“I was just wondering how I did on my IQ test?”

April 14, 2010 at 10:38 pm (Uncategorized)

A reader asked me how to obtain information regarding a former “resident” of the Girls’ Industrial School.

The short answer is to contact the Ohio Department of Youth Services and complete a public records request form.  It may take a little while and there will be a nominal charge, but if they have it, you can probably get a copy (providing there are no legal reasons for limiting access).

However, you may not find what you are looking for.

In my experience (1970-2000), correctional institutions generate an enormous amount of paper.  When a “resident” is admitted to an institution, a file is created.  The master file is generally kept somewhere in a records room in the administrative area/building, but there are working files in the school, clinic, social work and psychology departments, etc.  While there is some duplication of information, an educational file and a medical file are very different animals.

When a resident is discharged, the files are gathered together and sent to storage.  In most of the “classic” correctional institutions – Ohio Penitentiary, Ohio State Reformatory, Boys’ Industrial School, and Girls’ Industrial School – there were attics and cellars which housed old records.  However, newer institutions are seldom designed with extra storage space.  At TICO (Training Institution Central Ohio), for example, the old records were kept in a room that housed an unused swimming pool.

Over the years, I have witnessed or participated in many record “purges.”  The fact is not all records are considered equally worthy of retention.  Although the Ohio Department of Administrative Services established the policy for what should be kept and for how long, there are a lot of gray areas.  Attorneys don’t even agree (imagine that).  As a consequence, some things probably got pitched that should have been retained and vice versa.

And when I say “pitched,” I mean exactly that.  In the old days, there wasn’t the same concern with destroying sensitive information (e.g. social security numbers) that there is now.  [Note: When I first went to work at the Ohio State Reformatory, I was astounded to find that inmate “clerks” typed all the reports, maintained the files, and trafficked in making copies for other inmates.]

If you had your own power plant (as many of the older institutions did), the records were probably incinerated.  But if you didn’t, they were likely to be carted off to the landfill or somebody’s garage (and, now, turn up in flea markets and on eBay).

Some 25 years ago when I was working as an auditor, I visited the building that was being used by ODYS for record retention.  I discovered that the files were not being properly maintained – they were, literally, stacked on counters, desks, chairs, and stair steps – and that it was impossible to find what I was looking for.  When I complained, the response was to bring in a mobile shredder and simply get rid of the files in an indiscriminate fashion until they were down to a manageable number (or so a concerned file clerk told me).

When the Ohio Penitentiary, Boys’ Industrial School, and Girls’ Industrial School closed, the “historic” records (pre-1945) were deposited with the Ohio Historical Society.  There is a limited amount of information available through their website: http://www.ohiohistory.org/resource/database/industrial/

As I recall, school records had to be kept for the longest period of time (99 years, I think).  When I was at Scioto Village (a later incarnation of the GIS), I helped sort through many decades’ worth of school records in preparation for their being boxed up and sent to retention.  We were very careful to keep anything that indicated which courses the students took and the grades they earned, but anything that wasn’t strictly education-related was sent to the incinerator.  Of course, the institutional schools were always being sent transcript requests, so the importance of retaining this information was obvious.

The strangest record request I ever received was when I was working at the Child Study Center in the late ‘seventies.  One afternoon, I got a call from a guy in Tennessee.  He said he was sitting around the house and, “I was just wondering how I did on my IQ test?”  He had been at the Juvenile Diagnostic Center about 15 years earlier.  I asked him how he was doing and he replied, “Okay.”  He was employed and had stayed out of trouble.  So I told him in that case it really didn’t matter.  He should just move on with his life.  Besides, I had no idea where they would have stored his file.


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The Girls’ Industrial School

February 28, 2010 at 6:50 pm (Uncategorized)

In Central Ohio’s Historic Prisons, the Girls’ Industrial School (aka Scioto Village School for Girls) is, regrettably, mentioned only in passing. There simply wasn’t enough space to do it justice.  It is the authors’ hope that they will be able to incorporate something of the history of the institution into a future book.

Founded in 1869 on the west bank of the Scioto River, GIS occupied as much as 189 acres, including the former site of White Sulfur Springs, a health resort.

C.M. Ginther of the Dayton News wrote in 1920 that: “When the school was established fifty-one years ago, its purpose was misunderstood. Its founders had a definite aim, but, unhappily, the public obtained a perverted notion about it. The idea gained credence that it was a place of punishment where girls from 8 to 21 years of age were incarcerated for disobedience or wilfulness. Apparently no shred of the truth reached the public mind that it was a school in which the best theories of modern education were followed. Girls admitted to the place were, by the very fact, ostracised and given a character which bordered on depravity. When they left the school the public regarded them with suspicion.”  And, yet, the very next year, the school was officially described as a place for “the instruction, employment and reformation of evil-disposed, incorrigible, and vicious girls.”

