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The Rose Man of Sing Sing

A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism

James Morris

Publication Year: 2003

Today, seventy-three years after his death, journalists still tell tales of Charles E. Chapin. As city editor of Pulitzer's New York Evening World , Chapin was the model of the take-no-prisoners newsroom tyrant: he drove reporters relentlessly-and kept his paper in the center ring of the circus of big-city journalism. From the Harry K. Thaw trial to the sinking of the Titanic , Chapin set the pace for the evening press, the CNN of the pre-electronic world of journalism. In 1918, at the pinnacle of fame, Chapin's world collapsed. Facing financial ruin, sunk in depression, he decided to kill himself and his beloved wife Nellie. On a quiet September morning, he took not his own life, but Nellie's, shooting her as she slept. After his trial-and one hell of a story for the World's competitors-he was sentenced to life in the infamous Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. In this story of an extraordinary life set in the most thrilling epoch of American journalism, James McGrath Morris tracks Chapin's rise from legendary Chicago street reporter to celebrity powerbroker in media-mad New York. His was a human tragedy played out in the sensational stories of tabloids and broadsheets. But it's also an epic of redemption: in prison, Chapin started a newspaper to fight for prisoner rights, wrote a best-selling autobiography, had two long-distance love affairs, and tapped his prodigious talents to transform barren prison plots into world-famous rose gardens before dying peacefully in his cell in 1930. The first portrait of one of the founding figures of modern American journalism, and a vibrant chronicle of the cutthroat culture of scoops and scandals, The Rose Man of Sing Sing is also a hidden history of New York at its most colorful and passionate.James McGrath Morris is a former journalist, author of Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars , and a historian. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia, and teaches at West Springfield High School.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. xi-xvi

Charles Chapin’s life story is so extraordinary that it could have been a novel. In fact, a best-selling author wrote one while Chapin was still alive. The present book, however, is based on years of research that began in the 1980s and took me to libraries in small towns of Kansas and upstate...

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1. The Gardens

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pp. 1-13

On Tuesday, October 28, 1924, while eating breakfast in his Park Avenue apartment, writer Irvin S. Cobb discovered an annoyance that accompanied fame. There in the New York Times, for all to see, was the amount he had paid the federal government for its relatively new income tax. At...

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2. Youth

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pp. 14-27

Charles E. Chapin was born on October 29,1858, in Oneida, a dozen miles from the geographical center of New York state. He was the second member of the second generation of his family to be born in Madison County, situated in the western end of the Leatherstocking region, so named...

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3. Traveling Thespian

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pp. 28-39

Years later, Chapin would call it ‘‘a false step,’’ but in the spring of 1877 he became an actor. Rodney Guptill, an Elgin friend, invited Chapin to join an amateur dramatic club he was organizing. ‘‘I protested that I knew nothing about acting, that in all my life the only plays I had witnessed...

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4. At Last, a Reporter!

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pp. 40-39

Back in Chicago, penniless, his three-year acting career seemingly at an end, Chapin had to find work, fast. ‘‘I decided not to go near the theatrical agencies, for I had grown to detest the nomadic life of a barnstormer and was determined to turn my attention to something that gave greater promise for a future.’’ He installed Nellie at a hotel and went...

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5. Marine Reporter

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pp. 57-68

On a bright warm July morning in 1887, Chapin was making the rounds of the docks as the Tribune’s new marine reporter. The post was a potentially good beat in a port city like Chicago. Maritime news was considered important, and the stories that one could pick up on the beat, from...

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6. Death Watch

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pp. 69-82

Even if Chicagoans had wanted to put the events of May 1886 to rest, the Tribune certainly would not, at least not until its version of justice was meted out. Since the morning following the explosion at Haymarket Square, the Tribune had clamored for the arrest of the accused anarchists; once...

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7. At the Editor’s Desk

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pp. 83-103

Chapin’s account of the Macaulley murder was certainly read in all of the city’s newsrooms, but it was of greatest interest in one in particular. Just a few blocks from the Tribune building, James J. West and Clinton A. Snowden were confronting the fragile state of affairs at...

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8. Park Row

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pp. 104-117

On July 18, 1891, Chapin resurfaced. ‘‘After my health was restored, or partly so,’’ said Chapin, ‘‘I went to New York from the seashore, drifted down to Park Row and was attracted by the gilded dome of the World building.’’ He, and Nellie who accompanied him, were not the only ones drawn...

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9. St. Louis

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pp. 118-134

On May 23,1894, a legion of bedraggled unemployed workers, making their way across the country to petition Congress, set up camp on a small wooded strip of land known as Goose Island in the Mississippi River, near Quincy, Illinois. Led by self-styled General Charles Thomas Kelley, a typographer from...

