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Old power plant could become museum to infamous Sing Sing prison



Published: Sat, June 21, 2014 @ 5:38 p.m.

OSSINING, N.Y. (AP)

An old power plant at Sing Sing that once supplied the juice for the electric chair is being eyed as the site for a museum dedicated to the infamous prison.

Supporters envision thousands of tourists streaming "up the river" from New York to see artifacts including "Old Sparky," as the chair was known; a metal "head cage" used when prisoners were transported; and a display of prisoners' weapons, from axes made in metal shop to shivs fashioned from plastic forks.

"Sing Sing is a brand name," said John Wunderlich, president of the Ossining Historical Society Museum. "You go anywhere in this country, in Europe even, everybody's heard of Sing Sing."

The prison's fame stems from the many criminals who ended up at Sing Sing and, in some cases, never came back. They included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 on espionage charges related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

The prison was also the last stop for many members of the notorious of Murder Incorporated, which acted as a contract killing squad for the Mafia in the 1930s and `40s. And it was where prolific bank robber Willie Sutton used a makeshift ladder to escape in 1932.

Sing Sing's reputation was burnished by Hollywood, which used it as a setting for such 1930s movies as "The Big House" and "Angels With Dirty Faces." The lockup 30 miles up the Hudson from New York City also inspired the saying now synonymous with incarceration: "up the river."

"It's full of history, that's for sure," said Arthur Wolpinsky, a correction officer at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility since 1971 and the prison historian. "Electrocutions, riots, escape attempts. And so much has changed over the years. Inmates can have cable TV in their cells now."

The power plant is separated from the 1,600 inmates by a high wall topped with guard towers. It provided a steady source of power from 1936 through at least 1963, the last time the electric chair was used.

And despite a commonly held notion from prison movies, Wolpinsky said, "The lights did not dim at Sing Sing when the electric chair was used."

There are plenty of prison museums around the country, but most, like Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay and Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, are at closed facilities. It's rare to have a museum at an active prison. One is the Angola Museum, just outside the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which draws about 2,600 visitors a month.


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