Once he was released from San Quentin in 1908, Ed Morrell's crusade began in earnest. As a former member of a notorious California gang speaking out on prison conditions, he managed to attract a fair amount of media attention. His proposed "Honor System" for prison inmates wasn't taken seriously at first although his revelations of what was happening inside American penitentiaries certainly was. As an advocate of prison reform (a new concept at the time), Morrell was invited to speak at the California Legislature in 1909 and at other state legislatures around the country. After helping pass new legislation concerning parole and improved conditions, Morrell became fairly well-known on the lecture circuit but he likely would have been forgotten in time.
Except for Jack London.
Already praised as one of the greatest American authors of his generation, London was world-renowned for his short stories, novels, and true-life newspaper accounts of nature, adventure, and survival. After hearing about Morrell's incarceration, he became one of the chief advocates for his pardon. They began exchanging letters during Morrell's prison term but didn't actually meet until 1912. Quickly becoming fast friends, Morrell began spending much of his time at London's Oakland ranch where he described what he had gone through. Based on what Morrell told him about his ordeal and experiences with astral projection, London began writing one of his most ambitious novels. Published In 1915, Jack London's book, The Star Rover, represented a major shift from his previous works. Largely based on Morrell's account (and Ed Morrell was featured as one of the book's characters), The Star Rover told the story of a college professor sentenced to life in San Quentin and subjected to long sessions in the jacket. While the description of reincarnation and astral projection that the book's hero experiences tended to be the weakest part of the novel (at least, I thought so), London's gritty account of the brutal prison conditions and the very real tortures then widely used in the American prison system made it one of his most powerfully written books.
The Star Rover was not a success unfortunately. Critics reviewing the book lashed out at London and scathingly denounced what they felt to be one of his worst books ever. London was undeterred since he had told the story he wanted to tell and The Star Rover is now considered to be one of his most underrated novels. When Jack London died in 1916, Ed Morrell would comment, "No matter what he said or did, his ever present kindness held you. He could say the rashest and brashest things, hurt your feelings and make you like it . . . because there was no personal sting. He was one of the most lovable characters of his age." The publicity from London's final novel helped prop up Morrell's campaign for prison reform although fighting public apathy was (and still is) a losing battle.
In 1924, Ed Morrell published The Twenty-Fifth Man as an autobiographical account of his prison experiences. Co-written by his wife (since Morrell was still largely illiterate), the book provides a first-hand look at the brutality that characterized the American prison system of the time. In describing his prison reform crusade, Morrell mentioned the substantial reforms that had already been made across the United States including Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, and Washington (George W.P. Hunt, then-governor of Arizona wrote the forward to the book). Use of torture including the jacket and the derrick were later banned, largely on the strength of Morrell's lectures and presentations to various state legislators. Even in Canada (although Immigration officials initially tried to bar him from entering the country), Morrell spoke out against abuses in British Columbia's Westminster Jail and Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Saskatchewan. As for Morrell's later life and what eventually became of his crusade, that seems to be a mystery. I haven't been able to find any obituary for him or his wife, Mildred McEwen Ward. If anyone has more details, I would be fascinated to hear more.
In advocating his "new era penology", Morell's crusade was likely far too ambitious in its scope. Although some reforms were reasonable enough (including the abolition of most forms of torture), gathering political support for a drasticl reshaping of how criminals should be dealt with in a caring criminal justice system seemed doomed to failure. In his writings, he touched on his vision of the "prison of the future" in which "Men of the jails of the nation labored, and beneath their hands sprang up great industrial reservations. Some of these reservations were devoted entirely to the care of extreme cases of deficiency, abnormals, morons and criminal imbeciles. This covered about thirty to forty-five percent of the incarcerated. The others were for the physically and mentally fit, that vast portion most often driven to crime through economic stress. These institutions were run on a basis of fair and equitable competition with the outside world. The prevailing rate of wages outside was paid the inmate, making possible his employment and an earning capacity to pay his fines, his board, and to care for his dependents. What a contrast to the dark and loathsome cells, the dungeon and condemned pens, the disease-ridden atmosphere, leg irons, chains, whipping-posts, walls, guns, and brutal guards! What a contrast to the two extremes in the prison of today: either idleness, or brutal convict contract labor where the prisoner is robbed of the fruits of his toil, becoming a slave for the term of his sentence".
If Morrell's vision of prisons as self-governing, self-policing bodies depending on honour systems to enforce prison codes of conduct seems wildly optimistic, the alternative as practiced around the world is hardly preferable. Given the current era of soaring prison populations, private prisons, and counterproductive "get tough" and "three-strikes" conviction policies, Ed Morrell's vision of prison reform may be more relevant than ever.
Note: Hat-tip to John who kindly provided me with a copy of Ed Morrell's obituary in the Los Angeles Times. According to the obituary (sadly behind a paywall), Ed Morrell died on November 10, 1946 at the age of 78. The obituary also stated that "he always thought of himself as a 19th century Robin Hood fighting the battle of the squatters who were ousted from land owned by the railroad". The obituary mentions his crusade for prison reform and that he spent his later years as a "colorful habitue of Gower Gulch and a frequenter of Hollywood and Vine, the pet and crony of Hollywood film people."