"Degraded to a plane lower than the brutes."
By all accounts, Slope No. 12 was the finest prison ever built in Alabama. The two-story wood-frame dormitory, constructed in the shape of a giant T, stood at the center of the fenced compound where Green Cotten-ham was deposited by Deputy Eddings. From the front door, atop ten steps beneath a small portico, the prison extended outward in three wings. The six "sleeping rooms" were each large enough to accommodate up to sixty men sleeping in close quarters on the odd swinging bunk beds. One room was reserved for whites only. A contained walkway connected the building to a kitchen immediately to the rear.
Inside, prisoners young and old, hardened and innocent, mingled whenever they were not chained apart. On Sundays, the one day of rest, card and dice games continued unceasingly. "They will gamble the buttons off their clothes," an inmate told one visitor. Sexual abuse was rampant, in the darkness of the prison and the isolation of the mine shaft. "Sodomy is prevalent among these massed men," wrote journalist Shelby Harrison in 1912, after a visit to Pratt No. 12. "The older men pick out the young ones to make advances to. It is commonly said in some of the camps that every prisoner has his ‘gal-boy’ "1
Across a field of grass cropped close by goats wandering inside the compound stood the officers’ quarters, a simple but spacious two-level house with a veranda and rocking chairs flanking three sides. Nearby was a mess hall for the guards. A pressurized water spigot—a luxury—stood beside the front porch. A tin cup and towel hung permanently on a nail, where officers stopped for a drink or to wash on the way inside at mealtimes.
At the opposite corner of the enclosure stood a storehouse, where prisoners fortunate enough to have any money could buy from their keepers tobacco or extra rations on Sundays. Nearby was a small hospital building where the sick could be segregated. When the mine opened in early 1908, with a workforce made up totally of forced laborers, state officials declared the prison the "best in the state."
For more than a decade, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad—irritated by criticism that its mines and furnaces were inferior to those of competitors in the North and that its miners, free and forced, worked at perpetual risk to their lives—had invested heavily in dramatic technological improvements and fresh underground exploration. The new prison cost $54,570— a substantial sum.
The company installed thousands of additional coke ovens, added miles of new railroad track, and developed a breakthrough technique for forging steel train rails—a first for any company in the South. On the outskirts of Birmingham, at the edge of Red Mountain, the company built a new complex of deep-shaft iron ore mines. Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad also was abandoning its old system of dragging coal to the surface in carts pulled by mules and installing steam-powered systems using cables to pull enormously greater tonnage of coal from the shafts.2
With U.S. Steel's acquisition of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad in November 1907, the pace of new construction and advancements in the mines accelerated rapidly. But with the company's progress also came destruction. On the surface, the toxic effluent of the digging was pumped into wooden flues that poured into vast, fouled moonscapes of dead forest. Nearby, steam shovels clawed scars fifty feet deep and hundreds of feet wide into the landscape to lay bare ore, limestone, and other minerals. Near every mine—especially those in long operation—gargantuan mounds of slag, the worthless rock drawn out with the coal, loomed ever larger on the horizon.3
The shafts closest to the center of Pratt City—some of them in production for more than two decades—were depleting. Most had already been repeatedly extended, first hundreds of feet below the surface and then for thousands of feet horizontally, following the thick deposits of coal threading from the Pratt seam. The longer the mine shaft grew, the slower and more expensive it became to remove coal from the mine—prompting the company to install new shafts to the surface closer to the most active areas of mining.
Even the construction of the model new prison carried an ironic human cost. In 1902, leaders of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church bought ten acres in a new residential development designed by a white investor as a refuge for prosperous African Americans on the outskirts of Birmingham. The place was called Booker City—after Booker T Washington. The African American church opened a small and struggling high school for black children, similar to the Calhoun School in Lowndes County, on an elevated point three miles from the center of the Pratt Mines complex.
Five years later, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad recognized that the acreage owned by the black school would be an ideal location for a new mine. In return for thirty acres of property in another location and $30,000, the church sold the property on which the Slope No. 12 prison would soon be built. A year later, the Methodists opened a new four-year institution for African Americans, named Miles Memorial College, in honor of a former slave who became a famous church bishop after the Civil War.4
At the same time, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad built Slope No. 12 and its prison compound. Connecting the mine and prison to the company's coke ovens and industrial infrastructure was a new railroad spur snaking along a ridge rising from Pratt City's old convict cemetery to the site of the then empty Booker City High School.
