Prisons and Police in 1914 NYC – Thai Jones, Speaks at Gotham Center (3/6/13)

As part of the Gotham Center’s Forum series, historian Thai Jones will be discussing his latest book, More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy on March 6, 2013 at the CUNY Graduate Center. Dr. Jones has shared an excerpt from the book with the Prison Studies Group about NYC’s prisons in 1914. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Martin E. Segal Theater
The CUNY Graduate Center

More Powerful than Dynamite takes us back almost one hundred years to New York City in 1914, when competing visions for the city’s future held by radical anarchists, middle-class progressive reformers, and wealthy industrialists came to a head. The city’s police are featured throughout the book, charged by reformers and the elite with executing progressive reforms, managing the working classes, and controlling the radicals. Swept off the streets, radicals bring their protest to the city’s jails and prisons. In the book, Jones details conditions for prisoners at the infamous Tombs; recounts a hunger strike staged by a female anarchist inmate; and – excerpted below – tells the story of a riot at the prison on Blackwell’s Island. (Here is Thomas Edison’s 1903 film panorama of Blackwell’s Island.) 



On Blackwell’s Island, the Fourth of July began like every other day – with the prison bell bawling before sunrise. Frank Tannenbaum – a young Wobbly who had been arrested while leading a march of the city’s homeless into the churches to demand lodging – stirred on the cot in his blank cell. Three months inside had hardened him to the raspy, unwashed clothes, the stench from the toilet bucket, the bedbugs and lice. Approaching in the corridor, he heard clanking keys, and then the keeper arrived, beating the walls with his baton, and calling everybody up. The doors opened and the prisoners hustled out, jostling to get toward the front of a ragged column for the washroom, and then breakfast. It was Saturday, the least pleasant period in the penitentiary. Toiling in the trade shops was tedious, routine work, but at least it passed the time. On the weekend, with no exercise or recreation, the hours spanned out interminably. The toilet pails would not be emptied till Monday, and the air would be befouled, unbearable, long before then.

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At other jails, some special provisions were being made for the Fourth. Inside the Tombs, guards played a phonograph for the male inmates, and even allowed the women to dance in the corridors. On Blackwell’s Island, in former years, the prisoners had been allowed to celebrate the holiday with parades and parties. But Commissioner Katherine B. Davis, the first female appointee to the post, had cancelled that tradition. The men felt wronged. All day, their frustrations grew; restive complaints came from all sides, scuffles erupted in the suffocating cells.

But Frank, at least, was grateful for the long, quiet hours, and the chance to pursue his reading. Having begun with books strictly related to anarchism, he had since graduated to a more general course of study; literature, history, sociology – voraciously consuming everything he could. Carlyle’s French Revolution, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Herbert Spencer’s Education, the novels of Tolstoy, whatever his supporters could send him. He spent so many hours squinting over the pages – with only a flickering light bulb for illumination – that his sight had begun to fail. Comrades had seen too many imprisoned Wobblies go through this same ordeal. “Giovanetti’s eyes were ruined in prison,” an I.W.W. leader had written him in late May, “and I do not mean the same thing to happen to you.”

With the new glasses that supporters had sent him, Tannenbaum was better able to read his daily letters. Unemployment was not so bad as it had been during the winter months, but many people remained out of work, and even his most optimistic correspondents could report only that “industriany imprisoned Wobblies go through this same ordeal. “Giovanetti’s eyes were ruined in prison,” an I.W.W. leader had written him in late May, “and I do not mean the same thing to happen to you.”

al conditions are slightly improving.” News of the movement arrived in snippets and asides; through his mail, Frank heard of the Ludlow massacre, and the protests against the Rockefellers. Since his incarceration, the Wobblies themselves had been eclipsed by the anarchists. And though the daily press was heedless of the distinction, the activists themselves were acutely alive to sectarian splits. “I hope that you will bear in mind that the I.W.W. is not an anarchist group but an organization,” wrote Jane Roulston, a school teacher and Wobbly with pronounced doctrinaire views. “I.W.W. principles have kept us from taking part in the not very scientific actions which have taken place in New York City, and vicinity, since you left,” Roulston continued. “But we feel much sympathy for the actors in those affairs – knowing them to be driven desperate by the horrors of the capitalist regime.”

Supper passed without incident that evening – though inmates were still smarting from the injustice of missing the holiday. When the lights were put out at nine p.m., Tannenbaum and the others in his ward bedded down. But in a different wing the day’s anger finally broke through. There the prisoners could hear the sounds of the “Safe and Sane” holiday; music and cheering drifted out across the East River, a teasing reminder of their own exile. The men responded with a concert of their own – whistling, calling out, rapping the bars – and didn’t quiet down until Warden Hayes appeared. Typically, one or two ring leaders might have been given a reprimand, but this time every single person in the cellblock was punished, their privileges stopped indefinitely: no mail, no visitors, no tobacco.

Tombs Prison, NY. 1915. Library of Congress.

Tombs Prison, NY. 1915. Library of Congress.

