PHILADELPHIA, PA "My poor boy, my poor boy, what have they done to you?" cried May Osborne, glancing at the corpse lying before her. She then collapsed into the arms of distraught friends and relatives who had come to the city morgue to identify the remains of her 23-year-old son.
The lifeless frame was shriveled, burned and bruised. One eye ballooned to 3 or 4 times in size.
|Harry Osborne had once been ruggedly handsome and physically fit. But the lifeless frame on the slab in front of them was not only shriveled, but burned on the hands, feet and torso. There were numerous bruises. One of Osborne's eyes had ballooned to three or four times its normal size.|
The Comodeca family of South Philadelphia was equally horrified. "We won't stop until we find out how this happened," said Joe Comodeca, who had difficulty recognizing the slain man as his brother Frank. "I would like to put the body of my brother on display so the public could really see what happened to him," he said. "His eyes were hanging out on his cheeks and they had been sewed up. The back of his head was bashed in as though it was hit with a sledgehammer."
The families questioned the sudden loss of their kin, wondering what brutal, inhuman treatment could have caused their bodies to appear burned and beaten. Pennsylvania Governor George Earle declared, in horror, that the four men had been "cooked alive slowly."
AS CENTURY-OLD HOLMESBURG PRISON, the formidable fortress on Torresdale Avenue adjacent to Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia, prepares to close, longtime Philadelphians might recall the numerous newsmaking events that took place there, including several dramatic escapes and even occasional riots.
|But no single event in the stone facility's history compares to the "bake-oven deaths" at Holmesburg's Klondike punishment unit, so named because of its remote location a way from the main facility. In terms of public interest, government reaction, media hype and penal mythology, the 1938 "Klondike Killings" were the ultimate jailhouse sensation.||
Even the attending physicians were shocked by the human carnage Iying before them.
Strike leaders demanded a voice in the prison diet suggesting, for example, ice cream and cake every other Sunday. They also demanded cellblock elections, so that representatives could be consulted on all regulations affecting prisoners.
"There is only one committee running this prison," responded Superintendent William Mills, "a committee of one and that's me." Mills, a 60-year-old former police superintendent, told reporters the inmates' requests were "deliberately" framed to be unacceptable. "There really isn't dissatisfaction," he argued. He ascribed "Communistic influences" as the real culprit. Strike ringleaders, he promised, would soon be isolated and prison operations returned to normal.
But on Monday, August 22, newspaper headlines screamed a different story FOUR HUNGER STRIKERS DEAD IN CELLS AT HOLMESBURG. City officials conceded the incident looked "very suspicious." The deceased, they reported, had been "scalded, beaten, or given the high pressure water hose treatment." Both the barely alive and newly dead were spread out on the prison grounds that resembled a grotesque killing field. Even the attending physicians were shocked by the human carnage Iying before them.
The dead were listed as:
|Henry Osborne, 23, serving three to 10 years for burglary and possession of burglar tools.|
|James McQuade, 26, serving 18 months to three years for assault and battery on a policeman and threatening a detective.|
|Frank Comodeco, 46, a former boxer, serving 10 to 20 years for robbery.|
|Joseph John Walters, 57, a long-term prisoner who had been in jail, off and on, since 1913.|
THE FOUR MEN HAD BEEN DISCOVERED early Sunday morning inside the Klondike. "The situation certainly looks peculiar," said the city coroner at the scene. The bodies were wet, with dark, puffed up hands, feet and faces. They were "blue in appearance," as though they had drowned, and one was so dark, said the coroner, "he looked like a colored man."
|They were "blue in appearance," as though they had drowned, and one was so dark, said the coroner, "he looked like a colored man."||
Disturbed by the scene, Coroner Charles Hersch said the men "evidently met with a violent death." Prison Superintendent Mills said the men had been placed in isolation cells because they were "troublemakers" and "among the first agitators of the strike." Mills said the four men had been fighting among themselves. He assured reporters that Coroner Hersch would find nothing suspicious.
