Everything Librarian

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

White Supremacism in US Prisons

As a middle-class white woman, I knew that there were white supremacist organizations in the United States. I was aware of The Turner Diaries, a novel by William Luther Pierce that has inspired countless hate crimes including the bombing at Oklahoma City in 1995. I was not prepared for the variety and quantity of white supremacists I would encounter while working as a prison librarian in West Virginia and Maryland prisons in the mid-2010s. 

Mjolnir Legendary Hammer of Thor

Mjolnir as a Symbol of White Supremacism 

One of the first things that I noticed in the prison library was a necklace that many of the inmates wore. It was some sort of unknown object or symbol on a silver chain. Only later did I find out that this is Mjolnir, the hammer of the Norse God of thunder, Thor. Inmates were not permitted to wear jewelry in prison but they were allowed a religious exemption to wear a symbol of their faith-- in this case it is Odinism.

If you are not familiar with Norse mythology, Odin is considered the God of War and the Dead-- he is the head god over all of the other gods and goddesses. Odinism was well represented in West Virginia prisons which were 85% white. I heard a lot from the inmates about Odinism and how it was not racist but they believed in keeping the races separate. Which is racist. The Odinists were allowed a religious service once a week just like all of the other religions that exist in American prisons in abundance.

Asatru Folk Assembly is also an Old Norse revival religion that embraces polytheism. Asatru was revived by Stephen McNallen who also thinks that Asatru should be reserved for only people of Northern European ancestry. Which is racist. There is a lot of overlap between Odinism and Asatru but Asatru was not allowed in prison since it is regarded more as an anti-government group and less as a religion. You can read more about Asatru at the Southern Poverty Law Center site where they monitor hate groups in the United States. 

It should go without saying that all of the members of Odinism, Wotanism, and Asatru were white. Sometimes the African American inmates casually joked that they might apply to be an Odinist and laugh about it. 

Wotanism and David Lane 
And then there's Wotanism. This white supremacist organization was founded by notorious domestic terrorist David Lane. Lane wrote 14 words that are used as an evil mantra, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." Wotanists also have a secondary mantra, "Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the Earth." 

Two hands hold a blank white piece of paper

When I was a prison librarian I had a young man ask me to photocopy a piece of paper that had these quotes on them along with some other offensive white supremacist rhetoric. Not only did I seize the piece of paper, but I also refused to photocopy it and reported him for spreading hate by having this piece of paper. Wotanism was not acknowledged as a legitimate religion in West Virginia prisons because it was viewed as a security risk in diverse prison populations. 

Because I reported him, the offender and I attended an in-prison hearing where the evidence was produced and the inmate had legal representation by a fellow inmate and Odinist. The piece of paper was a clear violation of prison policy and he spent 30 days in solitary confinement for this offense. While reporting an active white supremacist may have been the right thing to do, I feel like I really burnished a white supremacist martyr who had the admiration and support of all of the other similarly afflicted inmates. This challenge and conflict seems to add credibility to these flimsy religions that serve many evil purposes. 
hand with gavel

But I was also sending a message to all inmates by reporting him-- I was not going to tolerate anyone asking me to photocopy racist materials so that they can recruit new haters. This earned me respect points from the white and BIPOC inmates alike. I had laid down the law in my prison library.

Dead Men Incorporated
When I worked in West Virginia and Maryland prisons I encountered a white supremacist gang called Dead Men Incorporated. This was founded in Maryland prisons and anecdotally I heard it referred to as the white branch of the Black Guerilla Family, another prison and street gang. One of the things that kept the white supremacist religious meetings from becoming gang meetings was the persistent presence of the prison Chaplain whose role was to make sure that the religious ceremony did not degrade into a gang meeting. 

When Racism is Wrapped in Religion
Turning white supremacy into a religion makes religions such as Odinism, Asatru, and Wotanism non-taxable. It also grants these organizations religious freedom to say whatever they want. Even further, the United States Department of Defense expanded its Faith and Belief Codes in 2017 to include Heathen which includes Asatru, Wotanism, and Odinism. This doesn't apply to prison but this acceptance by the United States government could be used as an argument in court for inmates to have religious services in prison focused on racist principles. If the US government acknowledges these religions as legitimate for their employees in the military, it follows that these religions should be allowed to worship regularly in prison. Also, you can buy a Mjolnir necklace at Walmart-- it seems Odinism has become mainstream.

Some people or groups who also worship Odin and the other Norse gods say that they are not racists and that not all who wear a Mjolnir are white supremacists. To them, I would say the same thing to those who refer to the contemporary use of the Confederate Flag as heritage not hate-- it is too late to use this symbol. It was allowed to be assimilated by dark forces and these symbols have become powerful symbols of evil to many. While I will acknowledge that the swastika was also a symbol used in India before it became a symbol of the Nazi party, this symbol of evil is not coming back as acceptable in Western culture anytime soon.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
I first heard of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in a Maryland prison. In talking with an inmate about books he mentioned a book that talked about how the Jews were bent on world domination and that this is why they controlled the media. I was taken aback by this and I had to Google it. I found he was referring to this anti-Semitic book written in Russia in the early twentieth century. Just like many conspiracy theories, this old hateful book floats around US prisons perpetuating anti-Semitism and helping to fuel a national paranoia of the other. Parts of this book were taught in Germany sowing the seeds of the Holocaust throughout Europe. 

Marking the Books With 14/88 tags
One of the most annoying parts of being a prison librarian was all of the books from the men in solitary confinement that came back with 14/88 marked in books. On the cover, inside the covers, on random pages, on page 14, and on page 88. Fourteen stands for the 14 words of Wotanism and eighty-eight represents the eighth letter of the alphabet which is 'H'. Eighty-eight equals 'Heil Hitler.' The prison library clerks would diligently black out the tags with a Sharpie but they came back marked up consistently. It felt like a futile act in the face of such consistent hate tagging on books but we persevered in trying to eliminate these symbols of hate.

Fair Warning: Opinion Zone
While I could see that white supremacism was strong in prisons I never saw too many indicators that this kind of prejudiced thinking might become acceptable and even mainstream. In my opinion, it is this kind of white supremacist lens that is using fear tactics to criticize and demonize critical race theory (CRT). As a nation, we should learn that our country was built with slave labor in all aspects of building the United States. White Americans created institutional racism and redlining to perpetuate Jim Crow in an allegedly post-segregated world, while somewhere in a mythical United States many people believe that racism in America is over because Barrack Obama was elected President. There is still much work to do in the United States to achieve racial and social justice for all.

There are more white supremacist gangs in US prisons including the Aryan Brotherhood, the Nazi Lowriders, and Public Enemy Number One. The reality is that prisons are breeding grounds for violence and extreme beliefs based on a hatred of all that is not white and masculine.

