“God doesn’t want even convicts to die like rats in a hole!”

November 20, 2009 at 10:07 am (Uncategorized)

“Columbus Prison Fire” was written by Carson Jay Robison, considered by some to be the first country/cowboy/hillbilly (pick your term) singer on record.  Better known as a songwriter, he often worked with popular singer, Vernon Dahlhart, accompanying him on guitar and harmonica.  Sometimes he sang back-up and whistled as well.  He was a particularly accomplished whistler.  In 1924, the duo collaborated on “The Wreck of the Old ’97” b/w “The Prisoner’s Song”  – country music’s first million-selling record.  Four years later, Dahlhart dumped him.

Almost immediately, Robison teamed up with Frank Luther (aka Frank Luther Crowe of the Crowe Brothers), performing and recording, albeit with less success than he had enjoyed with Dahlhart.  Then, in 1930, Robison wrote “Columbus Prison Fire,” just a day or two after the April 21st conflagration at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus.  He immediately entered the studio to record this incredible tear-jerker, hoping to be the first to capitalize on the tragedy.  This is where things get kind of confusing.

For one thing, Robison would occasionally record with Bud Billings, the name under which the song was released on the Montgomery Ward label.  However, it was then retitled “The Prison Fire” and released on on Victor and attributed to Bud and Josh Billings (Josh Billings was another one of Robison’s pseudonyms).  “The Prison Fire” also came out on the Harmony label as by Frank Luther and Frank Tuttle.  Apparently, Frank Luther and Bud Billings are one-in-the-same and Frank Tuttle is just another one of Robison’s aliases (along with Charles Robison and Carlos B. McAfee.  Finally, it was called “Ohio Prison Fire” when it came out on the Columbia label, credited to the Carson Robison Trio.

Robison’s song suffers in comparison to Charlotte and Bob Miller’s less restrained “Ohio Prison Fire.”  A review in Time magazine noted, “Carson Robison drones two stories-with-morals [the other was “Why Are the Young Folks so Thoughtless?”] to violin and organ accompaniments.  The first ends, ‘God doesn’t want even convicts to die like rats in a hole.’”  Today, Robsion is probably best remembered (if he is remembered at all) for having written the lyrics to “Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”  His partner, Luther, wrote the music.


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Dreams of My Father

November 15, 2009 at 2:32 am (Uncategorized)

Motive VWM cover

Once upon a time, the Ohio Department of Mental Hygiene and Correction published a small magazine entitled, Motive.  The magazine’s purpose was to publicize what was going on in the agency.  Surprisingly, there is some worthwhile content in these issues, particularly for the historian.  I was fortunate to acquire a small stash of them nearly 30 years ago which I made use of when writing Central Ohio’s Historic Prisons.

What made the publication of Motive and similar ventures possible was the use of prison labor and printing presses.  In fact, there was a time when the print shop at the Ohio State Reformatory printed not only Motive, but many college catalogs, various leaflets for state departments, and even souvenir booklets.  The quality was fairly high for the time and the cost was relatively cheap.

Now, the gentleman holding a slide rule on the cover of this particular issue of Motive was my father, Virgil Meyers.  Despite never having attended college, he was a talented draftsman who eventually worked his way into a job as a civil engineer.  He had started out as a boy of 11 driving water trucks for the Ohio Department of Transportation.  Later, he worked at state garages in Sidney and Delaware, moved onto Lockbourne Air Force Base following World War II, then retired into a job in private industry.

My father was a remarkably talented man who could have done many things if given the opportunity.  However, when he received a job offer from Walt Disney in 1938, just after the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he turned it down.  The country had yet to emerge from the Great Depression and he didn’t think it was wise to give up a good job with ODOT to take a gamble on making cartoons.  Instead, he wound up designing prisons.

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The Rise of Jennie Cushing

November 15, 2009 at 1:24 am (Uncategorized)


Mary Stanbery Watts was born in Delaware County, not far from the Girls’ Industrial Home which she later used as the setting for her 1914 novel, The Rise of Jennie Cushing.  Educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Cincinnati, the budding writer married a successful businessman and remained in the Queen City the remainder of her life.  However, in her writings Watts often returned to her childhood on the farm.  A frequent theme of her novels was the once-prominent family whose fortunes were on the decline – a theme drawn from her own experience.

The Rise of Jennie Cushing was Watts’s fifth novel, but the first to deal with the problem of marriage between different social classes.  As a child of the slums, Jennie is made a ward of the state and placed at the Home (aka Girls’ Industrial School).  Upon her release at the age of 18, she makes her way in the world working for various families, and eventually becoming a hairdresser.  Then Jennie meets a painter, Donelson Meigs, who falls in love with her and takes her with him to Paris.  However, when he learns of her past, Jennie flees back to America to avoid humiliating him.  Meigs follows her to Delaware County where she operates a home for orphans, but she refuses his offer of marriage.  For reasons she has difficulty expressing, she does not feel it would be right.

In 1917, The Rise of Jennie Cushing was filmed by the famed director, Maurice Tourneur. However, the ending was apparently tweaked a little bit.  According to The Motion Picture Guide (edited by Robert B. Connelly), when Meigs first proposes to Jennie, her response is, “No, I won’t marry you – but I’ll live with you.”  Meigs then counters, “You’re on.”  But unlike Watts’s heroine, this Jennie finally agrees to a traditional marriage, despite their class differences.

Note:  When the film played Kansas, the state Board of Review required the following edits: Eliminations: REEL 3 – ELIMINATE SUBTITLES “IT SEEMS WRONG AND VILE. I WILL GO WITH YOU.” REEL 6 – “I WANT YOU TO BE MY DEAR AND HONORED WIFE, ETC.” “NO, I DON’T WANT YOU TO MARRY ME.”

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Setting a Tragedy to Music

November 14, 2009 at 2:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Ohio Prison Fire

Carlotte & Bob Miller sang it "best"

On April 21, 1930 – Easter Monday – the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, was the site of the nation’s worst prison fire.  Many of the 322 inmates who perished died in their cells, “trapped like birds in a cage.”  Within three days, C[h]arlotte and Bob Miller had recorded the mawkish ballad, “Ohio Prison Fire.”  What sets this recording apart from the “competition” (which will be discussed in a later post) is Charlotte’s tearful dialogue with a prison official as she is in the process of identifying the charred remains of her son: “O, bodies, bodies, bodies.  I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it!”  Unfortunately, she sounds a lot like the wife in Hudson & Landry’s “Frontier Christmas” comedy sketch.  The same recording was released on a variety of labels (Grey Gull, VanDyke, Radiex, Champion, Okeh) and under several different names (Carlotte & Bob Miller, Miller & Miller, B&C Barnes).  Recently, it was included in the 3 -CD box set People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs: 1913-1938 (available wherever “good” music is sold).

Recording artists weren’t the only ones quick to capitalize on the fire at the penitentiary, however.  Within 21 hours, New York moviegoers, 600 miles away, were able to watch Pathe newsreel footage of the disaster.  As the August, 1930 issue of Popular Science magazine reported: “The theater patrons not only see the harrowing sights; they also hear the shrieking of the prison siren, the hissing as water hits flames, the howling of desperate prisoners, the crackling of burning logs, the thud of falling beams, the commands of Army officers and jail officials. More than that, they hear a brief talkie lecture by an expert on prison conditions, explaining the causes of the tragedy and suggesting means of preventing its recurrence.”

By the way, the warden of the Ohio Penitentiary admitted he didn’t have a particular plan for dealing with such emergencies.  He simply expected his staff to use “common sense.”

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