Edgar Wallace at Sing Sing

Found in the Haining archives - this article by Edgar Wallace.It is unclear from which magazine it was clipped but probably dates from the late 1920s and was published for his British readers. Several of Wallace's books refer to Sing Sing prison including  Mr J.G. Reeder Returns (1932) which has a story called The Man from Sing Sing. Edgar Wallace (1875-1932) was the adopted son of a Billingsgate fish porter in London, and largely self-educated - the newspaper boy who became one of the most famous writers in the world. He sold millions of books, but he was plagued by debts due to an extravagant lifestyle. He left Britain for the United States in 1931, only to die in Hollywood in 1932, aged 56, after writing the original story for King Kong. His body was returned by ocean liner in honour, only to be reunited with an ocean of outstanding bills.It is said all his debts were paid off in a few years from massive book sales. A BBC radio programme earlier this year by thriller writer Mark Billingham on Edgar Wallace (The Man Who Wrote Too Much?) suggested he was somewhat forgotten. He may not be much read anymore but his books are still collected throughout the world…

    The Twentieth Century Limited runs up by the side of the Hudson. Just before it reaches Ossining, which is about thirty miles from New York, it passes a building enclosed by a high grey wall. At the four corners of the wall and perched on too are little kiosks; in each of which you may see a man in in uniform lounging. You may not observe in your quick glimpse the machine or shot gun which covers the yard that the walls enclose, they are there to be seen.     Higher up, on the hillside, is a group of big, red-brick buildings. If you pass them at night you cannot miss them, for their exteriors are brilliantly illuminated by flood lamps.     This place is Sing Sing, a name derived from the ancient Indian pronunciation of Ossining. It is at the moment the most untidy approach of any prison in the world, for the Department of Correction is revolutionizing the prison–not too soon, for the older part of the prison goes back a hundred years, and the cells are very nearly the worst I have ever seen, in spite of their electric lights and camp beds. When the river is in flood, the lower tiers are uninhabitable, and even if the water does not come into the prison, the convicts’ clothing is so damp that it is unwearable.     I entered by the new reception hall. The guard unlocked the barred doors with a large, flat key, the type of Yale key that is never seen outside of prisons. It was a long time before I realized that most of the men we saw walking about in this reception hall were prisoners. I was not used to the grey trousers they wore or their general smartness. But prisoners they were, life men–men serving fifteen or twenty years–murderers, gangsters, burglars, hold-up men, bank robbers, grand larcenists.     Warden Lawes, the greatest “governor” Sing Sing has ever had, was not visible when I called; nor did I see him. I learned later that on that day there had been discovered a plot between half a dozen men to break prison and that at that moment the Warden was very busily engaged.     I met my conductor in a large room furnished with a desk and an open filing cabinet. “Going out next month,” said one compartment. “Going out next year," said another.• It was an index of the prisoners, thousands of them, who formed the population of Sing Sing.     We walked into an outer office; a clerk sat, busily typing, at one of the tables, a slim, young man in a white shirt, black tie and grey trousers; another clerk was filing papers, l did not ask how long they were staying, or what crime brought them to their servitude. They were cheerful men, smiled readily at me, and carried themselves with an air of independence which I observed in all the prisoners•.     Leading off this room was a reception room, simply furnished with a long table and chairs. It is the first room that the new prisoner sees: in here he is questioned. Beyond is a room with a number of shower baths and in one corner two steel cages, "for refractory prisoners," said my guide laconically, "but we seldom use them. The majority of the men who come here set their faces to their fate, and go to work to qualify their retention in the highest grade•. They are allowed to see relations once a week, or any male friends.• Lady friends do not receive a permit. They may write letters and we allow their friends to send them three dollars a week with which they can purchase tobacco or any little delicacy which they may fancy, no drink, of course."     It is the rule in all prisons in civilised countries that the name and antecedents of a prisoner shall never be given to a visitor. I had to guess the offences which had brought the dapper clerks, the labourers who were working the steam shovel outside the office, into prison.     Convicts in Sing Sing no longer wear stripes. Their uniform consists of grey trousers, white tennis shirt and grey Boston sweaters. There is a more elaborate uniform where they wear peaked caps, but I saw none with this attire.     In this building is the visiting room–the largest hall divided up into small compartments formed by iron rails. It has the appearance of a large sheep pen, except that there was no division between them besides steel pipes. Here the prisoners meet their friends and relations–they are brought from the lower prison in a motor van. To a sentimentalist it would perhaps seem pathetic to see the care which these men exercise to smarten themselves up for their interview with the links from the outside world. Their trousers were neatly creased, their shirts were spotless.     No restriction is offered, except that the visitor must leave his parcels with the outside guard, and any attempt at illegal communication or the smuggling in of forbidden articles involves a serious loss of privilege.     We passed down the steep slope to the old prison. It seems to me that the cell grouping is infinitely better than that which obtains in England. At Dartmoor and every other prison in this country the cell block or ward consists of an open hall at each side of which are three tiers of cells, the upper galleries being approached by a central steel stairway. At Sing Sing, except in one case, the cells are in the centre of the building, that is, brought back to back. Before them is a wide corridor, lit by very high windows, rather reminiscent of church windows. This allows both sunlight and fresh air. At the height of the first tier there is an observation box, in which a warder is stationed day and night. He cannot be reached by any murderous minded prisoner who may escape, and, since the corridor is brilliantly illuminated by night, he has a perfect view.     The cells themselves are cages. In England the interior of the cell is not seen unless one of the narrow doors is open, but in Sing Sing the prisoner practically lives in a barred stall; sleeping or walking he can be seen by the passing guard, not only seen, but heard. I should not like to compute the number of attempted suicides which have been prevented in the past few years.     