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In the six weeks from mid-July to early September 1912, about a third of the 389 men whom guards escorted through the front doors of the Rio de Janeiro city jail had been arrested for vagrancy, or in Portuguese vadiagem, an infraction whose etymological connection to the word “vague” is not a coincidence. These men remained in detention for between five days and over a year, accused by arresting police officers of having committed the crime of doing nothing. As they awaited trial or, for the least fortunate, transportation to an offshore penal colony, they shared the crowded space of the jail with a remarkable variety of other detainees: a twenty-nine-year-old American sailor; four stevedores; waves of men of differing ages and skin colors wearing the uniform of the penal colony Dois Rios; a thirty-five-year-old Italian laborer from São Paulo, who stayed in the jail en route to the ship that would expel him permanently from Brazil; and, most arresting of all, a plethora of inmates of different ages and skin colors detained for “unknown reasons.”


2008 Law and Humanities Junior Scholar Workshop selection.