Document 8A: Letter from Kate Richards O'Hare to Frank P. O'Hare, 20 April 1919, printed in Kate Richards O'Hare, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters (Girard, Kansas: The New Appeal Publishing Company, 1919), pp. 3-6 (History of Women Microfilm, reel 914, no. 7648).
Though her sentence was commuted fourteen months into her five-year prison term, O'Hare's experiences at the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City forever changed her. Initially O'Hare was allowed to write only one five-page letter per week; by her release, she had been promoted within the prison system to "Class A," which allowed her to send three letters per week. O'Hare used these letters as an opportunity to communicate with family and friends, as well as to make indirect contact with her many well-wishers and fellow socialists, instructing Frank O'Hare to send thanks to those from whom she received letters and packages that week, often listing up to twenty individuals. Kate O'Hare also used her prison letters to comment on Socialist Party events and changes. Frank O'Hare published these letters in batches through the Frank P. O'Hare Bulletin, a newsletter sent out to keep the O'Hare case in the public eye while Kate O'Hare remained behind bars, and in 1919 published them as the book, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters. Censored by the prison administration, these letters describe in largely sanitized language the debilitating conditions she encountered. Letters also document her efforts to change conditions at the prison, with some success (see documents 8E and 8I). Most importantly, however, in these letters, O'Hare's transformation to prison reformer can be witnessed (see especially, documents 8C, 8E, 8G, 8H, 8I, and 8J). The letters clearly show prison's impact on O'Hare, and she later vowed to devote the remainder of her life to changing prison conditions, and especially, to eradicating the convict lease system.
Jefferson City, Mo., April 20, 1919.
F. P. O'Hare
1011 Holland Bldg.,
St. Louis, Mo.
I can only write one letter but papa will copy it and send it on. First of all, I am quite all right. I feel perfectly well, sleep like a baby and eat like a harvest hand. The quiet after the stress, strain and hard work of these trying times is really restful.
So far I seem to feel no sense of shock whatever. I entered quite as calmly as I have registered at hundreds of hotels and the clang of the cell door did not disturb me more than the slamming of my room door by a careless bell boy. I have either much more poise, courage and strength of character than I dreamed of possessing or I am psychologically stunned. I suppose that Dr. Zeuch or Dr. Barnes might say the latter.
At any rate I am having a most interesting time. Life is the "Great Adventure" and I am living one of its most interesting and illuminating experiences. I have learned much, so very much, in these strained days; lessons of pride and humility; lessons of laughter and sorrow; lessons of high comedy and bitter tragedy. I have learned that prison cells can teach greater and more useful lessons than college classrooms.
And don't think that I am gloomy and lonely and unloved here, for I certainly am not. Through all the tragedy and heart-ache there come sparkles of wit and flashes of humor, and we really find many things to laugh over.
I have received so many beautiful letters. You must let the comrades know that I will be glad to get letters from all of them, that there is no limit to what I can receive, but I can write only one letter a week and that of course must be to the family.
Have the publishers send me the new books; I can't get too much reading matter. There are 80 girls here, and there is not a book, magazine or particle of reading matter supplied to the women.
I have received my various packages and I am quite comfortable. I got the flowers and candy this morning and the message they brought was very sweet and welcome. I am only short a soft metal knife and fork now and I will be all fixed.
Food is a problem. The kitchen is three blocks from the women's dining hall, and everything is stone cold when served and is uneatable. But we may have everything that does not require cooking sent in from the outside. It will take some thought for me to work out a balanced ration.
Tell the women comrades that I will be very glad to have any sort of home-made jams, jellies and pickles; in fact, anything that is put up in small containers. Tell Mrs. Wagner to send me some of her nice cookies, and the Jewish comrades to send me a box of Matzos. I would like some of Mrs. K.'s tiny pickles and onions also. And, Frank, when you come to Jefferson City, arrange with a grocer to send me such vegetables and fruit as I can manage. And send me a little stand about six inches deep, and two feet wide, the height of a table, with three or four shelves to keep things on.
My cell is about eight feet square, with steel walls, the front is of bars; I have received the rug and table cover, the sheets and pillow cases and bed spread, and it looks quite comfortable. We scrub our cells thoroughly once a week. There is light and ventilation, and happily, no bad smells, for no cooking is permitted in the cells.