"I can't see how this could have taken place," argued Mills. He claimed there were no steam or hot water pipes in the building and no one but the prisoners had entered the Klondike since they were placed there several days before.
The effort by Mills and his subordinates to soft sell the tragedy unraveled quickly. The city newspapers fell into a feeding frenzy and public officials felt compelled to involve their offices in the emerging controversy. The State Welfare Secretary and State Attorney General had investigators from Harrisburg sent to Holmesburg. The mayor, district atrorney and police commissioner also moved swiftly. Governor Earle, who was vacationing in Central America, said he intended to conduct a "complete investigation" of the situation.
The initial Philadelphia Police Department report claimed the men died of "overexertion, exhaustion and undernourishment" after fighting among themselves. The report said two prisoners, Mauritz Spatz and Joseph Forte, were in the same cells as the deceased and had been untouched. The report also claimed that the four striking prisoners who died had been "ringleaders" who fought over strategical differences.
|According to the report, Spatz said that two of the prisoners "raised hell" about the food and "wouldn't let anybody eat or sleep" in their respective punishment cells. "Last night," Spatz is reported to have said, "Comodeca blew his top off, raving around the cells, banging his head against the bars and walls. He bumped into McQuade and knocked him down."||
The initial Philadelphia Police Department report claimed the men died of "overexertion, exhaustion and undernourishment."
Joseph Forte, who celled with Osborne and Walters, allegedly told the officers that his cellmates went "off their nuts" and began banging their heads against the walls.
The detectives said there were "no other signs of violence" and the bruises on the bodies "must have been self-inflicted." The authors of the report, Detective Sergeant Martin Curran and Detective Victor Hardy, were the only ones to interview the surviving inmates. They concluded their analysis with the notation, "nothing suspicious."
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE EVIDENCE that the men had been burned or scalded? One city jurist, Judge Harry S. McDevitt, theorized that the men were scalded when they broke steam pipes in an attempt to procure weapons.
|The police approached the coroner to make their respective reports appear similar.||
But there were no broken pipes or weapons of any kind in the possession of the inmates. In fact, the two dozen prisoners sent to the Klondike for their role in the hunger strike were stripped nearly naked and remained that way through the duration of the ordeal.
By Tuesday, August 23, it was revealed that the police had approached the coroner's office with an appeal that their respective reports be made to appear similar. In fact, they were diametrically opposite. The reports, according to the Philadelphia Record, read "like the versions of two opposing attorneys."
IN THE MEANTIME, THE CITY'S NEWSPAPERS were filled with stories on the deceased inmates' families, the history of the Klondike, the results of the autopsies, and a proposed "roasting test" that would have "human guinea pigs" endure time in the deadly punishment unit.
|The newspaper drawings of the Klondike showed a small, narrow building between cellblocks D and E in the prison yard. A red brick structure with iron bars, the one story building contained twelve 9' x 5' cells with barely enough room for a toilet and faucet. Opposite and outside the cells, suspended against the walls, was a large bank of radiators fed from a supply line that ran along the ceiling. Both the radiators and pipes, as well as the building's few windows, were out of the inmates' reach.||
Inside the cells, the temperature approached 200 degrees high enough for protein cells to coagulate, and blood to turn black.
Dr. Crane explained that the prisoners' respiratory and circulatory systems were taxed to the limit in an effort to keep their bodies cool. As the blood failed to get enough oxygen, asphyxiation resulted. The doctor estimated that their body temperatures must have reached 110 degrees high enough for protein cells to coagulate, blood to turn black, and the body to be poisoned by its own waste products. The scald marks on the deceased resulted from "live steam on the body," which would also have had to "sear the men's lungs if they breathed it."
TO FURTHER ESTABLISH WHAT HAPPENED in the Klondike, Welfare Secretary Charles Engard announced that a dozen investigators, including five state police officers, would enter the building and undergo the same conditions as the dead inmates. They would bring scientific equipment to monitor the air and temperature.