It's important to know how white supremacists think. This is an uncomfortable video by Stephan McNallen where he talks about the importance of the Norse god Wotan for white people. 

A significant Supreme Court ruling in 2005 allowed Odinism in US prisons.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Banned Books in US Prisons

Many prison libraries have limits and guidelines on the types of books that are allowed in prison-- there are many banned books in US prisons. While this makes most librarians uncomfortable there are legitimate security issues that must be considered. It makes sense that books on how to pick a lock or build bombs or make homemade wine are bad book-buying choices in a prison environment. As a former prison librarian, I accepted this. While many librarians do not like censorship in prison the first priority in a prison library is security.

The Art of War is Banned in Many US Prisons

However, some US prisons become a little over-enthusiastic with the banning of books and may judge a book by its title alone. Case in point-- The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Many United States prisons have banned The Art of War. Why? It's all about the title. I assure you I never met a correctional officer or warden who read this classic tome that is indeed about warfare but also has implications for how to live one's life. I never realized that The Art of War, which was written between 475 and 221 BCE, was considered negative in any context until I became a prison librarian.

So, what is The Art of War and why is it so dangerous? First of all, in the 21st century, The Art of War is more about strategy than violence. For example, one quote from Sun Tzu says simply, 'There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.' Over 2,000 years later these words are still true.

There is also a lot of spying, lying, and deception that goes on in war. I think this is the kernel of The Art of War that is not acceptable to some in a prison environment. Here is a quote from Sun Tzu or Sunzi,

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

The 48 Laws of Power

This quote reminds me of another infamous book that is banned in prison called The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. As a well-read librarian and former bookstore clerk, I was surprised that I had never heard of this book. Considered a modern-day Machiavelli, The 48 Laws of Power teaches deception with the ultimate goal of absolute power in every situation. One of the Laws of Power is, "When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all." I have learned this lesson the hard way and mostly found it to be true.

Perhaps a more odious quote from Robert Greene, 

"Remember: The best deceivers do everything they can to cloak their roguish qualities. They cultivate an air of honesty in one area to disguise their dishonesty in others. Honesty is merely another decoy in their arsenal of weapons."

I read The 48 Laws of Power and found it really repulsive in its guidance for narcissists and autocrats. But I also learned to look at life from the point of view of someone who only has their own self-interests in mind and literally sees the world and the workplace as a battlefield for power. Yuck.

American Sign Language Books Banned in Prison

At one prison I worked in, many inmates had learned the American Sign Language alphabet and used it to communicate with each other. This infuriated the prison administration which could not be bothered to learn this simple form of communication to be able to interpret what the inmates were saying. Because of this conflict, no books on sign language were allowed in the prison. I know the basic sign language alphabet and was sometimes able to read the signs that were mostly friendly trash-talking between inmates. I remember one warden musing that books on learning foreign languages should also be banned so that inmates could not learn and communicate in another language. Really. Maybe that's why Florida prisons banned a Klingon Dictionary in 2019?

Behold a Pale Horse Banned in Prisons

Behold a Pale Horse by Milton William Cooper was also an often requested book that is banned in many prisons. This is a book I have never read and had never heard of until I became a prison librarian. Conspiracy theories were popular and rampant in every prison in which I worked-- I have written about some of them here. This book written in 1991 is about UFOs and also contains a militia manifesto that has influenced the right-wing militia movement in the United States. I would assume it is the militia aspect of this book that is more concerning than the UFO aspect. A disturbing quote from Behold a Pale Horse reads,

“All science is merely a means to an end. The means is knowledge. The end is control. [THE END ALWAYS JUSTIFIES THE MEANS.]” I think the theme that makes this book threatening to prison administrators is the organized plans for militias to create riots. Riots are never a good thing in prison.

Martial Art Books Banned in Prisons

Every prison I ever worked in banned outright all martial arts books. The worst-case scenario here, I guess, is that the inmates become martial arts experts and take over the prison. I worked with one inmate who claimed a religious exemption as a Buddhist to be able to get a Tai Chi book for practice. The irony here is that many prisons feature weight-lifting as recreation and physical fitness. Isn't there a potential for an army of musclemen to rise up and take over the prison? No, this is really just a great way for the incarcerated to blow off steam in a healthy way. 

Banned Book Lists from the USA

Just for fun and because I can, I browsed through banned book lists from prisons all over the United States. Some of the items on those lists reveal that the title alone is enough to get them banned. For example, I noticed that the California state prison system banned a book in 2019 entitled How to Beat Up Anybody by the comedian Judah Friedlander who does not appear as if he has ever swung a punch in his life. This book is a work of satire about the martial arts world but not an actual martial arts educational book-- this book is most likely banned because of the total alone. Friedlander is best known for his role as writer Frank Rossitano on the tv show 30 Rock.

No Sex Mags in Prison Libraries

Many prisons ban magazines and books with an overtly sexual theme. While many prisons do not outright ban the buying and possession of pornography, most magazines that are hardcore porn are banned which makes sense. As a side note, the list of pornographic publications that are banned in Illinois prisons is extensive, diverse, and a little obsessive.

Dungeons and Dragons Handbook

Dungeons and Dragons In Prison

Some prisons, including in Virginia, ban guidebooks for Dungeons and Dragons no doubt due to the myth that it inspires violence. I knew many inmates who used D&D to spend endless hours peacefully in prison. There is nothing wrong with playing Dungeons and Dragons-- in fact, it encourages positive socialization and develops critical thinking skills. While we are talking about dragons, I noticed many prisons banned all Game of Thrones books which also seems excessive and unreasonable. Inmates especially love long books because it gives them many hours immersed in one story, and provide an excellent form of escapism. 

Stained White Radiance book by James Lee Burke

Banned Books in Kansas Prisons

The banned books in Kansas state prisons are strangely specific. For example, Twelve Years a Slave by Soloman Northup is banned. Ta-Nahisi Coates' Between the World and Me is also on that list. The only book by esteemed mystery author James Lee Burke on the list is A Stained White Radiance. Is this book banned because it has a theme about the sins of slavery in the United States? Is this set of books banned in Kansas prisons because they highlight slavery and its effects on the past and present?

It looks like ALL of James Patterson's books are banned in Kansas prisons which is incredibly short-sighted for any library. One of the appeals of James Patterson is that he consistently writes at a sixth-grade level so he has wide accessibility and therefore wide appeal. Patterson is one of the most popular authors in the world-- this is cruel and unusual punishment to not include him in Kansas state prisons. 

