In 1919, Lewis E. Lawes moved his wife and young daughters into the warden's mansion at Sing Sing prison. They shared a yard with 1,096 of the toughest inmates in the world-murderers, rapists, and thieves who Lawes alone believed capable of redemption. Adamantly opposed to the death penalty, Lawes presided over 300 executions. His progressive ideas shocked many, but he taught the nation that a prison was a community. He allowed a kidnapper to care for his children and a cutthroat to shave him every morning. He organized legendary football games for his "boys," and befriended Hollywood greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart. This is "A story almost too good to be true, but too true to miss." -Mario Cuomo
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About the Author
Ralph Blumenthal is a longtime investigative reporter at the New York Times, who now heads the Houston Bureau covering Texas and the southwest. He is also the author of Stork Club. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on Miracle at Sing Sing. He lives in Houston, Texas.
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MIRACLE AT SING SINGHow One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Ralph Blumenthal
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom the water it looked like an old New England factory, maybe a knitting mill, red brick with neat rows of white-framed windows, tall gray smokestacks, a railroad track, and a flagpole with a flapping American flag.
From the water you couldn't see the bars.
In summer the greenery almost swallowed the sharp-peaked turrets that poked up like deadly mushrooms along the snaking walls. Behind the factory buildings and just visible between them was a long building the color of bleached bones. This had no windows to speak of, just little vertical lines, the way a child might draw windows if he had to draw a lot of them. Even up close they were only slits that called up visions of medieval archers bending cocked bows pregnant with showers of arrows. But the slits concealed only prisoners, more than a thousand of them, crammed into cubes of weeping stone cells so small they might have been carved out of dice. From the water, you could not see these, either.
But few viewed the place from the water, only the crews of rusty tankers heading up the river-which wasn't a river at all, really, but an estuary, an arm of the sea complete with tides-and pleasure boaters bound forBear Mountain or West Point, or Albany or Troy beyond the Catskills. Most saw Sing Sing prison from the land, as did the big, fastidiously dressed visitor and honey-haired woman who drove up to a guardhouse at dusk one Sunday not long before Christmas, 1919.
A soft rain had fallen earlier in the weekend but then the mercury had plunged, sending frigid gusts knifing across the choppy gray waters. Across the ocean, the great guns had been silent for more than a year, but the Senate was still deadlocked on a peace treaty with Germany. Rampaging Bolsheviks were taking Poltava in the Ukraine. And thirty-one miles down the Hudson, New York hotels were wondering what they were supposed to do with five million dollars' worth of liquor that Prohibition would render illegal in less than three weeks.
At the gate, the man boomed out his name, given in the papers the next day as Major Louis Lawes, which suited him fine, since he had long believed that you could safely discount 75 percent of what you read in the press. Major Lewis Lawes said he was there to see Warden Edward V. Brophy.
The guard's welcome was cool, almost disdainful. Clearly he dismissed Lawes as just another short-timer. But Warden Brophy, Lawes felt certain, would be glad to see him. After eight months at Sing Sing, Brophy-the ninth warden in the last eight years-was like a condemned man hoping for a reprieve. Fed up with the meddling of state officials, particularly prison superintendent Charles F. Rattigan, Brophy had put in his retirement papers a month ago. He had already lost forty pounds at Sing Sing.
Lawes, sure enough, held the keys to Brophy's fate. To the guard at the gate who asked his business he said, "I have been offered the wardenship." The guard shrugged. The wardens changed so fast at Sing Sing that the staff never knew who would greet them in the morning. The gate swung open.
Earlier that afternoon, Lawes and his wife, Kathryn, had motored down from New Hampton, New York, in the wilds of Orange County across the river, where Lawes was running a New York City prison farm for delinquent boys. An audacious experiment, a reformatory without walls on six hundred rural acres, it had proved, as Lawes had somehow known it would, more impervious to escape than institutions with the most hermetic security, even when Lawes, in a caper that left state officials gasping with incredulity, armed 150 of his boys with rifles, revolvers, and blank cartridges to shoot a movie about the Mexican-American War.
Lawes remained deeply attached to the place, to the point where he still wasn't sure he should trade it for Sing Sing, glory and his word be damned. He had told Governor Al Smith he would take it, but he continued to waver, keeping Brophy and everyone else guessing. He was thirty-six years old. None of the previous thirty-eight wardens who had tried to run Sing Sing in its nearly ninety-five years had ever been that young. He knew that Sing Sing was America's greatest prison and its warden the nation's penologist in chief, but he couldn't help wondering if he had gone crazy. The last great reform warden, Thomas Mott Osborne, had been driven out barely four years before, charged with sodomy.