The "roasting test," as the newspapers called it, was soon canceled, however, as speculation built that the test was too dangerous. "Duplicating the conditions could result in fatalities," said Secretary Engard. "There is adequate testimony to show the heat was on and the 21 survivors will testify vividly to what the conditions were."
ON AUGUST 30, THE CITY'S NEWSPAPERS devoted front-page coverage to Governor Earle's visit to Philadelphia to inspect Holmesburg Prison. When he left the institution, Earle was so shaken by what he had seen that he had to take refuge under the shade of a tree across from the prison.
"Gentlemen," he said, addressing the assembled crowd, "the situation is worse than I thought ... the Klondike could not have been built for anything but a torture chamber."
The governor called the perpetrators of the crime "the cruelest sadists who ever lived. I don't know if they wanted to murder those men, but I do know they wanted to torture them. What happened here was not accidental." He assured those in attendance that he would act quickly and take immediate steps "to see that there is no recurrence of anything like this horror in Pennsylvania ever again."
As he regained his composure, he tried to answer the queries of the many reporters gathered around him; "We Americans," the governor said soberly, "are apt to exaggerate, but in this case, having gone into the matter, I find the press has, if anything, understated the horror of the death of four men."
... CORONER HERSCH'S INVESTIGATIVE TEAM concluded Holmesburg Prison was run by a "big mob" a group of tough guards whose job was to mete out punishment to unruly convicts. Prisoners considered them "terrorizers" and said they were no doubt-responsible for the deaths in the punishment unit.
Being sent to the Klondike was one of the most severe punishments an inmate could be given and was effectively used to break rioters and inmate leaders in prior years. In 1934, for example, a hunger strike was broken when leaders were sent to the Klondike for a bread and water diet and the heat treatment. Less than 10 years old at the time of the murders, the Klondike had already earned its well-deserved reputation for fostering primitive conditions and barbaric behavior.
HERSCH'S INVESTIGATORS HAD GLEANED a far more disturbing story of misery. Klondike survivors told a harrowing tale of inhuman treatment that chilled all who heard it.
"On Friday night," said Patrick DiMarco, an inmate who had served four years at Holmesburg, "the heat was turned on, but there was not much steam."
|The walls and bars had become red-hot and the men were using the toilets for drinking water.||
By Saturday, the prisoners were complaining about the heat, locked windows and lack of drinking water. "The only water was in the hoppers," reported DiMarco, "and then only when flushed from the outside by guards."
"Everybody was moaning and crying," said DiMarco. "It was awful. One convict kept asking to be shot, to get it over with, and others said they were going to commit suicide. One man was butting his head against the wall, trying to kill himself."
The walls and bars of the cells had become red-hot and the men were using the toilets for drinking water. Some became delirious and started calling out to their mothers while others passed out, unable to breathe. The moaning and screams lasted until Monday morning, when the guards discovered four men dead and many others not far behind.
HERSCH'S FIRST STEP IN THE INVESTIGATION was the empanelment of a coroner's jury consisting of four men and two women, all prominent Philadelphians. After listening for three days to the evidence presented by Coroners Hersch and Moranz, jury foreman Gilbert Spruance, a paint manufacturer and member of the Board of Education, said the four prison deaths were due to the criminal negligence of Superintendent William Mills, Deputy Warden Frank Craven, Captain James McGuire; two prison physicians, Dr. George Enoch and Dr. Hans Abraham, and nine guards, including the previously arrested Brough and Smith.
|Hersch quickly called Mills to the front of the packed City Hall courtroom. "You have been found responsible for criminal negligence in the death of these men," Hersch told him. "I hold you without bail for action of the Grand Jury." Applause and cheers swept through courtroom 563 until attendants were able to restore order.||
Over nine months speculation swirled as to who, if anyone, would be found guilty and serve time.