The black Methodists there had struggled to keep their school operating and its desks and teaching positions filled. There was no such difficulty with the prison that succeeded it. Under the lease U.S. Steel quickly signed with the state of Alabama, the company could shift four hundred convicts from two other Pratt Mines to No. 12. U.S. Steel also obtained leases on hundreds more county prisoners. Under a contract with Jefferson County, the company paid the local government nearly $60,000—equal to about $1.1 million a century later—to acquire every prisoner arrested during 1908.5
Similar standing agreements were in place with twenty other Alabama counties, setting the prices for each laborer between $9 per month for Choctaw County and $28.50 for prisoners captured in the state capital of Montgomery.6 New leases entered into by U.S. Steel after it bought TCI were supposed to guarantee a steady stream of convicts until at least the end of 1912.7
The supply of forced labor became even more critical as tensions mounted between the coal-mining companies of Birmingham and the local United Mine Workers organization—which had aggressively organized more than ten thousand free miners in Alabama. Convicts—who had no choice but to continue digging coal under whatever circumstances the company demanded—were crucial to maintaining operations during a strike or other labor interruption.
Through the spring and summer of 1908, the number of men purchased for use in Slope No. 12 steadily climbed—by August reaching nearly six hundred prisoners taken from county sheriffs and just under four hundred from the state.8 Of the sixty men delivered by Deputy Eddings in the twelve months before Cottenham's arrest, nearly half were charged with "jumping"—or riding a freight train without a ticket. Eddings's jail registry said George Roberson was sent on a conviction for "assault with a stick." Another black man, Lou William, was sold to Slope No. 12 for adultery. John Jones had been sold for gambling.9
All his life, Green had heard of Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad. Every African American in Alabama had been told stories about the vast prison mines at Pratt City. For a generation it loomed over the lives of black people, a mysterious hell in living earth buried beneath a licentious mining boomtown. Men sent there for three months or six months instead disappeared for a year, or forever. The few men who straggled back to their homeplaces told of a whole city of mines, where shafts crisscrossed the subterranean world like a crazy quilt of streets with hundreds of underground "rooms," sometimes nearly intersecting with the shafts of other mines. Other mines named Flat Top, Coalburg, and Banner, owned by different companies, cut from nearby camps into the fabulous seam of bituminous coal coursing, four feet thick in some places, through the low ridges of northern Alabama.
Like Pratt City, the mines at Flat Top and Coalburg were packed with black men forced underground at gunpoint. The others filled each day with white men paid by the hour who despised the black convicts, partly out of the habit of despising African Americans but more now for the crippling damage their presence did to the free miners’ pleas for better wages and working conditions.
Sometimes the convicts laughed at how the free miners so hated them, as if black laborers chained to their beds had chosen to be there. It was another sign that most white people seemed to be simply crazy when it came to the lives of black people. No sane man who had ever visited Flat Top, with its two thousand desperate black prisoners, or the slopes at Pratt City, filled with 1,500 emaciated African American laborers, black whipping guards, and the white captains who wielded the lash as mercilessly as any of the old slave masters, could believe such a thing.
Shortly after Slope No. 12 opened in 1907, arrangements were made for a series of celebratory photographs for the company. At the storehouse, convicts stand in bright white uniforms. The grassy yard is pristine and dotted with newly planted banana trees ready to unfurl their long, wide leaves. The fence around the compound is hidden in trees. But behind the barred windows, Slope No. 12 and the other prison shafts at Pratt were beginning a hellish headlong descent in the chaotic aftermath of U.S. Steel's abrupt takeover.
In February, three months after the merger, a wave of pneumonia and tuberculosis swept through the prison miners, killing nine. In March, six more convicts died of tuberculosis, including Roberson, the Shelby County man convicted of "assault with a stick."
