The Prisoner Poet, The Story of James Lewisohn...Part 2...What Happened Later?
Knox County — When I interviewed James Lewisohn (Jimmy) in 1979 at the Prison Farm in Warren, Maine, there was no internet. I still had questions after I returned to my home in Meriden, Connecticut and to my graduate school classes at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. We communicated via the mail, some being passed on to my brother, Harlan, first, who was classifications officer at the prison at that time.
Jimmy also sent me a tape with the answers to my questions on it. That tape is long gone, although I have some of that transcript as I wrote it down. I have most of the material I gathered for that story including all the materials Jimmy gave me and my own notes.
I have handwritten notes from Jimmy written on blue lined paper we used to use in school. I suspect that the budget for his classes and for his own use was limited when it came to paper. He also sent me copies of letters from his attorney showing the progression of the commutation campaign early on in his incarceration. I have copies of the commutation form for his release that people were asked to submit to the governor.
At one time I asked Jimmy to send me a list of people we might all recognize who signed his commutation petition. Here are some of the names he sent, many of which will be familiar to you:
Father Daniel Berrigan; Tom Wicker, NY Times; Ken MacCormick; Howard Moss; Alan Ginzburg; Hayden Carruth; Howard Nemnor (not sure of spelling); William Styron; Richard Wilbur; May Sarton; Galway Kinnell; Martin Kumin; John Ciardi; Stanley Kumitz.
The Warden at that time, recognizing what a model prisoner Jimmy was, recommended to Governor Brennan that his sentence be commuted. Many of the officers at the prison, including my brother, also supported his cause.
The Commutation Plea, The Appeal, the New Trial
The Commutation was denied by the Governor as I previously reported because he deemed the crime to be too great to consider commutation.
A new effort for an appeal was begun in 1977. My dates may be a little off here as I found the whole appeal case online which was dated 1977. However, I have another letter from Jimmy, dated in 1979 which mentions the appeal. Jimmy did not mention this appeal when I spoke to him in 1979, but it could have already been in the works.
However, his letter states that he doesn’t have much faith in the justice system but that his lawyers are “interviewing and investigating 66 jury members and panelists, including a former F.B.I. agent” to corroborate the story of one juror who gave an affidavit about the possible tainting of the jury for Jimmy’s trial.
Jimmy continues in that letter: “I am reconciled to my life in prison and have discovered that I can live a life of obedience, penance and prayer right here.”
The Appeal Case
As I stated before, there was no internet in 1979; so I was very pleased when I found out so much information about later developments in Jimmy’s case after 1979 when I last saw him.
The Appeals Case ran eight pages as found in findacase.com. There is even more if you want to spend money to obtain it. However, I could get the gist of the proceedings, albeit wading through all the usual legalize, to know that it did not go well.
The case reads like a script from the TV show, ”Law and Order”. As the “Law” part of the story reveals, the lawyers took every stance they could to discredit the investigators in the case; the evidence; and even the jury. It was also argued that the judge did not describe the differences between a murder charge and a manslaughter charge properly to the jury so that the jury leaned more towards the murder end of things.
The upshot of the whole thing was his eventual retrial in 1981 at which time he was tried by a different jury and convicted of the murder of his wife, Roslyn once again. So Jimmy remained in prison.
Parole in 1984
As I continued my quest of what happened after 1979 in the case of James Lewisohn, I came upon a story from the Bangor Daily News, of December 28, 1984. The title read, “Lewisohn Seeks Oblivion…Paroled Poet studying at Bangor Seminary.” It was a UPI story written by Jon Fleming.
The “exit” interview of Jimmy quotes him as saying in his own poetic way, “Father, I have come not to ask but to be forgotten like the snow that covers us.” All he wanted was the freedom to disappear from public view and public scorn. He sought refuge, therefore his studies at the Bangor Seminary.
About the Seminary, he said, “I’m at home here. The Seminary is a wonderful, wonderful place…It’s also a place where nobody asks about my past…I want to get that behind me. It just brings back terrible memories, and I do penance for it every day.”
So after all the efforts of many to bring about a commutation for Jimmy; and the time and money spent on appeals and a new trial, James Lewisohn was simply paroled from prison. He served 10 years of his “life sentence.” I do not judge here, but only state the facts as I see them.
Why was he paroled? New politicians in office? A lack of public or media interest after 10 years? We all know that interest in a very public flaying of someone loses its appeal after the initial front page story; then the progression of smaller articles as the case progresses. As we used to say in the newspaper business, “Today’s newspaper will line the bird cage or the cat’s litter box tomorrow.”
I wanted to finish this story with Jimmy’s obit as my brother, Ted, told me he had passed away. Guess what? Not so. As I searched the internet for an obit, I was getting frustrated upon finding no such report of his passing until I all at once came upon a site that was a directory of poets and writers. There he was.
At first I didn’t believe it until I read the list of his works and knew it was him for sure. The site said that he was 80 years old and living in downeast Maine. Even better, his phone number was listed. So yes, I proceeded to call him.
He didn’t know who I was at first, apologizing because he couldn’t always remember things that happened what is now 35 years ago.
I could have re-interviewed him then and there, but not being prepared and realizing at once that he didn’t like to talk about those days; I simply listened to what he had to say. He didn’t even want me to send him copies of these two blogs about him. “Why?” he asked. As he has no computer and has no use for the internet, he will never see them unless someone else prints them out and sends them to him.
He said he has a dog he walks every day and that he spends his days meditating and waiting for his God to come and get him.
There was bitterness in his voice and a whole pessimistic view of life in the United States as it stands now. He didn’t sound happy. However, he was happy that I had called and when I said I might call him again just to see how he was doing, he was enthusiastic. He didn’t get many calls he said.
Jimmy is still a devout Catholic. I didn’t ask him why and when he left the Seminary in Bangor. I didn’t think that was an appropriate question at that time. After all, I had just contacted him after a long 35 years.
As he continually referred me to one religious treatise after another and insisted that I should become a Catholic; that I would be very happy that way; I found a way to exit from our phone conversation.
I sat in amazement that I had actually talked to him again. Some stories take unusual twists and this was certainly one of them.
Thanks for listening.
Note: For more on this story, please see www.southendstories.blogspot.com