You’re in the psych ward of the Auburn Prison in New York state. It’s 1914, and conditions are none too luxurious: there’s a padded cell caked in the bodily fluid stains of yesteryear, and you’re huddled in the corner. A petty thief from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you’re having a bit of a nervous breakdown due to the bad food, bad company and general chilliness of the building.
In comes Dr. John T. Gerin, prison physician. He walks right up to you, his gold pocket watch chain dangling from his vest, leans over with his hands on his knees and begins screaming incomprehensibly in your face. He’s close enough to you to feel flecks of spittle that — most awfully of all — must pass through the filter of his preposterous ear-to-ear mustache, which is redolent of mustard and creamed corn.
Would that be enough to drive you permanently insane?
If one believes accusations leveled at Gerin in 1914, the scenario is not hard to imagine. According to a New York Times report from that year, George W. Blake, a “special prison investigator” for New York Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer, said that Auburn prison had extremely bad conditions, and Gerin was a big part of the problem. Blake charged “that a number of prisoners were driven insane through punishment administered at the institution and that Dr. Gerin was largely responsible for cruel and brutal disciplinary measures.”
The State Prison Commission eventually cleared Blake of those charges. But it’s worth noting that New York politics — and its commissions — were incredibly corrupt in those days. In fact, Sulzer was later impeached, and historians believe that it was because he refused to abide by New York City political machine Tammany Hall’s instructions about who to appoint on commissions.
The scant historical data leaves us little evidence to settle the matter besides Gerin’s outrageous Franz Josef mustache. (So named because the Emperor of Austria sported a similar one around the same period — a subject for another chapter.) Our resident psychoanalyst says that Gerin’s Geraldo-embarrasing ‘stache hints at a deep-seated sadism, a fear of expressing feelings and, given the hair style’s namesake, delusions of grandeur.
Enough to posthumously convict a man of the wanton neglect of prisoners? You be the judge.