Nearly all the men thrown into Slope No. 12 shared the same difficult background of deep poverty and the circumscribed opportunities of their Black Belt origins. They came in hues every man of the Black Belt could describe—deep dark like country night, gingercake, the high yellow of mulattoes, the sharp features of red bone. They were farmhands mostly. Baptists and African Methodists. Nearly all were the children or grandchildren of slaves. Most knew the families who had once owned their kin. They all knew no black man would ever see justice in the prisons of white men.
Yet in the bowels of Slope No. 12, there was little more kinship of skin than that. When Green arrived, nearly a thousand laborers toiled in the same grueling rhythm. Transported deep into the shaft on the same narrow gauge trams that would be used to carry out the coal they mined from the soft bituminous seam, each man carried a pick, a shovel with a short handle, a sledgehammer, and two iron or wooden wedges.
Once deep in the mine, the convicts were parceled in pairs into narrow "rooms" carved at right angles from the sides of the main shaft under the seam of coal. Many of the rooms were more like long tunnels—some as tall as four feet but many barely two feet high and two feet wide. The circumscribed chambers extended more than twenty-five feet from the main shaft, forcing Green and other miners to slide on their stomachs a distance five or more times the length of their bodies. The cavities were illuminated by flickering lanterns hooked on leather straps around their heads. Shaped like a small teapot, a lantern held a reservoir of oil, with a wick running through the snout to the flame.
Crouched or lying in the claustrophobic space, with no light other than the feeble flame of his oil or carbide headlamp, Green slung his steel pick in constricted sidelong arcs, shattering the worthless stone and rock below the coal. He drove wedges into the coal to separate sections weighing a half ton or more. After enough slams of the sledge, the huge slabs of coal cracked free, sometimes unexpectedly for inexperienced convicts, landing in thunderous crashes inches from the prostrate miners. When men worked entirely beneath the coal seam, they installed wooden supports called sprags to prevent an unexpected collapse. Sometimes only blasting powder—wrapped in newspaper to make simple cartridges and placed in holes drilled at the edge of the seam—could separate the coal from surrounding rock. Lighting a cartridge with a crude fuse, the miners hurried out of the room and back into the shaft seconds before the ceiling of coal collapsed with the explosion. Many men were caught by the falling coal and killed or maimed.
Once broken free, the coal was hammered into fifty- and hundred-pound pieces and loaded into the train cars. Once a day, another prisoner came by with a bucket containing portions of crude food.
Here there was little of the field hand or rail bed singing that Green had heard among country blacks back in Bibb County, no community of shared perseverance. There was only the furious scramble to crack and pry and stack and sort the rock and coal, and watch other stone-faced men moving in the shadowy dark.
Each day, Green spent nearly every waking hour stretched in a room off the main shaft. Once the coal was freed and broken up, he loaded coal furiously as a boss, another black convict, snarled that he would feel the whip if Green mixed rock with the coal in the wagons to be pulled from the mine sixteen hours later. After six days in Slope No. 12, Green had only to return to the mine once more before Sunday, the one day of rest and of daylight. After that, there would be twenty-four more Sundays before his time in the mine was scheduled to end.
If the worst of a day in Slope No. 12 had been only the physically wracking intensity of the labor, then this sentence, even if meted out by a crude sheriff for the flimsiest alleged infraction against the law, might have been bearable. But there was far worse. Green and Mun were fortunate that they were strapping, grown men, at the peak of their physical strengths. They were fortunate too that their stay with the sheriff had lasted only three days, not long enough for the starvation rations to weaken them materially.
The prison mine in some respects was an improvement over the Shelby County jail. The men were fed semiregularly A doctor lived in the simple "hospital" across the yard—a big advance over earlier medical care at Pratt Mines, which consisted of a crude one-room shed, with barn doors, a dirt floor, and one window for light.10
Conditions at the Pratt Mines had improved since the deadly epidemics of disease that regularly occurred in the 1880s and 1890s—but only marginally. Inside the shafts, deadly gases accumulated in unventilated sections, work continued even as water, seeping from the walls and fouled with the miners’ waste and excrement, accumulated in the shafts. Intestinal disorders, malaria, pneumonia, and respiratory problems dogged the men. Endless contact with coal dust led to black lung disease, a miserable and certain slow death.