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10. New York to Stay

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pp. 135-150

The urgency of Pulitzer’s summons became clear when Chapin reached New York. Pulitzer was in desperate need of an editor. Ernest Chamberlain, a prized recruit from the Sun five years earlier, had become a Park Row casualty of sorts in the impending war. It seemed that Chamberlain, a thin,...

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11. A New Century

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pp. 151-169

Chapin and the Evening World greeted the arrival of the twentieth century with a publicity stunt. Precisely at midnight on January 1, 1901, New York’s acting mayor Randolph Guggenheimer gave the signal from his office across the street, and the monstrous presses in the World building roared to life, drawing miles of newsprint through their swirling cylinders....

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12. A Grand Life

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pp. 170-193

In April 1906, the same month that an earthquake devastated San Francisco, Chapin became enmeshed in disaster relief of a different sort involving the Pulitzer family. Pulitzer had ‘‘yanked’’ his son, Joseph, out of Harvard University after learning he had cut classes thirty-seven times. He decided...

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13. On Senior’s Desk

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pp. 194-203

Over the years, the World and its crusades for the common man had frequently earned it the enmity of those in power, but in 1908, Pulitzer faced the full wrath of the nation’s number-one citizen, outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt. The World had accused the president of lying about the Panamanian revolution and raised pointed questions about the possibility...

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14. A Titanic Scoop

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pp. 204-221

On the morning of Wednesday, April 10,1912, Carlos F. Hurd, a slender, professionally dressed man in his thirties, made his way through the thick crowd of men who milled around Park Row each day. The brims of a thousand hats registered an identical backward tilt as their proprietors gazed...

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15. The Crisis

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pp. 222-237

By this time a Pulitzer bonus check was like chump change to Chapin. The $1,000 could have bought him a year’s rent for his rooms in the Plaza. But within days, it would be gone to meet past obligations. Chapin was like the Titanic, seemingly unsinkable to all around him, but going

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16. The Deed

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pp. 238-250

In the morning, the exceptional stillness that reigned in midtown Manhattan caused Chapin’s financial maelstrom to recede for a few precious moments. For a New Yorker wanting to flee the complications of modern life, Sunday, September 15,1918, held remarkable promise. It was the third...

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17. A Date in Court

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pp. 251-263

While Chapin completed his confession before the three investigators, word that he was in police custody reached the city rooms of Park Row a few blocks away. The news confirmed everyone’s suspicions about Nellie’s death. A murder made perfect sense to those who thought of Chapin as a Simon Legree. ‘‘Few of the sweated oarsmen who manned Chapin’s...

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18. Inside the Walls

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pp. 264-289

For a prisoner lingering in one of the reception cells at Sing Sing Prison in 1919, the first clue of what awaited him was a poem etched on the wall. Its author was unknown, but its point was lost on no one who passed through....

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20. Viola

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pp. 290-301

Viola Irene Cooper’s letters marked the beginning of Chapin’s literary escape from Sing Sing. If he couldn’t physically leave the prison, he could certainly write his way out. On Thursday, December 2, 1920, the day he received Cooper’s reply to his Thanksgiving supplication, he retreated...

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21. The Roses

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pp. 302-313

As Chapin discovered, death was a regular part of life at Sing Sing, especially on Thursday nights. At least once a month, and sometimes more frequently, the weeknight was the chosen time for electrocution of those on death row whose turn had come. The proceedings, held in a small squat building less than a hundred feet from Chapin’s cell, began...

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22. Constance

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pp. 314-334

In January 1924, Constance Nelson was at her desk as usual in the Federal Reserve Bank, a modern rendition of an Italian Renaissance palazzo in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. A single professional woman in a man’s business, Nelson was the editor of the bank’s Federal Reserve Notes. Wallace K. Pinniger, a...

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23. The End

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pp. 335-349

The pardon application was finally before the governor, and positive reports from the field heightened the intoxicating scent of freedom in the summer air of 1925. ‘‘Just heard from Mr. N. that friends of yours are coming out strong and others who are not even acquaintances some of them high...

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pp. 351-355

Less than a week after Chapin’s death, New York literary agent George T. Bye received a letter from Eleanor Early, a writer in Boston. The contents intrigued him. ‘‘I know a girl who carried on a correspondence with Mr. Chapin in Sing Sing,’’ Early wrote. Would Bye be interested in selling them to...


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pp. 357-358

Guide to Notes and Abbreviations

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pp. 359-360


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pp. 361-415


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pp. 417-429


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pp. 431-437

E-ISBN-13: 9780823247103
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823222674
Print-ISBN-10: 0823222675

Page Count: 470
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Chapin, Charles E., 1858-1930.
  • Journalists -- United States -- Biography
  • Prisoners -- United States -- Biography.
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