Random Banned Books in US Prisons

Mein Kampf is banned in many, if not most, prisons since I have to assume no one wants inmates to get any ideas from Adolf Hitler. True Crime books are very popular in prison. Many inmates wanted me to acquire True Crime books in a prison library where I once worked. My supervisor would not spend taxpayer’s dollars to buy them but I did manage to get donations of used True Crime books for inmates. These books were always in heavy rotation. I don’t think they were studying for their next big crime, I think they were just reading for the entertainment value, or perhaps as a cautionary tale, just like everyone else.

I think that the intention of banning books in prison is to keep the prison safe. Some books by nature of their subject matter need to be banned or disallowed for safety reasons. I am also OK with the banning of extreme pornography in prisons because it is traded and sold as currency and because much of it is not respectful of women. There are a lot of men in prison who have committed crimes against women and pornography reinforces the idea that women are to be used as objects and servants. If prisons are supposed to attempt some kind of reformation or correction of character, it makes sense that hardcore pornography is not a part of the prison experience.

But to judge books as unsafe for inmate minds (such as James Patterson) seems hypocritical in the face of the fact that many prisons do not ban violent video games such as Grant Theft Auto, the very crime that could have sent the player to prison. I am willing to bet that inmates that read James Patterson are less likely to re-offend than nonreading inmates just because they are reading.

For this article, I used my own professional experiences from working in prison libraries in Maryland and West Virginia as well as the lists compiled by the Books To Prisoners program here. This program points out that prison policies about books that are accepted and that are not are vague and inconsistently enforced. From their website,

"Books to Prisoners believes that prisoners benefit from access to information. An excessive restriction on reading materials infantilizes incarcerated adults and contributes to an environment of distrust between inmates and correctional officers that hampers rehabilitative goals. The costs outweigh the benefits."

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Who Was Inmate John Leibig? A Story of Death, Treason, and the Wild West

The mugshot photo of German immigrant John Leibig is unusual in that he is dressed in what looks like his best Sunday suit. This photograph was taken at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas in 1918 when John Leibig began a year-and-a-half sentence for violation of the Espionage Act. Allegedly, neighbors testified that Leibig spoke of being willing to pay money for the assassination of President Woodrow Wilson and for saying that Americans could never win a war against Germany among other things.

This photograph caught my attention since this is an image of an older man wearing an expensive suit. Leibig is 55 years old and his face shows the weather of being outdoors in hard weather. This is not a stereotypical mugshot of a rancher from the wild west of Wyoming. Who was inmate John Leibig and what was the whole story of his incarceration? Why did President Wilson commute or lessen his sentence from one and a half years to one year? It is a long and complicated tale with lots of missing information so hold on to your hats for the story that is a small piece of history of Wyoming, USA.

But first, I need to credit Wyoming historian Phil Roberts for his very thorough research on the story of John Leibig entitled Aliens and Slackers: Loyalty, Sedition and Vigilante Justice in World War I Wyoming. This professional piece of research is the foundation for what is written here combined with the prison file of John Leibig from Leavenworth Prison now archived at the National Archives online. If you are intrigued by this story and want to know the nitty-gritty details, read Aliens and Slackers, and you will not be disappointed.

John Leibig was born in Germany in 1863 and immigrated to America in the 1880s. There is not much known about his early years in Germany but from his prison intake record, we see reports that both of his parents are deceased and he has no wife or children. In this way, Leibig appears to be somewhat of a loner. The prison intake form also shows that Leibig could read and write and that he was a Catholic.

By the 1890s, John Leibig is ranching in Leo, Wyoming, and goes on to create a very successful business on a prime piece of land with permitted access to water, a key to success on the American frontier. By 1905, Leibig became an American citizen and continued to build his ranching business by acquiring more land, sheep, and cattle.

The US Declares War on Germany

In 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson declares war on the German Empire and so Germany becomes the enemy of the nation. As a nation of immigrants, German immigrants were soon national enemies as well in the United States.

In spring 1917 Leibig is middle-aged with plans to sell the ranch and move to the warmer climate of southern California. As the details of the sale were being organized, the US Attorney's Office in Cheyenne received an anonymous complaint of John Leibig making treasonous statements.

Quoting from Phil Roberts, Aliens and Slackers:

"The warrant for his arrest charged him with an 'attempt to obstruct the Recruiting and Enlistment Service of the U. S. Army.' Affidavits, presented at the preliminary hearing on the following Thursday, made by unidentified Leibig neighbors, stated that Leibig 'believes that Germany has acted perfectly right in all her dealings, even as regards the murder and torture of Belgian women and children.' Another swore that Leibig 'had disposed of all his holdings in this section" and he planned to go to California and then into Mexico, 'so that he can from there aid his native country.' Names of the affiants were not mentioned in the news article."

The Alleged Murder of Louis Senfton

While out of jail on bond, John Leibig has an argument with the man who represents a larger company that is buying his land, Louis Senfton. The two men were apparently living together at opposite ends of the ranch house as Leibig continued to liquidate his belongings preparing for his move to California and the property sale to Senfton and associates. There are conflicting testimonies about what happened on October 20, 1917, but the result left Louis Senfton dead from a shotgun at close range and John Leibig was charged with his murder.

It is only after the death of Senfton that news reports come out that he was the anonymous person who had reported that John Leibig was making treasonous statements. This raises several important questions. The sale of Leibig's ranch was still pending at the time that he was reported for treason and at the time of the death of Senfton. As Phil Roberts points out, it is highly unlikely that John Leibig would agree to sell his property to Senfton if he knew of this. Were Senfton and his partners trying to obtain John Leibig's property through nefarious channels by accusing him of treason? Did John Leibig kill Senfton out of rage? Did Louis Senfton accidentally kill himself as John Leibig reported? Unfortunately, many of these questions may remain unanswered.

John Leibig's attorney Hugo Donzelman defended him at the week-long trial. The jury deliberated for two hours and found Leibig not guilty of murdering Louis Senfton. Even though Leibig was released the treason charges were still pending in a federal court in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Espionage Act Violation and Threats Against the President

From Phil Roberts,

"Just before the case was to go to trial, Leibig changed his plea from "not guilty" to "guilty" on all counts. Given that he faced a possible 220 years' sentence in prison if found guilty, his decision to plead guilty likely came as the result of a plea bargain. Once the plea was entered, U. S. District Judge John Riner immediately sentenced him to 1 /1/2 years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. At that point, Leibig became only the second man in Wyoming sent to federal prison for violation of the Espionage and Sedition Acts."

