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 Band at the Big House

01 November 2013

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
source: Wikipedia

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
source: Wikipedia

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.


Wendy said...

You have certainly given a different picture of how prisons operated. A tour of the penitentiary in Philadelphia gave me a similar impression. I wonder if there are any movies in which prison bands are referenced if not featured. And I wonder why so many prisons look like castles.

Kat Mortensen said...

They built them like castles in those days, didn't they? (I agree with Wendy, I see.)
You have me remembering my favourite scene from "White Heat" now.

Anonymous said...

I am sitting here going Oh my goodness over and over. What unique postcards, the grandeur of the buildings, the humanizing effect of both being a part of a band and bringing music into the daily lives of the other inmates. Oh my goodness. And Winsconsin, I think I would like you. Banning the death penalty in 1853. Australia conducted its last execution in 1967. Thanks for a great post.

Bel said...

If I had been in prison in those days, I would have wanted to be in one of those bands!

Jackie van Bergen said...

Great postcards.
Good to see that some things (music) can overcome racial differences and prejudices.

Deb Gould said...

Good for Wisconsin -- banning the death penalty! What a wonderful perspective on "house," Mike...the Big House, indeed. Love this post.

Helen Bauch McHargue said...

"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," I cannot imagine a better avenue to rehabilitation than to have prisoners learn to play instruments and play together in a band. Always look forward to and love your posts. When I see "temposanzatempo", my foot starts tapping.

Karen S. said...

This was perfect. I do like how you brought us to the Big House! It reminds me a bit of the old big house in Stillwater, Mn. Great postcards as well.

Mike Brubaker said...

@Karen S. - Click the link above on Red Wing, Minnesota and you'll see my earlier story that includes pictures of the prison band at Stillwater, MN too.

Postcardy said...

A big house but not a home sweet home.

Patrica Ball Morrison said...

I believe this is my first encounter about a prison band, I learned a lot from this. So interesting to look back.

Boobook said...

Snap. I've written about a prison as well (sort of).
This is a fascinating blog. To quote Boundforoz, "Oh my goodness".

Bob Scotney said...

I never expected to see a prison this week but as usual you have come up with something different for us to admire.

Rosie said...

Reminds me of an article I heard on CBC radio about how a woman in her sixties started a dance class in a New York prison. The prisoners really looked forward and even gave performance for the other immates.

Joan said...

Wow! A surprise take on the theme, but what a great bit of information and the pics were wonderful.

Nancy said...

I am amazed at the variety of your musical postcards and old photos, Mike. You've taken us through time and to many locations. I never knew that prisons sometimes had bands. I wonder how they'd go in today's prisons with modern prisoners....

Hazel Ceej said...

The c1893 Warupun Penitentiary looks like part of a castle to me. Beautiful really. I like to think it's the power of music working wonders on color/race of players in the band. And the music plays on... in memories... in our hearts.


Jo Featherston said...

That penitentiary sure does look like a castle, or perhaps a fortress. Great postcards! Despite all the reforms, I doubt if life as an inmate would really have been pleasant however, even if there was no longer any threat of death hanging over the prisoners' heads!

Little Nell said...

I didn’t realise that the death sentence had been abolished so long ago in some places. No execution room -far better to have a music room.

Tattered and Lost said...

I love the idea of them murmuring this. Dragging their tin cups over the cell doors and demanding the tuba.

I'm also guessing that if there was a member of the band who wasn't particularly proficient on their instrument there were prisoners wishing the death penalty still existed.


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