In 1812, New Hampshire shopkeeper Timothy M. Joy abandoned his young family, fleeing the creditors who threatened to imprison him. Within days, he found himself in a Massachusetts jailhouse, charged with defamation of a prominent politician. During the months of his incarceration, Joy kept a remarkable journal that recounts his personal, anguished path toward spiritual redemption. Martin J. Hershock situates Joy's account in the context of the pugnacious politics of the early republic, giving context to a common citizen's perspective on partisanship and the fate of an unfortunate shopkeeper swept along in the transition to market capitalism.
In addition to this close-up view of an ordinary person's experience of a transformative period, Hershock reflects on his own work as a historian. In the final chapter, he discusses the value of diaries as historical sources, the choices he made in telling Joy's story, alternative interpretations of the diary, and other contexts in which he might have placed Joy's experiences. The appendix reproduces Joy's original journal so that readers can develop their own skills using a primary source.
"Hershock's book allows us to understand how economic growth and dislocation, renewed and uncertain interests in religion, aggressively partisan politics, and a looming war affected not only the sad life of Timothy Joy, but many other Americans at the turn of a new century. Joy's economic failures, run-ins with the law, and political passions help us better understand America of two hundred years ago, but Hershock's work also may lead us to reflect on our times and those who have struggled and failed at the turn of our century."
—Paul Finkelman, Albany Law School
"Through the story of hapless Timothy Joy—debtor, slanderer, and victim—Martin Hershock gives us a wonderfully intimate view of America in the making. Sharp-eyed, sympathetic, and moving, A New England Prison Diary is a marvel of historical re-creation. Don't just read this book. Savor it."
—Kevin Boyle, Ohio State University
Cover photo: Early 19th century prison cell, Burlington County Prison Museum, Mt. Holly, NJ. Photo by Carole Melman, Historic Burlington County Prison Museum Association volunteer.