Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

North Carolina's cruel state prison system

Green describes some of the cruelties of the state's prison system, described to him by a former prison camp guard. He managed to weave some of these details into his work for the stage.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Paul Green, May 30, 1975. Interview B-0005-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

And about that time, I met a fellow named Matthews, Thaddeus Matthews, who was a convict guard. Thaddeus came over to see me and wanted me to recommend him as a writer for the WPA. Well, Thaddy, we called him Thaddy, was a great big beefy man. He was what we called rank, the kind of language that you use about a billy goat, "he was a very rank fellow." He wanted to write. He said, "I kept some notes while I was a convict guard." So, I talked to him a lot about it and he said, "Oh … " I said, "Did you ever shoot anybody?" He said, "Yes. Not long ago, I shot a fellow there. I was watching him, we were out on the road working and I got suspicious of him and I said, ‘Son, don't you try to run, because I know how to use this gun.’ So, I watched him and one day he did, he broke and run, and the woods were about 150 yards away from where we were. I waited until just before he got to the woods and I let him have it." He laughed and then he showed me these notes that he kept about the cruelty, the things that they did. They had what they called the old Black Maria. I got sort of reinterested in the subject looking at his notes, and they had a convict camp over here at Hillsborough, I don't know whether you've ever seen it, I went over there the other day ….
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is it still there?
PAUL GREEN:
It's just this side of Hillsborough. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
PAUL GREEN:
… I went over there, it had barbed wire and all and I talked to the boss man and he was very nice and said, "Look around. We've got some bad guys in here. In fact, I've got one guy in there in the potato house now who is a bad character, but I'm sweating it out on him." It was a hot summer day. I said, "Can I go down there and speak to him?" He said, "Sure, go down there and speak to him. He's in there. I reckon that he is able to talk to you. He'll be hollering for mercy before long, he'll give in." The fellow wouldn't work or something and they were punishing him. So, I went down to this potato hill thing, kind of dirt with a grill or bar thing and he was back in there. They had a kind of a tin roof or something and I bet that it must have been 150 degrees in that place.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It was dug out of the earth?
PAUL GREEN:
The side of a hill and I call it a "potato hill," but it was especially built for sweating. I went back and he said, "How is he?" I said, "It's terrible to do a man like that." He said, "Well, you have to be hard. That's what it is here." That sort of got me more interested in it and I got to thinking more about the convict boss and I remembered a top sergeant that I had during the war and I had always wanted to put him in a play. He was a terrible man. I enlisted as a private in the First World War and he was my top sergeant and these fingers here were gone from his hand and he got me to work for him because I could type a little bit and I could type things in his tent. On pay day, he would get with the boys and crapshoot and he would pull out his pistol and lay it down and by the time that a day or two or night had gone by, he had most of the money. His name was Hough. One day he said, "I see that you are looking at my fingers. You know how I lost them fingers?" I said, "No." He said, "A goddamned nigger bit them off. I drilled him with the cold steel and he spit them out." I found out that he had been a convict boss. So, I put them all together and I found out that the more I thought about it, Shropshire and Barnes faded further away. I couldn't write about them directly.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why?
PAUL GREEN:
I felt that I would have more of an impact for the whole subject if I didn't make it too vivid about something like that with the feet being cut off. So, it all kind of faded away and in the play, he is making a speech on the Fourth of July, this Hough, to the convicts on freedom.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Is it because that Shropshire incident was so bizarre, so extreme that you didn't think people could ….
PAUL GREEN:
Well, you could write (a play) about them if you faded in on them sitting in a wheelchair, two guys talking, and they are war casualties or something and as they talk, it gradually comes out why their feet have been cut off. You could do something like that, but I wanted to get something that was a bigger sweep and with their feet cut off, it bound me down to a chair. So, I finally have this guy say, "You think I'm hard, you should see what they done to them Shropshire and Barnes fellows. I ain't hard at all." That's all I've got in there.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I thought that Black Marias were kind of police cars. What are they?
PAUL GREEN:
Well, they do ….
JACQUELYN HALL:
A paddy wagon.
PAUL GREEN:
You can call it a paddy wagon. In the play, I have a sweat box on the stage that they put this fellow in. I hooked it up with the Fourth of July and freedom and so on. I remember the stage directions starts out before dawn, and during the play there is drumming in the box and this convict boss says, "All right, Runt, we'll let you out in a little bit and then maybe you will quit messing with your private organs again." That's what they've got him put in there for, they found him behind the tent masturbating or something. Well, when they do finally open it up, old Runt is dead. So, this fellow Hough, I sort of explain how he is. Will Geer played Hough in New York 'way back in the early days, and he was pretty good at it, too. Well, I decided that I would do something, I had been working at it, and I bought two hundred and something copies of the published play myself … I don't know how many copies, but I sent one to each newspaper editor with a letter, sent one to each member of the Legislature, the Senate and the House. I never heard one word from anybody about it. But 'way back when I was a little boy, I would see them working on the road and they would be wearing a ball and chain. One day, there was this fellow that looked at me when I stopped by them and he said, "Yeah, I wears the ball and chain, but I'm mean." It frightened me. [Laughter] I was a little fellow.