Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison
The Rose Man
"I first met him in December, 1919, in the prison hospital during my visit to Sing Sing immediately preceding my acceptance of the wardenship," wrote Lewis Lawes. It was the beginning of an odd friendship between a convicted killer and a correction officer-prison warden that lasted until the day the inmate died. His name was Charles E. Chapin, 60, a former editor of one of New York City's largest newspapers, The World. On January 14, 1919, Chapin was convicted in Manhattan Supreme Court of the murder of his wife. He received a sentence of 20 years to life at Sing Sing.
Up to that time, Chapin was a successful editor with a high-pressure job at The World. He wielded significant power at the newspaper and was not shy about using it. Even so, Chapin made few enemies in the profession. When he arrived at the prison in 1919, he was already thin, fragile and in poor health. "A forlorn, gray haired figure lay listlessly on the prison cot," said Lawes when he first saw him. Chapin quickly fell into a cycle of despair and loneliness, perhaps brought on by the knowledge that he would never be a free man again. But Lawes took pity on the former newspaperman and tried to find some sort of job that he could perform at the prison. He found the perfect assignment when he made Chapin editor of Sing Sing's newspaper, The Bulletin. But fate worked against him when budgetary restrictions forced the discontinuance of the paper.
"Here was a man groping for an interest in life," said Lawes. "Again he began to droop. He walked through the yard with a lagging stepa failing body faced with years and years of endless nothingness." But a few months later, Chapin came to Lawes and asked to tend a small patch of lawn in the prison yard. Lawes agreed, happy to provide the man with something to do. For two years, Chapin tended the grounds, carrying in fertile soil from outside the walls and having friends send him fresh grass seeds. He kept the grass neatly trimmed and soon, it grew into a lush, green lawn.
The following year, Chapin requested and received permission to plant a small flower garden in a neglected area of the prison yard. "I glanced over at the yard," wrote Lawes years later, "Not a blade of grass, not a treepiles of debrisIt was as barren to the eye as it was hopeless to the heart." But Chapin threw himself into the job. He had a friend send him books on horticulture and he studied them with a deep fervor. He recruited other prisoners to assist him with the back-breaking job of clearing the grounds and cultivating the soil. Lawes agreed to truck in a quantity of dirt and fertilizer, which the inmates unloaded and spread on the ground. Chapin worked his men relentlessly and frequently complained to the warden if they didn't put in a day's work. In a letter to the warden in 1923, Chapin wrote, "I expect the men to work from 8 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. until 3:30, except in stormy weather."
Chapin ordered rose bushes, peonies, petunias and dozens of other types of flowering plants. He solicited aid from local farmers and soon, flowers were growing everywhere in the once-barren recesses of Sing Sing. It was a spectacular conversion. He built seats around the gardens so that inmates could sit and reflect in the serenity of the flower gardens. Over the next few years, even small trees sprouted up and the prison grounds became alive with the welcome sound of singing birds. The "single" flower garden, which Chapin requested, had grown into a massive landscaping project. But he still was not satisfied.
Chapin asked the warden for permission to build a birdhouse. But he didn't ask for a small, boxy birdhouse that would shelter just a few birds. Chapin wanted a building, a sanctuary for hundreds of birds with room for prisoners to sit and admire their beauty. "I doubted he could do it," said Lawes, "but I let him try." Chapin contacted his newspaper friends in New York City. He appealed to them for money to finance the construction and materials, since the state of New York would provide nothing for the project. But Chapin was persistent and kept after his contacts for the funds. He solicited the aid of other inmates who, for lack of anything better to do, agreed to help in the construction. After three arduous years, Chapin completed the birdhouse. He had a built a magnificent structure that rivaled anything similar in the outside world. It had a huge dome at the top, plenty of glass and hundreds of flowers and bushes where birds could gather and rest. Almost single-handedly, Chapin had transformed a barren wasteland, which was just yards away from America's busiest death chamber, to a thing of beauty and warmth. Even the prisoners felt that some type of spiritual change, something intangible, had occurred at the institution. Word of Chapin's accomplishment spread fast, and his story, with photographs of his famous birdhouse, appeared in newspapers across the country.
But in the summer of 1930, a state construction project was begun at Sing Sing. Chapin's gardens had to be destroyed to make way for a new drainage system. Much of Chapin's work was demolished during the installation of the pipes. He took it very hard. "I think it affected him deeply," wrote Lawes in one of his books, "he was never the same." That winter, Chapin contracted pneumonia and died on December 13, 1930 at the age of 72. Before Lawes left Sing Sing, he had the gardens rebuilt as a tribute to the spirit of their builder, Charles E. Chapin, The Rose Man.