15 Authors Who Were In Prison And Wrote Best-Sellers

1.    Francois Marie Arouet (Voltaire)

Jailed in May 1717 for writing poems against the regent. Spent 11 months in the Bastille, Paris where he began his epic poem, Henriade.

 2.    John Bunyan

Imprisoned for holding Puritan services that were not in accordance with the Church of England. In Bedford County Jail for 11 years where he wrote most of Pilgrim’s Progress. Book was published in London, 1678.

 3.    Miguel de Cervantes

Jailed in 1597 in the royal prison of Seville, Spain for deficits as naval quartermaster but was released after three months. While in prison, he began Don Quixote.

 4.    John Cleland

Jailed in Newgate Prison, London for debts. To get him out of debtor’s prison, a publisher (Drybutter) offered him 20 guineas to write a pornographic novel. He wrote Fanny Hill or The Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure (1750).

5.    Daniel Defoe

Judged guilty of seditious libel, he was jailed indefinitely in May 1703 in Newgate Prison, London. Wrote Hymn To The Pillory while there. He was released in November 1703.

6.    Adolf Hitler

Found guilty of organizing the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch. In 1923, he was sentenced to five years but was released after nine months. During his confinement at the Fortress of Landsberg am Lech, he wrote part of Mein Kampf (My Struggle or My Battle).

 7.    Leigh Hunt

Friend of Byron, Shelley, and Lamb, he was jailed in 1813 for libel when he wrote in his brother’s London newspaper, The Examiner, the future King George IV was a “fat Adonis of 50”. He spent two years in prison at Horsemonger Lane, London. He published Feast of the Poets (first in 1811, and again in 1814 and expanded through the rest of his life) and edited The Examiner while in jail.

 8.    Richard Lovelace

A Cavalier adventurer, he was jailed in 1642 for presenting a royalist petition to the English Parliament. He served seven weeks in the Gatehouse at Westminster. In jail, he wrote To Althea From Prison that contains the lines:

Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor iron bars a cage.

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage.

 9.  Karl May

This popular writer was jailed in Germany for fraud. He served two terms in the period 1865-1874. He wrote successfully in prison. His novels about the American West, that he had never visited, were best sellers in Germany.


10. Jawaharlal Nehru

Arrested by the British as a leader of India’s fight for independence. He served ten years in jail altogether from 1921 to 1945. In prison, he wrote Glimpses of World History, an erudite and widely read book.


11. Marco Polo

He was a commander of a galley in the war between Venice and Genoa in 1298. He was captured by the enemy and imprisoned for less than a year. He dictated The Travels of Marco Polo to a fellow prisoner and scribe from Pisa named, Rusticiano.


12. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

Sentenced in 1898 to five years in a federal prison in Columbus, Ohio for embezzlement of funds from a First National Bank in Austin, Texas, where he had been a teller. A model prisoner, he was released in three years, three months for good behavior. Some of his best short stories making up his widely read collections, including The Gentle Grafter, were written in his cell.


13. Sir Walter Raleigh

Thrown into the Tower of London (perhaps unjustly) for high treason in 1603, he was confined for 13 years. During this time, he wrote the only volume of his History of the World.


14. Francois Villon

Guilty of housebreaking, manslaughter and satirical verse, he was sentenced to death and confined to the dungeons of the Bishop of Orleans in Meung, France. He wrote Grand Testament while in the dungeon. Released on general amnesty proclaimed on the state entry of King Louis XI, he returned to Paris and was again arrested for manslaughter. He was sentenced to hang but his sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris. He vanished in 1463.

15. Oscar Wilde

Convicted on charges of homosexuality, he was imprisoned in Reading Jail. He served two terrible terms during which he wrote, De Profundis and Apologia (both published 1905).


Other literary prisoners include Roger Bacon, Caryl Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver, William Cobbett, Denis Diderot, Hugo Grotius, King James I of Scotland, Comte de Mirabeau, Richard Savage, John Selden, Tupac Shakur and Niccolo Machiavelli. According to Vincent Starrett, who wrote Books Alive that relates various anecdotes about books and their authors, “most writers who have been jailed were charged with political crimes. Very few were ever imprisoned for theft or murder. No writer has ever been charged with arson or kidnapping.”

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