Leibig is convicted of a violation of the Espionage Act and for making threats against the President. After the guilty verdict, John Leibig is taken into custody and transported to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

I think it is interesting to note that in Leibig's Trusty Prisoner's Agreement when asked to 'Give a full history of the crime for which you were sent here' the response is recorded as:

"It is alleged that I violated the Espionage Act and that I made threats against the President. I pleaded guilty." This is not an admission of guilt but clearly states the charges. We also learn that he plans to correspond with Charley Ellis of Difficulty, Wyoming, and John Schneider of Hanna, Wyoming.

Also included in John Leibig's inmate file is a copy of his sentence commutation from the Department of Justice. While not a full pardon, it lessens Leibig's sentence from 18 months to one year. It is signed by 'Pardon Attorney' James A. Finch. During this time period in American history, the only way to appeal a sentence was by requesting it from the President of the United States. I have to assume that the sentence of John Leibig was appealed by his lawyer, Donzelman and that the President's administration agreed to reduce his sentence by one-third.

While I previously speculated that John Leibig might have been something of a loner, the Correspondance List shows that he is in touch with attorneys, business contacts, and friends in Wyoming during his year at Leavenworth prison. The prison record shows that Leibig had no prison infractions and no prior convictions.

After his release in the Spring of 1919, John Leibig may be found in the 1920 US Census in Denver, Colorado living in a modest boarding house. It is interesting to note in the census document that John Leibig (age 57) lists a spouse, Diana Leibig (age 58). 

The census document lists John Leibig's immigration year of 1893 which gives me the information I need to find his actual immigration record for the same year. Leibig's previous residence in Germany is noted as Berg in Bavaria. His occupation is listed as a farmer. We also see that he has never visited the United States and that he paid his own way, $50, to travel to America. Leibig traveled on a ship called SS Pennsylvania from Antwerp, Holland to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

SS Pennsylvania (1872) embarking on her trial trip, May 5 1873. The event was celebrated as a half-day holiday by the citizens of Philadelphia, about 50,000 of whom are said to have attended. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.

And this is where the trail of John Leibig goes cold. I can find no record of him or his wife Diana in the 1930 US Census. There is no evidence that he ever received fair payment for a homestead in rural Wyoming that he spent nearly three decades building.

And this should be the end of the story but it is not.

In April 1922 a US Attorney began formal legal proceedings to strip John Leibig of his citizenship though by US law Leibig automatically lost his citizenship when he was convicted of a felony. By 1922 John Leibig is nowhere to be found.

From Aliens and Slackers,

U. S. Attorney Albert D. Walton, who replaced Wilson appointee Rigdon when Harding became President, wrote to the postmaster in Hanna, Wyoming, asking about Leibig's whereabouts, adding that he assumed Leibig was dead. The postmaster answered, "In reply to your letter of May 2 relative to the death of John Leibig, [I] will say that I have no direct proof." He wrote that a local man, John Dolling of Medicine Bow, had received a letter stating that Leibig had died in Mexico and asking him to "advise relatives in Germany of his death."

Like Wyoming historian Roberts I have to ask why the United States government would work so hard to perform a redundant legal act? Was this common practice? Much of the evidence suggests that this had to be performed as the ranch of John Leibig and his patents for land use had never been legally transferred and there was no record of the sale. In essence, this also shows evidence of a motive for various people claiming treasonous statements from Leibig. As a wealthy immigrant who worked hard to homestead and build a ranch, he would have been envied for his land, his cattle, his sheep, and his water rights. Did the company that was buying him out convince neighbors to make false statements? Did the neighbors testify against John Leibig in his treason trial because they thought he had gotten away with murder when found not guilty of the death of Louis Senfton? Was this a case of wild west justice?

More from Aliens and Slackers:

"This rationale for stripping Leibig's citizenship gains currency from a letter written by Carpenter's lawyer. Rawlins attorney A. McMicken wrote to the U. S. Attorney in May 1922, asking what the effect of the citizenship cancellation might have "on lands patented to Leibig and sold by him to another who has since died and his estate has been closed and settled in probate and the lands disposed of to a third party under order of sale in probate." McMicken said the "last purchaser desired me to make inquiry."

There is a tricky legal situation here. A substantial ranch was about to be transferred to a company in which the deceased had a partial share and was to receive a substantial payment. His estate is finally valued at about $6,000 and the person who was a witness at the murder trial eventually bought the ranch for less than $1,000. It doesn't sound like a fair deal.

Anti-German Sentiment in the US

We also know that this is during a time that German Americans who were citizens and had been in the United States for years were being targeted by others who viewed them as conspiring with their native countries or as remaining loyal to their native countries over their adopted homeland. The anti-German sentiment was felt all over the United States during World War I and again during World War II.

Also included in the inmate file of John Leibig is a letter received in June 1936 from a law firm representing the relatives of Leibig and asking the Warden if he had died in prison or been released. They are inquiring over "the disposition of his estate" as in, where is the money? In this letter, the lawyer states that his family believed that Leibig had handed over his estate to his lawyer Hugo Donzelman, also a German immigrant. (If you read his biography that is linked to his name in the previous sentence, Donzelman has a long and successful career as a lawyer in Wyoming.) Specifically, the lawyer is representing Leibig's sister and brother-in-law in Germany and their son John Richter who is at this time living in Chicago, Illinois.

The prison responds with basic information about John Leibig's sentence and shows the family that he was released 17 years prior to receiving the letter of inquiry. It does raise the question: Why did John Leibig never correspond with this family in Germany about where he went to after prison? Was Leibig embarrassed and ashamed over the prison sentence and the loss of his property and life's work? Did he feel guilty? In revisiting the correspondence list from his prison record, no one from Germany contacted him during his year-long prison sentence. Was John estranged from his sister? Germany has very rigid inheritance laws-- did the relatives of John Leibig think there was still property left to be distributed? I have to conclude that we will never know all of the answers here.

A final note: I have approached the story of John Leibig as an armchair researcher using and synthesizing information from online original documents. Hopefully, I have added a few more clues to the unusual life of John Leibig. I think one of my main goals was to build on the existing research by massaging a few extra observations from the original documents. I enjoy using the federal inmate records available at the National Archives to imagine what the life of another person would be like. I also want to help tell the stories of inmates whose stories are generally much more complicated and nuanced than they appear in newspapers or on television.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Overcrowded and Understaffed: US Prisons Are a Ticking Time Bomb

Photo courtesy lisasolonynko

As a former prison librarian, I was concerned to hear that West Virginia's Governor Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency and is bringing in more than 50 National Guard members to help staff the overcrowded and understaffed prisons and jails in the state. What are the effects of overcrowding in prisons in the United States?

Rural Prison Librarian

In the prison where I worked in West Virginia, the salaries were very low. As a prison librarian with a Master's degree in Information Science and with many years of library experience, I made less than $30k per year in 2015. Some of the correctional officers (COs) made much more than I did because of the overtime they worked. I knew several COs who worked 70+ hours per week and made six-figure salaries. When I worked there over five years ago I sometimes worked an extra security shift as well for the extra pay.

