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Thomas Mott Osborne

Thomas Mott Osborne

Thomas Mott Osborne (1859-1926), American reformer, helped advance public understanding of prison problems and instituted a number of prison reforms.

Thomas Mott Osborne was born on Sept. 23, 1859, in Auburn, N.Y., the son of a wealthy manufacturer. He enjoyed a pampered and well-traveled youth and won honors at Harvard College. Osborne married happily and succeeded his father in business, maintaining the company until he sold it in 1903.

Osborne's one quirk—which ultimately affected his career—was his flair for masquerades. This publicly expressed itself at costume balls and privately in escapades which took him over the countryside dressed as a vagrant. Later, however, these disguises helped him to see at firsthand public conditions not readily available to one of his social status. He broke family traditions to become a Democrat and was active in upstate New York politics.

His wife's death during childbirth in 1896 turned Osborne intensively to civic affairs. He contributed to the work of the George Junior Republic, which aided needy and delinquent children. Osborne served on several state commissions and in 1913 was appointed chairman of the New York Commission on Prison Reform. He had himself incarcerated in Auburn Prison for a week, under the name of "Tom Brown." In prison clothing, though not disguised, he shared the inmates' experiences, including solitary confinement, and emerged dedicated to prison reform. The experiment was front-page news. His book, Within Prison Walls (1914), memorialized the event.

Osborne's major thesis was that prisoners must be treated as human to be human. He instituted his Mutual Welfare League in 1916 at Auburn, based on the then novel principle of prisoners' self-rule—a concept which stirred up critics, who denounced it as a system for "coddling" prisoners (an idea which Osborne in fact opposed). In 1914 he was appointed warden of Sing Sing Prison, and he worked to advance his principles there. He achieved both personal and institutional success, although his aggressive deportment and writing style created jealousy and doubt.

Osborne's stormy administration culminated in 1915 with grand-jury charges of malfeasance in office and personal immorality. William J. Fallon, a defender of criminals, led the effort to ruin Osborne. Though he survived the painful and drawn-out assault, which indirectly had positive results—improved penal administration and public interest—he was embittered by the malice he had encountered, and he resigned.

Between 1917 and 1920 Osborne headed the Naval Prison at Portsmouth, N.H., where he instituted further reforms. He continued to be penology's most potent weapon, a figure of international fame and influence. He instituted the Welfare League Association (1916) and the National Society of Penal Information (1922), which after his death on Oct. 20, 1926, were merged as the Osborne Association.

Further Reading

Two biographies of Osborne are Frank Tannenbaum, Osborne of Sing Sing (1933), and Rudolph W. Chamberlain, There Is No Truce: A Life of Thomas Mott Osborne (1935), which better reveals Osborne's personality. □

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Osborne, Thomas Mott

Thomas Mott Osborne, 1859–1926, American prison reformer, b. Auburn, N.Y., grad. Harvard, 1884. As chairman (1913) of the state commission on prison reform he became a voluntary prisoner in the Auburn penitentiary in order to learn conditions at first hand. Within Prison Walls (1914) records his experiences. At Sing Sing Prison, where he was warden (1914–15), he instituted a system of self-government for the inmates. The program aroused political hostility, and he resigned after a trial for misconduct although he was acquitted. From 1917 to 1920 he was commandant of the U.S. naval prison at Portsmouth, N.H. His views are expressed in Society and Prisons (1916, repr. 1972) and Prisons and Common Sense (1924).

See biography by R. W. Chamberlain (1935, repr. 1972); study by F. Tannenbaum (1933).

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