Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison

Overview

On May 14, 1825, one hundred mute, dispirited convict-laborers disembarked from steamers at Mount Pleasant, New York. They had been transported in chains nearly three hundred miles from Auburn Prison in upstate New York for the purpose of constructing a new maximum-security prison near a village on the Hudson. Wielding pick axes and shovels, they worked under brutal supervision for five years, building the grim structure out of the rock underfoot, rusty scrap iron, and granite from a local quarry. Overseeing ...

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Overview

On May 14, 1825, one hundred mute, dispirited convict-laborers disembarked from steamers at Mount Pleasant, New York. They had been transported in chains nearly three hundred miles from Auburn Prison in upstate New York for the purpose of constructing a new maximum-security prison near a village on the Hudson. Wielding pick axes and shovels, they worked under brutal supervision for five years, building the grim structure out of the rock underfoot, rusty scrap iron, and granite from a local quarry. Overseeing their slave labor was the sadistic Elam Lynds, formerly the warden in Auburn and soon to be the first master of Sing Sing prison.
So begins Denis Brian’s gripping history of one of America’s most notorious prisons. For most of the 19th century Sing Sing was a bastion of inhumane treatment, where guards made every effort to break the spirit of inmates by a fanatic rule of silence enforced by shockingly brutal punishments and tortures—floggings with metal-tipped whips, the Chinese water cure, the Cage, the Crucifix, the Ball and Chain, and more. In 1891, Sing Sing witnessed its first electrocution, which was reportedly a terrible fiasco. This was followed by 613 additional electrocutions of both men and women. In addition, we learn that electricity genius Thomas Edison was a great proponent of this method.
Based on extensive research with original sources, Brian’s narrative covers every period of the prison’s checkered history, from the awful conditions of the 19th century to the relative improvements of the 20th century to today. In 1920, a dramatic turnaround occurred, when one of criminology’s most progressive wardens, Lewis Lawes, took over. In command for twenty-one years, Lawes—who believed in reforming prisoners, not just punishing them—brought almost miraculous changes for the better.
During the 20th century Sing Sing held such infamous prisoners as members of Murder Incorporated, the Lonely Hearts Killers, Albert "the cannibal" Fish, Lucky Luciano, Louis Lepke, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Brian recounts their stories and throws in "cameos" of such diverse visiting luminaries as Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Johnny Cash, John Cheever, and Mother Teresa. Sing Sing has witnessed it all: from daring, ingenious escapes and the first blood donations by prisoners to inmates volunteering to be injected with syphilis in the interest of medical science.
Brian's story ends with a glimpse of Sing Sing in the recent past and today, based on his interviews with the present warden, Brian Fischer; prison guards; a prison psychiatrist; and the daughter of Sing Sing's last executioner.
A must for fans of true crime, criminology, and urban American history, Brian’s powerfully told story is both a dramatic page-turner and a definitive history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"…an excellent history for anyone interested in the history of prisons and prison reform in America."
- Publishers Weekly
"America’s most notorious prison is also America’s most mysterious. Denis Brian’s book figuratively opens the gates of Sing Sing and permits readers to learn the tales locked inside the confines of this famous prison and meet the remarkable array of inhabitants, keepers, and luminaries connected with its two-century history."
James McGrath Morris author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing and Jailhouse Journalism
"Provides a penetrating, unforgettable look into the horrors as well as the acts of kindness and generosity that make the true story of Sing Sing so compelling."
Sister Helen Prejean author of Dead Man Walking
"It is impossible to read this book and still be in favor of capital punishment."
Frederik Osborne, Grandson of Sing Sing Warden
Thomas Mott Osborne, and President of the Osborne Association,
which works to improve the criminal justice system.
Publishers Weekly
This history of New York State's maximum-security prison also serves as a look at the development of penal reform in America. Sing Sing was built on the banks of the Hudson River in 1825 by prison labor. Brian (Einstein: A Life) carefully describes the tenure of Elam Lynds, the prison's corrupt first warden, whose policy of total control over prisoners' every movement and word was enforced by frequent floggings and other tortures. Some reforms were attempted, but it wasn't until Thomas Mott Osborne became warden in 1914 and spent a week living as a prisoner that conditions began to ease. Osborne cleaned up the filthy prison, experimented with self-rule by inmates and made provisions for treating the mentally ill. Sing Sing's history as a death penalty machine is also related, from the first electrocution in 1891 until the last in 1963. Brian successfully conveys how inhumane electrocution was by describing the last moments of the condemned, including Ethel Rosenberg. Sing Sing had its contact with fame: one warden allowed Hollywood movies to be filmed on location there, and John Cheever taught creative writing to inmates. This is an excellent history for anyone interested in the history of prisons and prison reform in America. B&w illus. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591023579
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Pages: 263
  • Sales rank: 1,424,106
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Denis Brian is the widely acclaimed author of Einstein: A Life, Genius Talk, and The True Gen: An Intimate Portrait of Hemingway by Those Who Knew Him, among other works.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9
Introduction 11
1 Riding the Tiger (1821-1839) 15
2 Another Reign of Terror (1840-1859) 33
3 Abraham Lincoln Passes Through (1860-1887) 41
4 Thomas Edison Promotes His Rival's Electric Chair (1887-1904) 47
5 The Convict Who Trapped Himself and the Great River Disaster (1904-1914) 63
6 Warden Osborne-The Voluntary Prisoner (1913-1920) 85
7 Warden Lawes and the Rose Man of Sing Sing (1920-1929) 113
8 Murder Incorporated and the Movies (1930-1949) 145
9 The Lonely Hearts Killers and the Rosenbergs (1950-1982) 167
10 Riots and Reforms (1980s and 1990s) 193
11 Recovering the Prison's Missing Archives 207
12 Sing Sing in the Twenty-first Century 223
Afterword: Sing Sing Today and Tomorrow 239
Notes 245
Select Bibliography 255
Index 259
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