In October 1973, librarian Catherine Seelye was editing the papers of the poet Charles Olson when she came across a curious reference to criminologist Howard Belding Gill and poet Ezra Pound. She wrote Gill to ask for more information:
“In his notes, Olson records Pound as saying, ‘Howard B. Gill to find Corinthians Confucian! I the first Confucian – I thot [sic] originally Legge knew the text, but he argued with Confucius each time C. did not fit St. Paul.’ I should like to note your reason for visiting Pound. Was it social, official, or professional in any way? I should appreciate very much any information on this visit – and others with Pound – which you may care to pass on.”
Like Ms. Seelye, we were intrigued. Why did Olson leave behind such a confusing reference? What had led a prison reformer to argue philosophy with one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets?
Howard Belding Gill was born on December 16, 1889 in Lockport, New York. He graduated from Harvard College in 1913 and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School in 1914. He was married to influential research psychologist Dr. Isabelle V. Kendig, with whom he had four children. He died in 1989 just short of his hundredth birthday.
Professionally, Gill had a long and extremely eventful career in prison systems, civil administrations, and universities across the country. His first introduction to penology came in 1923, when he was commissioned by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to investigate prison industries in the United States. A progressive by nature, as well as politics, Gill became deeply involved in the reformation of the nation’s prison system as an administrator, theorist, and educator in corrections and criminology. He is often remembered for his pioneering work as the first superintendent (1927-1934) of the community-style Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts. Gill went on to serve as Superintendent of Prisons in Washington D.C. from 1944-1946. He later became a lecturer at University of Wisconsin, and founded and served as director of the Institute of Correctional Administration in Washington D.C. He spent his retirement teaching classes at Boston College, while continuing to work as a consultant and writing texts on clinical criminology.
So what connected this tireless civil servant to the expatriate author Pound? Did they meet, as Seelye suggests later in her letter, through Dr. Kendig when she served as chief psychologist at St. Elizabeth’s? Or was there another connection? Mr. Gill’s papers are a gold mine for researchers interested in twentieth century penology. Would we find a definitive connection to Ezra Pound among Gill’s prison budgets, case-work manuals, syllabi for courses in correctional administration, and voluminous writings on juvenile delinquency?
Yes, and in an unexpected place. In a folder of general administrative memos from the District Jail in Washington D.C. is a half sheet of onion skin typing paper that reveals Mr. Gill’s brush with literary fame. On November 20, 1945, while Pound was being held at the District Jail before his transfer to St. Elizabeth’s, Gill sent a memo to the jail’s resident superintendent, Claude O. Botkin. “Ezra Pound would like to get The Life of Gallatin – by Henry Adams, special – in preparing his case. Please have Pound’s letters go out same as visits – until he establishes an authorized list. He will need to be able to write to a number of people.”
Howard Gill’s papers have been full of surprises! This collection will be open to researchers soon, and we hope you will visit us to use the papers and make your own discoveries. For more information on this collection and others, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Alexandra Bisio, Processing Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library