Richard Evans tells the little-known story of how 19th-century Germany attempted to solve its prison problems by secretly sending felons to the United States as immigrants.
In the course of the nineteenth century, as America became a magnet for Europe's poor and dispossessed, many European governments saw the opportunity to rid themselves of the burden of supporting the destitute by encouraging emigration to the United States. Their efforts were reinforced by numerous voluntary associations and societies dedicated to helping European paupers start a new life across the Atlantic.
A small number of European states went further than this and sent felons and convicts to the United States as out as well. This happened not just on a few isolated occasions but was carried out as a deliberate and consistent policy over several decades. Not only petty thieves, beggars and alcoholics, but also serious and violent offenders and even convicted murderers were shipped over. In some instances they were not merely deported after they had finished serving their prison sentences, but were sent off to the United States after being sentenced, as an alternative to imprisonment. Some states carried out this policy in an atmosphere of secrecy and deception, deliberately misleading the immigration authorities in America by providing the convicts with falsified documents of identity.
It was above all in Germany that this policy was carried out. Unlike England and France, the German states did not have overseas colonies to which they could despatch their unwanted criminals. There was no German equivalent of Botany Bay or Devil's Island. Nor was there any German version of the Siberian mines, labour colonies safely located thousands of milks away from the main centres of population, which were used for this purpose by the Russians. The Prussian government, indeed, had actually sent a batch of hardened convicts to Siberia with the agreement of the Russian Tsar in 1802 but the Russians had refused to allow the exercise to be repeated. In the 1820s the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg supplied the newly independent state of Brazil with several hundred labourers and conscript soldiers drawn from the Duchy's prisons and workhouses; but the Brazilian authorities found most of the emigrants useless either as colonists or as troops. This experiment, therefore, remained as much of an isolated initiative as the Siberian deportations had been.
Nevertheless, the pressure to deport convicts overseas from German states remained. Despite the construction of a growing number of new prisons in the 1830s and 1840s, the widespread pauperism and increasing theft rates of these economically difficult decades far outstripped the abilities of the German custodial system to cope. The replacement of local patrimonial jurisdictions by state courts, and the growing activities of police forces in many German states, further increased the numbers of offenders consigned to Germany's prisons. By the middle of the 1830s, three German states in particular were turning to transportation as an alternative. These were the Hanseatic City State of Hamburg, the Principality of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and the Kingdom of Hanover.
It was surely no coincidence that all three states had unusually close connections with Britain, where the practice of transporting felons continued to be a central and well-known part of the penal system until 1857. Hamburg had built its prosperity on trading connections with England and prided itself on being ‘the most English city on the Continent'. The princely house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha supplied a husband for Queen Victoria in the shape of Prince Albert, and the Kingdom of Hanover came under the rule of Victoria's uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, on her accession to the British throne in 1837, since the Salic Law prevented the Hanoverian throne from being occupied by a woman. It was at this point, indeed, in the middle of the 1830s, that Hanover and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha began to send convicted felons to the United States in an operation that, as it went on, became steadily more unscrupulous and filled with subterfuge and deceit.
The American authorities, not surprisingly, were not too happy about this policy. The government in Coburg began by making the mistake of sending thirteen prisoners to the North German seaport of Bremen in a single batch in 1837. Here they stood out as a group, and were spotted and disembarked on the orders of the local authorities. As a local newspaper reported:
For some time more attention has been paid than previously in the American states to preventing notorious criminals from slipping into the country amidst the general crowd of European immigrants. A numerous company of law-abiding emigrants can thus run the risk of not being admitted if they are transported on the same ship as such people.
This was clearly not in the interests of the port of Bremen, for whom the trade in emigrants was becoming an increasingly lucrative business. Similar considerations probably operated in the case of Hamburg. The city authorities despatched thirteen convicts to the United States in 1832, on a voyage marked by violence, theft and corruption on the part of a number of the felons, and by the denunciation of the criminals to the New York authorities by the other passengers on their arrival. In view of this disaster, and the bad reputation it gave the city among emigration agents dealing with bona fide migrants, the experiment was never repeated.