Kathryn too had her doubts. She was an independent sort, one of the determined turn-of-the-century young women who put off marriage and domesticity for the raffish allure of office work as a "typewriter" in a robustly male environment. Now that she had settled down with a family, she did not relish bringing up their two young daughters in a prison.
But privately Lawes knew what he wanted to do. Sing Sing wasn't a posting. It was a career.
After meeting with Brophy, Lawes and Kathryn were treated to a tour of the yard. From somewhere the prison band belted out a refrain from The Pirates of Penzance. Lawes was tone-deaf, but that much he could recognize. Then he alone was escorted inside. No one thought it advisable to bring a woman into the cellblock, and certainly not a woman who looked like Kathryn. For a while she sat on a bench in the reception area and crossed her legs and waited. But then she grew curious and got up to peek around, entering the ward of the prison clinic.
Lawes meanwhile had entered the slit-windowed cellblock, which seemed little changed since convicts from Auburn had been barged across the Erie Canal and down the Hudson to quarry the rock for the first eight hundred cells in 1825. Small wonder they called it the Bastille on the Hudson.
Five years earlier, on an errand here from his hometown of Elmira, New York, Lawes had been revolted by the debris in the yard and the zombielike shuffling of the prisoners. Now he saw it was still filthy. The cells, piled four tiers high, hadn't changed either. They were still seven feet deep, three feet three inches wide, and six feet seven inches high. On cold winter nights like this, the stone wept with cold. But at least now there was only one man to a cell. Until a few years ago there had been two, guaranteeing God only knew what perversions. The doors, interwoven strips of steel that barred almost all the air and light that managed to penetrate the dismal outer shell of the building, were locked and unlocked, fifty at a time, by a 150-foot-long sliding steel bar invented by an inmate. There was no plumbing. The prisoners used slop buckets that they emptied in the river on their way to breakfast and picked up again at night. Warden Osborne had been as repulsed as Lawes was by conditions. The cells were "unspeakably bad," Osborne said. "To call them unfit for human habitation is to give them undeserved dignity. They are unfit for pigs." But Osborne, with all his humanity and splendid intentions, was ultimately broken, hounded out of Sing Sing for his trouble, and branded a pervert. Osborne's fate didn't augur well for Lawes.
From the cellblock, Lawes was led into the adjoining death cells, viewing them with little inkling how they would come to overshadow his life. He was surprised to find them overflowing with twenty-three condemned prisoners, waiting to keep their date with the chair that had claimed the lives of 156 men and one woman since 1891. Five others sentenced to die had to be housed elsewhere. He walked through quickly, resolving to come back when he had the job. If he took the job.
Outside in the dark, lighting up a fresh panatela to rid his nostrils of what he couldn't stop thinking was the stench of death, his foot caught in a rabbit hole and he nearly went down, swearing, "Goddamn it!" The creatures had the run of the place and were obviously being kept as pets. They would have to go if he took the job, along with those pineboard shacks where the boys had to be brewing their hooch. He hadn't missed the brazen hand-lettered sign by the mess hall: "Please Don't Stand Up While Room Is in Motion." The potato-water stills would go too.
Kathryn was making her way through the hospital ward, gazing with moist eyes at the poor souls stretched out on rickety cots. It was unutterably sad. She stopped by the side of a cadaverous figure with the face of a paving block, granite gray hair, a straight slash of a mouth, and the remnants of a permanent scowl, as if someone had just snatched away his pince-nez. He lay listlessly, but there was something aristocratic in his bearing, and his eyes, which had followed her around the room, were obsidian-hard, like a snake's, and grayish blue. Before she could catch herself, she blurted, "Oh, you are such a nice-looking man. What are you doing here?"
He didn't answer, perhaps in fear that he was hallucinating this beatific vision. In turn he barely managed to croak out his own question. What was she doing there?
"My husband may be the next warden," she said.
He was silent at first, then said, "I hope to God he is."
Lawes, his tour finished, found Kathryn at the old man's bedside. Lawes asked how he was doing and the man smiled for the first time. "You are the first man who gave me a kindly nod since I came here," he said.
Outside the ward Lawes and Kathryn found out about him, prisoner no. 69690. He was Sing Sing's most famous, or infamous, denizen: Charles E. Chapin, for two decades the tyrannical editor of Joseph Pulitzer's New York Evening World and undoubtedly the ablest and meanest son of a bitch ever to run a newsroom. When New York mayor William J. Gaynor was shot in full view of a World photographer in 1910, Chapin, who had been prescient enough to dispatch his man well beforehand, was exultant. "Blood all over him, and an exclusive too!" Now sixty-one, he had come to Sing Sing eleven months earlier for a stay of twenty years to life. He had murdered his wife.
