“You’re a lobster if you don’t read this one.”
“Funny bone ticklers that are hot and crisp from the popper.”
“We’d like to have been able to hand him a few swift swats in the breadbasket.”
“This one’s about a very chesty French hayseed who had a swelled bean over his ability as a lion hunter.”
Passages from a Damon Runyon story? Lines from an old-timey gangster movie? No, just cracking-good quotes from a handful of pungent, salty, to-the-point early 20th-century book reviews by a Sing Sing prisoner that were unearthed by an enterprising Times reporter and printed in the paper on April 30, 1911 and May 21, 1911.
The reviews, which only covered books available in the Sing Sing library, were marked with numbers showing where each book was shelved. Most of them were positive (or “peacherino,” as the writer himself might have said), but there were a few savage pans mixed in. “Nix on this,” the critic wrote of Stephen Crane’s “Whilomville Stories.” “It’s too kiddish and cuts no ice with yours truly.” Of a novel called “Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush,” he said, “The easy marks from the pie-belt may fall for it, but no more for us.” Mark Twain was clearly a favorite (“he’s a cure for the blues if ever there was one”), and so was Victor Hugo (“Les Miserables,” he wrote, was “the richest thing that ever came down the pike”).
Though The Times tried at the time to discover the identity of the reviewer, all they found was that at least some of the pieces — if not all of them — were written by Prisoner No. 57,709. That’s as far as they got, explaining that “the making public of a convict’s name is one of the gravest violations of prison rules …. The literary prisoners, and there are a large number in Sing Sing … would not care, says the warden, to have their names known.”
The reporter who combed the reviews for clues came up with a few — many of them were peppered with vernacular Boston slang; at least one mentioned a wife — and speculated that William Bush, the assistant prison librarian, might have written some or all of them before his escape on Jan. 26, 1911: “In the nine years of his imprisonment for murder, he naturally became familiar with all the books of the prison library, and was able to criticize them perhaps as well, or better, than any other convict there.”
But a search of Sing Sing’s intake records shows that Bush’s prisoner number isn’t a match. Prisoner No. 57,709 turns out to be one Fred L. Stockford, 35, a clerk and traveling salesman who entered Sing Sing on Jan. 27, 1908, convicted of “depositing obscene matter in U.S. mails.” He’s described as a trim man with grayish-blue eyes and graying brown hair, a “rather large, long, slightly Roman” nose, five gold-capped teeth (“balance false”), “arched and heavy” eyebrows and medium-size ears. He used tobacco, he was married, he had no children and — last but certainly not least — he was born in Boston, where his mother still lived.
Even though we now know who he is, the paper’s 1911 assessment of Stockford’s work still stands: “Be he murderer or highwayman, cutthroat or pickpocket, his work as a master of slang and criticism terse and virile stands as one of the masterpieces of Sing Sing’s literature.”
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