Kathryn Lawes – The Mother of Sing Sing

Kathryn Lawes – The Mother of Sing Sing

Today’s post highlights the life and work of Kathryn Stanley Lawes, known as the “Mother of Sing Sing.”

Now, Kathryn Lawes’ story was actually my entry into Ossining history – when my husband and I first moved here, one of the first things we did was go to the Ossining Library and check out every book we could find about Ossining.

Of course, many of them were focused on Sing Sing Prison.  Built by convicts in 1825 using stone quarried on site, it has featured prominently in the history and lore of our town. And Hollywood’s films of the 1930s, starring actors like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, and Bette Davis, and where the terms “Up the River,” “The big house” and “The last mile” were coined, helped burnish the myth and mystery of the prison. (Fun fact: Many of these films were actually shot inside Sing Sing’s walls, using real prisoners as extras and sometimes engaging the actual Warden, Kathryn’s husband Lewis Lawes, to play a version of himself.  In 1934, Warner Brothers even built a brand-new gymnasium for the prison as a thank-you.  Here’s a partial list of films if you’re interested.)

One of the first books I read was Ralph Blumenthal’s “The Miracle at Sing Sing,” a biography of Kathryn’s husband, the progressive and once well-known Warden Lewis Lawes.  In charge of Sing Sing from 1920 to 1941, he instituted many reforms and remains the longest tenured prison warden in its history. He also seems to have had the highest profile of any prison warden ever, appearing in movies, giving lectures world-wide, hosting his own radio program, writing books, articles, a Broadway play, and even a couple of screenplays.  He also oversaw more executions than any other Sing Sing warden (303, to be precise, with four of them women.)

His wife, Kathryn, was beloved by Sing Sing’s inmates — to the point that they all called her “Mother.”  In addition to raising three daughters inside the prison walls, she would regularly go into the prison and visit with the incarcerated.  She arranged for every man to get a Christmas present; she would help them write letters to their families; she would even intercede on their behalf with the Warden on occasion.

In 1937, the Logansport-Pharos-Tribune wrote one of the few articles about her and described how she “Took – not sent –  food and clothes and money to a family left desolate by the husband’s imprisonment.   She saw to it that encouraging letters went to hopeless young criminals.  Many, many dollars found their way from her purse to the pockets of newly released men,  frightened to face freedom again. . . When a convict’s mother or near relative was dying, the convict was permitted to leave the Sing Sing walls for a final visit.   On such occasions instead of going under heavy guard, he was taken in Mrs. Lawes’ own car, often accompanied by the Warden’s wife herself.” [1]  

Her youngest daughter, Cherie, recalled how her mother once gave away a favorite dress of hers so that the daughter of one of “the boys” could wear it to attend a high school dance.

Kathryn hosted Labor Day picnics for inmates, Halloween parties for the neighborhood children, and made sure the mess served special meals for Thanksgiving and other holidays.

The inmates knew that they could trust her, with one quoted as saying that telling Mother Lawes something was “like burying it at sea.”

She was especially kind to those in the death house awaiting execution, quietly helping to make their cells brighter, spending hours talking to them, helping out their families – to the extent of putting the families up in her own home as the execution date drew near and arranging their final visits.   She also made sure that every prisoner had a decent burial if they had no immediate family.

Little things, perhaps, but important.  And so deeply compassionate.  

In 1936, the “boys” sent her this handmade birthday card:

Courtesy of the Lewis Lawes Archive, John Jay College, NYC

Kathryn was born in Elmira, New York in 1885.  Born into genteel poverty, she was ambitious and smart.  At 17, she took a business course and landed a job as a secretary in a paper company.  It’s around that time she met Lewis Lawes, who was working as an errand boy in a neighboring office.  But Lewis’ father was a prison guard at the Elmira Prison, so it was rather natural that his son would follow in his footsteps.

Kathryn and Lewis married in 1905 and started their family.  Lewis quickly rose through the ranks in the New York prison system first in Elmira, then in Auburn.  In 1915, he became Chief Overseer at the Hart Island reformatory, living right in the middle of the facility with Kathryn and their two young daughters.  There, Kathryn found time to work with the boys, some who were as young as 10, giving many of them the first maternal attention they’d ever experienced.     

