Everything Librarian

Friday, June 23, 2023

A Cemetery is a Library: Adventures in Cataloging a Cemetery

"Every life holds an epic tale, even if no one alive remembers it.”
~ Greg Melville

I recently moved to the Parkville area of Baltimore, Maryland, near Double Rock Park and Parkwood Cemetery. I started walking to the cemetery since it's less than a mile from my house and the grounds of the cemetery are lovely. I remembered that my paternal grandparents are buried here and rather than asking for a map to find them in the cemetery office I just started rambling the grounds and turned it into a scavenger hunt. I think it took me about 7-8 trips to finally find my grandparents who are buried in a family plot in the Laurel section. I was surprised and pleased to find that my great-grandparents were buried here as well. I took photos of their gravestones and uploaded them to a site called Find A Grave, an international repository for documenting gravesites-- it is a database of deaths. In searching a bit around Find a Grave, I found more of my ancestor's gravestones in different cemeteries around Baltimore, photographed by strangers, and there for me to add to my family tree.

My trips to the cemetery became more frequent and intentional. I started out by randomly rambling through the cemetery and photographing stones or names that I thought were interesting or unusual. When I started interacting with Find a Grave more, I realized that Parkwood Cemetery only had about 13% of the grave sites available to search with GPS information. The more I uploaded gravestone pictures with data the more I realized that there are literally thousands of undocumented gravestones here as well. The total number of burials in Parkwood Cemetery is unknown but my rough guess is that there are approximately 45,000 souls resting here, off Taylor Avenue in Parkville.

Cemeteries Are For the Living

By this time I had just fallen in love with this suburban cemetery. It's always active here-- there are joggers, walkers, and strollers, some out with dogs, just enjoying the rolling 130 acres of Parkwood Cemetery. The cemetery itself is also very active. There are graveside burials here regularly. I have seen stonemasons putting new information on gravestones. When the weather is good there is grass to cut. I have seen many people here at grave sites just sitting or standing, having a visit with a deceased loved one. The grave sites are filled with flowers (real and fake), notes, stones, pennies, closed beer cans, and I even saw a bullet on someone's headstone-- I am still not sure if that was a good message or not. At Christmas, family members had placed Christmas trees and I even found cookies and candies left in plastic bags on gravestones. While some people may think that cemeteries are just for dead people it is in fact the reverse. Cemeteries are for the living.

What is Find A Grave?

My visits here really turned into an obsession. Since November 2022, I have input almost 7,000 memorials and uploaded over 14,000 photos to Find a Grave. The percentage of gravestone photos with GPS went from 13% to 51%. The number of gravestones photographed went from 65% to 79% of the estimated number of sites. Many of the photos that I upload are attached to records that already existed, entered by another Find a Grave member. What I realized was that I enjoy collaborating with others online with the same purpose-- to sort out the great family tree of humans. As a librarian, I realized that my new intention was to catalog the entirety of Parkwood Cemetery. I also see the gravestones as original documents of sorts that name the deceased and offer up their dates of birth and death. It is truly an archive of lives lived, wars fought, and lives cut short by illness, accident, and even murder.

Different Roles on Find A Grave

Find a Grave is owned by Ancestry.com. Many librarians I know use Find a Grave as a first go-to resource when someone is seeking genealogy information. It is like Wikipedia in that anyone may enter information and suggest edits, but it is an encyclopedia of the deceased. I am the default Memorial Manager for all of the memorials I have input and review each Correction that comes in to add to a memorial. I consciously use Ad Block to block all ads on Find a Grave since I am already contributing to their website. What I have found out about Find a Grave is that many people contribute to the site in different ways. I am adding photos with GPS info embedded and names and dates. Other users are adding virtual Flowers to cemetery memorials presumably as a form of remembrance. More recently I made a friend on Find a Grave who reached out to me. My friend Lynne and her husband love to fulfill photo requests at several cemeteries in the Parkville area of Baltimore. Lynne has so far fulfilled over 2,500 photo requests and added almost 14,000 photos to the Parkwood database. She invited me to join her on her annual survey of the entire cemetery looking for gravestones that people from all over the world have requested. When we find them, the pics are uploaded and the photo request is fulfilled. This is fun and a good workout! Other Find a Grave users, sometimes called gravers, research family history using Ancestry or Family Search to flesh out biographies of the deceased using census data or obituaries. Gravers can also upload photos of gravestones and crowdsource the transcription to the Find a Grave community. While these records chronicle the dead, it is as if each record is a living document that is continuously being added to and improved.

