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by Joe Gall Reprinted from "Motive," published by the Ohio Department of Mental Hygiene and Correction November/December 1971
From black and white prison stripes and hard labor to blue denims and rehabilitation --- this is the story of the historic Ohio Penitentiary, located in Columbus, Ohio, since 1834.
Twenty years before the start of the Civil War, the Ohio Penitentiary was incarcerating men and women behind its stone walls.
The present penitentiary, completed in 1834, not only served to confine Ohio prisoners, but was also used as a territorial prison. Through a contract with the federal government, the fortress-like institution on Spring Street housed federal prisoners and Civil War prisoners. The iron gates clanged shut behind men from as far away as Texas.
If the walls and bars of the 137-year-old Ohio Penitentiary could talk, they undoubtedly would relate some very interesting stories about the famous and infamous men and women who had "served time" behind its 30-foot-high gray walls.
Two years before the turn of the century, a Texas federal judge sentenced an unknown 33-year-old alcoholic bookkeeper to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary. He was charged with embezzlement. It was on April 25, 1898, the iron gates slammed shut behind the man who was to become a giant in the literary world.[Back to top]
The man was William Sidney Porter who, three years later, emerged from obscurity to become one of the world's best know authors . . . O. Henry.
From the pen that seemed dipped in magic, Porter, alone in his cell with only his thoughts, wrote thousands of words which soon proved to capture the fancy of millions of readers.
From this pen, the Christmas classic, "The Gift of the Magi," was born. This was the start, and Porter's pen wrote faster and faster. His stories literally poured out from behind the walls.
To this day no one knows how Porter managed to smuggle his manuscripts out of prison. The story with the most credence says that he sent his manuscripts to a relative of a fellow prisoner who then forwarded them to a publisher. Porter did not sign his real name to any of his works. He used the pseudonym of O. Henry under the title of each story.
Porter, Inmate No. 30664, worked in the prison hospital. On July 21, 1901, exactly three years, two months and 27 days after he entered the penitentiary, Porter was discharged. No one knew then that the prison recreation field would some day be named in his honor . . . O. Henry Field.
Porter left Ohio and went to New York. He continued to write until he again fell under the influence of alcohol. Twelve years after his discharge from the Ohio prison, the world mourned the death of one of its favorite authors.
Porter was found dead on the fringes of New York's skid row. Old stories say he had 23 cents in his pocket and the medical report stated that alcohol was the cause of death caused by cirrhosis of the liver . . . due to excessive drinking.
In the spring of 1863, Confederate States (Army) of America General John Hunt Morgan and several of his rebel officers were sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary as prisoners of war.[Back to top]
According to penitentiary records, prisoners of war were not given prison numbers and were treated a bit better than the run-of-the-mill convicted felon.
Unwilling to accept confinement in a "Yankee prison," General Morgan and his officers planned to escape and return to their beloved southern states.
Patiently, day after day, the men began tunneling their way under the cellblock toward freedom.
Each day, a few tablespoons of dirt were dug from the clandestine tunnel and disposed of in the prison yard.
On a rainy night on November 25, 1863, the rebel soldiers, led by General Morgan, successfully completed their escape under the prison walls.
About this same time in history, 10 Apache Indians were also serving time on charges of manslaughter, having been sentenced from the Oklahoma Territory as the result of a massacre in which they had participated.[Back to top]
Scientist, penologists, criminologists, and reformers have wondered since time immemorial, what causes man to commit crime.
According to a history book on the Ohio Penitentiary, a man named James Clark Ridpath swung around the entire circle of truth and gave this kaleidoscopic view on the causes of crime.
He said: "I asked a man what was the cause of crime. He was a preacher, and he said it was original sin -- and nothing more. I asked a doctor and he said it was bad health -- that crime is only a form of disease. I asked a lawyer and he said -- defining a circle -- that it was the violation of the law and he would attend to it. He gave me his card. I asked a banker and he said it was the silver agitation. The silverites had destroyed public confidence. I asked a teacher and he said it was the lack of education -- the ignorance of the masses. I asked an astronomer and he said it was the spots on the sun. I asked a biologist and he said crime is zymotic in its origin with bacillus. I asked a politician and he said it was the essential badness of the law. He was a candidate for the lower house. I asked a busy man and he said it was indolence -- that idleness is the mother of all vice. I asked a nurseryman and he said it was the lack of fruit. I asked a man who had a phonetic alphabet and he said it was the abomination of the English orthography."
Unfortunately, the penitentiary history book does not give a date for the following story but credits an inmate called "Old Dave Blackburn" with several inventions which have been used worldwide.
