Very many thanks to all who took the time and trouble to email me regarding the old photo that supposedly showed a young woman bent across a prison punishment block about to receive a strapping. All your replies were most gratefully received.
Many, including me, had doubts about the genuineness of the photo on the grounds that it seemed too good to be true. At the same time, we thought the photo had been quite well edited to produce the result shown. Some, though, were able to pinpoint particular areas which somehow just did not seem right. However, I’m indebted to Angela Fox for her expert appraisal.
Angela suspected the photograph immediately when she compared the historical attire of the male prison officers with the more modern hairstyle (1970s?) of the woman on the bench. Also, the shadows on the woman are incorrect in comparison to the remainder of the photograph. For further proof, the level of focus of the woman herself is slightly different to the rest of the image. Whoever did the photo editing used some interesting techniques. The trestles on the left of the images have been cleverly ‘brushed’ into the right side of the image and the tree has been recopied to the right and some background faded in behind the girl’s bottom. The stripes on the convict’s pants have also been melded into her thighs.
Turning to the original photograph, it is now known the scene was the State Prison at Canon City, Colorado and it was a black man in prison striped uniform who was bent over the block. There are at least three photos likely to have been taken at the same time, because they feature the same staff in the photos. We do not have a definitive date for the photos, but circa 1900 would be a fair estimate, and they were likely all taken with a view to including them in a local newspaper article of that period.
Was this a scene set up for the news reporters? Or was the black man actually being paddled when the news reporters coincidentally happened to be there? Certainly, the black man’s prison uniform was not in good condition, but whether it had been damaged by the infliction of the paddle or through general wear and tear is not known.
The block was known as ‘The Old Gray Mare’ and was probably in use from the 1850s right through to the 1950s. There appears to be no information about who made it. Was it a one-off constructed by a carpenter who worked in the prison? Was it a manufactured item produced commercially for sale to prisons?
The man wielding the paddle is thought to be Clarence Patee Hoyt.
The paddle was made of leather, maybe four inches in width, and is said to have been studded with tacks or tags along the business end. If so, it would have made it a particularly painful experience. Was this a typical implement used in this prison and, maybe, other prisons in the State of Colorado and beyond? There have been numerous reports about US prison strappings, but certainly this is the first time I’ve heard mention of metal pieces being added to the leather. We do know that women were also subjected to corporal punishment in some US prisons, also up to the 1950s, and most instances have involved a leather strap of some kind.
Was the image of the woman in the photograph simply taken from a source buried in the great internet or did it come from a movie or other source?
If anyone wishes to do further research, two good starting points are the ‘Corpun’ website and the Denver Public Library website, both of which have some good photographs on view regarding corporal punishment in Colorado prisons.
As an aside, in 1948 the ‘Toronto Star’ newspaper reported that ringleaders of the Mercer Reformatory riot were strapped, as confirmed by A R Virgin, who was Director of Reform Institutions. He was responding to a complaint by a woman in police court who was reported to have said, “Why didn’t they print the truth about how we were beaten and given tear gas? I wasn’t in the riot, but I saw those girls beaten black and blue.”