We know the scene, even if we can't remember the movie. The camera shows us the stone walls, harsh lights, and dark grey of a grim prison. A scowling convict stands at his cell door. Slowly he begins to bang his tin cup on the bars. Soon other prisoners have taken up the rhythm. A murmur becomes a chant. "Give him back his tuba! Give him back his tuba!"
Okay, maybe that wasn't the exact line. But it might have been heard at the Wisconsin State Penitentiary where the Wisconsin State Prison Band, at Waupun, Wis played. The 23 uniformed inmates of the band are arranged in a square formation in the prison yard. Beside them are some benches and a single chair on a box with a music stand. Next to it is a man wearing a broad brimmed hat who is presumably the bandleader or warden. The ensemble carries mainly brass instruments with a few clarinets, and the band's name is neatly painted on the bass drum head. This postcard was never mailed but was probably produced in the prison print shop around 1910.
This second postcard shows a different angle from the walls of the Wisconsin State Prison, and we can see the imposing main castle of the Waupun penitentiary with two lines of inmates standing in rows and facing prison guards. This card also was un-posted, but both may have been kept in the same old photo album.
Waupun is a small city with about 11,340 residents today, but in 1910 the population was only 3,365. The correctional facilities occupy much of the city center. In 1913 the prison had an average population of 732 inmates, male and female. In this same 1914 Wisconsin State report, a table was included that listed the occupations and professions of the prisoners. In 1913 the prison had the same number of musicians as ministers amongst the incarcerated, i.e. - 1. Most convicts were laborers (125), followed by carpenters (15), cooks (12), and barbers (11).
|Waupun Penitentiary c1893|
The Waupun Penitentiary was established in 1851 and built of local yellow sandstone taken from the prison quarry. To answer public concern over housing young juvenile offenders with the adult inmates, a reformatory school was added in 1857. The castle scheme of the big house at Waupun was common to many prisons of this era, but it lacked one thing that most other penitentiaries had. There was no execution room, since in 1853 Wisconsin became the third state after Michigan and Rhode Island to abolish the death penalty.
|Wisconsin State Prison, Waupun c1885|
The grounds of the Wisconsin State Prison covered 23 acres, and included a farm as well as a quarry. Inmates were employed as road crews, furniture makers, and worked at manufacturing twine and fabrics that were sold to the public.
According to the warden's report of 1914, the prison chaplain directed a band and orchestra that "takes second place to no prison band in the country." The orchestra played each day at the noon mealtime in the prison dining hall, while the band provided music for summer baseball games and sometimes performed concerts in the front yard for the general public.
What makes this a unique image can be seen in the enlargement. It shows several men of color playing alongside white musicians. This was a very rare mix to find in any band of this era, as integration in American society was still many years away. Waupun's town citizens who saw this band when it occasionally played outside the prison walls, must have remarked on this unusual group of musicians. It matches similar mixed race prison bands that I've written about previously in Fort Madison, Iowa and Red Wing, Minnesota,
The Waupun Prison introduced its band program in 1908, and the reformatory followed with a boys band in 1917. This was part of a reform movement of the 1900s that campaigned to improve conditions of our nation's prisons. Across the country, new progressive wardens were hired to eliminate corruption and harsh treatments, and initiate modern methods for rehabilitating criminals. Rather than relying on punishment alone, the prison wardens focused on basic education, disciplined work, and recreational activities to motivate prisoners. Providing musical instruments to create bands and orchestras in the prison was seen as a way to restore the humanity of the inmates and also promote the other prison improvements at large.
So Yeah,Warden! Give Him Back his Tuba!
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where a house of correction is the exception this weekend.