Over the course of the next nine months, City Hall became the site of continuous legal wrangling concerning the criminality of the 14 accused prison staffers. Some defendants were dropped from the suit and others had their charges reduced from murder to involuntary manslaughter. The testimony in each of the trials continued to captivate the press. Speculation swirled as to who, if anyone, would be found guilty and serve time for the Holmesburg bake-oven deaths.
The two indicted doctors, Enoch and Abraham, said it was routine to examine Klondike prisoners mostly because of the poor diet they had to subsist on but insisted Deputy Warden Craven told them not to bother on this particular occasion. They were quickly exonerated.
Captain James McGuire told the jurors he had just arrived back at the institution to find the hunger strike broken and the punishment unit filled to capacity. When he toured the Klondike on Sunday morning, August 21, he discovered the heat on and told Officer Brough to shut it off. "The radiators were so hot I couldn't put my hand on it," he said. "I was sweating from the time I got in there until I left. It was pretty damn hot."
Some time after he left, however, the heat was turned back on. It reached 190 degrees in just an hour's time, according to the coroner.
Each of the nine guards swore they were just following orders. Even Brough and Smith, who ran the Klondike, claimed innocence, arguing that Mills and Craven were the ones who gave orders and controlled all decision-making in the institution.
Superintendent Mills, the titular head of the city prison system, came off as not so much the arch villain, but the absentee landlord, unsure what was happening inside Holmesburg at any given time.
Deputy Warden Frank Craven, by all accounts, was the operational head of Holmesburg. Rank and file guards, doctors, inmates and upper-echelon officers all testified to Craven's authority.
BY JUNE 23, 1939, A JURY OF SEVEN MEN and five women acquitted six Holmesburg Prison guards of involuntary manslaughter in the previous August's bake-oven convict deaths. The jury also recommended that the guards be reinstated with back pay, but Judge Albert Millar, who presided at the 30-day trial, said he could take no action and would send the message to the Prison Board of Inspectors.
|Only two men were found guilty. Both received sentences of one to three years.||
The Prison Board itself had come under considerable criticism for its detached style, infrequent prison visits and general indifference regarding such atrocities as the Klondike. Though Secretary Engard called for a multitude of prison improvements along with the abolition of the infamous torture chamber, only staff changes resulted.
After nearly four hours of deliberation, Francis Smith's jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter as well. He was sentenced to one to three years. His attorney sought clemency, arguing that the testimony against his client "came from biased convicts."
Superintendent William B. Mills was acquitted of the "Holmesburg horror" after a 10-hour deliberation by the jury. Jurors thought that "gross negligence" may be a more appropriate charge, but the presiding judge ruled it would be involuntary manslaughter or nothing. Though Mills escaped conviction, he never regained his job as prison superintendent. Relieved of duties the previous September, he was free, but in disrepute.
The prison system's Board of Inspectors met in October 1939, and appointed a doctor, Frederick S. Baldi, as Acting Superintendent. They also decided to restore the jobs of Captain James McGuire and the six acquitted guards.
As for the dreaded Klondike, it, too, would receive some long overdue modifications. The "torture steam radiation" was to be torn out and replaced by a hot air system so that there would be "absolutely no possible way that any such condition as previously prevailed can ever happen again.
BY THE 1950S, THE KLONDIKE had become a storage facility, not only for recalcitrant prisoners, but for institutional supplies, such as uniforms, mops, buckets and plumbing fixtures. It had been years since anyone had been celled there its savage reputation just too imposing for the evolving correctional standards of the day. Prison officials were not adverse to "tuning up" a deserving inmate on occasion, but the Klondike had become a relic of another age.
The end came one day in the mid-'70s, when Capt. Werner Saltzman was ordered to take a dozen prisoners to the Klondike. He gave them instructions on how to operate a jackhammer and then told them to raze the building.
Today, there is little physical evidence that such an infamous building ever existed. But once in a while, it is said an old, savvy guard will lean over and whisper into the ear of a young, unruly, know-it-all inmate, "Did you ever hear the story about the Klondike and what happened there?"