Before leaving the prison, Lawes and Kathryn were invited to dine with Brophy in the warden's house, a rambling gingerbread stone-and-wood mansion with twenty bedrooms, three tiers of verandas, and a cupola. Kathryn was appalled to see that it not only stood within the prison walls but also abutted the cellblock.
They left at 9 P.M. Brophy still didn't know if he was reprieved.
But if Lawes hadn't yet shown his hand, others felt sure they knew what he would do. The day before Lawes ventured to Sing Sing, a Brooklyn boys club director wrote to congratulate him on becoming warden of Sing Sing. He thanked Lawes too, for "helping me out of my trouble in Albany, N.Y.," and closed, "I am getting along fine now."
Reading the letter, Lawes had to smile. Leave it to one of his ex-boys to sniff out the real story.
A week later, a letter arrived from the editor of the Star Bulletin, Sing Sing's illustrated monthly. It requested a halftone cut or recent photograph for the next issue. The prison press was on the story.
Word was spreading. The inspections director of the New York City Health Department offered congratulations, although Lawes had yet to formally accept the appointment and was still torn by doubts. "I am leaving a hopeful, cheerful and congenial place to accept a position which has been the graveyard of many ambitious institutional executives," he wrote back, adding, "all my friends think that I am either looney or that I have laid in a supply of wet goods and imbibed too freely."
But privately he had made up his mind, confiding to a pal from his days at the Elmira Reformatory, "This position is a life job and I have it on my fingers end and of course most of my friends think I am foolish in making the move. However, I have reasons of my own."
With the shuffle of a thousand pairs of feet and the rattle of tinware, the prisoners of Sing Sing arranged themselves in facing rows at the long messhall tables for New Year's Day dinner. The night before, they had been treated to a half hour's celebratory concert by the prison band. Between numbers, the inmates banged their cell doors, shouted, whistled, and offered three cheers for Warden Grant, who had succeeded the finally reprieved Brophy and was the shortest-lived of their many masters. If the babble in the austere hall was more raucous than usual, it was in good riddance to another year chalked up, one more long and dreary slog through the seasons in discharge of a supposed debt to society, a debt that somehow kept running up interest. But now a fresh new decade beckoned, the twenties, which held, for those who still harbored hope, the promise of release. Suddenly the band burst into "Auld Lang Syne," and a phalanx of blue-uniformed keepers and officials in suits surged through the entranceway.
Moments earlier, Lawes, this time alone, had arrived in a taxi from New Hampton. Waved through the gate, he was greeted inside by his new boss, Charles Rattigan, the battle-scarred superintendent.
Lawes had heard from him less than a month before, in a telegram to New Hampton on December 5, 1919: "Can you arrange to meet the Governor and me at the Biltmore Hotel on Tuesday, December 9, at 11 o'clock?"
Lawes guessed it was about Sing Sing. The prison was a mess and administrators were always looking for a new warden. But he was an independent Republican, not an enrolled Democrat, and he wondered if the governor knew that. Lawes went to New York, telling himself he would turn the job down.
Al Smith offered a jovial welcome and plunged right in. "How about going up to Sing Sing to take charge? They need a man with experience."
Lawes gave his prepared speech. Smith let him finish, then, eyes atwinkle, drawled, "Young fella, it's all right with me. It's a tough spot. I don't blame you for being scared. It'll take a big man to go up there and stay."
Lawes saw what Smith was up to, but now he knew he would take the position. Although he had decided to accept the job, he still asked for a week to think it over. He also told the governor he wanted a free hand with no political interference, and the post of warden had to be put under civil service protection. Smith scowled but nodded. "It's yours, son."
Lawes took the further precaution of visiting Bill Ward, the Westchester Republican boss. If he took the job, Lawes said, Sing Sing had to be free of patronage. "Do you think you can run it?" Ward asked.
Lawes said he could.
Then run it, Ward said, "but don't let those reformers run it for you."
Lawes also saw Ward's counterpart, Democratic boss Mike Walsh. He, too, promised hands off.
Lawes had gotten what he wanted. Now he had to live with it.
With the first notes of "Auld Lang Syne," the prisoners in the mess hall looked up to see Rattigan with a husky man with receding sandy hair, a strong jawline, and, even from a distance, striking blue eyes. He could have been a priest. He could have been a cop. He could have been almost anything. He was big, but somehow not as big as he seemed.
Excerpted from MIRACLE AT SING SING by RALPH BLUMENTHAL Copyright © 2004 by Ralph Blumenthal . Excerpted by permission.
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