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Sing Sing. Warden T. M. Osborne. Library of Congress

“Old Sparky

Warning Disturbing Photos and in a link.

A 19th-century prison was a barbaric place, and Sing Sing was no exception. Prisoners were expected to keep absolute silence. Beatings — and worse — were commonplace. “Bread and water” and “ball and chain” weren’t euphemisms, they were a way of life.

“The bath” was a method of torture used for decades to terrify the population and maintain order. “An inmate was tied to a chair… Water was dropped in a steady stream from a great height and landed on the top of a prisoner’s head. Prison records show that 170 men received this punishment in 1852. That same year, 120 men were placed in solitary confinement and five were “bucked”… causing the man to hang upside down like a roasted pig.”

There really was torture, until prison reform took hold in the country, led in large part by Lewis Lawes, Sing Sing’s warden during the ’20s and ’30s. Lawes believed that prison was punishment enough, and that he would send prisoners back into the world as better people than when they came in. Lawes educated prisoners, taught them trades, and entertained them with visits from the likes of Babe Ruth, Harry Houdini, Edward G. Robinson, and other stars of the day. He helped change the way prisons were run.

In 1825, the state of New York struggled with the riddle: what to do with criminals? Two years before, they’d tried complete isolation — from society, from one another, from all stimulation. When that failed miserably, they switched to a model that involved prisoners doing hard labor together in silence.

New York finished an 800-cell prison that would function in that style by 1828. They erected it by a quarry on Mt. Pleasant, near the Hudson River town of Sing Sing.

A man being strapped into the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in the early 20th century.

Sing Sing prison c.1913.

Sing Sing after the 1913 fire.

In 1887, New York State established a committee to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of putting electric current through a device after hearing about how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunken man died after touching exposed power lines. As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on sitting subjects, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair

On June 4, 1888, Governor David B. Hill authorized the introduction of the electric chair. It was first used two years later when William Kemmler became the first person in the world to be executed by electricity at Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York on August 6, 1890.

“Old Sparky” was first used at Sing Sing prison for a mass execution on July 7, 1891. The order of execution, which would start at 4:30 a.m., was listed as James J. Slocum, Harris Smiler, Shibuya Jugiro, and Joseph Wood. The chair was situated in a purpose-built building known as the Death House which was a prison within the high-security Sing Sing prison. The block, which had its own hospital, kitchen, visiting room, and exercise yard, had 24 single cells plus an additional three cells for condemned women. A chamber where a prisoner spent their last day was nicknamed the “Dance Hall”. A corridor, known as the “Last Mile”, connected the ante-room to the execution chamber.

“Old Sparky” the electric chair that was once used at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Photo James Tannehill

Old Sparky at the Tucker Unit, Arkansas. It was used to conduct 104 executions from 1926 to 1948.

Sing Sing. A cell in the older facility.

Executions at Sing Sing were traditionally carried out at 11 p.m. on Thursday nights. Condemned prisoners would be brought into the execution room escorted by seven guards and the prison chaplain. Already waiting in the room would be the warden of Sing Sing, the state electrician, two doctors and twelve state appointed witnesses. After the condemned prisoner was strapped into the chair and the electrodes attached, the warden would step forward and read out the final decision on the sentence. The prisoner would be asked for any last words or for a benediction. With a signal, the execution would then begin. Witnesses would leave once both doctors had confirmed that death had occurred.

In its 75 years of operation, a total of 695 men and women were executed by the electric chair in New York State (614 at Sing Sing alone). From 1914, all executions were conducted at Sing Sing prison using “Old Sparky”. Eddie Mays would become the last person to be executed on August 15, 1963. Two years later New York State abolished capital punishment. The state would later reinstate the practice in 1995 using lethal injection, but the practice was abolished again in 2004, after the Court of Appeals ruled in People v. LaValle that it violated the state constitution. No inmates were executed during the nine years that capital punishment was reinstated in New York.

Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Old Smokey was the nickname of the electric chairs used in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. “Old Sparky” is sometimes used to refer to electric chairs in general, and not one of a specific state.

Water torture being executed in Sing Sing prison in 1860.

Old cell block c.1938.

Captain Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn State Prison in upstate New York, had searched hundreds of miles for an ideal new prison location. In May 1824, Captain Lynds found his spot in Mount Pleasant.

Lynds—a former Army captain, now prison warden, with thick arching eyebrows and a chin like a shovel—had hunted for possible locations in Staten Island, the Bronx, and Mount Pleasant.

The 130-acre site that he chose belonged to the small Westchester village of Sing Sing on the banks of the Hudson River. The town’s name came from the Native American phrase “Sint Sinks,” which roughly translates to “stone upon stone.” It was there that Captain Lynds would cull 100 inmates from Auburn to lay brick upon brick in order to build the era’s most modern, impressive maximum-security penitentiary.