The picture at right shows the Administration Building.  When I went to work there in 1980, it still looked much the same.  One of my coworkers had taken a job as a teacher at GIS upon graduating from college and moved into living quarters in the Administration Building.  She remained there until she retired some thirty years later and, only then, had to find somewhere else to live.

The buildings that I worked in, although old, were mostly second generation.  Some of the original, even more ornate structures had been destroyed by fire.  A small hospital on the grounds provided routine medical care for the girls.  In fact, many children were born there since it wasn’t unusual for a pregnant girl to be committed to the institution.  On one occasion, I met a teenage boy who had been born at GIS and was later sentenced there when it was (briefly) a co-educational facility.

Not far from the hospital was a small cemetery.  Many of the headstones bore the same date because a number of girls had died during the influenza epidemic in the early part of the 20th century.  As was true of the Boys’ Industrial School, many youth who wound up at GIS simply had nowhere else to go.  When they stopped accepted “status offenders” (i.e. girls who were doing things that were only considered crimes because they were underage), the population shrank dramatically.

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Are there any “Black Sheep” in your family?

February 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm (Uncategorized)

Last week, I picked up a handful of mug shots at a local flea market because the price was right.  I didn’t expect to find any big name criminals in the group and, as far as I have been able to determine, I didn’t.  What I did get was a bunch of guys who were picked up in various towns around Ohio for such things as drunk and disorderly, theft, and vagrancy.  It could be that this was the only time in their lives they got in trouble with the law.

Years ago when I first started researching my own family tree, I discovered that one of my uncles had stolen a car when he was 12.  I wouldn’t have expected it of him given the high regard in which he was held in his community.  But there it was, written indelibly into the court records.  If anyone remembered it, I am sure they chalked it up to a youthful indiscretion and never held it against him as an adult.  (And, given his age and the size of the town, I doubt they took any mug shots.)

When Mike Harden of The Columbus Dispatch interviewed me about my book, Central Ohio’s Historic Prisons, he mentioned that he was in the process of researching a book he planned to write about his uncle who had been a bank robber by trade.  I would expect that his uncle’s chosen profession had once been an embarrassment to the family, but the fact that Mike intends to write a book about him suggests that our views on “black sheep” have changed.

I know I like to mention that I had an aunt by marriage whose cousin was Charles Makely of the Dillinger Gang (Makely was the one who was shot to death while trying to escape over the wall of the Ohio Penitentiary).  However, he wasn’t a blood-relative.  On the other hand, my grandfather made the newspapers at one time for having discovered Dillinger’s getaway car after he broke out of the Lima jail.

Now, if I had a dollar for everyone who has told me that they had a great-grandfather who was an axe murderer, I would have at least $5.  I don’t know what it is about claiming kinship to an axe murderer as opposed to other types of murderers, but I am a little skeptical.  It’s just that the numbers of axe murderers is rather small in proportion to all the other kinds.

Among my group of mugshots, there is only one who had a prior offense listed. I checked them all out on FamilySearch.com and FindAGrave.com, but with little success.  I might have turned up social security death records on two of them, but there wasn’t enough information to confirm it.  I also was unsuccessful in locating any of their graves, although most if not all of them are certainly dead by now.  If I were related to one of these guys, I would probably like to have a copy of the mug shot for my files, but other than getting arrested at least once, they seem to have left few traces behind.

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I’m Just A Black Sheep

February 3, 2010 at 2:47 am (Uncategorized)

When he was a “guest” at the Ohio Penitentiary, Harry Ainsworth Dawson was better known as inmate number 54763.  However, that all changed in 1929 when his song, “I’m Just A Black Sheep (A Real Prisoner’s Song),” was published by Joe McDaniel Music, Chicago and New York.  Dawson, who played guitar, sax, and cornet, had teamed up with fellow inmate, Roy Stout, as Harry & Roy.  At first they performed exclusively for the other prisoners and staff, but soon they were heard over WAIU radio in Columbus on the “Prisoners Program.”  Presumably, a local music publisher caught one of their broadcasts and arranged for the initial publication of Dawson’s song.

