In spite of her heavy wool skirt and shawl, Elizabeth Fry was chilled from her day in the drafty Bristol women’s prison. “It’s not fit for anyone, no matter what their crime! But those poor children! What could I do to help occupy their minds and hands?” Elizabeth thought as she climbed the winding stairs in the old stone inn.
When she opened the door to her room, she sensed something strange. A dresser drawer was ajar, and a candle tipped over. Just visible under the bed was a man’s boot.
She gasped. What should she do? As she quietly closed the drawer and picked up the candle, she reached a decision. She knelt beside the boot, hearing someone breathing under the bed. “Dear God,” she began, “please forgive this man. May thy goodness enter his heart and help him to improve his ways.” Her voice was so kind. The boot stirred. “This man is confused and needs thy guidance to stop stealing.”
The man crawled out from under the bed. He was thin and unshaven. “Why are you praying for me?” he asked gruffly. “Why don’t you call the innkeeper and get it over with?”
“God is the only one I’ll call,” said Elizabeth. She was still afraid but looked at him kindly, “Thee must have a reason to come to my room.” His shoulders drooped. “Can’t thee tell me?” she asked. The man remained silent. Elizabeth waited.
“I’ve been hungry for days, Ma’am,” he said at last. “I stole scraps of food, but it’s not enough. I need money for a good meal and a warm coat too.”
“I’m glad thee came to my room,” said Elizabeth.
The man looked at her in amazement. He had never been treated so kindly, even when he worked as a stagecoach footman. Elizabeth pulled a heavy sweater from the drawer. “This was my husband’s,” she said. “I think it will fit thee. Now let’s go downstairs for dinner.”
“You’re sure good to me,” he said. “You could have sent me to prison—or will you?” His eyes darted wildly toward the window.
“No,” she said. “I know too much about prisons to send anyone there.” Seeing his puzzlement, she added, “I’ll tell thee at dinner.”
While they ate boiled mutton and potatoes, she told him about her prison work and he told her about his troubles. First he had gone to prison for an unpaid debt, then for stealing, and then for a false accusation. Since his release, he could not get a job. His clothes were worn and dirty, so no one trusted him. He wanted to stay out of prison so much he almost starved before coming to her room. Elizabeth had heard similar stories from women in prison.
In her practical way, Elizabeth gave the man soap, clean clothes, and help in finding a job. He left with strength in his body and hope in his heart. Elizabeth felt a deep sense of peace, grateful she had responded with love rather than fear.