By James Miranda
Gavin Caruthers stared at a blank Google search page on his office computer screen wondering how to find someone he’d never meet and only knew through words: the author of the book “Life in Sing Sing.”
It was hard enough that the author wrote the book about Ossining’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility anonymously dubbing himself as Number 1500, but it was written a century ago in 1904 and he left little identification hints. Caruthers spent most of his life in the publishing business and read the book in early 2018 while scouting for books to republish through his business HVA Press, which specializes in bringing back books that mostly haven’t been in print for over 100 years in the immediate Hudson Valley and New Jersey area.
He was keen, however, to taking a shot at uncovering who Number 1500 was.
“I’m always on the hunt and always looking for the next book to publish, so [Life in] Sing Sing was just one of those books that, obviously, just the title will grab you,” said Caruthers, who republished the book in February 2019. “He has chapters on things like diet, discipline, corruption, prison labor, famous prisoners and escapes, and there’s a glossary of slang. It’s very hard to find anything that will tell you what it was like in prison in America [back then].”
The 276-page book propagates a second agenda focusing on rehabilitation and whether or not it works. Caruthers felt it was the perfect time to republish the book due to the signing of the First Step Act on Dec. 21, 2018, which is a prison reform bill that aids newly released convicts and prepares them to re-enter society and succeed.
But the only clues Number 1500 left behind were that he was incarcerated on Feb. 11, 1897, sentenced to 10 years but only served exactly six and half years, his previous occupation was a clerk, and launched a convict-written newspaper called the Star of Hope.
Another question for Caruthers was how to discover who the author was. He employed Bonnie Caruthers, his sister, because she’s the keeper of the Caruthers family tree and was familiar with research of this kind. Gavin Caruthers had acquired a link from the Lloyd Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that served as a starting point for his sister.
Through multiple sources like the National Archives and Ancestry.com, Bonnie Caruthers recovered official 1880 and 1900 US Census papers and Sing Sing admissions documents that identified two men who were incarcerated on Feb. 11, 1897: Edward Rice and Henry Kirke White.
The 1880 census document revealed White’s occupation was a clerk and the Sing Sing admissions book showed that he was arrested for forgery in 1897 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His sentence, however, was commuted—when the punishment for a crime is reduced—in 1903 by three years and six months equaling a six and a half year-sentence just as Number 1500 had hinted to.
In addition, the 1900 census record, which occurred while White was in prison, also showed he changed his occupation to a journalist further supporting the hint that he was a founder of the Star of Hope.
The fact that these instances in White’s life aligned with that of the hints left behind pretty much cemented Number 1500 and White as the same person.
“Right from the beginning it just seems to make sense between the way he wrote, what he wrote, and what he did,” said Bonnie Caruthers, who encountered a block with Rice to know it wasn’t him. “[Gavin] got me started with the admission date and how long he was sentenced for, which was enough. All the in between was just confirming the consistency of his parents, his family, and him. We’re pretty convinced it’s this guy.”
Both Caruthers siblings believe it’s completely plausible Number 1500 is someone else, but with the evidence provided they’re pretty sure. Bonnie Caruthers continued to investigate White’s life going as far to discover his Wisconsin roots, parents, and his wife.
They were unable to find any living relatives of White and aren’t searching currently. Bonnie Caruthers certainly thinks somewhere down the line she’ll search again to really “firm up” thd discovery.
“He had siblings who all had children and at some point, I may try to get a hold of one of his great nieces or nephews or whatever it would be,” Bonnie Caruthers said. “I just feel like I want to find the end for [White]. Even if they don’t know their great, great grandfather’s story. Not really obligatory it’s just interesting. You kind of build a relationship with somebody when you do this kind of research.”
Life in Sing Sing: Inside New York’s Most Infamous Prison 100 Years Ago is available wherever books are sold such as Barnes and Nobles and Amazon as well as through the official HVA Press website.