The author, Alice French. 

June 1890 issue of The Century where the story first appeared."Trusty, No. 49" is a short story by American author Alice French, written under her pseudonym Octave Thanet. It was first published in The Century Magazine in June 1890, and then collected for her book Otto the Knight and Other Trans-Mississippi Stories in 1891.[1]


Alice French was born in Handover, Massachusetts on March 19, 1850. By the 1880s, her work was appearing in The Atlantic and Harper’s. Between 1883 and 1909 she lived with her widowed friend, Jane Crawford, at a plantation in Clover Bend in Lawrence County called Thanford. During this time, she produced some of her best-known work, including the novel Expiation, and the short story “Trusty, No. 49.”[2]


The story opens in an unnamed town in Lawrence County, Arkansas, where the murder trial of one Dock Muckwrath is about to conclude. He has been accused of killing a man who cheated him out of fifty dollars in a card game. When the prosecutor makes his closing argument, he urges the jury to convict Muckwrath, mainly because doing so will convince outside investors that Arkansas is a land of law and order where their property will be safe. A divided jury deliberates. They don’t want to send their friend to prison, but on the other hand, they cannot accept mere fraud as an excuse for violence. Most of the jurors are prepared to return a verdict of guilty, but only for manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of two to seven years. This, they believe, will let them reassure Northern financial interests while also giving Muckwrath an easier time.

However, Captain Baz, a soldier and plantation owner, objects. He goes into a lengthy story about how he himself was once imprisoned for killing a man and served at a convict-camp on the Arkansas River, run by a warden named Moss. Moss imposed inhumane living conditions and brutal treatment on all of his prisoners. The only refuge was to become a “trusty,” a well-behaved inmate who could be entrusted with more responsibilities, and hence, given more privileges. In Moss’ case, it turned out to be a double-edged sword. The only way to get his favor was outright bribery, and that was only possible if a prisoner got money from sympathetic kin. As one inmate told Baz upon his arrival, “God help the poor man in a convict-camp!” To make matters worse, Moss frequently sent his “trusties” into town on errands, bathed and wearing good clothes, so that the people would discount the rumors they’d heard about the camp. Baz was able to covertly get a message to a nearby justice of the peace about what was happening, but even though a warrant was issued for Moss’ arrest, he fled the county and was never apprehended.

While Baz’s tale ends happily enough, he tells the rest of the jurors that the system itself is still a horribly corrupt and brutal institution, and that prisoners are often worked to death instead of being rehabilitated. The other jurors, already resolved not to convict Muckwrath, are shocked to learn that the man he killed was none other than Moss himself.  They return a verdict of “not guilty” to an astonished audience, and the narrator concludes by saying no one ever knew the truth about their decision.


Literary and Local Significance

Like many writers of her time, Alice French used real people and places as the background for her work, and these stories became a vehicle for promoting social change. The story appeared only two years after the Coal Hill scandal in 1888, where investigators discovered a graveyard containing the bodies of dozens of convicts who had died of malnutrition, overworking. and many more who had been murdered. The gruesome details--a drunken, sadistic warden, lack of food, clothes, medicine, and brutal treatment for trivial offenses--are mirrored by Captain Baz's testimony. Despite considerable outrage, the convict-lease system was not abolished until 1912..[3]

Although Powhatan is not named, it is very likely that's where the story is set. French’s home at Thanford was only thirteen miles from Powhatan, and as a resident of Lawrence County, she would have gone to the courthouse on business. In addition, the story itself identifies a number of key features in the first few pages. For example, Barker's store being used as a courtroom because the old one burned down “some years ago." The town was also said to be in a “gentle decline,” but “there was talk of a railroad.”  





[1] Pattee, Lewis Fred. The Development of the American Short Story: A Historical Survey.  1923. p.200

[2] “Octave Thanet: 1850-1934.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

[3] “Convict Lease System.” Encyclopedia of Arkansas.