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
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
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
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. . . .