It soon became apparent, therefore, that sending convicts abroad as individuals rather than in groups was much easier and safer than sending them in batches. This was the policy adopted after 1832 by the authorities in Hamburg, and continued on a small scale up to the late 1840s. It was followed, too, in the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The motivation was made clear in a case that occupied the attention of the authorities in Coburg in 1846. On this occasion an internal government memorandum advocated official financial support for the emigration of the ‘notorious, completely penniless Elisabeth Tag' to the United States.
Tag had numerous convictions for theft and was said to pose ‘a threat to the property of strangers'. ‘Such an expenditure of money', it was noted, ‘is all the more in the interests of the state treasury because in view of her incorrigible way of life, the said Tag is likely to cause the country disproportionately more if she stays here'. In other words, the costs of prosecuting and imprisoning her and keeping her fed and maintained in gaol were likely far to exceed the costs of transporting her to the United States. Such financial considerations were paramount in virtually all the cases of transportation considered not only by the Coburg authorities but by other German states as well.
Prisoners in Coburg were customarily considered for transportation as they neared the end of their sentence, and the more difficult they were, and the more they were thought to be in danger of reoffending, the more likely the authorities were to recommend shipping them off. There was little that was voluntary about this process. Thus for example Eduard Langguth, transported in 1856, had, according to the authorities
... already abandoned himself to wandering about and to idleness, and bit by bit made such progress in the ways of depravity that he has caused the police and the courts to take numerous sanctions against him. It must therefore be regarded as desirable that this individual, who is as much a burden on the state as a danger to it, should emigrate to America.
Of course, these were not the only people the Coburg government helped to emigrate. Between 1833 and 1855 some 321 individuals and families (some of the latter quite large) received financial assistance in this way; most of them were honest poor. It is within this wider context that the policy of transporting felons has to be understood.
Coburg was a small state, and so its transportation policy was carried out on a relatively small scale. The bulk of felons transported to America from Germany in the nineteenth century were despatched from the much larger state of Hanover. The conservatism of the Hanoverian administration in penal policy, as in other areas, was legendary. A critical report issued in 1860 damned the kingdom's prisons as being totally inadequate and out of date. Rather than building new penitentiaries like other German states, Hanover preferred the cheaper option of transportation.
From the beginning of 1856 to the end of 1846, some 332 convicted criminals were transported from various parts of the kingdom to the United States. In addition, numerous 'tramps and similar persons who pose a threat to public security or damage to the public good', together with what a confidential report described as their ‘wives, whores and children' had also been deported during this period. Altogether, 895 dangerous persons of various kinds were sent off in these eleven years. The author of the memorandum compiling these statistics noted:
This kingdom has been freed by this measure of a mass of prisoners, some of whom are dangerous, and the public treasury has similarly been relieved of a not inconsiderable amount of expenditure, irrespective of the fact that it has paid most of the emigration costs itself.
He added that it was therefore ‘urgently desirable' for the practice to continue.
But such large numbers were hardly likely to go unnoticed. In 1845 the American federal government, aware of the existence of the practice but unsure of its dimensions, appointed a commission to investigate the matter. The commission obtained testimony from a number of ordinary emigrants about the presence of felons on the ships on which they had come over. Dudley Mann, the US government agent in Hanover, formally asked the Hanoverian authorities in 1847 ‘whether a practice so prejudicial to the welfare of the American Union at present exists . . . in the Kingdom of Hanover'.
The Hanoverian Interior Ministry, alarmed by this publicity, decided that the best policy would be to leave such enquiries unanswered, though it also prepared a vague, reassuring and indeed less than truthful reply to Mann should he persist in his enquiries (which he did not). It repeated this view in another internal memorandum eight years later, in 1855, when the Belgian government complained that its own policy of transporting the inmates of work-houses to the United States was being put in jeopardy by Hanover's persistence in sending over convicted felons. Here too the enquiry went unanswered and the matter was dropped.
