Archives Diary: Prison, the Musical, Howard Gill’s “The Perfect 36”

A newspaper clipping shows a younger Gill and his lawyer at the state hearing in 1934, where Gill unsuccessfully defended his actions as Norfolk superintendent.  Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018.

A newspaper clipping shows a younger Gill and his lawyer at the state hearing in 1934, where Gill unsuccessfully defended his actions as Norfolk superintendent, Box 83, Folder 3,  Howard Belding Gill Papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

What would you do if you felt you were unjustly accused of approximately thirty-six offenses? We recently discovered that Howard Belding Gill, a noted prison reformer and former Boston College adjunct faculty member who gave his papers to the Burns Library archives, did something a little unorthodox. After being held up in legal proceedings, Gill decided to write – as he refers to it – “a one-act skit presenting the high-lights of a many-act farce perpetrated in one of our sovreign [sic] states.”

In 1933, Mr. Gill was the superintendent of Norfolk Prison Colony, now known as Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk. The colony was built on Gill’s model of corrections as reformation, not simply incarceration. Unfortunately for Gill, after questions of money handling and prisoner escapes, Massachusetts governor Joseph B. Ely requested a review by the state auditor, Francis X. Hurley.

The first page of The Perfect 36, which sets the stage for the “many-act farce” set on the Ides of March. A newspaper clipping shows a younger Gill and his lawyer at the state hearing in 1934, where Gill unsuccessfully defended his actions as Norfolk superintendent.  Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018.

The first page of The Perfect 36, which sets the stage for the “many-act farce” set on the Ides of March, Box 78, Folder 8, Howard Belding Gill Papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Hurley’s resulting 1933 report listed thirty-six allegations against Gill and the colony under his leadership. These charges were aired in a hearing in front of Governor Ely and eventually led to Gill’s dismissal from his post.

All of this drama translates surprisingly well into lyrics. One example: the nineteenth count against Gill states

“That you were negligent in that approximately 100 extra suits of clothes were found in inmates’ rooms and that you were negligent in that two truck loads of tools were found in the rooms of inmates.”

Gill makes this accusation much more enlivening, and I can’t help but imagine a song and dance in the manner of The Producers:

Ely: Where’s that shovel?

Dillon: Where’s that axe?

Ely: You’ve lost five screws

Dillon: And a package of tacks.

Ely: There’s a trowel missing

Dillon: And a cross-cut saw.

Ely: Now surely you can see why we asked you to withdraw!

What a duet – and only two men away from becoming a barbershop quartet.

A cartoon by Gordon Smith depicts colony prisoners asking for perks from Warden Gill. Gill’s treatment of prisoners was viewed by many as overly lenient, a sentiment reflected in some of the charges against him.  The first page of The Perfect 36, which sets the stage for the “many-act farce” set on the Ides of March. A newspaper clipping shows a younger Gill and his lawyer at the state hearing in 1934, where Gill unsuccessfully defended his actions as Norfolk superintendent.  Howard Belding Gill papers, MS.1995.018.

A cartoon by Gordon Smith depicts colony prisoners asking for perks from Warden Gill. Gill’s treatment of prisoners was viewed by many as overly lenient, a sentiment reflected in some of the charges against him, Box 30, Folder 18, Howard Belding Gill Papers, MS.1995.018, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In another example, allegation number thirty-four declares that one staff house had “24 samples of every imaginable color of paint on the roof and that the roof was painted seven times within one week and the master’s bedroom five times,” which is an awful lot of painting!

The accusation goes on

“That after an inmate had picked out a color that he desired to put on a room occupied by him, Miss Fields, the housekeeper, decided that it was not the proper color and suggested that chickens about two days old, including the darkest and the lightest ones, be brought in. Painters were then told to match the color of the two chickens and that combination might prove satisfactory, but after the room was painted with that color the room did not prove satisfactory, that paint was changed three times in the inmate’s room.”

Talk about mismanagement of resources, if that did happen, although it seems improbable that it could happen quite like that. Gill turned Hurley’s unbelievable prose into the following lyrical exchange that strikes me as a lost scene in The Music Man:

Miss Field: T’was a downy little chicken, several inmates saw me pick him.

Governor: Was he yellow?

Miss Field: He was buff.

Spectators: Atta girl! You know your stuff!

Miss Field: I held him up against the light so they could get the color right.

Governor: Did he cheep?

Miss Field (blushing): Not a peep!

Spectators: Ain’t it sweet?

In conclusion, next time the going gets rough, remember Howard Belding Gill, pick up your pitch pipe, and make some beautiful music. Archivists of the future will thank you for the humorous interlude.

To learn more about the hearing and its dramatic heights, see the Howard Belding Gill papers, which will soon be available for research at the Burns Library. Also, since Gill and Hurley were both Harvard alumni, The Harvard Crimson covered the hearing and its 1934 articles are available online.  For more information, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Stephanie Bennett, Processing Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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