What’s the Debtor’s Prison? The Precursor to Bankruptcy?

You can thank Charles Dickens for enlightening me on the notion of a debtor’s prison. While watching a BBC series on his writing, “Little Dorrit,” and seeing the story revolve around the debtor’s prison, I wondered what was the sense of it. How can someone repay their bills if they are locked away? My husband then mentioned that was why bankruptcy was invented. During the middle 1800’s, Charles Dickens published his “Little Dorrit,” series, inspired by an English debtor’s prison called Marshalsea, where Dickens father had been locked up. These people were left in debtor’s prison until their debt was repaid. Prisons like England’s Marshalsea were a carry over from Europe’s medieval prisons where men and women were imprisoned together until their debts were paid. Needless to say, the conditions were deplorable, lack of food and disease were prevalent. Indentured servants were recruited from medieval debtor’s prisons. Perhaps some of our ancestors arrived in America to pay off debts instead of rotting in a co-ed prison.

In Ancient Greece, if your husband or father had a debt he could not pay, you were taken into debt slavery and had to work off his debt. But you were really out of luck if you were a servant and your master didn’t pay his debts, you could be resigned to pay that debt for the rest of your life, with fewer rights than the debtor’s family.  Suellen Ocean is the author of the Civil War Era Historic Romance, Black Pansy.

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Suellen Ocean

With a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sonoma State University, Suellen Ocean does her writing from the hills of Northern California. She began writing professionally for print and radio broadcasting in the late 1980's. Her first self-published book led to her becoming "officially" published, when in 1998 she was asked to participate in the anthology, "The Simple Life" through Berkley Books, New York. She is the author of sixteen books on diverse subjects.

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