On April 9th, 1849, the American authorities brought new immigration regulations into effect, giving vent to what the Bremen Senate described as their ‘irritability' over the question and their intention 'to ensure that the United States does not become a country to which felons and good-for- nothings are deported'. Ships and shipping lines bringing convicts over were to be punished, and future immigrants from the states from which felons were discovered to have been transported were to be subjected to increased vigilance at the . Of . Own ' r' a authorities in Bremen to stop endangering its business interests and the profitability of its shipping lines by continuing to transport convicts to America, the Hanoverian government decided instead to go underground.
Transportation would continue, but under conditions of the utmost secrecy.
An internal Hanoverian ministerial note written in response to the Bremen initiative pointed out
... that in New Orleans there is not so precise a surveillance of immigrants as in Baltimore and New York, and that the authorities of the City of Bremen pay less attention to emigrants to that place, so that the transportation of persons from penal and correctional institutions to New Orleans should be accompanied by the fewest difficulties.
Moreover, while the transportation of felons was to continue, extra precautions had to be taken to ensure that nobody discovered their true identity. Thus officials were instructed to take the convicts to the point of embarkation singly rather than in groups. They were to provide them with clean bedding and clothes to make them look respectable. They were to issue them with new passports which made no mention of their criminal record. Each convict was to be personally seen on board ship by a government official. Every effort was thus made to conceal the convicts’ real identity from the shipping agents who arranged their passage, the crews and passengers with whom they travelled, and the immigration authorities at the port where they eventually disembarked.
The initiative to transport felons from Hanover during this period usually came either from local authorities, from prison governors, or from the families of the felons themselves. While the families of the offenders frequently wished to rid themselves of an embarrassment, the local and penal authorities were more concerned to save money, and indeed were encouraged by the government in Hanover to select prisoners for deportation on a regular basis. Most of these offenders were petty criminals who had a string of convictions, rather than major offenders serving a single long sentence for a serious crime. The worse their conduct in prison, and the more evident the failure of custodial sentences to reform them, the more likely they were to be measured to go. Hanoverian felons were transported under a royal act of clemency granting them remission on condition they emigrated and did not return. If they ever came back, it was made clear to them that the act of clemency would be invalidated and they would be put back in prison to serve the rest of their sentence. This was a remarkable reversal of the normal use of the royal clemency, which otherwise depended on good conduct in prison, evidence of improvement or doubt about the soundness of the original conviction.
On September 3rd, 1841, for example, the police in Gottingen made no mention of the wishes of the prisoner in question when they commented that the twenty-one-year-old Carl Wilhelm Augustin had
... already become in his present youthful age such a complete criminal through his unfortunate family circumstances, through the depraved character of his parents, and through his own inborn tendency to evil, that his removal from society appears necessary for its safety and welfare.
In view of the likelihood that he would spend much of the rest of his life in prison at the state's expense, there was, they concluded, ‘no time to lose' in shipping him off to America. Such language occurs again and again in the files of prisoners selected for deportation. There was thus nothing in this policy designed to secure an improvement in the offender, and little that was voluntary as far as the felon was concerned.
The Hanoverian authorities had no illusions about the prospects of such offenders changing their ways once they reached the other side of the Atlantic. Small wonder, therefore, that the government in Hanover wished to keep the policy as secret as possible.
The need for secrecy was increased by the fact that those transported included a number of prisoners convicted of extremely serious offences. In such cases the decision was not left in the usual way to local authorities but had to be ratified by the Ministry of the Interior in Hanover, which generally went to a good deal of trouble to ensure that the offender in question no longer posed a threat to society. Here good conduct in gaol was essential, and a hint of doubt about the validity of the original conviction was often a deciding factor.The ministry also insisted that serious offenders, unlike petty criminals, should have served a substantial portion of their sentence before being granted clemency. Prisoners who fell under this heading included not only convicted rapists, arsonists and robbers but also murderers.
One such case was that of Heinrich Georg Hundertmark, condemned to death for shooting a forester in a poaching incident in 1826. Described by the authorities as ‘simple, uneducated, rough', he had only been sixteen years of age at the time of his trial, and his sentence had been commuted to one of life imprisonment. After several attempts to secure clemency for him on the part of his brother, Hundertmark was finally released for transportation in 1854, perhaps benefiting from the relatively mild views of the new king, George V, who had acceded to the throne two years earlier. Hundertmark's conduct in prison had been exemplary, he showed evidence of a ‘good nature, which’ according to the official recommendation from the prison authorities, ‘gives rise to the conviction that it was no intention born of inner wickedness and calculation which led him to carry out the criminal deed for which he is paying with his present sentence'. He was put on board ship at Bremerhaven in March 1854 and went to America to make a new life for himself.