Because I worked in a prison, I went through a four-week training course along with the correctional officers and other new prison support staff. We learned self-defense, how to properly handcuff an inmate, and how to search an inmate's cell during a shakedown. I didn't think it was unusual since this was my first prison library job and I also really needed the stability of a full-time job with benefits. I also appreciated learning how to defend myself physically and how to avoid being manipulated by inmates. I learned a lot about people and life in a West Virginia prison. I also worked in an understaffed and overcrowded environment in every prison I have ever worked in Maryland and West Virginia.

National Guard as Prison Staff

I thought that calling in the National Guard to staff a prison or jail was extreme but this is also about to happen in Florida. In this news story from Florida, they place blame on the COVID-19 pandemic for short-staffed prisons but this is a problem that has been many years in the making. Most prison employees can expect lower wages with higher risk which is never a good combination. The low pay makes prison employees more vulnerable to being manipulated by inmates who will pay COs to smuggle in drugs. If prison is a business model, and it is, paying low and leaving employees vulnerable is a recipe for being permanently understaffed.

The USA is the Largest Prison Nation

The United States is the largest prison nation on the planet. You could call the USA an Incarceration Nation. The next in line prison nations are El Salvador, Rwanda, Brazil, and Russia. According to The Sentencing Project, "There are 2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years." This enormous increase is due to harsher sentencing laws and mandatory minimum sentencing. For example, in Germany, a life sentence is 15 years. In Alabama, a life sentence can be anywhere from 10-99 years and five states in the United States have no chance of parole for a life sentence. Recently, Mississippi became the number one place in the world for its incarceration rate with 18,080 incarcerated individuals.

In the USA prison system, it's not just the sheer number of inmates in the United States that is concerning. It is the disproportionate number of African American and Latino inmates that shows strong evidence of discrimination in arrests, convictions, and incarceration. To quote The Sentencing Project, "Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Latinos are 2.5 times as likely. For Black men in their thirties, about 1 in every 12 is in prison or jail on any given day."
Photo courtesy Negative Space

Overcrowded American Prisons Are Stressful for All

As a prison librarian, I felt the pinch of overcrowding and understaffing regularly. All employees were strongly encouraged to work extra security shifts. Many times I was guarded by a camera instead of having a CO in the library with me. In addition to the added stress of overcrowding, working in a prison is very stressful because of the nature of the work.

Prisons and jails can be dark, humorless places with very few benefits. The reality is that many correctional officers and prison employees experience violence regularly and this is not good for anyone's mental health. A recent study published in Criminal Justice and Behavior reports,

"We find strong associations between violence and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide risk, as well as symptoms of depression, alcohol abuse, anxiety, and sleep disorder. Importantly, we also find a potentially protective role of institutional factors, such as the quality of perceived management and supervision. In line with the perceived organizational support (POS) model, our findings make clear that organizational support can moderate the deleterious effects of prison work."

This paragraph hints at the root of the problem that exists at the heart of many prisons, a lack of support, leadership, and team building in prisons from the top down. Every single prison in the United States works under a different Warden who wields a lot of power and sets the tone for every prison workplace just like a CEO. 

Round Barbed wire

Good Warden, Bad Warden

For example, in one prison, I worked under a very supportive Warden who brought a college program to the prison funded by Pell grants for felons resurrected by President Obama. I saw the prison library transform from a place of gang meetings to a place of homework conversations. The men in this prison were excited to be learning and it improved the quality of prison life for many including myself. It should be noted that I was directly employed by the state prison agency and reported directly to the Warden. Since prisons are quasi-military institutions, the chain of command meant that I was protected by the power of a supportive Warden and was treated respectfully by prison staff and correctional officers. A prison with a good warden creates a space where people want to come to work every day and feel supported by their supervisors.

In another prison, the Warden was not supportive of the library, the librarian, or the teachers. The library was only open a few hours a week even though I was in the library full time. I was watched very closely and treated with suspicion by the prison administration. One of the reasons for this uncomfortable relationship is that I was an employee of an external state agency and not employed by the prison agency. This lack of status in the chain of command alone was one reason I was treated lesser than others. A prison with a bad warden creates chaos, trauma, conflict, and dysfunction.

The bottom line is-- Every prison and jail is its own private kingdom in many ways and each may operate very differently depending on the infrastructure and leadership. Without consistent oversight and professional leadership, many prisons become dysfunctional and dangerous.

The combined danger and discomfort of working in a prison and then also facing overcrowding and understaffing adds to the layers of stress for prison employees. Why would anyone want to work in a prison for very modest wages and benefits? Many correctional officers have been quitting due to feeling this stress and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic which hit prisons hard.
Photo Courtesy Wikimedia

Prison Should Not Create Trauma

The overcrowded and understaffed prisons are also failing America's prisoners. In one Maryland prison, I heard there were no GEDs awarded for an entire year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and librarians were teleworking but inmates did not have access to the internet and there was no process set up for them to participate remotely.

Additionally, when a prison is overcrowded and understaffed more lockdowns occur. These are the times when inmates are locked into their cells for days at a time and they only come out for recreation time and a shower. All meals are brought to inmates' cells three times a day by correctional officers. It is very similar to being in segregation or solitary confinement and feels like a punishment.

Inmates are already being punished for their crimes by being separated from family, friends, income, and their full pursuit of happiness. They should not have to suffer additional punishments from an institution that alleges to correct or remodel their behavior. Some might argue that excessive lockdowns constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Imagine being one person in a six-man cell with one toilet and having no privacy for 22 hours a day. What hope may there be for someone's moral and ethical reform if they are treated so inhumanely by the state?

Photo by Mary Rayme

Prison is an extremely stressful environment by nature. It can be violent, dangerous, and mind-numbingly boring. It is this way for the inmates and for the correctional officers and the prison staff as well. A recent editorial in West Virginia's Logan Banner says it all, If West Virginia Wants More Corrections Officers It Must Pay For Them. The editorial also says that at the end of June 2022 there were almost 1,000 vacancies in West Virginia prisons and jails which is why they are bringing in the WV National Guard.

Compassionate Release From Prison

I know that many states increased compassionate release during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part to alleviate the overcrowding and understaffing of American prisons. What is compassionate release? According to this resource,

"Compassionate release is a process by which inmates in criminal justice systems may be eligible for immediate early release on grounds of "particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing".

I understand that compassionate care release is usually reserved for older inmates who have served most of their sentence and have critical health issues but if there are not enough prison employees to staff a prison compassionate release is another option that needs to be considered.

