In 1938, when a struggling young playwright named Tennessee Williams read a newspaper account of four gruesome murders in a Philadelphia prison, he was outraged— and inspired. Subsisting on a regimen of coffee and sleeping pills that kept him feeling “like a smoking volcano,” he wrote furiously, day and night. The result, a play called Not About Nightingales— currently receiving its New York premiere, 61 years later, at Circle in the Square— was rejected by the Group Theater. But Williams never forgot it. Looking back on his career in 1957, he wrote: “I have never written anything since that could compete with it in violence and horror, for it was based on something that actually occurred along about that time, the literal roasting alive of a group of intransigent convicts sent for correction to a hot room called ‘the Klondike.’ ”
On the morning of Monday, August 22, 1938, several days after inmates of the Philadelphia County Prison at Holmesburg announced they’d begin a hunger strike to protest the terrible food, guards opened the cell doors of an isolation block called the Klondike to find four men dead, lying naked in their cells, their bodies shriveled, bruised, and blue. One man’s eyes had bulged to triple their normal size. One corpse was in such bad shape that his family had trouble identifying it. “His eyes were hanging out on his cheeks and they had been sewed up,” one relative said. Another man, brought in to ID the body of his brother, said, “I served overseas during the World War and saw some pretty hideous sights. But nothing was half as bad as what I have just seen. His face was battered, his eyes were popping and his teeth were out.”
What could have caused such injuries? A city coroner, Charles H. Hersch, thought he knew. “There is no question that these men met their death by scalding,” he said. “Their hands were shriveled, indicating immersion in hot water or steam.” But police on the scene attempted a hasty cover-up, claiming the prisoners had gone “stir crazy” and fought each other to death. Hersch didn’t buy it. The police squad’s story— that four men had gone berserk, turned on each other, and fought until all four dropped dead at the same time with the same postmortem symptoms— sounded like a cover-up. Worse still, the warden was going along with the police version, insisting the Klondike contained no steam or hot water pipes.
But Hersch was not about to let the authorities whitewash the atrocity. Declaring that the police and the prison were involved in “a conspiracy of silence,” he resolved to bring those responsible to justice. Invoking an old statute, he took over the investigation and began interviewing convicts who had survived the night in the Klondike. Their testimony made the nature of the ordeal grotesquely clear.
The Klondike was a squat, shedlike building on Holmesburg’s grounds. Though only 50 feet by 12 feet, it was crammed with enough radiators to heat a stadium— six huge radiators of 50 coils each, capable of pumping out 200-degree temperatures. After inspecting the building, the governor of Pennsylvania said it “could not have been built for anything but a torture chamber.”
On the night in question, 25 men deemed to be the “ringleaders” of the hunger strike were rounded up and locked inside, with the windows sealed and the steam on, for 15 hours. The faucets were removed to cut off their water supply.
As the temperature approached 200 degrees, the bars grew red hot. Unable to breathe in the atmosphere of scalding steam, the men stripped off their clothes, drank from the toilets, and begged for air, water, and doctors. One survivor testified, “It was awful. One convict kept asking to be shot. One man was butting his head against the wall, trying to kill himself.” By morning, four men were dead, their hearts shrunk to half their normal size from dehydration. The governor called those responsible “the cruelest sadists who ever lived” and compared the prison to the Black Hole of Calcutta.
As Hersch’s investigation continued, autopsies of the corpses were performed, guards were interrogated, and ex-cons who had been released were called in for questioning. Hersch told the press that the steam treatment in Klondike was the work of a “big mob” of guards who “delighted in blackjacking defenseless prisoners.” Eventually it came out that the deputy warden had closed the windows, ventilators, and doors, ordered the steam turned on, and forbidden prison doctors from visiting the inmates.
When his investigation was done, Hersch delivered a whopping 480 pages of material to a grand jury. The warden, the deputy warden, 10 guards, and two prison doctors were indicted on charges of criminal negligence, but after a lengthy trial only the deputy warden and one guard were convicted. The warden was released, and the guards were given back their jobs.
Small wonder that in Williams’s play, the hero, a sensitive convict named Canary Jim, argues that the goal of literature should be to expose injustice, “blowing things wide open.” Jim derides the “verbal embroidery” of poets like Keats: ” ‘Ode to a Nightingale’!” he sneers. “Don’t those literary punks know there’s something more important to write about?” One day, Jim muses, after he gets out of prison, he will start writing— but not about nightingales.