The cells at Dartmoor are much bigger, but not as comfortable. In every cell there is a wash-basin and up-to-date sanitary arrangements, and, although the cells stand back to back, they do not communicate, for there is a narrow passage between them with water pipes, etc., so that it is impossible for a prisoner to communicate with a fellow-prisoner in the cell behind him, or to tamper with the plumbing arrangements.     In the new block–the big red buildings on the hill–the doors lock automatically. The prisoners, at the end of their day’s work, go into the cells and close the doors. A warden, standing at each end of the block, turns a lever and the doors are locked. The guards can then go along at their leisure and lock each cell independently. The double-locking is necessary in case a prisoner is taken ill in the night and it is necessary to bring him out to hospital, which with the clinical laboratories, etc., forms one block. There is a dental room fitted with up-to-date appliances, a big X-ray room, and a large number of spacious rooms for psychiatrists, who are kept busy applying tests to every prisoner to discover the extent of his mental equipment.     The cells are equipped with a bed, which is nearly the length of the cell, and a steel writing table. Each cell has electric light, and I was amused by a notice I read, which informed the prisoners that fancy lamp shades could not be used without the written permission of the Warden.     The cells were open and the prisoners had lunch when I was going the rounds. I noticed that in every corridor was a bed bearing the notice: “This is how your bed should be made” fastened to its head. Most of the cells had photographs of the prisoner’s relations. There were books and writing material in almost every pen.     Though Sing Sing is so perfectly guarded escapes are not rare. The prison lies too close to a big town and too near to a largely used high-road, and just as prisoner escaping from Pentonville can make his getaway and be swallowed up in the streets of London, so it is possible once a man escapes from Sing Sing for him to disappear.     The laws of the United States differ from those in England, in that prison breaking is a crime, and that a man who escapes is put on trial and usually gets an extra seven years for his offense. In England he is brought before the visiting justices and given extra rigorous confinement, and sometimes wear leg-irons, losing only the marks which would ensure him the curtailment of his sentence.     The dining hall is a cheerful apartment, with white tables and white stools which give an air of comfort.     Sing Sing has a Mutual Welfare Association, which is governed and run by the prisoners. It has acquired funds and it is well financed by the prisoners themselves, and serves a very useful purpose. When a convict wishes his relations to see him and has not the money for their fare, he applies to the Welfare Society for the necessary transportation. The Welfare •Society gives concerts and theatrical performances. There is a large theatre which can also be used as a church, so large that the biggest folding doors I have-ever seen can be closed on one section and allow Protestant and Catholic services to be held simultaneously.     A negro convict was painting white clouds on a backcloth when I went through, and although this particular entertainment was being organised by the prisoners themselves, it is not unusual for first-class companies to come to Sing Sing to try out a new play.     The death house is in tim grounds of the old prison–a squat, ugly, red building with yellow doors. You pass into an unfurnished room which is empty except for a cage covered with closely woven wire netting. Against this is another compartment similarly guarded. It is in the cage that the condemned prisoner interviews his friends. Radiating from this hall, like the prongs of the letter Y, are two wide cells. In these prisoners wait sometimes for years whilst their cases are being reviewed. Not until they are condemned irrevocably, and then only on the morning of their execution, are they taken, through a short corridor, to the place where the death cells proper await their condemned guests. Here, on the morning of his execution, the condemned man is taken and put into a cell which is a little larger than the one he has left. At eleven o'clock at night he is taken out from here, along another short corridor, into the “smoky cell.” It is a small room and when you enter, the first things that you see are three pews, set one behind the other, each capable of seating about four people. Here the witnesses to the execution sit. Immediately on your right, in the centre but nearer to the wall, is The Chair. It is a solid piece of furniture, brown in colour, with a rubber seat, and it stands upon a rubber mat. To it are fixed the straps which bind the condemned prisoner and attached to its front legs are two solid ankle pieces to which his legs are fastened.     I sat in The Chair, not from any sense of morbid curiosity, but in order that I might visualise the fast earthly thing that the prisoner sees. It is a white china sink, attached to the opposite wall, near the door which leads to the post mortem room.     Every prisoner immediately after his execution is a subject for autopsy. From this grim operating room leads a smaller one, fitted with a refrigerator, where the body is kept until it is claimed by friends. Three empty coffins, piled one on the top of the other, completed the unpleasant picture.     A condemned prisoner receives a two-minute application. In the early days of electrocution they were not only killed but severely burned. Now the current ranges between two thousand and two thousand five hundred volts, the executioner reducing the voltage from time to time.

    I am assured by most eminent authorities that death is painless. The actual shock of the electric current travels faster than the sensation of pain. That the malefactor is killed instantly admits of no doubt, and the two-minute “application” is unnecessary, but is given to “make sure.”     Fortunately for the nerves of all concerned–and my conductor, who had been many years in Sing Sing, admitted that he had never seen an execution and did not want to–very few murderers go to The Chair, though there were actually nine waiting to learn their fate when I was in the death house.

    I would say that Sing Sing is a better prison than any English jail. It is certainly more comfortable. The spectacle of prisoners smoking cigars at their work was a little staggering. The friendliness of the guards and the prisoners as they came trooping down from the dining hall, all talking together, filled me with amazement. Sing Sing is certainly a comfortable prison. Unfortunately they keep you there too long–if you ever get there at all. Quite a number of New York law-breakers succeed in staying outside that repository of bad men with the greatest ease.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *