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
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The Nebraska State Penitentiary Band

31 August 2012

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.

In November 1913, the postcard was addressed to Gus Johnson in Manhattan, Kansas and reads:

Dear Folks,
    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.


In August 2014, I wrote another story entitled:
Prisoner #7280 - A Lifer in Music

It's about Louis Chobar, the band leader of the
Nebraska State Penitentiary Band.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you can might hear more than just the ticking of a clock.


Wendy said...

I guess the warden subscribed to the notion that "music has charms to soothe a savage breast." I thought maybe the prisoners in the postcard had formed a conga line.

Christine H. said...

Well, as long as there weren't any Glocks in the instrument cases...

I may check out the Hell in Nebraska book, but I'm still busy reading another book you recommended, Thunder at Twilight. Great read so far.

Peter said...

You did it again Mike, you did it again! A very interesting post with so much detail. I really love reading all of them. And also a very appropriate interpretation of the theme: doing time. One final remark, it does not surprise me that the guy blowing the whistle does not appear on your cards.

Bob Scotney said...

Another fascinating post Mike. I have just finished Slaughter on a Snowy Morn by Colin Evans about a death row inmate in Sing Sing back in 1916. Horrendous places these penitentiaries - these band must have been a blessed relief.

Postcardy said...

Interesting post. Being in a band must have made serving time in a prison easier.

Little Nell said...

How fortunate they were to have two successive wardens who were so enlightened. They must have seen the benefits. I guess the hat was his trademark.

Kathy said...

Always enjoy your posts and how you tie music into the theme. I always learn something too.

Kathy Hart said...

Your closing sentence is PERFECT - our circumstances impact how we view time! Thank you!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I imagine being part of the band was something to look forward too for the prisoners with talent.

In Oregon, some prisoners make street signs and license plates. That would be fine, but I would rather work in a print shop and make postcards instead.

The story of the great escape was interesting too. All in all, another fantastic article for us to read.

Kathy M.

Karen S. said...

A lovely post with such interesting facts, but I just still can't get over those criminals, they look so far removed from being one. Is it their dress and happiness from playing in the band? But they just all look too pleasant, don't you think!

barbara and nancy said...

i loved this post about the prison orchestras. The men in the photos look so darned innocent.
My mother worked for a prison in the 50s and I remember going there to see a production of (i think) Guys and Dolls. Wonder who played the Dolls!
It was so long ago, I just don't remember.

Nancy said...

What an interesting post. I'm surprised that you've been able to find/collect so many photographs of penitentiary prison bands. I did not know that they existed. Knowing that they did, I'm surprised that the inmates wore regular clothes. Thanks for sharing your research, Mike.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing amount of research you did for this fascinating post. I guess if they were in the slammer, they'd have plenty time to practice ;-) Jo

Ronald Fabec said...

I have a photo of the San Quentin Prison Band from around 1890. They are posed with their instruments wearing band uniform caps and jackets and their striped prison trousers. Written on the back is “Prison Band at San Quentin Prison Complements of James Russell Capt Guard.”

Steve Wendell said...

The inmates in the post card look like they are in a conga line because prison discipline in those days required them to walk from place to place in line with their hand placed on the shoulder of the man in front of them.

Caroline Casey said...

I've been researching prison bands for the past five or so years, and have just completed a book about the prison bands of Texas. It's with the History Press, and the title is "Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History." It'll be released May 2, 2016. There's such a rich history of prison bands in many, many states! So hidden.

Great post -- let me know what else you find out!

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks for your comment Caroline, I look forward to reading your book. I have not found any bands from Texas prisons yet, but you can find my other stories on penitentiary bands by clicking the label "prison" on the sidebar.


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