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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Conan Doyle Would Burn Down Sing Sing

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Conan Doyle Would Burn Down Sing Sing is an article published in The New-York Times (USA) and in The Times (UK) on 31 may 1914.


  • in The Times (31 may 1914 [UK]) as Conan Doyle Would Burn Down Sing-Sing
  • in The New-York Times (31 may 1914 [USA]) as Conan Doyle Would Burn Down Sing Sing

Conan Doyle Would Burn Down Sing Sing

The New-York Times (31 may 1914, p. 7)

Prison Is a Disgrace to the State, Novelist Says After an Inspection of It.


Condemns Its Unsanitary Buildings, but Praises Warden Clancy for His Humanitarianism.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, literary expert on crimes, criminals, and detectives, was locked up in one of the cells of Sing Sing. Prison yesterday afternoon. His imprisonment, however, was of only five minutes' duration, and was voluntary. He wanted to see how it felt. When questioned about it last night at his hotel, he said, with a smile:

"It was the most restful time I have had since I arrived in New York, for it was the only chance I had to get away from the reporters."

William J. Burns, the detective, also was a visitor at the prison yesterday. He and the novelist lunched with Warden Clancy, attended the band concert and a. variety performance in the administration building, and made a general inspection of the premises. Last night Sir Arthur was quite willing to say what he thought of Sing Sing as a prison.

"It ought to be burned down," he exclaimed indignantly. The buildings are absolutely antiquated, and it is nothing less than a disgrace for a State so great and wealthy as New York to have a prison which is a hundred years behind the times.

"I am a medical man, and naturally I was interested in the sanitary conditions and the way the buildings were constructed, and I saw enough. No, I have never read or even heard of any of the reports on conditions in Sing Sing which may have been issued. I didn't need any reports. I saw the place.

"When I say this," Sir Arthur continued, I want to be understood as referring only to the mechanical side. Warden Clancy is a very remarkable man. It would be a great pity if for any political reason or through any change of influence he should be taken away. He has a big brain and a big heart, and is deeply interested in humanitarian measures for the prisoners. The way he has made the place work with insufficient means is extraordinary. I'd rather have a bad machine with Clancy at the head of it than a good one under an unsympathetic disciplinarian. His one idea is not to punish men, but to improve them.

"I don't wish to pose as an authority on English prisons," the novelist went on, "but I doubt if we have any as unsanitary as Sing Sing, except perhaps in very remote districts. Certainly there are none in London or the larger cities.

"The cells ought to be knocked three or four into one. As to the types of Prisoners whom I saw there. I should say that it struck me that the great mistake of the penal laws is in their failure to allow freer scope for treatment of the individual.

"As a medical man, I took great interest in the appearance of the men I saw, and it seemed to me that probably a third of the whole number were defectives — men whose cases called for medical treatment or care in an asylum. Perhaps another third were young men who ought never to have been put in with hardened criminals, and the last third were the men for whom such places as Sing Sing have to exist.

"Of course I did not see Lieut. Becker. I am told that the rules would have prohibited me seeing him in any event, but when his name was first mentioned I said that I would not in any way be a party to making the spectacle of a man in such a position. I saw the apparatus used in the death chamber; it was not pleasant, but after all I suppose electrocution is as merciful a method as any."

Sir Arthur would make no comparison between Sherlock Holmes and William J. Burns, but what he thinks of one phase of the American detective's activities was evident from a remark he made in connection with the possibilities of unjust convictions in America and England.

"Our case of Stinie Morrison," he said, "has always seemed to me a very dubious one. While I would not go so far as to say that Morrison was innocent. I have always thought his guilt was not satisfactorily proven. But. at all events, his sentence was commuted to penal servitude, and most people admitted that there was grave doubt. Now this Frank case in Georgia — that was different. They simply got hold of the wrong man and hung on to him."

As to a possible generic difference between American and English criminal classes Sir Arthur would not commit himself.

"But is there such a thing as an American criminal?" he asked. "There in Sing Sing I saw great numbers of men evidently of foreign birth. Your criminals are like your life — cosmopolitan. I have heard it asserted that New York has the cleverest and most resourceful crooks in the world, but I can't say whether it's true or not. If we have fewer crimes of violence in England. I should say it is because evil-doers know that a very speedy death is on the way. And even so, I should say that we have all the criminal enterprise in England that we want" Lady Doyle. who is also deeply interested in questions of criminology and prison reform, added this as her opinion also. "Our criminals are active enough," she said. "I'm sure we don't wish them any more so." "And now I'll have to ask you to excuse me," said Sir Arthur."

Lady Doyle and I are going out to see Broadway at night. It is some years since my last visit, and I am told that the lights are brighter than they used to be."