Prison tower behind barbed wire
Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

The Future of Prisons in the United States

Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come, Mississippi experienced 120 prison deaths in 2020 in what they called gang warfare and prison riots. Though the article referenced here doesn't say that overcrowding and understaffing contributed to the violence it is almost certainly so.

The bottom line is that the USA is facing an even larger crisis because the way they are currently operating is unsustainable and incredibly dangerous for prison staff and for inmates. By bringing in the National Guard and asking prison staff to work overtime states such as West Virginia and Florida are treating the symptom of the problem and not considering the root causes of prison overcrowding and understaffing. Even if they paid prison employees more money, they are still treating a symptom of a larger problem.

To be proactive about this nationwide prison and jail crisis:
  • Consider changing sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums
  • Explore how education and support early in life may mitigate later-life incarceration
  • Research the European model of prison that California is utilizing
  • Consider providing continuing education for prison administrators to be better trained in business skills such as management and team building to better hire and retain prison staff. 
Let's be clear here. This is a big mountain to move in terms of making progress in downsizing mass incarceration in America. After all, the US prison system is a multibillion-dollar operation and seems unmotivated to improve the system.

And as the Logan Banner editorial points out, this is not a sudden emergency, this is a slow creeping crisis that may be reaching a toxic boiling point. Violence inside US prisons is on the rise and many prisons and jails operate without sufficient oversight. Overcrowded prisons that are short-staffed are a ticking time bomb that is not being discussed enough in the mainstream media and can only end badly for inmates and prison staff. In the words of writer and former inmate Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 

Friday, September 2, 2022

Who Was Artist Chaim Soutine?

While some call Chaim Soutine a French artist, he was actually a Jewish artist born in present-day Belarus who spent his formative years painting in France. I have also seen him referred to as Lithuanian which is not the case. Soutine studied art in Lithuania but was born in a region of Russia that is now Belarus.

There is not a lot of background material on the Russian artist and Expressionist Chaim Soutine. He was born Chaim-Iche Solomonovich Sutine in Smilavichyi, a Jewish shtetl in the Russian Empire in 1893, and was one of eleven children. From 1910-1913, he studied in Vilnius, an art town in Lithuania at the Vilna Academy of Art.

Like a good detective, the film Chaim Soutine: 20th Century Expressionist Artist (2008) starts at the beginning of Soutine’s life by looking at his file from when he immigrated from Russia to France. Chaim Soutine: 20th Century Expressionist Artist is a fast and enjoyable documentary film suitable for high school students, college students, artists, and art lovers.

Chaim Soutine self portrait 1918
Self-portrait, Chaim Soutine, 1918. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

From Russia to Paris

In 1912, Soutine arrived in Paris and lived at the same address as another famous Russian artist Marc Chagall who was also Jewish and born in current-day Belarus. Soutine took painting classes at the Fine Arts Academy in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts, and studied under Fernand Corman. What is interesting to note about Soutine is that looking at the paintings of Corman, he would have studied very classical painting and art. But the somewhat skewed and unique paintings by Chaim Soutine are not at all classical.

This film draws on an archival film interview with Michel Kikoine, an artist and longtime friend of Soutine. A current interview with the daughter of Kikoine, Claire Maratier, provides wonderful insight into the life of Soutine. Sadly, Maratier remembers Soutine as the proverbial starving artist. Another friend of Soutine’s recalled that he had thrown out all of his furniture because it was filled with bedbugs. Yuck!
Portrait of Chaim Soutine by Amadeo Modigliani (1917)

Soutine and Modigliani

In 1914, Soutine volunteered to join a trench-digging corps of soldiers preparing for WWI, but poor health demanded that he leave his labor after a few months. Later in Paris, France, Soutine was introduced to artist Amadeo Modigliani by another artist, Jacques Lipschitz. Soutine and Modigliani later shared an apartment together. Modigliani and Soutine were both enamored with each other’s artwork and the older artist, Modigliani, introduced Soutine to his art dealer Leopold Zborowski.

It makes sense that artists Chaim Soutine and Amadeo Modigliani would become friends. They are both living and working artists in France from another country. They both have very unique painting styles that challenge the status quo of classical art. They also both liked to drink alcohol. Both Modigliani and Soutine were Jewish and lived in a time and place where Jews were discriminated against. As artists and Jews living during World War I, Soutine and Modigliani would have many shared interests.

While the art dealer Zborowski put Soutine on a retainer of five francs per day, he also sent him away to paint in Céret in southern France as Zborowski’s wife allegedly could not stand the foreign and gruff Soutine.
Portrait of Leopold Zborowski by Amadeo Modigliani

Soutine Subject Matter

Soutine became interested in painting the flayed animals that were hung out to sell by the local butchers in Céret. So taken with this meaty subject matter, Soutine would sneak into slaughterhouses to paint. Animal carcasses remained a recurring theme for most of Soutine's working life as did landscapes and portraiture.

One of the best parts of this film is that much of the scenery painted by Soutine still exists. The filmmakers excel at melding actual landscapes with the paintings of Soutine to show the similarity but also to reveal the exaggeration that Soutine used that often turned into extreme Expressionism. This film also shows the vigorous and almost manic brushwork that characterizes a Soutine painting.

When Soutine’s dealer and patron Leopold Zborowski comes to visit the artist in Céret, he is unhappy with the new paintings. In a fit of frustration, Soutine burns many canvases.

Le Petit Patissier 1922-23 by Chaim Soutine

Dr. Barnes Discovers Soutine

When American art collector Dr. Albert Barnes comes to Paris, he buys up many of Soutine’s paintings. It is thrilling to hear the tale of Soutine’s overnight success from an eyewitness, art dealer Paul Guillaume. While in the studio of Modigliani, Guillaume spied a painting in the corner which caused him great excitement. The painting was a portrait of a pastry chef from Céret with an exaggerated ear. Guillaume bought the painting and hung it in his gallery. When Dr. Barnes saw the painting he is reported to have said, “That’s a peach of a painting.”

However, a letter from Dr. Barnes tells a different story. Barnes claims that he first saw a painting by Soutine when he was with Paul Guillaume at a café in 1922 in Montparnasse, France, and then went and bought 52 paintings from Leopold Zborowski. Barnes writes in a letter, 

“The main reason I bought so many of the paintings was that they were a surprise, if not a shock, and I wanted to find out how he got that way. Besides, I felt he was making creative use of certain traits of the work of Bosch, Tintoretto, Van Gogh, Daumier, and Cézanne, and was getting new effects with color.”

In 1923, Zborowski sends Soutine to paint in the French Rivera. By this time, Soutine’s allowance was raised to 25 francs and he was enjoying the fruits of his artistic labor, as was Zborowski. As a painter and artist whose work was selling, this was a win-win for the artist and the art dealer.

