The Mother of Sing Sing

Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, was built in 1825 by convicts who used stone quarried onsite. In charge of Sing Sing from 1920 to 1941, Warden Lewis Lawes remains the longest tenured prison warden in its history. His wife Kathryn was beloved by the inmates, who called her “Mother.” In addition to raising three daughters inside the prison walls, she would regularly go to the prison and visit with the inmates. She arranged for every man to get a Christmas present, she would help them write letters to their families, and she would even intercede on their behalf with the warden on occasion. Kathryn’s generosity went far beyond that. She took — not sent — food, clothing and money to families that were left desolate by the husband’s incarceration. She saw to it that encouraging letters went to hopeless young criminals, and many dollars found their way from her purse to the pockets of newly-released men. When a convict’s mother was dying, she saw to it that they were permitted to leave Sing Sing for a final visit. Finally, she would often accompany prisoners to the funerals of their loved ones. Much of what Kathryn Lawes did was not known until after her death. On Oct. 30, 1937, Kathryn died at the age of 52 after falling off the Bear Mountain Bridge when the heel of her shoe got caught between two boards. Though conscious when found, she later died of injuries at Ossining Hospital. The inmates were inconsolable when they heard the news. As Kathryn would have wanted him to do, Warden Lawes opened the prison gates and allowed over 200 prisoners to march up the hill to his house to pay their last respects. The thing Kathryn would have been proudest of is the fact that 200 prisoners who walked through the prison gates and could have made a run for it, walked right back into the prison after paying their respects.