Still, it’s quite hard to flesh out Kathryn’s story.  She gave very few interviews and those that she did give read like someone wrote them without ever talking to her.  Much of what we know about her surfaced only after her mysterious death.

You see, what makes her story so complex (and dare I say compelling?) is that she died at the age of 52 after falling off the Bear Mountain Bridge.  

What, you say?  But yes, it’s true.

I hate to hijack a Women’s History month post with a true crime mystery, but it can’t be helped.  

On October 30, 1937, the New York Times published an article entitled “Wife of Warden Lawes Dies After a Fall.  Lies Injured all Day at Bear Mountain Span.”  In it, the NYS Police said that she had jumped or fallen from the Bridge. Though conscious when discovered hours later by Warden Lawes, their son-in-law, and Dr. Amos Squire the Westchester County Medical Examiner, she died of her injuries soon after arriving at Ossining Hospital.

A few days later, a follow-up story was published in the Times that quoted heavily from Dr. Amos Squire (the former Sing Sing Prison Doctor as well as Medical Examiner), asserting that he had gone back to the scene of the accident.  There, he found “her high-heeled shoes caught between two boards of a walk” and concluded that she had gone hiking, perhaps venturing down the trail to pick wildflowers.  He surmised that she had tripped, rolled hundreds of feet down the steep embankment towards the river, breaking her leg in the fall.  Then, he asserted, she dragged herself 125 feet to the spot where she was found twelve hours later.

I mean, really.  So many things here –

First, how perfectly horrible.  What a ghastly way to die. How could this have happened to such a universally beloved woman? 

But then, the mind starts to whir . . . Were fifty-two-year-old women in the habit of hiking in 1937?   In high heels?  And how convenient that her high heels remained stuck between “boards of a walk.”  And what about this dragging herself one hundred twenty-five feet southward with a compound fracture to spot where she was finally found?  Finally, was it coincidence that the Westchester County Medical Examiner was Dr. Amos Squire, the former Sing Sing prison doctor and old friend to the Lawes’?  

There’s so much to unpack.  But I’m going to leave it there, for another time.

I’d rather try to concentrate on her life and the good she did in her relatively short time on earth by sharing some of the condolence letters Warden Lawes received. [2]  More than anything, they give us a picture of the truly kind, benevolent influence she had on the lives of so many:

Joe Moran, Prisoner # 47-342 wrote “With the passing of dear Mrs. Lawes, the only ray of sunshine ever to be found within the walls of Sing Sing has gone forever.  She lent courage to the condemned, she comforted the sick and she brightened the lives of the friendless.   The men branded with numbers shall never forget the many kindnesses and acts of charity administered to them by the woman they regarded as their mother.”

Edward McIntyre, a former inmate, said “I don’t believe a kinder soul ever lived.  And I know this from watching her making her daily visits to the sick and being at all times ready to help somebody who was in need.”

Even the mothers of inmates sent in condolences: “She was highly appreciated by me because she was kind to the inmates, especially my son.  Only two weeks ago he praised her to me.  He said ‘Mother, Mrs. Lawes is right fine.  Mrs. Lawes always says ‘hello boys’ in a motherly tone.  And you know, she does not have to recognize us.  But she does.’”

The inmates were inconsolable when they heard the news of her sudden and shocking death. Finally, against his instincts, Warden Lawes was forced to do the unthinkable – open up the prison gates and allow two hundred or so “old-timers” to march up the hill to the Warden’s house to pay their last respects at her bier.  Two hundred men walked through the gates to freedom and two hundred men walked back into the prison.

That year, there was no Halloween party for local children, nor any Christmas presents for the inmates of Sing Sing ever again.

To this day, her good works are remembered by preachers and highlighted in their prayers and sermons

[1] The Whitewright Sun (TX) 11 Dec 1947

[2] Find them in the Lewis Lawes Archive at John Jay College