The former New York City Reformatory in Orange County. It played an key role in the correctional career of Lawes, who later became warden of New York State's Sing Sing Prison in Westchester County. (An NYCHS © image.)
Correction Career of
Lewis E. Lawes
Part 1 of 3

John Jay Rouse, in NYCHS © photo above, takes part in the June 2003 Conference on New York State History at Bard College, Dutchess County. NYCHS is honored to be able to present excerpts from Dr. Rouse's Firm But Fair.

He received his Ph. D. and his M. Phil,, both in Criminal Justice and both from CUNY, in 1988 and 1987 respectively; his M.A. in Urban Affairs and Policy Ananlysis, from the New School for Social Research, in 1980, and his B.A. in History, from SUNY at Binghamton in 1977.

From 1995 to 2002, Dr. Rouse was an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is now retired.

He was with the NYC Department of Probation from 1990 to 1995 as the Director of Research for the Drug Services Unit helping to establish and evaluated specialized drug treatment programs for probationers.

Prior to NYC Probation service, Rouse was a Postdoctoral Fellow with Narcotic and Drug Research, Inc. in which he assisted in various research projects pertaining to the sociological aspects of drug abuse. This led to writing a chapter in a book, co-authored with Bruce D. Johnson, entitled "Hidden Paradigms of Morality in Debates About Drugs: Historical and Policy Shifts in British and American Drug Policies." It was included in the book, The Drug Legalization Debate edited by James A. Inciardi and published by Sage in 1990.

These texts are not presented as a full portrait of Lewis E. Lawes but as brief biographical references, outlines and sketches of that extraordinary correction professional and humane human being. NYCHS appreciates the permissions granted by the acknowledged sources for the materials this presentation uses.

NYCHS excerpts from Chapter 1- BEGINNINGS:
Firm But Fair:
The Life of Sing Sing Warden Lewis E. Lawes
By John Jay Rouse©

Lewis Lawes, probably the most famous and accomplished prison warden in American penology, started his life in a quiet little town, Elmira, in upstate New York. He was born on Friday, September 13, 1883 to Harry Lewis Lawes and Sarah (Abbott) Lawes. He was their only child.

His father was born in England and was a Protestant. His mother's family was Irish Catholic, originally from County Kerry. The Abbotts had emigrated to the U.S. during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840's. His mother saw to it that he was brought up as a Catholic.

Lawes grew up a half mile away from the New York State Reformatory where his father worked as a guard. He attended P.S. 5 and the Elmira Free Academy. He worked for The Telegram, Elmira's Sunday paper, after school and on weekends. . . .

In 1901, at the age of 17, Lawes decided to run away from home and join the United States Coast Artillery. He was posted to Portland, Maine and Fort Hamilton, N.Y. . . . Perhaps he felt the military would help him to regain a focus which seems to have drifted a little in his youth.

After Lawes left the Coast Artillery he returned to Elmira and got a job at an insurance company. He timed his walk to the insurance company he worked at in downtown Elmira so that he was passing by the front door of Katherine Stanley's house as she was leaving for work. . . . Eventually they started dating-walks in the country . . . . Lawes was earning $7 a week at this time.

Lawes was growing restless in his job at the insurance company and he decided that he wanted to pursue his father's line of work. He started his prison career as a guard at Clinton Prison at Dannemora on March 1, 1905. . . . Dannemora was a town of state institutions. In addition to a state prison Dannemora also had a State Hospital for the Criminally Insane and a State Hospital for the Tubercular. . . .

The pay was $55 per month with 12 hour days and 2 weeks vacation per year. Prison jobs were patronage jobs in those days - every prison employee was expected to pay twenty-five dollars a year to the party in power in order to retain his job. Lawes did not pay but managed to keep his job anyway.

. . . . he kept up a correspondence with Katherine Stanley. . . . They were married on September 30, 1905. Lawes was two weeks past his twenty-second birthday. Katherine did not join him in Dannemora . . . .

