6 janvier 2016

ENG - Chester Himes and the Ohio State Pen fire (1930)

On several American websites (see below), one can find articles about the Ohio State Penitentiary fire - Easter Monday fire - on April 21, 1930. They are illustrated by some extraordinary photographs (the penitentiary on fire, the caskets in the improvised morgue).

Chester Himes was a convict in the penitentiary at that time, having been sentenced to 20 to 25 years in 1928. One of his short stories, To What Red Hell (1934), is related to this fire. It shows the disarray of a convict, running to and fro in a desperate attempt to rescue other inmates. Himes used it again later as a chapter of his prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, initially titled Cast the First Stone.

"From the dormitory windows they saw the fire trucks come through the stockade gates. They heard the clang of bells, the motor roar. They saw convicts running across the yard, the sudden surge of Negro convicts from the wheel barrow company,carrying blankets in their arms; then the white convicts from the dining room company. Guards came running. Everyone was running." (beginning of chapter 8).

At the turn of the 20th century, the Ohio Pen was presented as a modern model prison. From the start, however, the reality was quite different. In the 19th century, a cholera epidemic killed 121 inmates. The websites articles (below) reveal that even if prisoners may have initiated the fire as a means of diversion to protect their escape, the extreme overcrowding of the penitentiary - the prison population exceeded twice its capacity at the time of the fire - and the lack of safety devices and emergency procedures were the main causes of the extension of the fire, which caused 322 deaths.

After the fire, the Ohio Parole Board was established in 1931. It eventually decided the release of more than 2,000 prisoners. Himes was one of them. He was released in 1936, after 8 years in the Pen. He had already published short stories in several popular magazines, which was considered by the Parole Board as a token of rehabilitation.

The Report of the Board of Inquiry on the causes of the fire (May, 1930)
The history of the Ohio Pen

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