The name Sing Sing almost immediately conjures images of the gangster era of the 1920s and ’30s, of Jimmy Cagney movies and cops-and-robbers radio serials. During that time the prison housed the infamous Willie Sutton, Lucky Luciano, members of Murder Incorporated, and other well-known ne’er-do-wells. But by then, bad guys had been sent “up the river” from New York City courthouses for 100 years.

When New York State’s first two prisons — one in Greenwich Village dating from 1797 and the other in Auburn built in 1816 — became overcrowded, the Legislature commissioned Auburn Prison warden Elam Lynds to build a new and more modern prison. He decided to locate it in Mount Pleasant, near a small village called Sing Sing, because the stones implied by its name were still being quarried nearby.

In 1825, Lynds transferred 100 Auburn inmates by barge along the Erie Canal to freighters that took them down the Hudson to Sing Sing, where he forced them, at gunpoint, to build the new prison. It opened in 1826, and was fully built in 1828. The completed cell block was four tiers high. Each cell was seven feet deep, 39 inches wide, and about six-and-a-half feet high. But with crime a growth industry, it continued to expand for the rest of the 1800s. By the turn of the century, it housed more than 1,200 prisoners.

The land sat on the Silver Mine Farm, an abandoned mining site, which offered abundant world-class marble that made prison-building on the Hudson easy and cheap. Large quarries already cut into the county’s shoreline. The New York State Legislature appropriated $20,100 to the project, and, in October 1828, the Sing Sing Correctional Facility was officially opened. The fortress stretched four stories and measured 476 feet long by 44 feet wide. Each cell spanned just about 20 square feet.

The natives who lived there called themselves the Sint Sink, which meant “stone upon stone.” The 17th-century Dutch interlopers appropriated their land and altered the name to Sinck Sinck or Cinque Singte. In the mid-1800s it became known as Ossin-sing, from another Native American word, ossin, also meaning stone.

But criminals have always called it “up the river.”

Sing Sing, the prison, and Ossining, the town, are inextricably linked. Indeed, in 1902 the town changed its name only because the prison had become so notorious. And that’s just one of a multitude of facts, stories, and myths surrounding this nearly 200-year-old star of stage, screen, song — and grisly executions.

“Old Sparky” the electric chair that was once used at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Photo: James Tannehill

“Old Sparky”, the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in the early 20th century.

Sing Sing immediately turned a rare profit and soon began accepting women in 1837. (That policy ended 40 years later.) Captain Lynds emerged as a Patton-esque figure in the correctional community. His “Auburn system,” which drove rehabilitation through hard work, community activity, and silent reflection, swept through American prisons. He demanded that inmates not “exchange a word with each other under any pretense whatever; not to communicate in writing. They must not sing, whistle, dance, run, jump, or do anything that has a tendency in the least degree to disturb the harmony.”

Convicts received a Bible, walked only in lockstep, and saw no visitors. Rations included two eggs per year and nearly no fresh produce. Any misstep was met with whippings and confinement, for the delinquent was an anonymous sinner. Only suicide and depression crept between the silences.

This puritanism, however, was wildly popular in the early 19th century. Temperance had become the great narrower of American life. Penal experts believed that Lynds’ “silent system” would restore piety and prevent re-offenses, one even recommending that the criminal “be literally buried from the world.” The jail’s physical form fortified function. Brick cellblocks and tall guard towers separated Sing Sing from greater Westchester. Prisoners worked 10-hour shifts isolated in the local quarries, mining marble that would eventually form City Hall in Albany, Grace Church in New York City, and Calvary Baptist Church in Ossining. Other convicts produced everything from boots to barrels.

The front page of the Tulsa World on Dec. 10, 1915, contains an account of the execution of Henry Bookman, the first man in Oklahoma to die by electrocution. Tulsa World archives.

The electric chair was born in the 1880s, an outgrowth of a marketing battle between electricity titans George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. It had an odd coterie of pro- and anti-death-penalty supporters who saw it as a quick, more humane alternative to public hangings.

The electric chair was seen as a technological miracle. But there was no magic when New York became the first state to use the chair, putting William Kemmler to death on Aug. 6, 1890. Witnesses said the convicted wife-killer smoked and bled, and they reported smelling charred flesh.

“They could have done better with an axe,” Westinghouse ruefully acknowledged.

The chair quickly earned the names “Old Sparky” and “Old Smokey,” and for the next few decades, about five inmates a year were electrocuted.