. . . . an old [Dannemora] convict named Chappeleau told him that carrying a club was not going to elicit respect from the convicts. Once Lawes used his club and struck the victim of a knife attack rather than the knife wielder. He never used his club again.This was out of the ordinary for the time - prisons were still primarily about punishment.

Lawes took a State Civil Service test for the position of Reformatory Guard on May 24, 1906. He scored #1 on the list with a grade of 96.90. On March 1, 1906, Lawes transferred to Auburn Prison. His pay went for $55 per month to $61 per month. His wife joined him when he transferred to Auburn.

While visiting his parents in Elmira Lawes met a former classmate, George Crandall. Crandall . . . worked on the campaign of a newly elected Republican Assemblyman from Chemung County. Lawes asked Crandall for help in getting a position in the Elmira Reformatory. . . He started working there on October 1, 1906.

A complete copy of Fair But Firm is available in hardback, trade paperback, and electronic formats from Xlibris, an on-line publishing services strategic partner of Random House Ventures.

NYCHS presents these excerpts from the book's first chapter by permission of the author John Jay Rouse who retains and reserves all rights to the text.

The Chapter 1 text from which the excerpts are taken appears on the Xlibris site as a sample page.

In 1912 Lawes took a leave of absence from Elmira and enrolled in the New York School of Social Work. At the time he and Katherine already had two daughters - Kathleen and Crystal. In March, 1915, Lawes was appointed Superintendent of the City Reformatory on Hart Island in New York City.

While Lawes was in charge of the New York City Reformatory on Hart's Island about ninety boys collapsed on the field during a ball game. They had taken narcotics from the prison hospital and the drugs had acted as emetics. The guards blamed the incident on Lawes's lack of proper supervision. A grand jury found that the guards had framed Lawes because they resented an out-of-towner being in charge. All but two of them were fired.

. . . . Lawes did not like the old reformatory location because it [Hart Island] shared an island with a home for derelicts and a potter's field. One night in New Hampton [the replacement location for the reformatory] Lawes was awakened by the sound of horses' hooves. He went out in his car and found two inmates on horses galloping along the road. One of them had a gun. Lawes told them that unless they immediately surrendered to him he would take away all of the privileges from all of the inmates in the reformatory. They handed over the gun and went back with Lawes.

While he was working in New Hampton Lawes was approached by a film company that wanted permission to shoot the picture Mexican Border near the reformatory. Lawes got them permission and he also agreed to let 150 inmates perform as extras in the picture - 50 as cavalry and 100 as infantry.

In 1918 Lawes tried to become warden of the Massachusetts State Prison. In a letter dated January 5, 1918 from Burdette G. Lewis, [NYC Correction Commissioner and later NJ Department of Institutions and Agencies Commissioner] to Col. G.B. Adams at the State House in Boston, Burdette notes:

The writings of Lewis E. Lewis, Sing Sing warden 1920-1941, helped further media transformation of the NYS prison at Ossining (its vehicle entrance sketched above) into a national and world-wide symbol for all penitentiaries: The Big House. Many of his books, plays and stories were turned into movies seen across the country and around the globe. A partial list includes
  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) with Spencer Tracy as the inmate and A. S. Byron as reform-minded yet kind-hearted warden.
  • Castle on the Hudson (1940) with John Garfield as the inmate and Pat O'Brien as the warden. Castle was a remake of 20,000 Years.
  • You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939) with Humphrey Bogart.
  • Over the Wall (1938) with Dick Foran.
  • Invisible Stripes (1938) with George Raft and Humphrey Bogart.

Allow me to commend to you Superintendent Lewis E. Lawes of our own New York City Reformatory at New Hampton. Major Lawes was appointed from an eligible list created as a result of most rigid and comprehensive examination open to persons from the whole state of New York. He has succeeded beyond our hopes in revolutionizing the discipline, system of administration and the office and record system of the reformatory. He is especially to be commended because of his experience, his training, his initiative, his executive ability, his knowledge of men, his tact and discretion and his honesty and integrity.