Blackburn, who died at the age of 80, spent more than half of his life inside the maximum security prison he helped build.
The history book said Blackburn invented a dishwasher which was used by all the great hotels and mansions of the country.
An unscrupulous superintendent of the prison managed to secure the invention from Blackburn. He resigned his prison post and made a modest fortune out of the sale and manufacture of the dishwasher.
Blackburn was also credited with inventing life-saving devices for railroads, from block signals to cattle guards and cow catchers.
Anther prisoner named Kline, a remarkable electrical genius, invented a telephone system which at one time was used in the penitentiary.
Three years after the penitentiary was built, in 1837, eleven cells were built to house female prisoners. They were specially segregated quarters in which women were detained, until the Ohio Reformatory for Women was opened at Marysville, Ohio, in 1916.
One of the maximum security prison's most noted female prisoners was Mrs. Cassie L. Chadwick, who was rightly termed "the modern exponent of frenzied money-borrowing."
Born at Eastwood, Ontario, in 1857, this woman of a dozen aliases, swindled so-called hard-headed and tight-fisted businessmen out of countless millions of dollars before she was sentenced to prison. She died, unknown and penniless, in the prison hospital October 10, 1907.
The penitentiary historian reported the following uses of corporal punishment on unruly or uncooperative prisoners: Straight jackets; stocks and pillory; whipping posts; cold water treatment; cat-o-nine tails; and the "hummingbird."[Back to top]
The hummingbird punishment brought more than one prisoner around to obeying the rules and regulations set up by prison officials, according to the history book.
An uncooperative prisoner had his eyes bandaged and was placed in a large box containing about 18 inches of water. A large steam pipe was attached, and when turned on, "made a frightful noise." A battery was placed in the water and charged it with electricity.
With the combination of the "frightful noise" made by the steam pipe and the shock given by the battery, the history book said: "After having been sentenced to punishment in the hummingbird once, they (prisoners) would dread it so much that they would beg to be let off and promised to obey all the rules and regulations in the future."
Corporal punishment is never used today, according to penal officials. Instead, the unruly inmate is sent to solitary confinement for a period of from two to 15 days, depending on the severity of the rules infraction.
The Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus was really the third such maximum security prison built in Ohio's capital city since the first one was completed in 1815.
The first state prison, nothing more than a stockade, was under construction during the administration of Ohio's fourth governor, Return Jonathan Meigs, 1811-13. It was located in the southwest corner of Columbus, fronting on the east bank of the Scioto River. It was superseded by a structure presenting the appearance of the average jail of that period.
The state's first prison was completed in 1815, and two brothers, John and David Evans, were received October 15, 1815. They were each sentenced to five years for assault and battery to kill. They had numbers 1 and 2.
According to the Ohio Penitentiary history book, "Dave and John had been to a dance where the puncheon floor of the old log house rang under cowhide boots while a home-made fiddle, scraped by a returned solider of the War of 1812, whined and screeched melodiously; apple-jack scented the heavy air as beau and belle partook of it.
"The belle-of-the-ball favored John Evans, and a certain bully-of-the-woods, who had a stalwart cousin to aid him, resented it.
"In those rough-and-ready-days, the angry thought soon found an angry word to express it, and the result was a melee in which the Evans boys proved their superior metal, if not their higher mettle.
"The bully was on his back for several months. His cousin was hurt, less severely, and the visitors, after having languished in jail about six months, were sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary to stay until January 26, 1817, when they were pardoned by Governor Thomas Worthington.
"When the mill of penitentiary justice ground out its first grist in Columbus," the history book continued, "the Great Napoleon was also a prisoner and aboard an English ship bound for Helena, while the shattered European nations were picking up the pieces of themselves that he had left trying to reunite them.
"In these days, there was no allowance of 'good time.' Each man had to serve his full term unless the hand of executive clemency opened the door for his exit, or death let him out the back door with his inimitable latchkey, as it often did."
The mortality was great and the pardons numerous. Out of the 150 persons received during the first five years, 82 were pardoned and 11 died.
The prison officials of the day had little pity for criminals and made life hard for them.
Ohio's first state prison became overcrowded three years later. In 1818, with the help of convict labor, a second prison was built near the old one. It resembled the average jail of that period.[Back to top]
The first prison held 60 men, and the new one held 100 prisoners.
The number of prisoners committed to the penitentiary increased so rapidly that by 1826, Governor Morrow felt the necessity of bringing the conditions existing at the Ohio Penitentiary to the attention of the Legislature in his annual message.
He pointed out that because of the overcrowded conditions, he had used his executive powers to pardon some of the old-time inmates to make room for the newly convicted felons.