By contrast, another poacher, Heinrich Mundt, sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a gamekeeper in 1840, was refused transportation in 1865 because his conduct in prison had been extremely refractory. Clearly the risk of sending a violent and difficult offender to the United States, and the thought of the repercussions which might ensue if he committed a serious offence there after his arrival, deterred the Hanoverian government from recommending clemency in this case. Serious offenders were often aware of these considerations, and in view of the fact that they were serving very long sentences, frequently asked to be transported, in contrast to those less serious offenders whose transportation generally took place under heavy pressure from the authorities.
Writing from Luneburg prison on November 29th, 1856, for example, Theodor Knoop, who had received a twenty-five-year sentence for robbery in 1845 - the latest in a series of sentences which had begun when he had been only thirteen years of age – told the Justice Minister:
I was just twenty years old when I was arrested, without a fully developed character and only inadequately educated because of the early death of my father. I don't want in any way to justify myself with this, for I do feel my punishment was a just one; but the thought of having to spend my best years in prison, the more so because my constitution is weak, as well as the worry about my future existence, give me the courage to grasp at every legal method open to me in order to reduce the length of my term. Only the hope of not having to end the remaining days of my life weighed down by worry ... animates me and allows me to dare to bring before your Excellency the most humble request to commute what remains of my sentence to one of banishment . . .
But Knoop, said the prison director, was ‘violent-tempered, vehement and mendacious' and had been frequently disciplined for ‘insubordinate behaviour towards superiors'. He had also served less than half his sentence. It was in fact not until 1863 that he was allowed to emigrate to America on the recommendation of the prison pastor, who said that despite his character defects he was capable of moral improvement and would do better in conditions of freedom than in those ‘under which he was confined in Luneburg'. Nobody denied that he was ‘easily roused', however, and the authorities were clearly taking a risk in allowing him to go.
No statistics were compiled of the numbers of felons transported from Hanover to America after the mid-1840s, but they were clearly considerable, even if the increased vigilance of the Americans ensured that transportation was carried out on a smaller scale than it had been in the first decade of the policy's existence. Numbers certainly reached scores and may even have run into the hundreds. The practice continued as long as the Kingdom of Hanover was in existence. One of the last documented cases, that of the forty-four-year-old Ferdinand Noack, who had served twenty-one years of a life term, commuted in 1847 from a death sentence, for breaking and entering and attacking an inhabitant of a merchant's house in Luneberg with an axe, took place in March 1866. Noack had been a model prisoner who was considered to have made a real effort to improve himself, and the prison authorities, faced with the expense of keeping him in prison for many years more, warmly endorsed his request to go.
But this was almost the last occasion on which a transportation proved possible. After Hanover backed the wrong side in the Austro-Prussian War later the same year, Bismarck summarily absorbed it into the Prussian Kingdom, which had transported no one abroad since the beginning of the century. Moreover, Prussia had numerous extradition treaties with other countries, including the United States, which would be seriously compromised if it was discovered that Hanoverian - now Prussian - felons were being released before serving their full sentence and shipped abroad to states with which such treaties existed. Local authorities in what was now the Prussian province of Hanover were therefore formally obliged to abolish the practice of transportation, which they did on April 21st, 1868.
Hanover, somewhat later than other states, had also embarked upon a policy of prison reform, accelerated by its absorption into Prussia, which gave new hone of ‘improving’ offenders through solitary confinement and the ‘separate system' of prison discipline. The conservative scepticism which had underlain the policy of transportation was giving way, even if only temporarily, to a new, liberal optimism in the framing of penal policy. In this new atmosphere, transportation seemed not only a confession of failure but also an abrogation of the state's responsibility towards its erring citizens.
