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Inside the Sing Sing Death House

Scott Christianson

Publication Year: 2000

In the annals of American criminal justice, two prisons stand out as icons of institutionalized brutality and deprivation: Alcatraz and Sing Sing. In the 70 odd years before 1963, when the death sentence was declared unconstitutional in New York, Sing Sing was the site of almost one-half of the 1,353 executions carried out in the state. More people were executed at Sing Sing than at any other American prison, yet Sing Sing's death house was, to a remarkable extent, one of the most closed, secret and mythologized places in modern America.

In this remarkable book, based on recently revealed archival materials, Scott Christianson takes us on a disturbing and poignant tour of Sing Sing's legendary death house, and introduces us to those whose lives Sing Sing claimed. Within the dusty files were mug shots of each newly arrived prisoner, most still wearing the out-to-court clothes they had on earlier that day when they learned their verdict and were sentenced to death. It is these sometimes bewildered, sometimes defiant, faces that fill the pages of Condemned, along with the documents of their last months at Sing Sing.

The reader follows prisoners from their introduction to the rules of Sing Sing, through their contact with guards and psychiatrists, their pleas for clemency, escape attempts, resistance, and their final letters and messages before being put to death. We meet the mother of five accused of killing her husband, the two young Chinese men accused of a murder during a robbery and the drifter who doesn't remember killing at all. While the majority of inmates are everyday people, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were also executed here, as were the major figures in the infamous Murder Inc., forerunner of the American mafia. Page upon page, Condemned leaves an indelible impression of humanity and suffering.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. ix-x

This project would not have been completed without the generous assistance of several individuals, organizations, and agencies.Two colleagues were immensely helpful from the early stages: Tom Rocco provided professional assistance with photography, and Audrey Bennett Steinhauer handled artistic direction. Without their painstaking, dedicated, and talented work, this project might have floundered. Others who offered ...

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pp. 1-9

From 1891 to 1963, 606 men and eight women were legally executed in the electric chair at New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison—more than at any other American prison. The capital punishment systems and procedures that were developed at Sing Sing established the prototype for modern legal prison-based executions, and the resulting media coverage helped shape public perceptions of crime and punishment, ...

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Sing Sing

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pp. 10-15

Built on the banks of the Hudson River in Westchester County in 1825, Sing Sing Prison already had become internationally famous by the time Alexis de Tocqueville visited it in 1831. Much of the institution’s early success was due to brutal slavery, which helped make it profitable for a short time. By the late nineteenth century hundreds of convicts had perished, with causes of death ranging from consumption to star-...

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Death House

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pp. 16-19

The new death house, designed by state architect Lewis F. Pilcher, was pressed into service in February 1922. Made of brick and stone, with steel bars encasing the windows of all 39 cells (including three for women), it was quickly proclaimed by The New York Times to be, “as far as possibility of escape is concerned, the most impregnable penal institution in the world.” Under the new arrangement, a prisoner could not see another ...

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pp. 20-41

New York law required every capital defendant to receive a trial by jury, removed sentencing discretion in cases of first-degree murder, and guaranteed at least one automatic appeal from New York’s highest court. For several decades, the legal process generally moved so briskly that a defendant was charged, tried, convicted, and executed within a few months of his capital crime. (Several would die before their eigh-...

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pp. 42-47

Rules governed every facet of death house operations. No one other than approved staff was allowed admittance, except by court order. Only approved persons were permitted to correspond with or visit a condemned convict. Incoming and outgoing mail was scrupulously monitored and censored. Conversations between visitors were often overheard and recorded by watchful guards. News reporters were denied entry unless ...

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pp. 48-51

Three shifts of prison guards and other employees manned the Sing Sing Death House every day of the year, some of them for decades. Called correction officers by the state, they were collectively referred to as “screws” or “hacks” by the convicts. Most guards, of Irish or German descent, hailed from a handful of upstate prison towns. Some were second- or third-generation prison guards. All guards were white males. Prisoners and ...

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pp. 52-57

State law required a medical panel, the Lunacy Commission, to examine each convict personally, shortly before the scheduled execution, in order to perform the dubious task of trying to determine whether or not the condemned person had been sane at the time of commission of the crime for which he or she was to be executed. (Some crimes had occurred several years prior to this examination.) Convicts were also examined by ...