Carcass of Beef, 1925, by Chaim Soutine

Who Influenced Soutine?

In discussing the animal carcass paintings of Soutine, it is noted that he drew inspiration from other artists who had painted the same subject matter including Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox (1655) and Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Ray (1728). The weird and wiggly painting of Chaim Soutine has much in common with Belgian artist James Ensor (1860-1949), who also painted carcasses. Soutine visited the Louvre in Paris often and admired the works of Corot and Courbet. The work of Soutine influenced other artists who came after him including Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollack, and Willem de Kooning.

When art dealer Leopold Zborowski loses all of his money in the stock market crash of 1929 and later passes away, two new art collectors, Madeline and Marcellin Castaing fall in love with the artwork of Chaim Soutine. The artist has his own bedroom in their country estate in Leves near Chartres, and Soutine visits often to paint the beautiful countryside.

During World War II Chaim Soutine is placed under house arrest along with his wife as he is a Russian Jew and she is German. Short of cash, Soutine tries to pay for milk and eggs with paintings, but the villagers regard his artwork as too strange to even trade for-- if they only knew the current value of the artist's work!

As a Jew, Soutine was forced to register with the French government, and then he moved many times to escape detection. In 1943 Soutine dies of a recurring stomach ulcer which could only have caused excruciating pain and agony for the artist, another victim of the Nazis.

Eva, 1928, painting by Chaim Soutine

The Legacy of Chaim Soutine

While Chaim Soutine dies at age of 50 his artwork continues to be admired and revered in ways that the artist could not have ever imagined. For example, a painting by Soutine entitled Le Bœuf Écorché, 1924, sold at auction in 2006 for $13.8 million. The artist's paintings have been recognized for their painterliness and avant-garde subject matter-- Soutine was ahead of the art curve.

Another of Soutine's paintings became a rallying point for Belarussian independence and fair elections in 2020. The town where Chaim Soutine was born is in current-day Belarus. You can read more about it in this opinion piece by Belarus professor Almira Ousmanova. The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has a great brief bio of the artist attached to the portrait of Soutine painted by his friend Amadeo Modigliani.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Who Was Eden Ahbez: Origin of Jazz Standard Nature Boy

Photo of Eden Ahbez creator of jazz standard Nature Boy

The lyrics to Nature Boy are brief, about an unusual boy who reveals, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.” ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘Those lyrics are very new age and hippie for a jazz song.’ What is the story behind this quirky song with a wistful melody? It turns out the story and artist behind the song are fascinating, and perhaps worthy of a feature film.

Who Is Nature Boy?

"Nature Boy" was written by a strange and unusual character named George Alexander Aberle (1908-1995). Born in New York City, he was later adopted by a family in Kansas in 1917, and his name was changed to George McGrew. In the 1930s, McGrew lived in Kansas City and worked as a pianist and dance bandleader. Sadly, much of the early life of McGrew seems to be unknown.

McGrew moved to Los Angeles, California in the early 1940s and played music at a health food store owned by German immigrants who were part of the Wandervogel movement in Germany. The followers of this German back-to-nature movement were known as Nature Boys. It was around this time that McGrew changed his name to eden ahbez, not capitalizing the names as he believed only God and Infinity were worthy of this honor.

Nat King Cole at the Keyboard
Nat King Cole, photo courtesy the LOC

In 1947, ahbez gave the lyrics of "Nature Boy" to musician Nat King Cole’s manager and Cole began performing the song to audiences regularly and to great acclaim. Before Cole could release the song on record, ahbez had to be tracked down so that proper rights could be attributed and paid. Allegedly, ahbez was found living underneath the Hollywood sign, under the first 'L'.

Nature Boy is a Hit

"Nature Boy" went on to be a hit for Nat King Cole in 1948 and stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for eight weeks. The success of the song made ahbez into a temporary celebrity who was featured in articles in Life, Time, and Newsweek magazines. There is a 1948 television clip of ahbez on YouTube that shows the long-haired and bearded songwriter coming on stage with a bicycle and sitting cross-legged on the floor for his interview. Clearly, eden ahbez was a man who lived life on his own terms and without a publicist.

But the story doesn’t end there. It turns out the melody for "Nature Boy" was perhaps in part taken from a Yiddish song called “Shvag, Mayn Hartz” (Hush, My Heart). Ahbez later settled out of court with song owner Herman Yablokoff for $25,000. Also, the first two measures of Nature Boy are taken from Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Op. 81 (1887).

Why is "Nature Boy" so popular and resonating as a song even today? Maybe it’s because the older melodies in "Nature Boy" are planted in our collective unconscious; a classical tune and a folk tune are cobbled together to create something new that sounds old. The contemporary lyrics cement the song as successful. The emotional payoff of the song is that we don’t have to cure cancer, leap tall buildings, or find a clean and perpetual energy source. We don’t have to find peace in the Middle East or find the Grand Unification Theory of the universe. We merely have to love and be loved to live life successfully. A simple and satisfying message is conveyed to us in a song sung by a child. Sigh.
Nat King Cole with two other musicians
Nat King Cole (center) photo courtesy NYPL

"Nature Boy" — the song based on German hippies, classical music, and a Hebrew melody — goes on to be recorded by musicians such as Natalie Cole, James Brown, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Engelbert Humperdinck, Aaron Neville, Sarah Vaughan, David Bowie, Celine Dion, Sun Ra, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and many others.

A final note about a possible influence: It should be noted that the French writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), also known as George Sand, has a quote: "There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved." Perhaps this is another inspiration for eden ahbez' great jazz standard song, "Nature Boy"?

The Birth Certificate of Eden Ahbe, George Alexander Aberle

Consider this a sidebar to the previous article. 

I became so interested in American musician Eden Ahbez that I requested a copy of his birth certificate from New York. I also enjoy doing research using original documents. It was fun to see this document with George crossed out and Eden Ahbe at the top. It is an administrative declaration of independence. The birth certificate of eden ahbez, also known as Ahbe, George Alexander Aberle, and George McGrew, reveals a few tidbits about this unique American’s early life.

Parents of Eden Ahbe
George Alexander Aberle was born on April 15, 1908, to George Philip Aberle (bookbinder) and Mary Ann Mason Aberle of 263 Nassau Street in Brooklyn, New York. Eden’s father is listed as born in New York, while his mother’s birthplace is England. Mary Ann Aberle is 34, while George Aberle is 37.

At the top of the birth certificate, the name of George Alexander Aberle is crossed out and Eden Ahbe is written, in block letters. (No, there is no ‘Z’.) It looks like the name change was approved by the court on November 17, 1943, and approved by the Commissioner of Health on March 8, 1951.