We cannot know with any certainty what happened to the transporters after they reached their destination. Some undoubtedly returned, though few will have had the nerve of the convicted thief Wilhelm Rettstadt, whose request for transportation to America was turned down by the local authority in the Hanoverian town of Gronau in July 1865 because he had already been 'resettled' in America once before, in 1857, at the state's expense
... but returned here unimproved, and later immediately used the means made available to him on a further occasion by his relatives for emigration to America not for the intended purpose but for wasteful living.
Occasionally, letters home survive from a more educated prisoner such as Johann Vogelsang, a Hamburg oil manufacturer sentenced to eight years imprisonment for setting fire to his own property in an insurance swindle in 1829; they give a clue not only to the relative success of the small minority of such middle-class transporters - Vogelsang raised money from relatives in Germany to set up a tallow factory in Buffalo, New York - but also to the great mass of the destitute mendicants, petty thieves and alcoholics who made up the bulk of the transporters.
According to Vogelsang, almost all of the convicts who sailed with him in 1832 were violent, brutal and incorrigible villains who broke into the captain's larder and stole all his rum, and robbed Vogelsang himself not only of his savings but also of all his spare clothing. Reported to the police on arrival in New York, they stood little chance of making an honest living for themselves by obtaining regular employment. In this they were probably typical, if the somewhat similar experience of the several hundred felons, beggars and workhouse inmates deported to Brazil from Mecklenburg in the 1820s was anything to go by.
We know about their fate because some of them eventually found their way back to Germany and were interrogated in detail by the police, who elicited from them the stories of almost everyone who had been deported with them. A few, like the carpenter Gierz or the Jewish surgeon Meyer, succeeded in making a new life for themselves. But the vast majority, without a trade, used only to begging or thieving, and often hopelessly addicted to alcohol, came to a bad end. Some were reported to have sold the land they were given as colonists and to have drunk away the proceeds. Several ended up begging on the streets of Rio, where at least one of the women was also spotted plying her trade as an ‘alley whore'.
At least ten of the enlisted men from Mecklenburg deserted the Brazilian army because they disliked the discipline, while others were cashiered for persistent drunkenness. One man, Fritz Groth, could frequently be seen working in a chain-gang on the Rio harbour walls as a punishment for theft; another, Johann Jursch, had only been in the army a few weeks when, as his fellow transportees reported, ‘the Negroes stole his clothes while he was drunk and threw him down a well, from which he was pulled out dead'.
The men and women transported to the United States from other parts of Germany in the course of the nineteenth century were similarly sent away because they were generally regarded as incorrigible offenders and useless and dangerous citizens who caused nothing but expense to the state. Far from showing the kind of initiative and enterprise on which America was built, they were on the whole rather helpless, constantly in and out of prison, basically unable to fend for themselves either honestly or dishonestly in the outside world. As the German Emigrants’ Association in the USA, opposing the transportation of felons, noted, they always 'turned out badly' when they settled in America.
‘Our institutions', complained an investigative committee set up in 1837, ‘seem to be made alone for the use of foreign paupers and criminals'. Three-quarters of the inmates of Sing-Sing prison were immigrants in the 1830s, and twenty years later another committee of inquiry, set up by Congress, reported that half of all the prisoners in America's gaols were of foreign origin. The costs of policing and imprisonment would be considerably reduced if there were tighter controls over the status of immigrants at the point of entry. All this fuelled the growth of nativism in the United States, and in 1875, indeed, Congress finally passed a law outlawing the immigration of foreign felons into the United States.
Compared to the millions of Germans who went to live in America during these decades, the number of convicted criminals transported there as a matter of policy by states such as Hanover and Coburg was tiny. Nevertheless, the history of this policy is significant, both for the oblique light it sheds on penal policy in a wider sense, and for the way it reveals attitudes towards America on the part of some European states, to whom the United States appeared more as a dumping ground for the unwanted and the dangerous than as a land of hope and opportunity for the deserving.
This article is based on files in the Niedersachsisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Hannover, the Mecklenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv Schwerin, the Staatsarchiv Coburg, and the Staatsarchiv der Freien- und Hansestadt Hamburg.