Hardly a week passed that accidents didn't take men's fingers, hands, toes, or worse. Often the cause was a careless swing of a pick. But almost as frequently men were crushed by coal falling before they expected, or pinned by railroad cars that derailed. After electric trolleys and lights were installed in some areas, many a miner died from "touching a live wire," according to state inspectors.
Younger and smaller men—and the dozens of pubescent boys forced into the shafts—on their first days in the mines faced a terrible initiation. Argued over—often violently—by the convicts with bitter months and years of time in the mine behind them, the boys were pushed into corners of the pitch black mine rooms, beaten into submission with the handles of the pickaxes or rough leather belts worn by the men, and raped daily and nightly. Disagreements over ownership of the sodomized "gal-boys" or other infractions of the prisoners’ code erupted into bizarre violence. Men made huge by their years of labor and hardened by their fates attacked each other in the constricted spaces with axes, knives, rocks, and bare hands. Homicides were a constant occurrence.
The ranks of those condemned to the mines were so broadly uneducated and illiterate—even by the elementary standards of 1908—that hardly any eyewitness accounts were recorded of the nightmarish episodes beneath the surface. The shame of witnessing—or being a participant in—such acts further stifled acknowledgment of the rapes and violence that accompanied them. But virtually every surviving account of life in the slave mines referred in at least muted tones to these spectacles of sexual abuse. One white man wrote after his release how "men, degraded to a plane lower than the brutes, are guilty of the unmentionable crimes referred to by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans." He cited the verse: "The men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lusts one toward another, men with men, working that which is unseemly"11
As shocking as the sodomy were the official punishments of the mines and convict labor camps administered under the sanction of government authority. At the end of the day, whatever had happened deep in the earth, each man was held to account for the coal he collected while in the shaft. Healthy prisoners such as Green and Mun were required to produce eight tons each day. Any man who came up short of his assigned "task" was subject to the whip—held over a barrel by two other black men with his shirt removed and his pants pushed to his knees as the white mine superintendent or the designated whipping boss lashed him with a thick, four-inch-wide strap of leather. On some days, as many as two or three dozen men felt the bite of forty or fifty strokes. Those who chronically failed to meet task were beaten every day, often in the morning as well to remind them of the fate that awaited failure that night.
A convict named Alvaran Snow Allen published a simple religious leaflet near the turn of the century titled "The Story of a Lie," recounting the misdeeds of his life and how they led him to become "Convict No. 2939" in an unspecified labor prison. In excruciating detail, he recounted the methods, lexicons, and apparatuses of prisoner punishment used throughout the southern prison labor system. "Come-a-longs" were steel bracelets snapped onto the wrists and fastened by a chain to a small metal crossbar. Turning the crossbar instantly twisted a man's arms into a knot, forcing him to his knees. In a punishment known simply as "the chains," a prisoner was placed in handcuffs attached to the ends of a thirty-inch-long steel bar, which was then hoisted with a pulley until the man hung clear of the floor, to be left suspended "from 50 minutes to two hours."12 A variation on this torment was known in some camps as the "alakazan degree," in which the victim's ankles were cuffed behind his back and then his feet "drawn upward and backward until his whole body is stretched taut in the shape of a bow" and then tied to his wrists. Once pinioned, the most unfortunate prisoners were then placed in a closed and darkened box called a "crib" and left there in suffering. "The intense agony inflicted by this method of torture is indescribable; every muscle throbs with pain," wrote one prisoner after his release.13
"Little shackles" were egg-shaped pieces of iron riveted onto ankle rings on prisoners in rural work camps to make their feet too heavy to run. "Whipping straps" weighed two to seven pounds for routine beatings. "Shackles and chains" was a three-foot section of chain with an ankle cuff at one end and a two-inch ring at the other end. Once the cuff was riveted to a prisoner's leg, the chain was wrapped around the leg during working hours, and then unspooled at day's end to be attached to the one long chain holding all convicts in a particular sleeping area.