Between 1827-29, some 89 convicts worked on the construction of the Ohio Canal -- "Pardoned on the Canal" was entered in their records.
Prison officials of the old institutions were economical
in their use of numbers. When an inmate would die or was discharged,
they (officials) saved his number for some new man.
Seven men had the number one. Four men had the number two. Numbers 4 - 11- 44 were considered "lucky numbers" by the inmates. According to the records, seven men and one woman held the number four. Nine men had the number 11, and six men held the number 44.
No one ever held the "unlucky 13" number. Number 13 is not to be found in the old prison records -- a curious example of the superstitions of our forefathers.
The site of the present Ohio Penitentiary with its 22 1/2 acres of land inside the walls, and 7.43 acres of buildings, was purchased in 1832 and first occupied in 1834. The first building at the new site of the Ohio Penitentiary contained 700 cells. It was modeled after the Auburn or Silent System.
The East Hall (now A, B, C, and D Blocks) was completed in 1861 and the New Hall in 1877. Many of the shops, buildings and factories were completed before 1877. James Hospital, built in 1895, was remodeled and modernized in 1944. The final cost of the original penitentiary was $93,370.50, including 1,113,462 days of inmate labor estimated at $78,428.
In 1885, the legislation passed a bill authorizing all legal executions to take place at the Ohio Penitentiary. Previously, men sentenced to death were executed in the county where their crimes were committed.
The first man executed at the penitentiary by hanging was Valentine Wagner, on July 31, 1885, for the cold-blooded murder of his brother-in-law, Daniel Schehan, in Morrow County. Hanging was the mode of execution in Ohio until 1896 when the electric chair was substituted.
From 1885 to 1896, 28 men were legally executed by hanging. Willie Haas had the dubious distinction of being the first man to be electrocuted April 21, 1897.
The penitentiary has known whole-sale tragedy during its 137-year existence. A cholera epidemic struck behind the high gray walls in the winter of 1849, taking 121 lives of the 423 inmates confined there. On April 21, 1930, a fire broke out at 5:35 p.m., on the topmost tier of a six-deck cell block.[Back to top]
Before the holocaust was brought under control, 322 of the
5,292 inmates were either burned or suffocated to death.
The fire was apparently started by an inmate or inmates bent on escaping. According to the old records, a candle, placed in a pan of oil, started the fire. It was to be used as a timing device for a planned escape. It was supposed to ignite while the men were at their evening meal, but due to a brisk spring wind that evening, it did not successfully ignite until after the men had returned to their cells and locked up for the night.
Starting in the north end of the Big Block, in what is now L Block, the blaze swept southward through I and K Blocks which were being remodeled and converted to concrete construction. Treated green lumber used for the forms for the new concrete gave off acrid clouds of smoke, filling the entire building which also contained G and H Blocks.
With almost 800 men confined to the fatal blocks, it is miraculous that no more than 322 lost their lives. Granted, it is tragic that these men had to die, but it could have been worse.
There were many stories of heroism by inmates and guards alike during the Easter Monday conflagration. Many of the inmates who performed exceptional feats of valor and heroism were pardoned by the Governor.
Nine days after the fire, prison officials transferred 600 inmates from the partially burned out Ohio Penitentiary to the London (Ohio) Prison Farm. This move helped to alleviate tensions and overcrowding at the Spring Street Prison. At the time of the fire, there were 4,214 inmates confined, including the 800 in the fatal block where the fire began.
On Friday, October 31, 1952, inmates began a riot after they were served their evening meal. After a session of dish-throwing and noise-making, 2400 inmates poured into the courtyard and began burning buildings.
They completely burned out the Catholic Chapel, personnel building which contained the commissary, deputy warden's office and record room, the storage building and prison laundry. Fire seems to have become an integral part of the Ohio Penitentiary. At approximately 8 a.m., June 24, 1968, the prison's fire siren shrieked through every building inside the walls. Most of the 2,300 confined inmates started to riot and burn buildings.
The planing mill was burned to the ground, the deputy warden's office and James Hospital were damaged heavily by fire, the commissary was burned out, the auditorium was heavily damaged by fire and smoke. Almost every office inside the walls sustained some kind of damage. What the rampaging inmates couldn't burn, they broke up -- adding machines, typewriters, knobs on machine shop machines, furniture, desks. Over $1 million damage was done in a matter of hours.
Within two months, August 20, 1968, disaster again struck the aging penitentiary. Inmates confined to close security cell blocks, overpowered their guards, took nine of them hostages and rioted. Two of the hostages were released after they became ill. It took the combined efforts of the Ohio National Guard, Ohio Highway Patrol, Columbus police and penitentiary personnel to gain the release of the remaining hostages.
