Inside the Sing Sing Death House

200 pages

100 illustrations

November, 2001

ISBN: 9780814716168


Scott Christianson is the author of Notorious Prison: Inside the World's Most Feared Institutions and Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House (NYU Press, 1999). A longtime investigative reporter, his articles have appeared in The New York Times, the The Washington Post, The Nation, the Criminal Law Bulletin and many other publications. Since the author began this project, six of the convictions discussed in Innocent have been overturned.

All books by Scott Christianson

In the annals of American criminal justice, two prisons stand out as icons of institutionalized brutality and deprivation: Alcatraz and Sing Sing. In the 70 odd years before 1963, when the death sentence was declared unconstitutional in New York, Sing Sing was the site of almost one-half of the 1,353 executions carried out in the state. More people were executed at Sing Sing than at any other American prison, yet Sing Sing's death house was, to a remarkable extent, one of the most closed, secret and mythologized places in modern America.

In this remarkable book, based on recently revealed archival materials, Scott Christianson takes us on a disturbing and poignant tour of Sing Sing's legendary death house, and introduces us to those whose lives Sing Sing claimed. Within the dusty files were mug shots of each newly arrived prisoner, most still wearing the out-to-court clothes they had on earlier that day when they learned their verdict and were sentenced to death. It is these sometimes bewildered, sometimes defiant, faces that fill the pages of Condemned, along with the documents of their last months at Sing Sing.

The reader follows prisoners from their introduction to the rules of Sing Sing, through their contact with guards and psychiatrists, their pleas for clemency, escape attempts, resistance, and their final letters and messages before being put to death. We meet the mother of five accused of killing her husband, the two young Chinese men accused of a murder during a robbery and the drifter who doesn't remember killing at all. While the majority of inmates are everyday people, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were also executed here, as were the major figures in the infamous Murder Inc., forerunner of the American mafia. Page upon page, Condemned leaves an indelible impression of humanity and suffering.


  • "This is a rare book—haunting fragments from the lives of men and women on their way to the electric chair. A moving and troubling epitaph for the guilty and perhaps the innocent."

    —William Kennedy, author of Ironweed

  • "Simply by presenting excerpts from the state's own internal files, this book offers some of the most compelling evidence against the death penalty."

    —Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York

  • "A haunting experience. Combining the clinical virtuosity of an exhumation with the fascination of an archeological dig, it delivers a powerful intellectual message about the death penalty. Among the most vicious features of capital punishment are the veils of secrecy and forgetting with which we shroud the rituals of execution. Condemned tears away those veils and makes us take a hard, cold look at the human realities they try to hide."

    —Anthony G. Amsterdam, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law

  • "Unusually intimate and powerful."

    New York Times

  • "A slim volume of indelible impressions. . . . Highly recommended."

    Library Journal