While reading a local newspaper, Ida B Wells-Barnett’s attention was captured by the story of Chicken Joe Campbell.
Campbell was already incarcerated at Joliet Prison when, in 1915, the warden’s wife was killed in a fire. He was accused of murdering her. The warden, Edmund M. Allen had been appointed by the Governor of Illinois in 1913. He had progressive views (especially for the time) about how to treat prisoners. “There is some good in every man…and there exists some influence which will appeal to his heart and reason (cited in Giddings, 2009, p.549).” Allen had instituted an “honor system” at the Prison that allowed inmates to be rewarded with privileges and better job assignments for good behavior.
Joe Campbell had through his good behavior been elevated to the status of “trusty” and was assigned as a personal servant to the wife of the warden, Odette. Campbell was scheduled to appear before a parole board in a little more than a week when a fire broke out in the second-floor bedroom of the warden’s house. (Incidentally, Mrs. Allen had apparently agreed to testify in support of Campbell at his upcoming parole hearing). Paula Giddings explains what happened next in her authoritative biography Ida: A Sword Among Lions (2009):
“When prison guards and convicts from the volunteer fire department rushed to the residence, they found the lifeless body of Mrs. Allen. A later investigation found that alcohol had been spread over the bedding and that Mrs. Allen’s skull had been fractured. The coroner concluded that she had been knocked unconscious before succumbing to smoke inhalation and the flames. The Allen’s physician, who also had access to the warden’s living quarters and was himself a convict in the prison for killing his wife, claimed that Odette Allen had also been strangled and sexually assaulted — thought he had not made a thorough examination and no secretions were analyzed (p.549).”
Joseph Campbell was arrested for the crime right away. Barnett read about his plight when the Chicago papers reported that Campbell had been “confined to solitary in complete darkness for fifty hours on bread and water (Bay, p. 292).” After 40 hours of being subjected to questioning, Campbell ‘confessed’ to the crime. Wells was appalled by this barbaric treatment and wrote an outraged letter and appeal to local papers. “Is this justice? Is this humanity? Can we stand to see a dog treated in such fashion without protest?” she wrote. Her full letter can be read here:
Editor of the Herald: In common with thousands who have read of the horrible murder committed in Joliet penitentiary Sunday, I have followed the testimony given at the inquest now being held in an effort to find the murder.
All shudder to think so terrible a dead could be committed within the prison walls, but I write to ask if one more terrible is not now taking place these in the name of justice, and if there is not enough decent human feeling in the state to put a stop to it and give “Chicken Joe” a chance to prove whether e is innocent or guilty.
The papers say he has been confined in solitary fifty hours, hands chained straight out before him and then brought in to the inquest, sweated and tortured to make him confess a crime that he may not have committed. Is this justice? Is this humanity? Would we stand to see a dog treated in such a fashion without protest? I know we would not. Then why will not the justice-loving, law-abiding citizens put a stop to this barbarism?
The Negro Fellowship League will send a lawyer there tomorrow and we ask that your powerful journal help us to see that he gets a chance to defend “Chicken Joe” and give him an opportunity to prove whether he is innocent.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Representing Negro Fellowship League
Letter Published in Chicago Record-Herald & Chicago Defender (June 1915)
She didn’t stop there. She sent her husband, Ferdinand, to represent Campbell because she felt that the “prominent people” in Chicago weren’t supporting him. Ferdinand was told by prison officials that Campbell already had an attorney (it turned out that this was not true). A persistent Mrs. Barnett wrote a letter to Campbell himself and went to see him at the prison. She came away convinced of his innocence. When she returned to Chicago, she found a letter that Campbell had sent in response to her original letter to him. It was subsequently published in local and national papers and proclaimed his innocence of the charges against him:
Joliet, July 10th, 1915
Mrs. I.B. W. Barnett,
My Dear Madam:
I cannot find words to thank you for the kindness which you have shown me. I have been in this place 22 days and you are the first one that has come to my rescue and believe me when I say that I will accept your kind offer with joy and I know that if I am given a chance I can prove that I am innocent of this crime. I have not had any chance, that’s why I cannot prove that I did not commit the crime, but if you will do as you say in your letter, then I will have a chance to prove to the world that I am innocent and believe me when I say that I thank you with all my heart and may God bless you.
Ida and Ferdinand threw themselves into the defense of Joseph Campbell. Ida tirelessly raised funds while Ferdinand defended him in court. Despite Ferdinand’s best efforts, Joseph Campbell was found guilty and sentenced to death in April 1916. Ida and her husband supported Campbell through three appeals. After the final appeal, Campbell’s sentence was commuted by the Governor from death to life in prison in large part due to the pressure that the Barnetts kept up in this case. Campbell died in Joliet prison in 1950, nineteen years after Ida herself had passed.
I revisit this incident to underscore that the struggle against solitary confinement as a form of torture is a long one. Last month, here in Illinois, the Uptown People’s Law Center filed a class action lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over its solidarity confinement practices. The suit claims “that the Illinois prison system is excessively and inappropriately using the restrictive housing for inmates.” Ida already told us so in 1915. 100 years later you’d think that we would have learned the lesson.