The Aberle Family
In researching the origins of eden ahbez, I looked up his dad George Philip Aberle in the 1910 US Census. The Aberle family lives in Brooklyn Ward 11, Kings, New York. The older Mr. Aberle lists his father and mother as being born in Germany. Eden’s mom is named Margaret (she is listed as Annie in other census reports) and the children living in the house are: Elizabeth C. (age 16), Grace G. (age 13), Walter P. (age 11), Irene L. (age 9), William L. (age 8), Edna M. (age 6), Lester P. (age 4), Anna M. (age 3), Adatha B. (age 2), and then there is George A. Aberle, age 2. On seeing the two kids the same age one wonders if George and Adatha were twins, though perhaps they were just born in the same year.

Perhaps the most significant detail here is that the young George Alexander Aberle is the tenth child to be born to his mother. Maybe George goes to Kansas to be raised by the McGrew family because there are too many kids for the parents to care for.

And what caused George Alexander Aberle to change his name to Eden Ahbez formally? Was there a psychological disconnect from his biological family of origin, or was ahbez merely practicing the fine art of reinventing himself? Was George inspired to choose the name 'eden' from his sister named Edna? Sadly, we may never know. What we do know is that Eden gave us one amazing song that is beloved by many all over the planet.

Monday, August 29, 2022

American Artist and Illustrator Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell (ca. 1920), via the Library of Congress

Who is the American artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell? What is the significance of the artwork of this American master of visual storytelling? It has taken me many years to break down and overcome a serious snobbery towards the artwork of Norman Rockwell. As a student of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, I was taught in a classical art environment and art history started with the Venus of Willendorf and concluded with Abstract Expressionism. Not one of my professors ever included the artwork of Norman Rockwell in an art history lesson or slide show– it is almost as if he never existed. Now I have a different view of this underrated American painter, illustrator, and storyteller.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is one of those lucky and driven individuals who always knew he wanted to be an artist. Beginning at a young age, Rockwell studied in New York City at the New York School of Art, the National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League. At the Art Students League Rockwell joined the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Bontecou, Robert Rauschenberg, Al Held, and Roy Lichtenstein who also attended this esteemed New York City art institution.

The Early Career of Norman Rockwell

In 1913, 19-year-old, Norman Rockwell was hired to be the art director for Boys’ Life magazine, where he began his career in painting magazine covers. Rockwell created magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, The Country Gentleman, Leslie’s Weekly, Life Magazine, and Look.

Rockwell moved from New York to a small town in Vermont and later in 1953 to Stockbridge, Massachusetts another small, quaint New England town. (Population in 2020 was 2,018) There is no doubt that small-town life influenced his artwork significantly.

Norman Rockwell’s body of work reveals a prolific artist who created over 4,000 original artworks. Art schools are notoriously snobby about the work of Norman Rockwell which for some art critics has been judged as being too sappy and sentimental. Perhaps it is another stroke against Rockwell’s artistic reputation that his artwork has been reproduced commercially onto tea towels, key chains, postcards, and plates ad infinitum. It is interesting to note that in 1999 the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote in ArtNews, “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” I feel like I finally have permission to appreciate Norman Rockwell.

Freedom From Want, 1942 courtesy the National Archives

Rockwell As Social Commentarian

In the later artwork of Norman Rockwell, he tackles the serious subjects of racism, war, poverty, and the freedoms of the United States constitution. The context of some of Rockwell’s artwork elevates him from an illustrator to an artist of social commentary. Perhaps the best part of Norman Rockwell’s artwork is his unique ability to tell a story with his pictures, to capture humanity in one take, and the sense of love, care, and humor he imbues into his images. 'Beloved' is often an adjective attached to all things Norman Rockwell, and while it is cliche it is also true. Norman Rockwell tugs on our heartstrings effectively through his paintings.

A case in point is the iconic painting Freedom From Want which shows an American family at the Thanksgiving table. Everyone smiles as the grandmotherly figure sets the giant roast turkey onto a fresh white tablecloth. In the lower right, a pair of warm male eyes gaze back into the viewers making it feel like a snapshot of this special holiday moment. Most people refer to this well-known work of art as The Thanksgiving Picture. This important series of paintings was inspired by a speech given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 6, 1941, referred to as the Four Freedoms speech. Rockwell went on to create paintings that represent Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom From Fear.

Freedom of Speech, Photo Courtesy Wikimedia.

The Painting Style of Rockwell

Perhaps another strike against the art of Norman Rockwell is that it is somewhat outdated. He is an illustrator who earned his bread and butter in the now-defunct art of magazine cover illustration, a task that has been taken over by photography. (Unless you are The New Yorker, of course.) As an illustrator, the style of Rockwell's artwork might be dubbed painterly realism. We can see the brushstrokes in his paintings yet they are also quite realistic and have a photo-realism quality. While there are few Norman Rockwell illustrator imitators today, it is a testament to his skill and classical painting background that his style and ability to illustrate are hard to duplicate. Rockwell’s artwork is unique, expert, and difficult to copy.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

Boy With Baby Carriage, 1917

In this classic Norman Rockwell painting, a well-dressed young man is furiously pushing a fancy old-fashioned baby carriage while two young men of the same age pass him and make faces at him. I love the touches of red in this painting-- the baby's shoe, the boys' shirts, and the carriage pushers carnation. Are the boys related? Are they on the same baseball team? Are they total strangers? The story in my head goes something like this. The boys are on the same baseball team and the ones in uniform just came from a winning game. The carriage pusher is also on the baseball team but is unable to join because he has to take care of his baby sister-- the pink trim on the clothing and the baby bottle in the breast pocket are the two big visual clues here.

Maybe it's more of a class war? The well-dressed young man pushing the baby carriage seems as if he could be from a very upper-crust family while the two baseball boys are posturing in sarcastic politeness as if to emphasize that they were able to play while the posh boy had to work. Rockwell doesn't help us out with the title, Boy With Baby Carriage, so the viewer will have to have some leeway as to how they envision the meaning of the painting.

Where to Find Rockwell's Artwork

You can find original paintings and artwork by Norman Rockwell at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum in California, the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., just to name a few.

Finally, if an artist is to be judged by how influential he is, Norman Rockwell is one of the greats. Filmmakers are devotees of Rockwell’s lighting and composition as is evidenced in the references made in such films as Empire of the Sun, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, and American Gangster. It is time to celebrate the important artwork of Norman Rockwell not only as one of the most popular American artists and illustrators of the twentieth century but also as one of the most influential.

Read more about Norman Rockwell and his 4-painting series of Freedoms, beginning with one of the artist's most famous works, Freedom From Want.