Hard Truth and Hard Time

Hard Truth and Hard Time

When George Brown, who said he was a resident of New York state, pleaded guilty before Judge Jones last week to stealing the automobile of controller Paul J. Schmidt, he said he was never in trouble before, and was sentenced to three years in the county jail. The judge promised to be lenient with Brown if he told the truth. On investigation the judge learns that Brown was convicted of stealing an automobile in New York state and sentenced to five years in Auburn prison, and that he escaped from that institution. Brown was confronted with the proofs by Judge Jones today and informed that his sentence would be changed from the county jail to the penitentiary. He was convicted in New York state under the name of Irving Barber.

Pittston Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), February 15, 1922

Irving Barber_back_markedHis first mistake was to steal the Ford Touring car of the newly elected Controller of Luzerne County. His second mistake was to lie to the judge about his criminal past. The mistakes compounded to send Irving Barber, alias George Brown, a 26-year-old apprentice carpenter, to the Eastern State Penitentiary for his third prison stretch on February 21, 1922.

Ultimately Irving admitted to the judge that he’d stolen five automobiles, various license plates and a bankbook. And he confessed to forging checks. It also came to light that he’d recently escaped from Auburn prison, where he’d been serving a five-year term for grand larceny. As a teenager he’d been an inmate of the Elmira Reformatory in New York.

Eastern State, or ESP, the prison in Philadelphia that Irving would call home for the next five to ten years was one of the oldest and most well known in the United States. ESP opened in 1829 and was designed around the Quaker idea of the “separate system” in which prisoners spent their days and nights in isolation to silently reflect upon the crimes they had committed. By contrast, Auburn, the New York prison from which Irving escaped, functioned under a system (aptly named the “Auburn system”) that forced prisoners to work together in silence, move in lockstep and avert their eyes from other prisoners and guards. Unlike at ESP, inmates who broke the rules in the Auburn system received harsh physical punishment.

Due to overcrowding the solitary system was abandoned at ESP in 1913 and from then on brutality towards inmates became the preferred method of control. Guards doused unruly prisoners with freezing water during the winter, strapped them into tight restraints for long periods of time and subjected the most intractable prisoners to prolonged periods of solitary confinement in a dark, underground pit with little food. If Irving didn’t cooperate he might have experienced some of those punishments.

ESP mugbook

Eastern State Penitentiary mug book page. Collection of ESP

Mugshots taken at ESP from the early 20th century to the late 1920s are easy to spot because in the side view the prisoner’s head is always held with a large clamp and the prisoner number, stamped on a tablet with rounded edges, hangs from the prisoner’s collar from an S-shaped wire.

Irving became ESP prisoner # C-1367 and he looks to have been stoic about his fate. It’s likely he realized that, unlike at Auburn, escape was unlikely. Assuming he served his maximum sentence of ten years, Irving might have crossed paths with Al Capone, who briefly entered ESP in 1929 as prisoner #C-3327. The celebrity prisoner got a nice cushy cell complete with oriental rugs and a radio, but Irving’s cell would have been one of the more usual kinds.


Modern photo of a cell at ESP

Irving made Pennsylvania his permanent home after he was released from prison. Under his alias — George Brown — he went straight, got married and raised a family. He died of a stroke in 1960.

ESP closed in 1971, however if you want to vicariously experience the sensation of being imprisoned there, it’s open for tours.

Featured photos: 1922 ESP prisoner card of Irving Barber. Collection of the author.