In 1919 Lawes was approached by New York's governor, Al Smith, concerning taking over as Warden of Sing Sing Prison. . . . However before accepting the wardenship at Sing Sing, Lawes met with William Ward, Republican leader of Westchester County and Michael Walsh, Democratic leader of Westchester County, to let them know that he would take the job only on the condition that it was not political. They both agreed.

Lawes became the warden of Sing Sing on January 1, 1920. At the time the prison population was a little over a thousand. He succeeded retiring warden E.V. Brophy of Port Chester, N.Y.

Lawes's second wife, Elise, once asked him why he took the job at Sing Sing. He replied:

I went to Sing Sing for one reason only. The Press had made a story that I took on the job because Al Smith, seeing me hesitate, drawled a well aimed taunt that because I was so young, maybe I was afraid of it. The Governor did needle me, but that wasn't why I took on Sing Sing-the toughest assignment he had to fill. An institution with the reputation of breaking its wardens inside two years. There were ten in the twelve years before me. Several lasted only a couple of months.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, often the setting for history-related exhibitions such as the displays that the NYC Dept. of Juvenile Justice mounted to mark its 20th anniversary in 1999 (above), was the setting for much of Dr. Rouse's research for Fair But Firm.

Dr. Rouse told NYCHS that, while pursuing his post graduate degrees at CUNY, he took advantage of the excellent resources of the Lloyd Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In particular, he availed himself of the Papers of Lewis E. Lawes in the library's Special Collections (Boxes X101 - 13).

Included are Lawes' personal papers, photos and honorary certificates, Sing Sing publications, materials related to Sing Sing football team's Black Sheep whose aluminus Alabama Pitts later played professional baseball, scrap books, film footage, printing plates (portraits and book jacket), carved monogram portion of chair back, autographed baseballs, inscribed trophies, letters, microfilm reels of articles about Lawes and Sing Sing Prison (1926-33, 1930-35, 1932-42) and some prison administration files.

No, I went to Sing Sing because Sing Sing, being what it was, with the eyes of the world on it, offered me a pulpit. As Sing Sing's warden I would command attention as I could not command it as Superintendent of New York City's Reformatory. And there was so much I had to say.

When he got there Lawes quipped to the prisoners: "... the easiest way to get out of Sing Sing is to go in as warden." Lawes was the thirty-ninth warden in the history of Sing Sing. At 37 years old he was also the youngest.

For the twenty years before Lawes became warden at Sing Sing the average tenure was about eleven months. Lawes was to remain the warden for twenty-one and a half years.

In succeeding years Lawes turned down an offer to be the warden of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He also rebuffed entreaties regarding being the police commissioner or correction commissioner of New York City and also to run for Congress and the governor's office. He always felt he could accomplish more by staying where he was. . . .

A complete copy of Fair But Firm is available in hardback, trade paperback, and electronic formats from Xlibris, an on-line publishing services strategic partner of Random House Ventures. NYCHS presents these excerpts from the book's first chapter by permission of the author John Jay Rouse who retains and reserves all rights to the text. The Chapter 1 text from which the excerpts are taken appears on the Xlibris site as a sample page. NYCHS is responsible for image selections and caption texts on this web page.

Go to
Part 2 of NYCHS' presentation of the NYC and NYS Correctional Career of Lewis E. Lawes

Go to
Part 3 of NYCHS' presentation of the NYC and NYS Correctional Career of Lewis E. Lawes

Also see
NYCHS excerpts - Ch. 8: Lewis E. Lawes of Mark Gado's Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

Also see
NYCHS excerpts - Ch. 1: James McGrath Morris' The Rose Man of Sing Sing

Home Page
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Sing Sing Warden
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