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pp. 71-82

Prison note cards dutifully recorded the names, addresses, and relationships of next of kin, relatives seeking to visit or correspond, and notations about children. Some inmates received no visits from family, and their own wives or mothers declined to claim their bodies for burial after the execution. Others were visited and written to as often as was allowed. Family relations were both complex and emotionally charged; so ...

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pp. 70-79

Even after they had been convicted and sentenced to death,many convicts worked unceasingly on their cases—pressing their lawyers, developing their appeals, or desperately combing their legal papers for some shred of exculpatory evidence that might help overturn their convictions or stall their executions. Most condemned persons had little formal education, and none had ever attended law school, yet some managed to ...

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pp. 80-85

Many of those who cheated the chair were spared by virtue of executive clemency. From 1935 to 196 3,249 convicts were executed but 72 had their death sentences commuted by the governor. At least one governor, Herbert Lehman, instituted a policy of automatically commuting an offender’s punishment to life imprisonment if any judge on the Court of Appeals had voted to overturn the death sentence. But Buchalter of ...

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Escape Attempts

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pp. 86-95

Although Sing Sing’s death house was billed as the world’s most escape-proof prison, that didn’t keep some convicts from hatching elaborate escape plans and trying to carry them out. Prison authorities took extraordinary security precautions to discourage any action that might enhance an inmate’s ability to slip away. Overheard conversations and intercepted notes were routed to the principal keeper, and frequent cell searches occa-...

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pp. 96-103

Pending a successful appeal, a finding of insanity, or clemency, the most an inmate could hope for was to receive a temporary stay or respite from the governor, delaying the scheduled execution. Without it, nothing would stop the clock from reaching its fatal destination. In the waning hours, prisoners and wardens alike nervously awaited a last-minute reprieve. Sometimes word arrived by telegraph or telephone, announcing ...

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The Letter

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pp. 104-113

When all hope was finally exhausted and the end was near, the condemned man or woman often spent some private moments composing a personal letter to a loved one. For many, it was a spiritual rite as much as a psychological necessity. Wherever such letters exist they convey, perhaps better than anything else, the writer’s mental and emotional state—his or her core beliefs and feelings. Some letters were intended to ...

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pp. 114-117

This will inform you that there are three executions scheduled for Thursday, July 8, 1943. Assignments for executions scheduled for tonight—August 12, 1954 ...

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The Chair

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pp. 118-119

The Control Equipment such as Voltage Regulators, Auto Transformers, Oil Circuit Breakers, Panel Board, etc., was designed by and supplied by General Electric Company. Prior to the Institution going to Alternating Current, a Consulting Engineer, Mr. G.M. Ogle aided the design of the Electric System....

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pp. 120-125

What makes someone request permission to witness an execution? What are the relationships between the condemned, the executioners, and the witnesses? The answers to these and other questions are often subject to speculation, yet they may help explain some essential aspects of capital punishment. ...

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pp. 126-131

...I wish to advise that it was anticipated that Vargas might pull some stunt due to the fact that his wife and other relatives were driven to this institution by a representative of a Spanish newspaper in New York City, and when the visit was completed the same newspaper man picked up the relatives in their car. It is also my understanding that one of the newspapers paid the expenses of attorney Nancy Carley to go to Washington to try to get a stay of execution .It would appear that apparently this inmate was reassured that ...

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pp. 132-137

The body is that of a well developed, muscular, colored male about 33 years of age. The body lies on the table in the usual position after execution. . . . SORRY TO ADVISE FAMILY IS FINANCIALLY UNABLE TO HANDLE BURIAL.THANK YOU.SIGNED MRS FLORENCE FLAKES. ...

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Settling Up

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pp. 138-146

SING SING PRISON Ossining, N.Y. June 9,1961 To Whom It May Concern: This is to certify that WOODROW MILLER received the last rites and sacraments of the Catholic Church and is, therefore, entitled to burial in consecrated ground. Sincerely yours, (Rev.) George F.McKinney Catholic Chaplain ...

Prisoners Legally Executed at Sing Sing Prison

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pp. 147-166

About the Author

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p. 167-167

E-ISBN-13: 9780814723807
E-ISBN-10: 0814723802
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814715963
Print-ISBN-10: 0814715966

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2000

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Death row inmates -- United States.
  • Sing Sing Prison.
  • Ossining Correctional Facility.
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