"dave in milwaukee"
I eagerly awaited this book because of my fascination with the subject matter. I ended up being disappointed. First, on a strictly cosmetic level, the book gives an overall impression of being a low-budget, amateurish production. The runny-appearing print, poor layout (see page 220, for example), and the cheap, poor-quality reproduction of photographs, all suggest that the book was printed on an old photocopier that was running low on toner.
Next, on a more substantive level, it seems that most of the book does little more than restate what prior authors had to say on the subject. Those books include Warden Lewis Lawes' books, Scott Christensen's "Condemned," Ted Conover's "Guarding Newjack," and Ralph Blumenthal's "Miracle at Sing Sing." Particularly in regard to the "Missing Archives" (covered in Chapter 11), it would have been interesting to read some information that added to Scott Christensen's painstaking and excellent research. Unfortunately, all the book does is quote the exact same information, and copy (quite poorly) some of the same photos already contained in Mr. Christensen's original (and far superior) book. It adds nothing new to the body of existing material on this fascinating subject.
Another level on which the book was disappointing was in its numerous errors, some minor and some substantial. These are indicative of sloppy fact-checking and proofreading. Some of the book's more substantial errors include the mention, at page 153, of executioner Robert Elliott's electrocution of outlaws Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague in 1931. However, the book fails to mention that those executions ocurred at Rockview Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, not at Sing Sing (Elliott served as the executioner for several states, including Pennsylvania). The omission of this fact, together with the context of the paragraph, imply that the execution took place at Sing Sing, which is incorrect. Further evidence of this factual error is the mention of Schroeder and Dague at the top of page 154, again in a context that suggests the author was not aware that their execution took place in Pennsylvania rather than at Sing Sing.
Other factully incorrect statements appear at page 158, with the mention that Murder Inc.'s "motto" was "We Only Kill Our Own." This was never the "motto" of any crime organization. The actual quote was "we only kill each other," a quip allegedly made by mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel to a "civilian" friend, construction contractor Del Webb. Additionally, hit men Martin "Buggsy" (he spelled it with two g's, not one) Goldstein and Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss were never "surely in the running" to be the "boss" of Murder, Inc. or any other crime organization. They were strictly low-level functionaries, albeit highly prolific ones.
Other factual errors include a statement, at page 219, that Eddie Lee Mays, the last man executed at Sing Sing, died on August 15, 1953. The correct date of his execution was August 15, 1963. And, at page 220, the book refers to Dow Hover as "Sing Sing's last executioner, from 1953 to 1962." But according to the 2005 Village Voice article that the book cites, Mr. Hover also served as executioner in 1963, handling the last two executions at Sing Sing. Another error is the statement, at page 185, that murderer-rapist Edward Eckwerth was executed was May 23, 1958. The actual date of his execution was a year later, on May 22, 1959.
This book could have been much better than it actually was, if some of these problems had been avoided.
Author Denis Brian has written a very interesting history of the notorious prison we all have heard about, but seldom have had the chance to read about. The atmosphere of a prison depends on the warden, or superintendent, as he or she would now be called, that is at the helm of the institution. Sing Sing's first and most brutal warden, Elam Lynds, treated the inmates under his charge as subhuman with brutal punishments for petty offenses such as smiling. Individuals such as Lynds let their authority go to their head and sadistically enjoyed punishing the prisoners. Guards were given authority to punish as they saw fit as well. All too often this authority was abused. Thankfully, more civil wardens such as Thomas Osborne and Lewis Lawes came along and treated the inmates as human beings and ended up having less difficulties with discipline. Ample coverage is given to various inmates such as Lepke Buchalter and Martha Beck along with the Rosenbergs (Julius and Ethel) and now they, and others reacted when their date came with the electric chair. Ample coverage is also given to Charles Chapin, "The Rose Man of Sing Sing." I didn't realize a railroad ran through the prison and that President Abraham Lincoln rode through it twice, the second time in his coffin. The book is approximately 250 pages long with a lot of information packed into it. If you enjoy books on prisons or reading about infamous characters and their place of incarceration you will find this an enjoyable and informative book.
Midwest Book Review
Any studying criminal issues or crime will find SING SING: THE INSIDE STORY OF A NOTORIOUS PRISON engrossing: in 1825 a hundred mute convict-laborers constructed a new maximum-security prison near a village on the Hudson called Sing Sing, working for five years to create what would become the world's most notorious prison. Denis Brian's history of that prison documents its inhumane treatments and uses extensive research from original sources to document its evolving conditions from the 19th century to modern times. Involving and eye-opening.
Diane C. Donovan, Editor