An Inventory of Papers in Syracuse University Libraries


Page 5 of 14
Osborne's effective service at Sing Sing amounted to little more than 16 months. With George W. Kirchwey, Harry Elmer Barnes, Samuel A. Eliot and others, Osborne continued to advocate the cause of penal reform, but through private agencies. At the same time, Osborne sent out inquiries to Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania and elsewhere for another job as warden.

A photoprint of a 1910 black and white black and white photo of Thomas Mott Osborne, full-length, seated, facing left, and his four sons can be obtained from the Library of Congress. More particulars can be found on its American Memory web site.

The Reproduction Number of the b&w film copy negative is LC-USZ62-96161 and the Digital Id is cph 3b42273.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

While many avenues of Progressive reform were barred by the advent of World War I, Osborne was offered, through the good offices of his friend, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wardenship of the U.S. Naval Prison in Portsmouth, N.H. Political mountebanks, hard-line penologists and a few ranking navy men received Lt. Comdr. Osborne's unsparing criticism when they interfered with his program at the naval stockade, but at Portsmouth Osborne had the counsel and backing of the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and his assistant, Roosevelt.

Osborne's work at the Naval Prison was thus a success, despite the anticipated obstruction. It might also be noted that Osborne ushered in his mission to Portsmouth with a hitch in the Navy as "Landsman Tom Brown." By design, Brown served a stretch in the brig and had his enlistment cut short by a dishonorable discharge.

After leaving Portsmouth Osborne redoubled his efforts through private agencies and led a column of the Progressive drive deep into the Twenties.

Furthering the goals of Thomas Mott Osborne (above) is the mission of the Osborne Association founded in 1931. Experiencing Auburn prison for a week as inmate "Tom Brown #33,333x" left him determined to see prisons transformed from "human scrap heaps into human repair shops."

After his progressive stewardship at Sing Sing, he founded the Mutual Welfare League, that helped discharged inmates obtain jobs, and the National Society of Penal Information that studied prisons to obtain information on housing, discipline, administration, and other matters.

Through this work, Thomas Mott Osborne became known as "the pioneer and prophet of prison reform."

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

He was

  • honorary chairman of the National Committee on Prisons,
  • president of the New York State Prison Council, and
  • chairman of the National Society of Penal Information.

His practical efforts gave temporary relief to the people with whom he had personal contact, and the societies he founded continue to function. The National Society of Penal Information, the Welfare League Association and the Osborne Association banded together in 1932 under the name of the last agency.

With headquarters in New York City, the Osborne Association continues to provide ex-prisoners with lodging, job information and social services which are calculated to discourage recidivism.

At the same time, the Association provides information to active penologists in an effort to raise the nation's correctional standards.

During his life Osborne routinely collided with entrenched ignorance. At times he was close to despair: "It is no use talking, the politicians are too strong for us." Soon he would recover his former zest.

Based upon Osborne's personal inspection of more than 30 prisons in the '20s, reports were published on prison conditions in the United States, Britain and Greece.

His film, The Right Way, enabled him to tour the country to spread the message of prison reform.

On the lecture circuit in Nashville six months before his death Osborne summed up his program:

Now, what I have been trying to get at in my lifetime is that in the vast majority of instances a prisoner is bound to take his place again in society.

He can either be prepared for that obligation in a manner that will deter him from being a future menace, and make him a useful member, or he can be so treated during his incarceration that when he gets out again he will be a positive evil and tenfold more troublesome than before.

My position on the problem is that criminals are prepared for a return to society neither by brutality and harshness, nor by sentimental, slushy treatment. My program has been to find out what good qualities the prisoner has and to work on those qualities until his point of view toward life has been changed.

Thomas Mott Osborne died on October 20, 1926, while returning home from an evening at the theater.

The Osborne Family Inventory text ©1971 by Syracuse University Libraries
Previous Excerpts page
Auburn&Osborne menu page
Next Excerpts page
Home Page
To Retired Deputy
Miskell's Why Auburn?
Syracuse U. Library
Special Collections