The Big House
Guards at "Shawshank" rolled out the welcome mat around 1910.
Photo Credit: Maine Historic Preservation Commission
In any other surroundings, the expressions on the faces of these derby-wearing, pot-bellied gents might almost be considered welcoming. But within the cold limestone and granite walls of the Maine State Prison in Thomaston, their posture seems a bit less warm and fuzzy. The guards’ identities are unknown, but judging by the electric bulbs and the gas lantern at upper right, this photograph (discovered within a former prison worker’s album and included in the forthcoming book Maine State Prison: 1824-2002) was probably taken in the East Wing around 1910, shortly after the block’s renovation and just before a hundred prisoners took up residence here. The hinged cell doors each included a manual lock and cover that prevented an inmate from grabbing a guard’s hand. After all the doors were closed, a lever at the end of the corridor dropped the longitudinal bar across the tops of the cells. Individual keys were kept in the lockbox on the wall at far right. Once the prisoners were locked in, guards slipped their meals to them through the low, floor-level openings visible in the door at left.
While this facility was a dramatic improvement over the first prison built in Thomaston in 1824 (the original jail featured pits into which prisoners were lowered at night), it was hardly luxurious. The light that came in through the tall windows was barely enough to illuminate the cells, and the heat pipes, at far right, did little to take the chill off a winter’s night. Prisoners were constantly aware that the warden, barely visible standing behind the bars of his office at upper right, was always on guard with a gun should a riot break out.
The greatest opportunity for such a disaster occurred in 1923 when a fire started in the broom shop near where the prisoners built their prized carriages and sleighs. After a few tense moments while the inmates were removed from their cells and brought to the yard, they and the guards watched peacefully as most of the prison burned, except for the portion shown here. Remarkably, no deaths, injuries, or escapes occurred during the blaze, and the prison was soon rebuilt (the new structure, which was itself demolished in 2002 to make way for the current state prison in Warren, would inspire the Stephen King short story and movie, The Shawshank Redemption).
Despite the ominous tone of this posed photograph, the unknown cameraman has whimsically chosen to include a spittoon, just left of center near the guards’ feet. While tobacco products would eventually be banned altogether from the prison in 2000, its presence nearly a century ago would surely have served as a shared bond between the employees and the guests of the state of Maine.
- By: Joshua F. Moore