In The Devil in the Marshalsea, author Antonia Hodgson brings jail in 1700s London to life. Quite different from modern day, the Marshalsea prison is the perfect setting for a murder mystery surrounding the death of a former captain in the British army. Hodgson’s characters bespeak of authenticity, many of them harvested from living, breathing occupants of the Marshalsea, as it was a real place—and the people who stayed there left journals, letters and other sources as testament to their experience. Most appealing of all is protagonist Tom Hawkins—an anti-hero with vices, humor and, surprisingly, honor.
A reader can learn much of 18th century prisons from the novel. The Marshalsea was a “gaol” mostly referred to as debtors prison, although there were drunks, thieves and even murderers who graced its wards. Back then, if one did not pay debts he or she would be sent to a sponging house, a sort of holding place for debtors where they had opportunity to send word to family and friends to help satisfy their debts, or else be sent to debtors prison.
The Marshalsea was a prime example of the severity of life in a debtors prison. There were two sections: the Common Side and Masters Side. Those fortunate enough to possess money (or lucky enough to hide it from their creditors) were able to pay the prison governor rent for the Masters Side and live in relative comfort. For the majority, however, life was anything but smug. The poor prisoners lived in the Common Side, a section rife with disease, sewage, and death. On this side, the poor were squished in small rooms, many not having anything to sleep on. The pox and “gaol fever” killed numerous occupants daily. Their bodies were piled high in a place known as the strongroom, where thousands of rats feasted on their flesh.
Hodgson describes the poorer classes of the Common Side wailing through the bars for help every night, hoping anyone would add some comfort to their torment. Contrary to this misery, the Masters Side acted more like a confined town where middle and upper class prisoners could drink and eat at coffeehouses and taverns, go to the barbers, and gamble and play racquet out in the yard. Some were even allowed to leave the Marshalsea during the day, able to walk about London—as long as they returned by lock-up.
In addition to being an immersive mystery, Hodgson’s novel depicts a stark contrast not only in the prisons of then and now, but also to class struggles of 18th century Britain. Today we still deal with an enormous wealth gap in the United States—it only isn’t as obvious, and our prisons are structured quite differently from back then. Millions still live on credit—and living on credit is not the same as being well-off. And of course, today if we don’t pay our credit cards we don’t get thrown in disease-infested death-traps. But even still there are those who live on the streets or in skid row, which at times is not a far cry from the Common Side.