Our little world has its comedies, it vanities, its classes and its castes, just like the big world outside. The "federals" are for some reason the "upper class," and the "politicals" are the aristocracy. There are three real "politicals," Emma Goldman, a wonderful little girl of 18, and myself. There is another "espionage," but she is just a poor, simple old soul, about as dangerous to the government as an old cow.
It is certainly a great thing to have two women like the two "politicals" with me here. Emma is very fine and sweet, and intellectually companionable, while the little girl is a darling. We have really interesting times.
Next in rank are the women who have disposed of undesirable husbands, and at this point I want to expound for all of my male friends a bit of wisdom. If you chance to have one of those meek, patient, quiet, long-suffering wives, beware that you do not try them too far, or some morning you may wake up in paradise, or the other place. If you have chanced to get a temperamental lady, of shrewish tendencies, you may be uncomfortable, but you will be safe.
You might tell the Rev. Dr. Bitting that I understand him now. I now know what he feels when he comes into contact with the working class. I feel the same thing here. I want to come close to these women, I want to serve them, but I am conscious of the fact that they feel that I am one apart from them. Quite often I feel that I am reaching a human soul, uncovering a rich vein of underdog philosophy, and then some cynical soul says "Aw, cut it--she's a lady." And I am baffled and shut out and realize that "ladies" and "clergyman" are purely ornamental, and can have no relations to real life. But I feel that I am gaining ground and in time I will not be penalized for being a "lady." One thing in my favor is that I can work. I am certainly thankful for my manual dexterity. The work in the factory does not trouble me in the least. I understand that I have broken all records for beginners in making jumpers. I feel a little stiff and sore, but it is nothing serious. I feel sure that I will be able to make the "task" by next week, which is 55 jumpers each day.
I am wondering if you will be able to read this. Writing a long letter by hand is a task for me, and a greater one for those who must read it. I feel sure that by the time Governor Painter, the warden, has deciphered a letter or two of mine, he will be willing to let me have my little Corona typewriter for his own sake if not for mine.
Please make a copy of this letter for Grace and send one to Mr. Lovell also. You might send a copy to Mr. Wattles and thank him for his kindness and courtesy to me.
Let Mrs. Brown read it, and I want her to know how much I appreciated her very sweet letter.
This is Easter, and I think it means more to me than any other Easter in my whole life. I think that I have come just a little nearer the soul of the universe; that I can touch hands across the ages with all who have walked through Gethsemane and who have found peace for their own souls in service for others.
It seems strange, but it is true, that today it is not my own loved ones, not even my comrades, that I long to reach with an Easter message of love and cheer. My own have the memories of long years of love and they can afford to lend me for a time to these poor, despoiled, despairing creatures here. I want you, my children, and my husband, to feel that you have only loaned me for a time to those who need me far more bitterly than you do.
I want the comrades with whom I have worked for years with all my strength, to feel that they must not be bitter if I am taken away for a little while to be with the bitterly wronged victims of our social stupidity.
I am deeply grateful to be where I am today and to have found such a place of service. I know that my children are secure. 'Gene and Victor will be tenderly cared for at Chaminade; Kathleen will be happy with Cousins Mamie and Charles and Mrs. K. and the St. Louis comrades will take care of my big boys. And there are so many who need me here. The poor little "dope fiend" in the cell next to me needs me more than my own do. You have love and health and the beautiful world; she has only the hellish cry of her nerves for "dope," the black despair born of the neglect of those who should help her, and the gnawing hunger of a long under-nourished body. I can feed her and encourage her and pet her, and I think if Jesus were consulted on the matter, he would prefer that I should be here this Easter Day rather than in come [sic] magnificent church.
If I were outside today I might be speaking to a great crowd. Perhaps my empty place and silent voice will serve my comrades and my cause better than my presence.
So do not worry about me, and do not be sad. I am all right and I will come back to you a better wife, a more tender mother and a wiser and more efficient comrade.
The floor girl has just come to tell me that it is time to turn in my letter, so I must close now.
You must all be brave and cheerful and go on just as if I had not been taken from you. Tell the comrades to go on with my work and all will be well.
Love and kisses to my darlings, and greetings to the friends and comrades.
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