This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Fort Madison Prison Orchestra

23 February 2012

One of the qualities that I look for in a photograph is rarity. This photo image has two things that make it exceptional. The first is that it shows an orchestra made up of inmates from the Fort Madison, Iowa Penitentiary, and the second is that it shows black musicians playing with white musicians.

This glass slide of the Prison Orchestra Fort Madison, Iowa dates from 3-11-1914, as marked on the left side along with initials L.P.  The ensemble of 16 men in plain band uniforms includes 4 African-American men playing violin, string bass, cello, and trombone.  The other men play cornets, clarinet, alto saxophone, flutes (showing both the silver and wooden variety of flutes) and two men without instruments who likely played piano and drums. The slide is similar to other projector slides intended for cinemas to use as a filler during the era of early silent movies. It could have been shown between the feature films or even for a Chautauqua style lecture.
Since writing this post yesterday I have discovered that the prison did engage various performers and lecturers for its own Chautauqua series, beginning around 1908. So perhaps this slide was used for that purpose in the prison.

Fort Madison is a town in the lower southeast corner of Iowa, and was the site of the first US military base on the upper Mississippi. This maximum security prison, now know as the Iowa State Penitentiary, was established in 1838. This postcard of the State Prison, Fort Madison, Iowa has a cryptic date written on the back, perhaps Aug 1914, and a message.

This place has about 1400 inmates. it is getting
too Small. They treat the prisoners well and feed them good here.
They have movie shows! Opera house Band. Orchestra Church and Sunday School
Andy E

In 1920 the Iowa board of control for prisons listed 462  inmates for Fort Madison, so the writer may have been exaggerating for effect. One of the many progressive movements in the first decades of the 20th century was prison reform, and Fort Madison was fortunate to engage the services of Warden James C. Sanders (1865-1922). For ten years, beginning in 1908, Warden Sanders instituted changes in the prison. He abolished the lock step and degrading uniforms of convicts, established an orchestra and a band; and allowed recreational sports for the prisoners with teams in baseball and basketball. He was also opposed to the death penalty, and believed that a penitentiary should be a place of reform and correction.

The February 1915 edition of  The American Magazine, page 60, carried a profile on this innovative warden. Sanders was an experienced educator and also a gifted amateur musician on the cornet. There should be music everywhere he insisted, and so free that none could avoid hearing it. "Why,  I wouldn't run a dog fight without music," said Sanders. He followed a motto of "treating men as men" which was a very liberal attitude for a prison governor in this era.



The photo of a prison orchestra is unusual, but the truly remarkable part of this image is seeing black and white musicians together. This was 1914, an era when racial segregation was the law or custom in nearly every community and state. The Jim Crow Laws of Southern states placed such severe restrictions on African-Americans that it prevented them from sharing public life with white citizens. And the era's horrific violence perpetrated on people of color has left an indelible stain on America history.

Of course at this time, there were bands and orchestras of black musicians. But they almost never appear in photographs with white musicians. In professional orchestras and bands, black musicians were not accepted until the late 1960's and 70's. The professional prejudice even segregated them in the musicians union into "separate but equal" locals.

The black population of Iowa in the first decades of the 20th century was quite small with around 15,000 in 1910 or only 0.67% of the total population of 2,224,771. The state had a long history in the early 19th century of black immigration as it was the first Northern free state on the Mississippi. The Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North, began during WWI and continued into the 1970's, but most black immigrants chose the larger city centers instead of Iowa.

In December 1909, the Le Mars, Iowa Weekly ran a series on Warden Sander's prison reforms and featured one report on the music. It includes a photo of the orchestra, and despite the grainy reproduction, one can make out at least one black man, the violinist seated center right. It describes how Sanders led the first orchestra as solo cornet, and started a tradition of having the orchestra perform for the prison's noon meal. The inmates had to attend regular rehearsals and keep up their instrument. One imagines that the cell blocks sounded more like a music conservatory than a prison.

The man standing in the back row of the glass slide is not Warden Sanders, then 49, when it is compared to the other photos of him. It is more likely Mr. Stevenson, the Assistant Deputy Warden, who is described in this article as a former bugler of the Nebraska 1st Regiment and solo cornet with the Ringling Bros. Circus Band. 

In July 1911, The Des Moines, Iowa Daily News sent a young woman, Miss Sue McNamara to report on the improving effects of reform for the penitentiary and its inmates. She describes the joyful sound of music coming from the prison chapel, that runs contrary to her expectations for such an institution. The oppressive conditions in the prison have changed. The warden has taken away the guard's policeman clubs and replaced them with heavy canes. The cells are now more sanitary, and the humane treatment along with recreation time has given the convicts a better morale.

