Love letter limit looses loud lament from the languishing

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 09, 2018
Source: File photo A view at the Maine State Prison in Thomaston in 1870. Is it me, or would this make a good album cover for a '70s rock band?

March 1931, The Courier-Gazette runs the headline: "Mild Riot At The Prison."

"Inmates of the state prison went on a rampage Saturday night and for five hours turned the institution into bedlam.

"Anything that would produce noise was pounded against the cell bars and the loosely hung metal doors were rattled with all the vigor at the convicts' command." There were also apparently shouts, whistles and catcalls.

Citizens living nearby locked their houses in fright!

There were about 230 prisoners there at the time.

The Maine State Prison was located on Route 1/Main Street in Thomaston from 1824 to 2002. I took pictures for the Courier when they were tearing the old prison down before they moved the operation to the new prison in Warren.

"The first version of the prison actually had underground cells – deep holds into which prisoners were lowered each night and brought up in the daytime to labor in the stone quarry on the prison property," the Thomaston Historical Society website states. "Iron bars were placed over the cell holes in the ground and those were partially covered with a tarp during inclement weather. A prisoner could not stand on a chair or his cot and reach the bars because the cells were extremely deep in the ground."

That was back when prisoners really paid for their crimes. By the 1930s, it was in its "Shawshank Redemption" phase, still no picnic.

The cause of the riot was a change in the rules brought in by the new warden, Charles E. Linscott, which limited the inmates to writing and sending only two letters per week. Previously they had enjoyed unlimited letter-writing.

The Boston Post found a better headline and angle on the story, dubbing it the "Love Mail Riot," and stating that it was love letters for the most part that the prisoners were concerned about. Some of the prisoners, it reported, had been writing 50 letters a week! The names of the women they wrote to, the article stated, were culled from the pages of "Matrimonial Magazines."

During the Depression, people could buy tabloids from "matrimonial agencies" that ran pictures of people with brief biographies, and there would be a number assigned to each person, according to Strand Theatre Manager and 20th-century popular culture historian Liz McLeod. For a small fee, the tabloid would provide the address and the reader could send them a letter. It's perhaps the 1930s version of an online dating site.

Some of the inmates had as many as four sweethearts at once through use of this service.

In response to the prison uproar, Warden Linscott said, "As long as I am warden, I shall attempt to have discipline here." Pretty safe quote to give the local paper, Chuck.

The prisoners ended up going without meals until they had all been interviewed, and they lost movie privileges.

The headline in the Courier bugs me, because "mild riot" is an oxymoron. As a child of the '80s it immediately brought to mind the old band, "Quiet Riot."

***

The Sunday Telegram had a story in September 1930 under the headline: "Old Time Tramp Was Forerunner Of 1930 Hitch-Hiker."

The article states that in the 1890s "an army of tramps overran the country, the forerunners of the present day hitch hikers."

"And in some New England communities, who looked back with horror at the days when the stocks and the pillory ornamented the village square, had contraptions built like the picture, which were called tramp chairs.

"Several villages in Maine had them in use at one time, and when Weary Willie made application at some back door for a hand-out, he was quite likely to be given a chance to rest in an easy chair made of iron straps for a few hours and on his release was sure to give that place a wide berth thereafter."

The tramp chair in question was being used as a lawn ornament at Angler's Farm in South Hope, which was owned at the time by Ernest C. Davis of Rockland.

The photo of the chair is somewhat faded and hard to see. To me it looks a bit like a cross between a medieval torture device and something I might put in the garden for my beans and peas to climb.

It's hard to believe that there was a time when this was considered a reasonable and appropriate response to a homeless person.

This clipping was found in the scrapbooks of Earle C. Dow, who used to report in these parts in the 1930s, on loan from Sue Thurston of South Thomaston.

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