Famous to prison mines and camps in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida was the "pick shackle," which Allen described as a sharpened pick head riveted upside down to a prisoner's ankle—making it utterly impossible to run or even walk normally—and typically left there for the duration of a convict's sentence.14 Worn for months or years at a time, the twenty- to thirtypound picks rubbing against bare skin caused abrasions that led to pus-filled lesions and infections prisoners called "shackle poison." Littered through the records of convict camps are amputations of feet and lower legs as a result of blood poisoning from the injuries.
By far the most torturous and widely used punishment was the "water cure," a medieval cruciation whose many variations rendered the strongest and most defiant of men utterly compliant. In its most moderate form, the water cure was simply forcing a man to stand naked under a shower of cold water until he convulsed with cold. More often, prisoners described being stripped of their clothing and tied to a post or chair. A water line—often a high-pressure fire hose—was turned on the naked prisoner, pounding his skin with intense pressure and filling his mouth and nose with torrents of water until he became convinced he was about to drown.
In the Alabama prison mines where Green Cottenham was now an inmate, the preferred form of the water cure was simply to lift a man off his feet and plunge him headfirst into a barrel, with his arms tied or held useless to his sides. Guards or prisoners working under the supervision of one held the man's furiously kicking feet to keep the barrel upright until his thrashing subsided—usually two to three minutes after being plunged into the liquid. Then the prisoner was hauled, gasping, out of the bucket, given a few seconds of air, then plunged down again. Repeated again and again, virtually no prisoner could avoid being turned into a shivering, begging wretch.15
For the hundreds of men who could not endure the physical abuse or the grinding labor, or who were killed by guards and other prisoners, death brought a final brief journey into the earth. At dead center of the sprawling Pratt Mines complex, facing Smokey Row, sat an unkempt 1,300-acre triangle of land, hemmed on two sides by tracks to the three nearest shafts. Here and there, heaps of coal slag and rocky debris jutted from the ground, amid a helter-skelter pattern of shrubby trees. Littered randomly among the debris and a web of muddy footpaths were hundreds of graves—many already slumping slightly into the earth and overgrown with weeds, many others still mounded high from recent burials.
Just outside the fence at Slope No. 12, another burial field held the men who died in the newest shaft. In the big cemetery at the bottom of the hill, a few graves bore simple stones with the names of free blacks permitted by TCI to be buried on company land. The rest—and all the burials outside the new prison at the top of the slope—were the hastily filled graves of mine prisoners from families too poor or forgotten to retrieve the bodies of their dead.16
A few days after Cottenham arrived at Slope No. 12 in April 1908, the president of U.S. Steel, W. E. Corey, and a contingent of other top executives from the Pittsburgh headquarters made their first visit to inspect the new Alabama properties. There was great applause in Birmingham for the men whose purchase had saved Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. from financial ruin. But the enthusiasm of the city's leaders was tempered by the quiet recognition that the South's greatest industrial concern had come under the control of men in Pennsylvania. Whatever ambition there had been for Alabama's iron and steel industry to eclipse its rivals in the North was lost. Already, there were rumors that the new owners were uneasy about the conditions of the prison mine and the brutality inflicted on African Americans there. For the time being though, little would change. Four more convicts died before the end of the month. Five more in May. Another four in June and four more in July17 The burial field at Slope No. 12 quickly began to fill.
By midsummer, U.S. Steel and other mine owners in Birmingham were moving toward a bitter climax in their struggle with the United Mine Workers. Seven thousand free miners were on strike—this time joined by five hundred free black miners, many of whom had been brought in as strikebreakers during earlier labor unrest and had never been welcomed by a union run by white men. Now hundreds of miners swarmed the entry-ways of the mines, harassing any workers who entered and threatening to break free convicts as they moved from the mines to their prison. The homes in Pratt City of some leading company officials, as well as miners who continued to work, were dynamited in the night.
Coal company officials petitioned the state to break up the strike with militiamen and hired armed deputies, importing sixty "Texas sharpshooters" to help defend the mines. To keep operating, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad and Sloss-Sheffield pushed Cottenham and other convict laborers—who had no choice but to continue working—to excruciating limits. They soon resurrected the long-abandoned and notorious practice of hiring black work gangs through white foremen—often farm owners with large groups of African American tenants under their control. In a practice reminiscent of the Confederate government's inducements to slave owners to work mines during the Civil War, white foremen brought in workers from the countryside and directly supervised them in the mines. The white "owner" collected all their wages and paid his black subjects a fraction of the pay of real miners.18 Trains loaded with black farmworkers from the Black Belt pulled into Birmingham each day—to the hoots and threats of strikers. All the while, company labor agents prowled the countryside for more convicts, encouraging local sheriffs to arrest and sell as many more men as possible.