{for the Sepia Saturday readership, please note the advertisement for Arnant's Beautiful Shoes, saving you that rent money by selling from the 4th floor.}

Recently I acquired another unusual photo, a postcard never mailed and with no identification on it except the photographer's caption - ASSEMBLY, in the lower left corner. It shows a large group of men standing in lines in an open area of a factory or institution. In the foreground there is a group of musicians in band uniforms. On the bass drum are the words Concert Band.

The men are assembled in lines, and are uniformly dressed in white shirts, trousers and military type caps. Several are black, including a few men in the band. At the head of the lines are other men wearing dark trousers and holding canes. At the top of the gathering, one man in a suit seems to be reading an announcement. Something is about to happen.

The band is quiet for the moment, but two musicians have no music lyre on their instruments and instead have men dressed in baseball uniforms to hold their music. There is a baseball diamond behind the bass drummer.

Could this be a prison yard? Could it be Fort Madison Penitentiary?

This image was taken from a 1900 article on the history of the Fort Madison Penitentiary in The Bulletin of Iowa Institutions. It shows the same building as in the postcard. Compare the windows and the high wall at the back left. And in fact, it is a kind of factory - the New Shop Building,  where inmates worked at several industries including furniture making.

The men are preparing for a baseball game, In other contemporary references on the Fort Madison Prison, there were reports that even the musicians had their own Orchestra team. They played against the Blue Jays .

In 1920, there were 8 men scheduled to hang which was twice the number of all executions since the Iowa prison was first established in 1838. This was a place of incarceration. All the inmates had been convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to do prison time in atonement. They were sinners and not saints, but they were also men who nonetheless deserved some dignity. 

The irony is that in Fort Madison's Prison Orchestra they enjoyed a level of equality and freedom that they could not have experienced in the outside world of 1914. When I look at their faces I do not see hardened criminals, I see confident musicians who took pride in their musical accomplishments.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the theme this weekend is ladies' shoes.
My post from last October, A Vaudeville Girl
fits very nicely with feminine footwear,
otherwise click the link if you want to see more.


Howard said...

Brilliant post Mike. Prison postcards are rare, images showing black and white musicians together rarer.

Kristin said...

I have a prison postcard that my grandmother's niece sent her. No band, just the wall and the building. Strange postcard for a child to send. Very interesting post and I think the newspaper add ties in to the shoe theme quite nicely.

Tattered and Lost said...

Wonderful post. Every bit of it fascinating.

And now I'm wondering about the patient who was two rooms down from my dad last week in the hospital. A police officer was outside the door 24 hours a day. I'm guessing the poor fellow was not in the hospital for producing bad notes.

Bob Scotney said...

Very strange but a Google Plus page suddenly appeared in the middle of this post. It 'disappeared' when I clicked on one of the menu buttons.

Another superb post Mike with fantastic postcards.

Postcardy said...

That was a very interesting post. I think it was unusual also that a woman was sent to the prison to write the newspaper story.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

This might be my favorite of all of your posts, Mike. You did such an excellent job, and I really enjoyed the subject matter and how the head warden treated the inmates as people who were able to do more than commit crimes. The bi-racial band was another great idea.

Thanks for the hard work that you did on this!

Kathy M.

Christine H. said...

Another fantastic post. I liked the shoe advertisement too. I had never really considered whether or not prisons were segregated by race. I would guess that most would have been segregated to some degree.

Karen S. said...

I have only seen pictures of prison postcards from Stillwater, Mn. they have an endless supply showing how things were....and then from The Rock, Alcatraz! Nice research and interesting as always!

Little Nell said...

A really interesting post Mike. How wonderful that there was no segregation and that the musicians were united in a common cause.

My mother’s cousin lives in Des Moines and that’s the first time I’ve heard it mentioned since Bill Bryson’s quote;”I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."

barbara and nancy said...

Where is warden saunders now that we need him? It's a shame that our current system seems to be punishment rather than rehabilitation.
Great post. Well done.

Alan Burnett said...

Fabulous post Mike, a perfect illustration of the quality of information one gets on blogs like Sepia Saturday. Perfectly balanced with information and insight. As always, a pleasure to read.

Wendy said...

Your last sentence says exactly what I was thinking. Those prisoners look nothing like the gangsters, drug addicts, serial killers, etc we think of. They look more like such criminals as Drew Peterson, OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson.

tony said...

WoW! What A Truly Amazing Collection of Photographs.Fascinating Details.I Find The Whole Concept of 'Prison Orchestras' incredible . Sure beats being in a chain-gang rock band !


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