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Miracle at Sing Sing: How One Man Transformed the Lives of America's Most Dangerous Prisoners
"[I]n Miracle at Sing Sing, Blumenthal deftly brings Lawes alive in anecdotes of extraordinary emotive detail....The warden was a giant in his field, but the book's greatest impression is that of the individual lives he changed. As his second wife found when they went to out dinner, chefs and cab drivers often refused to let Lawes pay his bills, saying: 'It's on me, boss. I'm one of the boys.'" Mary Wiltenburg, The Christian Science Monitor (read the entire Christian Science Monitor review)
Synopses & Reviews
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."
"In his 22 years as warden of Sing Sing prison through the 1920s and 1930s Lewis Edward Lawes oversaw the execution of more than 300 inmates. In Blumenthal's beautiful and bracing account of those years, Lawes, a death penalty opponent, experienced the pain of each death as though it were one of his own family. Against convention, Lawes saw his charges as individuals with talents, flaws and the need for fundamental respect. In looking out for his 'boys,' Lawes fought existing practices, misguided reformers and a public that would sooner forget those who have run afoul of the law than come to grips with the social conditions that produce such people. Blumenthal, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, presents a swirling cavalcade of Runyonesque characters — unrepentant multiple murderers, career armed robbers, fallen society swells and tragic young people whose lives were altered by some impulsive act. He brilliantly captures in them the same spark that drove Lawes's entire career — a basic and irreducible humanity. Always Blumenthal brings the narrative back to the inmates and their trusted overseer. When Lawes retired in 1941, work at Sing Sing stopped and prisoners wept openly. With exquisite detail and real passion, Blumenthal has brought to life a legend and the world he sought to make better. B&w photos. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This highly relevant and inspiring life is recommended for general collections and for all readers with concerns about the treatment of our incarcerated population." Library Journal
"A story almost too good to be true, but too true to miss." Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York
"The astonishing and compassionate life of Lewis Lawes has remained one of the buried gems of American prison history until now. Ralph Blumenthal's biography of this patron saint of the dispossessed and discarded restores Lawes to a place of worthy prominence in American history." James Morris, author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing
The New York Times journalist and acclaimed author of Stork Club returns to the Jazz Age and beyond to explore the powerful story of Lewis E. Laws, one man whose faith in humanity lit up the darkest corner of America.
In 1919, Lewis E. Lawes moved his wife and young daughters into the warden's mansion at Sing Sing prison. They shared a yard with 1, 096 of the toughest inmates in the world-murderers, rapists, and thieves who Lawes alone believed capable of redemption. Adamantly opposed to the death penalty, Lawes presided over 300 executions. His progressive ideas shocked many, but he taught the nation that a prison was a community. He allowed a kidnapper to care for his children and a cutthroat to shave him every morning. He organized legendary football games for his "boys," and befriended Hollywood greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart. This is "A story almost too good to be true, but too true to miss." -Mario Cuomo
About the Author
Ralph Blumenthal is a longtime investigative reporter at the New York Times, who now heads the Houston Bureau covering Texas and the southwest. He is also the author of Stork Club. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on this book. He lives in Houston, Texas.
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