labor (a fact that previous scholars acknowledge but have not communicated effectively to the public). This fact matters because the Northern mode of convict labor led to distinctive forms of racism: ones based in liberal reform, modern manufacturing, and even abolitionism. By narrating the life of one Black man, his family, and his city, my book restores the antebellum North to the stories we tell about profit-driven incarceration and racism—thus changing what we know about each.

Associated Products

Freeman: The Black Youth Who Challenged America's Premier Industrial Prison (Book)
Title: Freeman: The Black Youth Who Challenged America's Premier Industrial Prison
Author: Robin Bernstein
Editor: n/a
Abstract: Profit-driven incarceration was born in central New York State in a small village called Auburn. There, starting in the 1820s, prisoners were forced to labor in prison factories to produce furniture and animal harnesses, carpets and combs for public sale. The prison pocketed the profits; prisoners, who were considered “slaves of the state,” received no cut. In 1846, however, one youth named William Freeman threatened this system. Freeman was convicted of horse theft and incarcerated in Auburn for five years, starting in 1840 when he was fifteen years old. Set to work in prison factories, Freeman resisted. The freeborn son of a manumitted Black father and a free Black and Stockbridge-Narragansett mother, Freeman was incensed at being forced to work, as he put it, “for nothing.” He demanded wages. His claim was simple, but it challenged Auburn’s defining idea: he insisted that he was not a slave, but a citizen with rights, a worker. The assertion triggered violence: first against him, then by him. After his release, William Freeman committed a hideous quadruple murder that bewildered New Yorkers and forced them to reckon with his claims. They did so—but not by reevaluating the fusion of profit and incarceration. Instead, many defended it. Desperate to distract from Freeman’s ideas and manage their terror, white Auburnites—reformers and businesspeople, Whigs and Democrats, antislavery and not—spun tales that blamed Freeman’s crimes on Black families, Black freedom, Blackness itself. Meanwhile, Black people developed practices of self-determination to live in a city dominated by a citadel of unfreedom.
Year: 2022
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: The book does not yet have a website. I have provided my general website.
Access Model: This is a book that will be available in print, digital, and audio formats.
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: n/a
Copy sent to NEH?: No