Tag Archives: Auburn Prison

Thomas Mott Osborne Film Premiere Theater Mack

Who is Thomas Mott Osborne? And what is The Castle? These questions will be answered at the Auburn, NY premiere of a new documentary about Thomas Mott Osborne on Sunday, October 14 at 2:00 p.m. at Theater Mack at the Cayuga Museum. Filmmaker Neil Novello and Osborne biographer, David Connelly, will discuss the film after the screening. This program is free and open to the public.

Thomas Mott Osborne’s statue stands in front of the Auburn, NY Police and Fire Departments. The Castle refers to the 105 year-old Portsmouth Naval prison that stands empty on a bluff in the Piscataqua River separating Maine and New Hampshire adjacent to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. But what do these two (Osborne & The Castle) have in common?

It is written in the Navy’s history of the Portsmouth Naval Prison aka The Castle that Thomas Mott Osborne “introduced a new era and a new viewpoint to the Naval prison.”  From 1917 to 1921, Auburn prison reformer and resident, Thomas Mott Osborne, was the only civilian commander of the Naval Prison. Osborne hadn’t served in the Navy.

“Osborne is either a nut or a visionary,” says Pulitzer Prize winner and Auburn resident, David Connelly, who worked with Award-winning filmmaker Neil Novello from Maine on what is the only video documentary ever made about the Auburn industrialist turned humanitarian in the early 20th Century. The always-controversial Thomas Mott Osborne brought scandal, prison reform and a movie crew to the Portsmouth Naval Prison aka The Castle. ”Osborne’s command of the Naval Prison just maybe the culmination of Osborne’s prison reform career,” says Mr. Novello who started on this documentary five years ago.

Novello’s filmmaking journey started with his visit to the Syracuse University’s Bird Library to do research on Osborne. He went through box after box of Osborne’s history at the Naval Prison, which provided many great photos, newspaper articles, as well as Osborne’s writings. It was the Bird Library librarian who told Novello about Osborne biographer, David Connelly.

In the course of a year, David Connelly generously gave of his research time and family time to be a part of this documentary. Connelly knew Frederik (Erik) Osborne, TMO’s grandson, who had the remaining two reels of the Osborne-produced propaganda prison silent feature movie. “The Right Way” was filmed at the Naval Prison using prisoners as extras.

The other important person who gave generously of her time to Novello was Eileen McHugh, Director of the Cayuga Museum of Art and History. The Museum had a copy of Osborne in a 1926 experimental sound movie filmed at the Case Laboratories in Auburn where Osborne mentions the Portsmouth Naval Prison and talks about his reform ideas.

McHugh provided Mr. Novello an area in the basement of the museum to videotape David Connelly’s interview and McHugh also secured, via the Cayuga Museum’s archive, photos of early Auburn as well as Osborne and his family.

To understand Commander Osborne’s Naval prison experience, Novello needed to include Osborne’s family and his work at Auburn and Sing Sing state prisons in New York where he disguised himself as a prisoner to find out what life was like inside. When Osborne went to the Naval Prison, he disguised himself as a prisoner for a report to the Secretary of the Navy. While Commander of the Naval Prison, again Osborne disguised himself as a sailor and was a coal shoveler on the USS North Dakota as a way to understand Navy life.

Osborne became known for his Mutual Welfare League system where prisoners manage prisoners. The Mutual Welfare League was used at Auburn State prison and in Sing Sing state prison as well as the Naval prison.

With the additional photos provided by Ossining Historical Society in New York, and movie film (of Naval sea exercises and World War One) provided by the National Archive, Novello had the visual ingredients for his documentary about Osborne’s experience at the Naval Prison which in a way, culminates his prison reform career.

“It’s all about Osborne’s perspective and his thinking”, says Novello. “I did not want to make a run-of- the-mill, academic-type documentary with pros and cons. It’s about Osborne but told through his letters, film and David Connelly’s wonderful interview.”

Novello wanted to premiere TMO@The Castle in Auburn at the Cayuga Museum of Art and History’s newly restored Theater Mack. “It’s most fitting to show my documentary right here,” says Novello.

Novello has also produced a DVD called, The Castle: Stories of the Portsmouth Naval Prison which includes TMO@The Castle and a commentary to go with the remaining reels of Osborne’s feature movie, The Right Way.

Auburn Prison, Gillette Case Documentary, Lecture

A North Woods Elegy: Incident at Big Moose Lake is a documentary feature film that explores one of the most famous American murder cases. Grace Brown, a pregnant young woman from upstate New York, was killed in the Adirondacks on July 11, 1906 [watch the trailer].

Her lover, Chester Gillette, was eventually tried and convicted of her murder. Gillette died in the Auburn Prison electric chair on March 30, 1908. The case became the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy.

A North Woods Elegy explores the fascination America had, and still has, with the case, encompassing issues of class, jurisprudence in America at the turn of the 20th century and ethics and sensationalism in news reporting.

The documentary film will be shown in Theater Mack at the Cayuga Museum, twice on Saturday, September 15, at 1:00 pm. and again at 4:00,. Derek Taylor, the film’s producer, director and editor, will answer questions after each screening.

At 3:00 p.m., there will be a lecture on “Gillette in Auburn” by Tompkins County Judge Jack Sherman, editor of The Prison Diaries and Letters of Chester Gillette. Gillette spent more than a year in Auburn Prison before his execution- his diary from that time is today in the collection of Hamilton College. Both the film screenings and the lecture are free and open to the public.

Executed Today Blog: New Yorks Electric Chair

One of the blogs I follow here at New York History is Executed Today, which gives a glimpse of those unfortunates who have found themselves at the wrong end of capital punishment. Unlike the American-only Execution Database of the Death Penalty Information Center, Executed Today travels the world far and wide and includes notable lynchings and other extra-legal violent deaths.

Wednesday’s post &#82201890: William Kemmler, only in America,&#8221 traces the emergence of the electric chair in New York by following the careers of those that have made state death their business. Men like Buffalo dentist (hence the chair and not the gurney) Dr. Alfred Southwick, who watched a drunk guy die after falling into an electrical generator and then worked diligently with New York Governor David B. Hill to make execution by electricity legal. The first execution, despite the War of Currents, was William Kemmler on August 6, 1890. He had been convicted of the hatchet murder of his common-law wife Tillie Ziegler. That’s a sketch of his death at left-above.

Some other recent fascinating posts at Executed Today have included:

1916: Sir Roger Casement
Executed by the British Government for his part in the Easter Rising.

1917: Frank Little of the IWW lynched
Wobbly labor organizer abducted from his hotel and hanged from a railroad trestle in Butte, Montana.

1963: 21 Iraqi Communists
Iraq’s new Ba’ath government executed 21 Shi’a soldiers for participating in a coup attempt.