The Big House. The Slammer. The Joint. The Pen. It was also called a House of Correction, but few people would think to add Prison Music Conservatory to this list. These 12 musicians are inmates of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band, and whatever name they chose to call it, this Penitentiary was a place for doing your time, and for a privileged few, practicing your time too.
This 11 piece band of tuba, trombone, two trumpets, three saxophones, clarinet, flute, banjo and drums has its band leader who holds a baton, standing on right. On the left, holding a straw boater, is another gentleman whom I will introduce in a moment. Their hair styles and clean shaven looks (mostly) might suggest post- WW1. Trumpets really only start to show up in band photos in the 1920s, so I think this photo was taken in the early 1920s. Note the blackwood flute, kneeling right, and the smaller C clarinet, kneeling left. Both instruments became less common in the US after the 1930s.
But this is not a band made up of prison guards. These musicians are convicted criminals serving time, as on the back is a handwritten caption, Lincoln Penetentary Band. The Nebraska State Penitentiary is located in Lincoln in Lancaster County, NB. The AZO stamp box would date the photo sometime between 1910 and 1930.
In March, 1912, there was a riot at the Nebraska Penitentiary when two inmates attempted a breakout. Though they failed to escape they still managed to stab and kill the deputy warden. During the confusion three other convicts took advantage and made their own bid for escape using guns that they somehow smuggled into the penitentiary. As they fled the prison they murdered the warden and two other correctional officers. Despite a late winter snowstorm, a concerted manhunt by law enforcement forces tracked them down for harsh justice. It became the stuff of legend and probably inspired the storyline for many crime novels and movies. But subsequent to the riot and murders, the official investigation revealed a prison administration rife with corruption and incompetence
The man appointed as interim warden in 1912 was the former Lincoln police chief, Samuel M. Malick, who had also served as Lancaster County Sheriff, U.S. deputy Marshall, and detective for the Nebraska Banking Association. Charged with reforming a notoriously corrupt system that had allowed drugs and violence to rule over both inmates and correctional staff, Melick began with improving the prisoners' food and their living conditions. He allowed newspapers and a library for the first time and promoted recreation and sports for the inmates. He also established a 22 piece band which became known as the Malick Cornet Band.
This image comes from a terrific memoir of prison life, Hell in Nebraska: a tale of the Nebraska Penitentiary by Walter Wilson, a former convict, which was published in 1913. Wilson describes the band as one of the first improvements by Malick, standing right, who believed that music improved not only the musicians but also the morale of the other inmates. During the week of the state fair, the prison grounds were open to thirteen thousand visitors, and the band raised $325. Enough money to pay for all their new instruments and sheet music.
Presumably the band performed, and Wilson recounts that the band members were "clad in snow-white uniforms during the summer months, and cadet blue uniforms with broad black braid during the winter months." The dog was their mascot and was named Bob. He beat out the other prison "pets" - a black snake and a giant gold fish, and got a full page photo in the book.
Wilson also describes the brutal conditions of the penitentiary before Melick's term and offers an insider's perspective to many prisoner stories including the infamous murders of the warden and deputy.
This next postcard shows a musical group with a bass drum labeled N.S.P. BAND. But unlike the first photo of the Nebraska State Penitentiary Band, this 11 piece ensemble has string players - three violins, cello and double bass, along with two cornets, trombone, clarinet and drums. The trombone here is a piston valve instrument, unlike the slide trombones in the previous photos. The cornets show the slightly stubby length that distinguishes the cornet from the trumpet. The flute is again wooden and the clarinet is not the common Bb but shorter C. The tall clarinetist is also seen seated in the Malick Band photo, so I would date this to around 1915-1920.
And if you look at the stout gentleman on the right holding a bowler hat, he is the same man that stands left in the first photo. He was the next warden of the Nebraska State Penitentiary.
His name is William T. Fenton, and he succeeded Warden Malick in 1913 according to Wilson's book. By 1914, Warden Fenton's success at continuing the prison reforms started by his predecessor, were reported in an article entitled Daybreak in Nebraska State Prison. Like the warden from Iowa who appeared in my story on the Ft. Madison Prison Orchestra, Warden W.T. Fenton worked to change incarceration from a term of hard labor to one of constructive work that taught skills to the felons in his charge. He was part of a new progressive movement in America's correctional institutions, and he must have taken pride in the musicians as much as Malick.
In the book, Hell in Nebraska, Walter Wilson tells another tale of an escape during Fenton's first tenure. A musician, a German violinist, was allowed to accompany the prison chaplain to a private home and provide entertainment for a party. As the evening concluded, the violinist disappeared. A Wanted bulletin was promptly sent around the region to all police districts. After the man had passed numerous bad checks and skipped out from paying hotel bills, he was captured in Woodstock, IL and returned to the Lincoln prison. Since at that time prison officers were held personally responsible for escapes, the chaplain acquired a bill of $189 for the expense in securing the escapee, leading Wilson to remark that next time it would be cheaper to just hire a full orchestra or band instead of one "free" inmate violinist.
The front entrance of the Nebraska Penitentiary was worthy of a photograph, and has the classic look of a Big House with its fortress-like turrets and crenelated rooftops. The front lawn seems to be plowed, perhaps for landscaping or farming, or maybe for the state fair. The first permanent prison in Nebraska was established in 1871 in Lincoln, which is the state capital.
The camera had enough clarity to bring out the sign to the left of the entrance - PRISON RULES, and one man standing by the entrance and holding a hat. Want to bet it is Warden Fenton?
Prisoners had a lot of time to write and probably the prison print shop did a good business in selling postcards. This one, a colorized sepia photo, shows the Court Yard of the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska. Compare the battlements and towers to the other card. This view shows a line of convicts in lockstep, each man with right hand on the shoulder of the inmate in front, while raising high the right foot and shuffling with the left in unison as if linked together with a chain. This silent march was the undignified way prisoners were kept in order when moving them from place to place in the 19th century. It was phased out with the reforms of the 20th century.
How is everybody? it has been spring weather here for last week. Would like very much to have you come up Thanksgiving. The convicts are going to have a Minstral (sic) show at the pen.
Love to all Al-
I found August Johnson in the 1900 census living with his family on Yuma St in Manhattan, KS. A Swedish immigrant, he had three children, the youngest son was Albert Johnson, born 1893. Unfortunately I can't find Al Johnson in Lincoln so I don't know from his message if he was an inmate, a guard, or just a young man who picked out a picture postcard from a Lincoln drugstore display. But his note suggests that prison life had some entertainment, and in a period when there was no radio or recorded music, an in-house band performing minstrel shows must have been a relief from the daily monotony of doing time for both guards and inmates alike.
A penitentiary surely had a few clocks, but I suspect that there were many more calendars. Maybe even a few inside some instrument cases.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can might hear more than just the ticking of a clock.