The next week was tense and tetchy. Attendants and prisoners eyed each other, waiting for the next confrontation. It was nearly supper time a few days later, and Tannenbaum was marching toward the mess hall, when he heard the sounds of riot. Meals were supposed to be taken in total silence, anyone who spoke risked a thrashing from the guards who patrolled the tables. A few moments earlier, a keeper had moved to punish a whispering inmate. He had raised his baton to strike, but before he could land his blow, a metal dish flew at his head. Loosed after so much pent up fury, dinner plates began to volley in from everywhere. By the time Tannenbaum arrived with the second supper shift, the battle was at its climax. From outside, he watched the pandemonium unfold. Hundreds of prisoners, in their gray work clothes, were standing on the tables, shouting down at their oppressors, cursing and skimming their bowls into the air. The officers were in open rout, running for the doors, shielding their faces as best they could from the flying projectiles, tripping over themselves in their panicked rush to escape.

Panicked guards scrambled out to where Tannenbaum stood, and locked the doors behind them. One aimed his gun at Frank – hand shaking wildly – threatening to level him if he moved. Others fired their revolvers in the air, until the defiance wilted, and the quieted men filed out and returned to their cells. For this disturbance, the warden again retaliated with an extreme decision – putting every one in the mess hall on lock down. The measure was too harsh; prisoners throughout the penitentiary worried they would be the next to receive an unreasonable punishment. At breakfast the next day, a whisper passed between the men: if the others were not let out, then no one would work. “It was going to be one for all and all for one,” decided Tannenbaum. The inmates at Blackwell’s Island were about to go on strike.

Frank seated himself at the machine in the brush shop, where, typically, he would have spent the next eight to ten hours assembling bristle heads. But this time he just sat there. The others, who had elected him spokesman, followed his lead. Attendants rushed out to inform their superiors. The penitentiary’s industrial production totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. With this revenue under threat, it took just a few minutes for the warden to appear.

“Why, what’s the matter with you boys,” he said. “Why don’t you work? I didn’t do you anything. You have no grievance.”

Tannenbaum started to explain to him the meaning of solidarity, but the prison chief had no intention of arguing politics with him. He turned to a nervous youth sitting nearby, who explained that he was brother to one of the men under punishment.

“Warden,” Frank interjected. “He has got one brother locked up and I have got a hundred brothers locked up. And every one of them must be given a chance to wash and something to eat before we will do a stroke of work.”

With that, he stood and walked out of the shop. The others followed, and then the rest of the manufacturing gangs – who had been watching to see what Tannenbaum would do – abandoned their posts, as well. But, first they avenged themselves on the machines – cutting the belts, smashing the apparatuses. Fires started up in the shoe shop, the paint shop, the bed shop. “The boys,” said Tannenbaum, “simply avenged themselves on the system.” Seeing the striking workers marching out, the men on lock down joined the insurrection; “they broke every window in sight. Everything they could lay their hands on was destroyed.” The noise of their rioting could be heard in Manhattan.

After the keepers had finally regained some control, Frank was taken by guards down to the punishment ward, known as the cooler. While they took his coat, shoes, and tobacco, he could hear voices of those who were already there begging the keepers to let them out. The barred door locked behind him. He stood in a tiny cell without a bed or a window, equipped with only a dirty blanket and an open bucket. Nothing in his previous captivity had inured him to this degree of squalor. The toilet pail was never emptied, it took days just to stop gagging from the reek. Ten-inch rats skulked through at night. Sleeping on the stone floor was uncomfortable, but the blanket was worse. Every movement raised “a cloud of dust” so vile to Frank that he would lie as still as he could, until his whole side had gone numb, before turning over. For sustenance, he received a slice of bread and a drink of water every twenty-four hours.

Katherine Bement Davis, ca. 1910. Library of Congress.

Katherine Bement Davis, ca. 1910. Library of Congress.

On July 10th, Commissioner Davis arrived on the Island, trailing a gang of reporters, and determined to settle the strike. Of the 1,400 inmates, nearly half had been confined to their cells and put on reduced rations. The eighteen chambers of the cooler were filled with ringleaders. Touring the facility, she defended the warden, and took a stern, scolding tone with the sullen men. “It’s true, quite true that I am a woman,” she told an audience in the mess hall. “But while I wish to be human, and even a little more than human, I am not soft and don’t propose to be soft. I’ll have order over here if I have to call out the militia, and not one of you will get a personal hearing until the whole lot of you make up your minds to be orderly.”

Passing through the punishment ward, she paused in front of Frank’s cell.

“Why don’t you, for once,” asked the commissioner, “take the side of law and order?”

“I will,” Tannenbaum snapped back, “just as soon as law and order happens to be on the side of justice.”

For four days, the strike in prison halted all production. But, at last, hunger drove the men back to work. Davis had spoken of instituting a “kindness plan” once resistance ended, but if anyone had hoped for sweeping changes, they were disappointed. As one of her ameliorations, she ordered that the men in the cooler be served bread twice a day – instead of once – so from then on the daily allotment was sliced in half and distributed morning and night. But the portion remained the same.

After seven days in isolation, Tannenbaum had finally accustomed himself to the smell. But, he could tell from the way the guards flinched when they approached him, that he had become as fetid as his surroundings. When he finally returned to the general cellblock he was so starved that he could hardly stand. To the other inmates he had proven his status as a good comrade. But his correspondents on the outside – who had picked up vague, distorted accounts of his actions from the newspapers – offered only qualified support. “Remember that our real activity must be at the ‘point of production’ and not in prison,” an I.W.W. colleague wrote him. “I trust you will do nothing rash.”



Excerpted with the author’s permission from Thai Jones, More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy. Walker, 2012. pp242-247.



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