Monday, June 23, 2014
OSSINING, N.Y. (AP) — An old power plant at Sing Sing that once supplied the juice for the electric chair is being eyed as the site for a museum dedicated to the infamous prison.
Supporters envision thousands of tourists streaming "up the river" from New York to see artifacts including "Old Sparky," as the chair was known; a metal "head cage" used when prisoners were transported; and a display of prisoners' weapons, from axes made in metal shop to shivs fashioned from plastic forks.
"Sing Sing is a brand name," said John Wunderlich, president of the Ossining Historical Society Museum. "You go anywhere in this country, in Europe even, everybody's heard of Sing Sing."
The prison's fame stems from the many criminals who ended up at Sing Sing and, in some cases, never came back. They included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 on espionage charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.
The prison was also the last stop for many members of the notorious of Murder Incorporated, which acted as a contract killing squad for the Mafia in the 1930s and '40s. And it was where prolific bank robber Willie Sutton used a makeshift ladder to escape in 1932.
Sing Sing's reputation was burnished by Hollywood, which used it as a setting for such 1930s movies as "The Big House" and "Angels With Dirty Faces." The lockup 30 miles up the Hudson from New York City also inspired the saying now synonymous with incarceration: "up the river."
"It's full of history, that's for sure," said Arthur Wolpinsky, a correction officer at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility since 1971 and the prison historian. "Electrocutions, riots, escape attempts. And so much has changed over the years. Inmates can have cable TV in their cells now."
The power plant is separated from the 1,600 inmates by a high wall topped with guard towers. It provided a steady source of power from 1936 through at least 1963, the last time the electric chair was used.
And despite a commonly held notion from prison movies, Wolpinsky said, "The lights did not dim at Sing Sing when the electric chair was used."
There are plenty of prison museums around the country, but most, like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, are at closed facilities. It's rare to have a museum at an active prison. One is the Angola Museum, just outside the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which draws about 2,600 visitors a month.
Museumgoers in Angola get a tour of the prison. That's not envisioned at Sing Sing, said Jerry Faiella, executive director of Historic Hudson River Towns and a spokesman for the project. However, there are hopes of eventually showing museumgoers the original Sing Sing cellblock, built by prisoner labor in 1825 and now a ghostly shell on the river.
For now, plans include a mock-up of original cells —which were 7 feet long, 3½ feet wide and 6½ feet high — as well as a recreation of the old "death house," complete with electric chair.
The layout, 22,000 square feet in all, will allow visitors to avoid that exhibit, however.
"There are some things people just don't want to see," said state Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, who represents the district.
A Sing Sing museum could eventually attract 250,000 people a year, supporters say. Hornblower, the company that sends boats to Alcatraz and the Statue of Liberty, is involved in the Sing Sing planning.
A Sing Sing museum had been proposed as recently as 2005, but the economic downturn stymied those plans, Galef said.
"Now we're at a very good point for this," she said. "The state's economic plan calls for construction and tourism. We're hoping for funds from various levels of government, private companies and individuals."
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said in a statement that it supports "any initiative that grows jobs, the economy and tourism, and especially when it helps showcase the history of one of our correctional facilities."
First on the to-do list is to update earlier studies "and that will tell us how much we'll need. Then we can apply for grants and so on," Faiella said. A fundraiser was held this month. And plans for the museum will probably include a gift shop.
AP news researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York contributed to this report.