Originally from Lorain County, Dawson was sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary in 1925 to serve 15 years for robbery.  He was a former carnival and circus man and played the part of a Jewish comedian in the prison Christmas minstrel show.  He also sang in the International Four and played sax in the saxophone quartet, both inmate groups.  Dawson was paroled in 1929 (just before the 1930 fire) with the hope that he would be able to make a successful career in music.  The same year, his short story, “The Bindlestiff’s Revenge,” was published in issue number one of Smokehouse Monthly.

As the sheet music (at right) shows,  Jack Jackson, the Strolling Yodeler, recorded “I’m Just A Black Sheep” on the Columbia label.  So did the ubiquitous Carson Robison Trio and John L. White, the Lonesome Cowboy.  Bill Dalton played a chorus of the song on the console organ at Loew’s Ohio Theatre.  At the time, Dawson had two other songs performed: “You Didn’t Know or Care” and “When We Meet in the Palace of Dreams.” However, they do not appear to have been published.  Before departing Columbus, he had also composed “The Charity Newsies Song.”

Not much else is known about Dawson’s subsequent career, although he was still writing songs as late as 1938 when Joe McDaniel Music issued, “Only A Broad Along Broadway.”

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One Last Word on “Prison Fire” Recordings

January 30, 2010 at 3:23 pm (Uncategorized)

In record collecting circles, a “completist” is someone who collects every single variation of a recording or, perhaps, a record label.  That means that if he (there are a few, but not many, shes) collects a particular artist, it’s not enough to have every recording that the artist made, but also a copy on every label that issued it.  And if the information on the record label changed during subsequent pressings, well the completist would need to have one of each.  Some collectors aren’t particularly interested in the music per se; they just want a copy of every record that came out on a given label.

Now, I have to admit I have completist tendencies, but, so far, I have kept them under reasonable control.  That is why I am not going to actively pursue obtaining copies of all the variations of the Carson Robison recording of “Columbus Prison Fire.”  I have, however, spent a few minutes on the internet seeing how many I could turn up.  As far as I can tell, all of these records were the product of a single recording session; just the names have been changed (and, sometimes, not even that).

Here is what I found. The song was released by Bud Billings & Carson Robison on the Montgomery Ward label and by Bud & Joe Billings on the Victor label.  When it came out on Broadway, the artist was listed as John Moore, but on Parmount he was billed as John McGhee. The Carson Robison Trio are credited with the song on the Challenge, Perfect, Banner, Jewel, and Oriole lables.  On Columbia, it was simply Carson Robison and on Harmony Frank Tuttle.

Now, one reason for this was geographic.  Several of these labels were small and not widely distributed.  Another reason was contractual; the artists who did the recording were under contract to a given label and could not appear under their own names on others.  However, a few of these labels were considered premium and charged the customers more for the exact same recording.  Of course, it wasn’t unusal at this time for several artists to have a “hit” with the same song.

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Juvenile Delinquency

December 9, 2009 at 12:54 am (Uncategorized)

When I started working at the Juvenile Diagnostic Center in 1971, I noticed a bronze plaque on the wall of the administration building.  It was the profile of a distinguished-looking gentleman in bas relief.  The name on the plaque was “Dr. Henry H. Goddard.”

As I later learned, Dr. Goddard had been the head of the Ohio Bureau of Juvenile Research, the predecessor of JDC, many years earlier.  He also was a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and, before that, director of the department of research at Vineland Training School (for Feeble-Minded Boys and Girls) in New Jersey.  He had risen to prominence as a result of his research on mental retardation.  Not only did he coin the term “moron,” but he advocated the segregation of feeble-minded people in colonies where they would be discouraged from reproducing (he actually supported forced sterilization, but realized that would be a hard sell).

One of Goddard’s best known books was The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindness. Although it was widely distributed and used to support arguments for eugenics or selective breeding, even he was forced to admit that his methodology was deeply flawed.  Goddard was so convinced that his theory was correct that he made certain the data supported it.

The testing protocol that Goddard implemented at Ellis Island led to the deportation of large numbers of immigrants, particularly Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians on the basis that they were “feeble-minded.”  He believed that his testing proved some races were clearly inferior to others.  Goddard’s work was also a factor in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.

Remembered today as the Father of Intelligence Testing in the United States, Goddard was the first to translate the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scales into English.  However, where Binet never claimed that his test measured unchangeable qualities, Goddard argued that it did, in fact, accurately assess a person’s inherent ability.  Furthermore, he believed feeble-mindedness could be traced to a single recessive gene.

But what do you expect from the guy who coached the first University of Southern California football team?  That’s right, young Henry Herbert Goddard coached the USC Trojans. [I’ll omit the obvious joke, here.]  As the late Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know . . . the rest of the story.”

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“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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