Lavinia springs prisoner to speak at book club

That easily could have been the headline of the June 2, 1877, Janesville Gazette. Max St. Bar was an inmate at the Rock County Jail and one of many students in Lavinia’s jail school. She immediately noticed his intelligence and elocution. In her relentless effort to prove that prisoners often have good qualities and are worthy of mentoring, Lavinia persuaded the sheriff to release St. Bar for a bit so that he could recite poetry to her Mutual Improvement Club.

Lavinia’s article about Max St. Bar

Professor Jenk L. Jones, pastor of the Unitarian Church, and his wife launched the club to foster fellowship in letters, art and life. Members read up on topics and gave talks to the group. Lavinia, for example, lectured on Margaret Fuller, author of Woman in the 19th Century, a major document in American feminism. Others lectured on such authors as Coleridge, Thoreau, and Wollstonecraft.

Lavinia managed to persuade Jones that St. Bar should be allowed to entertain the club. Afterward she wrote about the event for the Janesville Gazette under the less sensational headline: “An Unfortunate Career of a Noted Young Man.”

Those of us who were present at the Mutual Improvement Club, on the evening of May 9th, enjoyed a bit of a treat in the unexpected addition to the program of a few brief recitations from Professor St. Bar . . . a young man of good education and pleasing address and his rendering of “Beautiful Snow” and one or two comic pieces, was very satisfactory to his audience. Few knew that the young man who so pleasantly entertained them and afterward remained to listen with interest to the literary discussion of the evening came there from the county jail in the custody of the turnkey with whom he returned to the same undesirable quarters to lodge after the entertainment was over.

The article explained that St. Bar became an orphan at an early age. A guardian ensured that he received a good education. He also completed a course in elocution from an instructor in Cincinnati. At age 21 he began seeking his fortune as a public reader. But along the way, he began “draining the criminal cup,” which led to his downfall. During his  60 days in jail, St. Bar, now 24, reviewed his past and formed plans for a worthier future. He even signed the temperance pledge.

Lavinia reported that St. Bar wrote a lecture on temperance, trained to give readings after release, helped fellow prisoners with their studies, assisted with the jail Sunday school, and exerted a “beneficial influence” on others. “How many young men of his age outside prison walls can show a record of time more profitably spent within the last sixty days?” she asked.

St. Bar soon finished his sentence. To help him get on his feet Lavinia arranged for him to give a public reading at the church in Janesville on June 5, 1877, and charged 10 cents admission. Her article urged the broader community to attend for the entertainment. But she also posed a challenge aimed at boosting turnout:

Here is an admirable opportunity for those children of the world who claim to be so much more ready to “help a fellow up” than “church folks” to come out and show their mettle (or metal, spell it as you like) and an equally rare opportunity for the church to hold its own in the encounter.

Lavinia’s strategy appears to have worked. Her diary notes that St. Bar had a fair audience and did well. The next day she had him to lunch in her home and gave him the $10 collected for his performance. CB

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s Diaries May 6 through June 6, 1877; “An Unfortunate Career of a Noted Young Man,” Janesville Gazette, June 2, 1877.

1 comment

Beverly Wright

Can’t find any record of Max St. Bar. Strange. I wonder if he made up a name.

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