Death For Some: Many Bear Scars On Mind and Body

Prisoners working in the sugarcane fields, circa 1945. Photo courtesy of the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum

The Item (July 14, 1943) Part 8

By “Wooden Ear”

The following cases are representative of hundreds of similar ones on file at Angola. These are taken mainly from 1936 through 1939, during the reign of Warden “Lode B. Green”:

Randolph Farr was a New Orleans broker. He was convicted and sentenced to a term for embezzlement. He, too, underwent perfunctory physical examination at the hands of the so-called “physician and surgeon” and his inmate-aide. He, too, was assigned to hard labor despite the fact that his hands had seldom lifted anything heavier than a pen.

Farr made the first evening in the field and returned that night weary. The next morning he was still more weary. He complained to Foreman Brown of being ill. He was cursed and told, curtly, to “die and prove it.”

Shortly after 2:00 o’clock that next evening Farr died. He was seen to fall over his row. He was carried to the camp hospital on the water wagon. The “physician” certified to his death as “sunstroke,” and a lackadaisical coroner from the parish seat at St. Francisville viewed the remains, collected his fee, and was gone. Farr’s relatives claimed the body. The state had exacted its fee via the old Angola system!

Some few days after Farr’s death his relatives wrote regarding a sum of money the former broker was thought to have had in his possession before he died. Protracted investigation, instigated because of the prominence of Farr’s family, revealed that $15 had been removed from the man’s body by the free-employee “yard man,” and had been retained by him.

Following this disclosure, the yard man was discharged.

Joseph Slato was another New Orleans boy. Joe had incurred the ire of the officials by an abortive attempt at escape. He had been placed in the “red-hat” gang … the group for the so-called “tough guys” and “incorrigibles” presided over by Jim Brown, brother of the notorious John.

Joe did not hoe fast enough despite the fact that he was physically capable of doing so. Jim Brown, who always carried a stick made of oak or hickory the size of a pool-cue, as did also his brother John, brutally struck Slato over the head, splitting the scalp and causing the blood to run down over his cheeks.

As Joe staggered, almost to fall, C.A. “Hollis,” then first-foreman of the camp (now captain), drove up on his horse and, seeing the blood, asked Joe what was the matter.

In sight and hearing of Foreman Jim Brown, Joe told that he had fallen on his hoe and had cut himself. To have done otherwise would have meant that he would have been murdered!

John Voro was another man from the Crescent City. He had, in 1937, served over ten years.

Driven unusually hard out in the fields one day, John suffered a “sun stroke” and was brought in to the hospital where he quickly went into convulsions, developing a fever of 107.

The record did not show John had been unmercifully whipped just prior to the time he had “fallen out,” supposedly because of the heat.

John is in New Orleans today, but the mental scars which resulted from the “sun stroke” have never, and never will heal!

Amos was a 125-pound Negro from West Carroll parish.

Amos incurred the wrath of foremen at Camp A shortly after his arrival at the penitentiary in 1937.

Amos also suffered a “heat stroke” which followed a beating out in the field.

Amos today has an impediment of speech and thought. His words come out jumbled; his writing reflects the mental confusion. He has been “addled” ever since the experience!

Allen Carroll was the camp clerk at the St. Gabriel unit until he fell afoul of Warden Green one September day.

Carroll was brought back to Angola and placed in the “long-line” out in the field.

Blisters, which quickly developed on Carroll’s hands, and which went without treatment, soon became so infected that his hospitalization was imperative.

The writer saw Carroll on the streets of New Orleans during June this year. His hands were crippled and well-nigh useless. The tendons have become ‘frozen’ and taut. Another victim of Angola brutality who will bear to his grave the scars of the boodle system!

George Grant was a Negro who had served over fourteen years of a life sentence for murder.

He was still working in the fields in 1939 when his right foot became infected.

A system of bland salves, prescribed by the then farm physician, Dr. Taylor, availed nothing.

In 1940, after the new regime at Angola, it was found necessary to amputate George’s right leg between knee and ankle. Gangrene had set in. Lack of medical care was the cause.

George has joined the long list of those who have given blood and limb to the system!

The case of Henry Von Smit of New Orleans is worthy of more than passing mention.

Von Smit was a medical student at the time of his arrest on a charge of having stolen a car for a joy ride.

He quickly adapted himself to the routine at the sugar refinery where he was employed at Angola and became assistant to the chemist.

The late George W. Goebel, who was then the farm superintendent, became interested in the development of soy beans along with General Manager “Smith.”

Von Smit, through his own initiative, experimented with soy beans, followed the teachings of the Negro scientist Dr. Carver, and developed soy bean milk, coffee, breakfast food, flour, and almost everything from a cattle food to a beefsteak.

Made Bread From Beans

His carefully prepared display was brought to New Orleans where it was viewed by thousands. His “flour” finally was used half and half with wheat flour, and was the “bread” of Angola for many months.

Von Smit appealed to the state board of pardons for reduction of his heavy sentence. In his petition, which he prepared himself, he cited his success in the soybean field. He told of the process he had developed, and that because of his acumen the state and himself had benefitted; that he was prepared to leave prison for the field of science in which he had already proven himself proficient.

The plea attracted the attention of the New Orleans press which lauded his efforts.

But not so General Manager “Smith.”

That one of his charges should have broken the hush-hush rule, the gag on prison news which he had so carefully guarded all the years, rankled the general manager.

Gets Taste of “Bat”

Von Smit was accordingly charged with “smuggling out mail.” It was alleged that he had mailed the petition out without having handed it to the censor. And he was beaten with the “bat.”

Needless to say, his plea for clemency was protested by the prison management. It was denied by the pardon board.

The truth of the matter was that the “censor” had actually handled the petition, had found nothing out of the way in it, but fear for his own job had kept him from admitting the fact. He had disclaimed ever having seen the document!

(Next issue: Even medical care run by “The Regime”).

Hell On Angola – The Wooden Ear Series
Ex – Inmate Tells Of Brutalities
Slow workers scream as ‘The Bat’ goes to work
Kicks, Curses Part Of ‘Convict Guards’ Cruelty
Bugs, Heat, Dirt Give Little Chance To Sleep
A New Warden: Prisoners Get Holiday To Mourn For Politico
Reward Guards For Killing
Work Goes On In The Rain
Death For Some: Many Bear Scars On Mind and Body
Even Medical Care Of Prisoners Run By ‘The Regime’
‘Brutal Bill’ Cures Epilepsy With Beatings
New Warden Arrives And Hope For Better Days Lies Ahead
Mess Hall Walkout Brings End Of Starvation Diet Era
Politics Alone Can’t Eliminate All Evils Of ‘The System’
Can Happen Again; Only The Ballot Box Holds Answer