Editors’ Note: Today’s guest blogger is Taylor Bagwell, a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA. Taylor is double majoring in American Studies and Finance and enjoys being a sister of Alpha Delta Pi. While doing research at the National Archives in College Park, MD, Taylor’s professor Jonathan W. White discovered a letter written in 1864 by Eastern State prisoner John G. Miller to President Abraham Lincoln. In this blog, Taylor gives us some background on John G. Miller and transcribes his letter for us.
John G. Miller arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary on August 13, 1861, to serve an 8-year sentence for the crime of arson. On March 12 and April 1, 1861, he had started fires in his hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, destroying a barn and a stable and killing several mules. Five witnesses testified that Miller and two accomplices had committed the crimes. One witness stated that Miller “took a match and set fire right above the mules’ heads.”
Miller had previously served two terms in the U.S. Marine Corps aboard the USS Wabash. He departed with the vessel from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on July 22, 1858, arriving almost a month later in Gibraltar. Miller would then spend the following 14 months touring the Mediterranean on what one of his shipmates, future-admiral George Dewey, called the “finest ship of the foreign fleet.”
In prison, Miller suffered epileptic convulsions and was “disturbed in mind.” On November 27, 1863, prison officials moved him from 5 Gallery to a lower cell “as a matter of prudence.” A few months later, Miller wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln asking for a pardon. Unlike many prisoners, Miller was not looking for a sympathetic pardon based on his illness. Instead, he offered to join the Union Navy if he was released. Ironically, in light of his illness, he even referred to himself as an “able bodied sea man.”
Unfortunately for Miller, the United States Constitution grants the power of pardoning to the President only in cases involving “offenses against the United States.” Because arson is a state level crime, Lincoln did not possess the power to pardon him after all. The 1838 Pennsylvania Constitution granted the governor this authority. Miller was pardoned by Governor Andrew G. Curtin on June 24, 1865, after serving half of his 8-year sentence. Prison records noted upon his discharge that his epileptic fits had “grown worse as his confinement lengthened.” Unfortunately, Miller never had a chance to serve the Union cause because the Civil War had ended about a month before his release.
The following letter represents one Eastern State inmate’s desperate attempt to attain release from prison in the middle of the Civil War.
The letter’s contents have been transcribed exactly as they were written, with spelling errors intact.
To His Exe Presedent Abraham Lincoln
Honorable sir it is with the Emotion of profound regret that I am constraind to approach youre Execelleny from with the narow compass of an opprobrious prisen sell wheare I have now been confiened 32 mo acused of arsen hence I feel disirous to signify to youre Exe that I am poss poseesed of all the compatible qualiteis of an able bodied sea man having served two terms in the U US marine corps abord of the steem friget wabash on the home station and on the metteraine station under command of cap samuel baren [Samuel Barron] and commodore lavellett [Elie A. F. La Vallette] affter the expiration of the said term in december 1859 i had the misfortion to fall in with unpopular associates wich ultimately resulted in the event of the present deplorable restriction I have pestentley [presently?] two Bros serving in the armey whom I am very anxious to joine in thare companey in the defence of my adobted country I now tharefore with humble humility of sentiments appeale to youre Excellencies high moral feelings of humanity asking as a favor of youre genorosity now to sanction my parden and claimeing me into the Navey and armey of the US wheare I shall render my countrey some benefical service hear In my present curbed position I am of comparativley no use eather to myself are the country sureley youre Exe will not regret of acepting my service at a time when the cause of our national integrity emptatically demandes the untried energey of every true and loyal sons of amarica now to stand forth and protect his countries Glorious rights sir i have mad my appeal to the govener and he sent me down the rules what i must get to get a pat pardon it is the Judge and the district atturney but since my brothers is boath in the armey it leves me without a freind except my wife and 3 poor children she was to see me some time ago and she fetched me a copel of little slipes [slips] out of a w news paper about pardoning some soilders h whom was sentence to be shot she requested me to make an appeal to youre Exe
I now Submit my cause to generous dis deciseon
I pray to god youre Ex wont turn a deaf eare to this
John G Miller
Cell No 4505
Eastren Pententiary of Pennsylvania at the city of Phildelphia
March 29 – 1864
PS if youre Ex should feel in clind to make an in query of my conduct in prisen hear youre Ex can get a good report frome the warden and the inspecters all
Student, Christopher Newport University
Dewey, George. Autobiography of George Dewey. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.
Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Justice; Eastern State Penitentiary, Prison Administration Records; Warden’s Daily Journals (series #15.50), Volume 2 (1856-1877), Roll 6608.
Record Group 204 (Records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney), Entry 1a (Pardon Case Files, 1853-1946), National Archives at College Park.
Reading Gazette and Democrat, April 20, 1861. Thanks to Stephanie Mihalik of the Berks County Historical Society and Bill Rehr of the Reading Area Firefighters Museum for helping us track down this source.