Cemeteries Lack Digital Databases

If you are wondering why we can't just go to the cemetery office and ask for the location of a grave, it's because the people who work in the cemetery office are not helpful to non-family members. Most cemeteries are for profit entities and as such, many cemetery office workers work on commission-- their goal is to sell plots and services, not help random gravers fulfill photo requests. Also, cemetery records are notoriously old school. The Parkwood Cemetery has a digital database that began in 1991-- the older records are still on paper. My dad and I recently visited the office at Baltimore Cemetery seeking any info on Rayme burials there and they showed us records kept on paper 3x5 index cards! While cemeteries may not have a digital database, Find a Grave volunteers are creating this one record and photograph at a time.

Collaborative Database Management

Entering cemetery stone information is a healthy collaboration of genealogists, historians, and others who are interested in documenting the data and photographs of each gravesite. The database of memorials at Parkwood Cemetery is currently almost 30,000 individuals. I spend time going through the database and identified hundreds of duplicate memorials that are merged into one record. I correct obvious spelling errors when I see them. When I add a new gravestone photo and there is a birth or death date missing from the record, I always suggest adding the new data. MOST of my suggestions are accepted and some are rejected. This is how I found out that while a birth or death date may be carved in stone, it doesn't necessarily mean it is correct. I have added several headstones with dates and suggested edits only to find out that the memorial manager had conflicting (and probably more correct) information. Never trust the data on a headstone, always verify with other sources.

Genealogy Lessons Learned

I used to think that if two names were one a gravestone and one was male and one was female, and they had similar birth years that both of those people must be married. In the early days of my memorial adding I would often suggest that the memorial manager link the two as a married couple. Once I got a nice message back from a memorial manager saying that the couple buried together and on the same gravestone were brother and sister. This is a concept that is perhaps lost on 21st century America. Back in the old days and just like Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery, siblings who never married might have lived together and cohabitated to work a family farm.

Gravestone Poetry

Another fascination with the cemetery is the variety of stones, inscriptions, and memorials that people have created here. Sometimes I find what I call Easter Eggs in the cemetery. I use this term to describe messages that have been carved in stone that are less about names and dates and more poetic messages left to remind us of the nature of life and death. A recent find is a slight misquote from Henry Ward Beecher who says, "Death is but the dropping of a flower that the fruit may swell." I got a chuckle that the gravestone says "drooping" instead of "dropping." I was also moved by a gravestone that reads simply, "Daddy". The informality is a delightful departure from the standard Father but it is also heart-breaking in its intimacy. To quote Joe Kloc from the NYT again, "There’s comfort and wisdom to be found in the eerie poetry of gravestones."

Cemeteries as a Database

When I am inputting headstone photographs and recording the names and dates that are on those stones, I do feel as if I am honoring those who came before me. I also hope that future genealogists or family researchers may more easily find information on their family tree from this as well. The raw database of genders, births, and deaths as a whole can reveal information about the population of Baltimore, Maryland from 1920 (when the cemetery opened) to the present day. When I search for 'using cemetery databases' I can see that there are high schools that are using cemetery databases to teach history, statistics, and general science skills. For example, one thing I have noticed from inputting thousands of memorials is that there are a lot more babies in the cemetery from the early part of the 20th century. Sadly, this makes sense. In a time before antibiotics and childhood vaccines, many more babies and children died.

A Cemetery Is a Library of Completed Lives

I had been feeling weird about my cemetery obsession. I have a friend who started calling me Morbidia, which makes me laugh. Is it weird to enjoy exploring cemeteries? But then I read an article in the New York Times by Joe Kloc who concluded that a cemetery is a library of completed lives. As a librarian, this resonated with me and affirmed that it is OK to want to catalog a cemetery because it is also a library of sorts. My project to catalog all of Parkwood Cemetery is vast. If I can enter about 500 memorials a month, it will still take about 3+ years to complete. And since Parkwood is a working cemetery there are new folks arriving every week. The reality is that I could be working on this project for the rest of my life and I am OK with that. Afterall, there is nothing like a walk through a cemetery to put life in perspective.


Recommended Reading:
"Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of American Cemeteries" (2022), by Greg Melville

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.

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.

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.