Ossining, N.Y. Criminals sent "up the river" marched in striped suits behind these turreted walls. And murderers, spies and celluloid tough guys walked the "last mile" to the electric chair.
Sing Sing still operates on the shores of the Hudson River minus the striped suits and death house. And it still retains its dark mystique.
Local officials and residents are hoping to capitalize on that notoriety with a novel museum proposed for the site of the prison. Plans call for an exhibit hall just outside the prison walls and the opening of Sing Sing's original cell block, now an eerie, roofless ruin of weathered stone and rusted bars. State prison administrators caution that details of the proposal still need to be worked out, but officials have been receptive.
"Sing Sing has a history to it," Prison Supt. Brian Fischer explained. "Why deny that history to the public?"
A changing structure
Sing Sing opened a few years after a group of inmates was dropped off on the shore of the Hudson River in 1825 and told to mine the stones around them to build the prison that would keep them.
Just 30 miles upriver from New York City, the prison has housed a sort of all-star rogues gallery over the years, including mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano and bank robber Willie Sutton.
Hollywood added to the Sing Sing's aura with a series of crime films that featured the prison or were partly filmed there. Notable was 1938's "Angels With Dirty Faces," which climaxed with James Cagney screaming on his way to the electric chair.
About 600 inmates were electrocuted at Sing Sing, including Cold War atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. One 1928 execution was immortalized by a photographer who secretly strapped a camera to his ankle. The famous image of Ruth Snyder in her death throes appeared under a Daily News headline reading "DEAD!"
New York's electric chair was retired in 1963. The death house is now a vocational education center. But the old image of the 2,255-inmate prison endures. Fischer notes with a rueful laugh that every article he reads about Sing Sing includes the adjective "infamous."
The surrounding Westchester County community has historically been ambivalent about the attention. The village changed its name from Sing Sing to Ossining when it incorporated a century ago, in part to differentiate local manufactured goods from prison-made products.
Ossining village mayor Tom Cambariere says a museum would allow locals to capitalize on Sing Sing's fame.
Under the proposal spearheaded by the Ossining Heritage Area Tourism Committee, the museum would be housed in what is now a maintenance garage just outside the prison walls. Exhibits would touch on the history of America's penal system "as seen through the lens of Sing Sing," including prison reforms from the just-completed century.
Supporters also want to get Sing Sing's original electric chair, currently on loan to the Newseum in Arlington, Va.
Raising the money
The heart of the plan calls for opening up a portion of the original cell block, which housed inmates until the 1940s. Today, the five-story structure is a stone shell of itself after damage from a fire in the 1980s. Its walls are crumbling slightly at the top, and weeds sprout from its blacktop floor.
The committee wants to fix up just one end of the block as it was, complete with cramped stone cells. Under the proposed plan, tourists would be able to walk under watch towers to the cell block, an area now within the security perimeter.
That's where the proposal gets tricky.
Perimeter fences garlanded with coils of razor wire will have to be moved. New solid walls will need to go up between inmates and tourists for security. There are fire exits to consider, wheelchair access. The list goes on.
The state Department of Correctional Services, while supportive of the concept, will pay for none of this. The committee hopes to raise the estimated $8 million needed from state and local government sources.
A financial and marketing study is due to be completed in about four months. If the marketing study shows the museum is viable, state corrections officials would still have to weigh in with a final decision.
But museum backers are hopeful. They cite Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, a former prison that annually draws more than a million visitors. Cambariere believes that a Sing Sing museum could attract up to 150,000.