In 1901, three years after Edison introduced the electric chair at Sing Sing, the town changed its name to Ossining so people wouldn’t confuse it with the jail. Edison’s dynamos ran on direct current. He invented that first electric chair to show how dangerous alternating current was. And 614 people eventually died in it.

The 1828 prison was a stark gray stone box — no trace of ornamentation. The cells were 7 feet high, 6½ feet long, and 3¼ feet wide. They were equipped with a new device invented by an inmate. It was the lever locking mechanism — a 150-foot-long bar that locked or unlocked 50 cells at once.

Warden Lawes took charge of Sing Sing in 1920. He appears, for a while, to have made the old hellhole into a model prison with a band, sports teams, educational programs, and more. It even had a little brick aviary on the grounds.

Reform was clearly his first priority, and he viewed the death penalty as a useless deterrent.

Lewis Lawes, Sing Sing’s warden, abhorred the death penalty, which propelled Sing Sing into the spotlight many times during its history. Sing Sing electrocuted its first prisoner in 1891. By 1916, all of New York’s electrocutions took place there. The first woman to be executed by the electric chair also occurred at Sing Sing in 1899. Martha Place had been found guilty of murdering her stepdaughter. The electrocution of Ruth Snyder in 1928 for the murder of her husband was made famous when a photographer for a New York City tabloid smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. But perhaps the most famous execution at the prison was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of espionage, in 1953. They were two of a total of 614 men and women who were put to death in the electric chair, known as “Old Sparky.” In 1963, the last execution was conducted in New York.

Amid rising homicide rates and a growing public demand for law and order, the chair’s popularity grew. Fourteen states were already using it when Florida sheriffs, tired of presiding over hangings, persuaded the Legislature to replace the noose with a chair in 1923. A death chamber was built at the prison in Raiford.

Dr. Ralph Greene Sr. of Jacksonville, a state health official, later said he devised the chair and built the head electrode like a “helmet . . . with felt, mesh wire and straps.” It featured homemade accessories, such as a leg electrode made from an old Army boot and some roofing copper, and was wired by Westinghouse.

Although prison officials boasted that inmates cut down an oak tree and constructed it for free in Raiford’s sawmill and carpentry shops, the Jacksonville Journal reported it was made at Cook’s Cabinet Shop on Newman Street in Jacksonville.

Frank Johnson became the first to die in the new chair. On Oct. 7, 1924, the Duval County man, convicted of killing a railroad engineer for his watch and $100 cash, was electrocuted before 12 witnesses. The job of pulling the switch fell to the sheriff in the county where the crime had been committed. But when Jim Williams was condemned for killing his wife in 1926, Sheriff J.C. Blith asked two deputies to do the job. Both refused.

For 10 minutes, Williams sat strapped in while Blith and a deputy argued. The sheriff finally ordered Williams back to his cell. Some years later, he was pardoned after he jumped off a prison truck and saved a woman and her baby from a mad bull. One of the most famous people to die in the chair was Giuseppe “Joseph” Zangara. He fatally wounded Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak during an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami.

“I’m not afraid of the chair,” said Zangara, who hurled invectives at “capitalists” before Dade Sheriff Dan Hardie pulled the switch on March 20, 1933. “See?”

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York, an 1855 engraving.

By the 20th century, the tide of temperance began to turn. Merchants no longer wanted goods made from contract labour. New York Governor Daniel B. Hill legalized the electric chair to humanize execution. The shackles of lockstep were unhinged, and inmates began exercising in the Sing Sing yard. Warden Thomas McCormack oversaw the first baseball game in 1914.

Still, Sing Sing was a gruelling master. The facility saw 10 different wardens from 1900 to 1919. Rebellious inmates and crumbling infrastructure weighed heavily. The number of prisoners on record rarely matched the number in custody. Administrators abused prison funds and prisoners alike. To critics, the quickest way out of Sing Sing was as a warden.

But, it was Warden Lewis Lawes, appointed by Governor Alfred E. Smith in 1920, who ultimately transformed the aging Sing Sing back into a modern reformatory. Lawes used sports to teach discipline and embraced the outside world through famous performers. New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, and Babe Ruth all stopped through.

Inmates landscaped the facility on their own and held a show each year for the Ossining community. By 1930, a new chapel, mess hall, laundry, bathhouse, and barbershop had been built. Bank robber Willie Sutton and Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spent time within the refurbished marble walls.

In 1970, the name of the facility was changed to “Ossining Correctional Facility” but, in 1985, it reverted to its original name.”Sing Sing” was derived from the name of a Native American Nation, “Sinck Sinck” (or “Sint Sinck”), from whom the land was purchased in 1685

Today, the aviary is gone. Sing Sing is as grim as ever, and holds 1,605 inmates and has 819 employees. Another 2,000 visitors come to the facility each month. Plans are in the works to convert the original structure that no longer houses prisoners into a new museum and establish an Alcatraz for Westchester. The aura, however, remains.

