From the riotous days of Prohibition and the Jazz Age to the brutal awakening of Pearl Harbor, one man ruled the fate of America's most dangerous criminals. He was Lewis E. Lawes, warden of Sing Sing prison, the Big House up the river, who believed that no man was beyond redemption. Warden Lawes couldn't banish the electric chair (though he tried) but he knew that humanitarian care and good morale provided better security than the stoutest walls.
Lawes befriended the Hollywood greats, Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy and Harry Warner, opening Sing Sing to the movies and exposing prisoners to the glamour of the silver screen. He brought Babe Ruth to Sing Sing, fielded a winning football team called The Black Sheep that brought gridiron glory to the circuit known as the Big Pen, and ran training shops, school classes and culture programs.
Truly, Warden Lawes made Sing Sing sing.
But Lawes was no pushover. He brought law to Sing Sing, a tale that comes alive in the hands of prize-winning New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal.
He killed on orders from the state, consigning 303 condemned men and women to the electric chair. But he crusaded fiercely against the death penalty as useless and preached that every man deserved a second chance, even if, in the end, he faced a terrible betrayal.
Lawes taught the nation that a jail was a lockup but a prison was a community. With his perfect name and flawless eye for fashion, Lawes took over as the ninth warden in eight years -- at 39, the youngest man to lead the century-old institution, then overflowing with more than a thousand hardened criminals and luckless youths. Vice was rife -- bribery, alcohol, drugs and sex. The political bosses held sway, swinging deals for favored inmates.
Enemies accused him of coddling prisoners but he ridiculed the charge. No one was coddled on a food budget of 18 cents a day.
Lawes lived with his wife and daughters in a Victorian mansion abutting the cellblock, where he was shaved each morning by a prison barber convicted of slashing a man's throat, the household cook was a murderer, and his youngest daughter's favorite babysitter was serving twenty-five years for kidnapping.
Lawes tamed the tyrannical Charles E. Chapin who had terrorized generations of reporters as the editor of Joseph Pulitzer's Evening World before murdering his wife and winding up as Lawes's favorite horticulturist, the Rose Man of Sing Sing. Lawes championed the advent of radio and used it to inspire his prisoners and educate the public on penal reform. He wrote film scripts and radio plays and dramas and best-selling books. But in the end, his finest tribute came not from the mighty but a lowly prisoner in the yard who muttered, to no one in particular, "There was a right guy."