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Sing Sing : The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison
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.
"...an excellent history for anyone interested in the history of prisons and prison reform in America."
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November 01, 2005
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