A STEREOSCOPIC VIEW OF SING SING. CROSS YOUR EYES TO VIEW THE PRISON IN 3D. ROBERT N. DENNIS / NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis incited outrage after witnesses saw his white shirt rapidly turn red with blood during his execution. Prison officials later determined the blood came from an unusually profuse nosebleed most likely caused by an improperly fitted head strap. The source of the blood was not evident to witnesses during execution, because Davis’ head was covered with a traditional hood. A prison inspector general took photographs of Davis’ body, still bloody and strapped in the chair, shortly after execution. These photographs later became key evidence in several cases mounting yet another challenge to the constitutionality of the electric chair. These lawsuits ultimately came to the Florida Supreme Court in the fall of 1999, when a bare majority (4 of the 7 Justices) found that the electric chair was constitutional in a case brought by death row inmate Thomas Provenzano.

One of the dissenting Justices, Leander J. Shaw, Jr., took the extraordinary step of attaching to his opinion (Be warned that link shows the Disturbing Photos – the photos are between pages 67 and 68) three colour photographs of Davis’ bloody body strapped in the chair. This publication marked the first time those photographs had surfaced on the Internet or, for that matter, anywhere outside court and prison files.

The effect was to create an immediate and sometimes macabre international debate over capital punishment in general and Florida’s adherence to electrocution in particular. The Florida Supreme Court’s web servers repeatedly crashed under the demand for access to the photographs, reputed to be the first actual photographs of an American state execution in decades.

The photos were used during a protest demonstration in Madrid in support of a Spaniard on Florida’s death row. Some death penalty supporters in the United States viewed the photographs as a deterrent, apparently believing they had been posted on the Website as a warning to all potentially dangerous criminals.

Notable Sing Sing prisoner escapes and attempts include:

  • 1872: When both men and women were housed there, a man escaped in a horse carriage. Fifteen days later, his wife escaped in the same carriage. Almost 50 years after that, the woman wrote the warden a letter saying she was living well in Detroit. Included in the letter was a $500 check.
  • 1875: Five men hijacked a freight train that was passing the prison. After nearly running the train into the river at Scarborough, they got away. Four were caught, but one made a successful getaway to England, where he opened a pub.
  • 1930: Jack Levy, 45, sewed himself into a mattress that was being thrown away. His attempt was foiled when the prison keeper noticed a lump in the mattress.
  • 1938: Everett Bellach, 25, jumped from a train at the Riverdale station on his return trip from his mother’s funeral. The first inmate to violate the funeral honour system, he was caught later that day.
  • 1964: Seymour Snyder, 48, broke a streak of 14 escape-less years at Sing Sing when he ran off while on a work-release program. He was captured nine days later on Long Island.
  • 1986: In the most recent escape, Julio Giano, Thomas Linz and Darius Gittens created a distraction with homemade smoke bombs, then scaled the wall using a 30-foot rope made from leather shoelaces. They were all caught within 30 hours.

The last known escape attempt happened in May 2003, when two men — Nicholas Zimmerman, 27, and Steven Finley, 26 — had several accomplices both inside and outside the prison help with their plan. The men had conspirators show up with fake IDs and guard uniforms, but their plan was foiled at the gate.

The death penalty remains a hot topic of debate in America. Executions have gone spectacularly wrong, with convicts being set alight or needing up to five jolts of electricity before dying. There have been terrible miscarriages of justice, and the death penalty has not been applied even-handedly. Historically, African Americans, the mentally challenged, and poor defendants have been likely to get the chair, an anomaly which led the Supreme Court to briefly suspend the death penalty. Since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976, Texas alone has executed more than five hundred prisoners, and death row is full.

Sing Sing prison has long history of escapes – The Journal News

Sing Sing Prison Museum, Ossining, New York – Roadside America

Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, NY: A History of Hudson Valley’s Jail Up …

Old Sparky – Warped Imagination

Old Sparky: The Shocking History Of The Electric Chair | Urbanist

Old Sparky – Wikipedia

State: The story of Old Sparky – Angelfire

Old Sparky – ExecutedToday.com

old sparky Archives – CrimeFeed

Weird Ways to Die in Florida: FDR’s Assassin … – The History Reader

Texas Prison Museum

City in Oklahoma Renews Fight for ‘Old Sparky,’ Electric Chair Taken …

Throwback Tulsa: Executioners first used ‘Old Sparky’ in 1915 – Tulsa …

Old Sparky – The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty …

The Sparky: Old Sparky: Famous Victims of the Electric Chair!

 


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