The specter of black and white miners unified against the coal companies was terrifying to the elite of Birmingham—and across the South. Mine owners responded with an aggressive campaign to divide the union along racial lines. A prominent African American union leader, William Millin, was taken from jail and lynched with the aid of two white deputy sheriffs. A week later, another union miner was hanged from a tree—again by a deputy sheriff—after being accused of dynamiting a company miner's house. Governor Braxton Comer issued orders preparing the state militia to mobilize and banning strikers from congregating outside mine entrances.19
In the midst of the crisis, on August 2, Cottenham could not return to his place in the mine. Green had survived five months at Slope No. 12. But he had become a shadow of the man arrested behind the train station in Columbiana. A doctor diagnosed Cottenham as having syphilis. If the doctor's assessment was correct, Cottenham almost certainly was already infected at the time of his arrest in Shelby County. Even in the bacterium's most aggressive form in a nineteenth-century medical regime without knowledge of penicillin, syphilis took at least two years to reach Green's mortally ill condition. In the unsanitary circumstances of the prison mine, the symptoms of syphilis were exacerbated and sometimes confused with other maladies. Already, the organism that causes syphilis—a bacterium called Treponema pallidum—had infected his central nervous system. The dorsal columns of Cottenham's spinal cord already were hardening or developing lesions—triggering excruciating stabbing pains in his legs, rectum, and upper extremities.
Even for the most fortunate patients, there was no cure for syphilis in 1908. Doctors gave those who could afford it doses of mercury in the belief it fought the progress of the bacteria. Otherwise, good food and clean surroundings were the only prescription for extending the vigor of the patient. Cottenham had neither. His symptoms progressed rapidly. Temporary blindness. A lack of sensation in his feet. Searing pains. Soon, his doctor diagnosed asitia—a loathing of all food—and locomotor ataxia, the archaic term for syphilis of the spinal cord.20
Green began to lose his ability to maintain balance, and then to control the movement of his legs. First, he would have walked only with a stick to stand on, then only with a cane in each hand—struggling to keep his feet from flying uncontrollably to his sides, front, or rear—slapping his feet back to the floor as he struggled to contain the movement of each step. His stomach convulsed agonizingly at the sight or swallowing of food, vomiting almost anything he attempted to ingest.
Cottenham might have lived for weeks or months in such a state— declining steadily toward a state of complete paralysis. But in his gravely weakened condition, Green was even more vulnerable to tuberculosis—the endemic respiratory disease cycling through the prisoners of Slope No. 12. Transmitted through impure water supplies, infected food, close contact with other victims, unsanitary surroundings, and a host of other means common to a prison mine, tuberculosis was the world's leading killer. Triggering vomiting, night sweats, and chills, it attacked the outer lining of victims’ lungs, so sapping them of strength and color that the "consumption"—its common name at the time—was sometimes mistaken for vampirism.
However or whenever Green became infected, he was spiraling toward death by the time he entered the prison hospital on the first Saturday of August. Wracked with convulsive pains, starved by his own disgust for food, fevered and unable to control the movement of his limbs, friendless and lost to the other descendants of old Scipio, Green Cottenham died thirteen days later.
On August, 15, 1908, his body was placed in a crude pine box and carried by other convicts out the gate of Slope No. 12. A little more than a hundred yards down the hill, alongside the track following a long creek bed, past the last pockmarks of shallow sinking graves dug earlier that year, the men rested the simple casket on the ground and began digging among the trash and debris of the burial field. In the distance, the belching chimneys of the Ensley furnaces blackened the western horizon. No record was made of precisely where Cottenham's twisted remains, riddled with tubercular infection, were buried. The company couldn't even clearly remember his name. The doctor for Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. logged the event only as the death of "Green Cunningham."