In 1919, Lewis E. Lawes moved his wife and young daughters into the warden's mansion at Sing Sing prison. They shared a yard with 1,096 of the toughest inmates in the world-murderers, rapists, and thieves who Lawes alone believed capable of redemption. Adamantly opposed to the death penalty, Lawes presided over 300 executions. His progressive ideas shocked many, but he taught the nation that a prison was a community. He allowed a kidnapper to care for his children and a cutthroat to shave him every morning. He organized legendary football games for his "boys," and befriended Hollywood greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Humphrey Bogart. This is "A story almost too good to be true, but too true to miss." -Mario Cuomo
In his 22 years as warden of Sing Sing prison through the 1920s and 1930s Lewis Edward Lawes oversaw the execution of more than 300 inmates. In Blumenthal's beautiful and bracing account of those years, Lawes, a death penalty opponent, experienced the pain of each death as though it were one of his own family. Against convention, Lawes saw his charges as individuals with talents, flaws and the need for fundamental respect. In looking out for his "boys," Lawes fought existing practices, misguided reformers and a public that would sooner forget those who have run afoul of the law than come to grips with the social conditions that produce such people. Blumenthal, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, presents a swirling cavalcade of Runyonesque characters unrepentant multiple murderers, career armed robbers, fallen society swells and tragic young people whose lives were altered by some impulsive act. He brilliantly captures in them the same spark that drove Lawes's entire career a basic and irreducible humanity. Always Blumenthal brings the narrative back to the inmates and their trusted overseer. When Lawes retired in 1941, work at Sing Sing stopped and prisoners wept openly. With exquisite detail and real passion, Blumenthal has brought to life a legend and the world he sought to make better. B&w photos.