After 30 hours of fruitless negotiation between penal officials and riot leaders, the National Guard simultaneously blasted holes in the roof and front wall of the cell block where the guards were locked in cells on an upper tier. Uniformed officers stormed through the gaping holes and successfully quelled the riot and saved the hostages.
Although there were many superficial wounds from flying debris, and much physical damage to the institution, only five persons -- all inmates -- lost their lives in this American version of the "Storming of the Bastille." It is interesting to note that this forced entry was made in the same area from which General Morgan made his famous escape a century earlier.
Almost immediately following the riot, Ohio Highway Patrol Major Harold J. Cardwell was appointed as the 39th warden of the Ohio Penitentiary -- a maximum security prison with a gaping 10-foot hole in its front wall.[Back to top]
In his three-year reign as warden, Cardwell brought relative
calm to the explosive-laden penitentiary.
Upon his appointment, Cardwell stated he would treat the inmates and guards with a firm but fair hand.
He kept his word. Where before, inmates were angry at inmates, inmates were angry at guards, guards were angry at guards, and guards were angry at inmates, a relative calm prevailed over the institution.
During the 1969 Ohio State Fair in Columbus, Warden Cardwell made arrangements to let some 150 honor dorm inmates from the penitentiary visit the fair -- something which had never been done in its 137-year history.
The honor dorm inmates, transported by penitentiary bus in loads of 50, were taken to the fairgrounds and told they were free to visit any and all of the displays without guards dogging their every step.
Most, if not all the honor dorm inmates couldn't believe they were being allowed to roam the gigantic fairgrounds alone. They paired off and returned to the bus at an appointed hour.
Some interesting stories came out of their visit. One inmate became lost and turned himself in at the Highway Patrol Station on the fairgrounds and asked to be returned to the bus. Another old-time inmate, who hadn't been outside the "walls" for 25 years, was amazed at the rise in prices since he last was a free man.
Warden Cardwell said the men conducted themselves like gentlemen and there wasn't a single incident involving any of them. After the fair, all 150 men were accounted for and each showed his appreciation to the warden. Because of their (inmates) exemplary behavior, the honor dormitory inmates were allowed to visit the 1970 and 1971 Ohio State Fair, again without the benefit of guards. Not a single incident was reported concerning the inmates.
Warden Cardwell said the outside trips are an exercise in trust. "It serves as a good opportunity to let the men get back into the swing of civilian life, particularly in large crowds," Cardwell said. "The fair was a good place to let them go because it offered such a diversified range of things to do and see. "I am sure we had men out there who would have considered running from another outside detail," Cardwell acknowledged, "but in three years, we've never had a man run at the fair. They respect that particular privilege too much."
The inmates agreed with Cardwell, saying fellow inmates would give a runaway a rough time when he was caught.
There have been 48 separate news stories of prison breaks from the Ohio Penitentiary carried in the Columbus Dispatch since 1878.
According to the Dispatch reports, the first open break occurred November 3, 1908, when Walter Edward Wright, convicted burglar, went over the wall, using a pole and a rope made of bed clothes.
Since then, other prisoners have tried going over the wall
but never made it. They were found hiding inside the prison
On November 8, 1926, came possibly the most sensational of the mad breaks for brief freedom. Thirteen desperate, long-termed convicts of Co. K, known as the "red shirt" company, timed their plans to correspond with the prison's visiting hours.
They felled two guards, dashed to the prison gates being opened as visitors entered the yard. The 13 clubbed, knifed and shot their way into administration offices, stabbing one guard and hitting the warden's secretary over the head with a chair. With additional weapons seized there, they went on to freedom. They were ultimately rounded up in Georgesville, a southwestern suburb of Columbus and Franklin County.
Two of John Dillinger's henchmen, Charles Makley and Harry Pierpont, attempted to bluff their way out on September 22, 1934, with fake pistols. They tried to force their way past six guards just 100 feet from the death row cells they occupied. The bluff didn't work. Makley died from the guards' bullets and Pierpont died in the electric chair.
The last major break at the Ohio Penitentiary was in May, 1952, when nine men sawed their way out of a dormitory. Seven were caught shortly after the escape.
On August 28, 1970, Bennett J. Cooper, who for four years had served as superintendent of the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield, was named Commissioner of the Division of Correction, succeeding M. C. Koblentz, who held the position for 16 years before his retirement July 31, 1970.
Commissioner Cooper holds a master's degree in psychology from Western Reserve University and has completed course work toward a doctorate degree. This summer, he was presented an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree by Ashland College, the first such honor by the college in five years, for not only his work in the correctional field but his public service efforts.[Back to top]