Before you get to the article…
On February 23, 2018, my book on the Mau Maus and Sand Street Angels, who were two Brooklyn youth gangs from the 1950s, has been completed. It took 15 years of research and writing to complete Brooklyn Rumble: Mau Maus, Sand Street Angels, and the End of an Era. This book is roughly 6″x9″ and has 370 pages and includes a look at the characters in the Mau Maus and the details of a gang killing that happened in February 1959 in front of the iconic Brooklyn Paramount Theater (now Long Island University). If you want to buy a copy, click here and this link will take you to an online ordering page.
There were a few reformatories that NYC youth (both juveniles, and those 16 and older) could be sent to upon conviction of a crime. Places such as Wiltwyck, Elmira Reformatory (this was a holding detention center), Otisville, Lincoln Hall and “Warwick.” Warwick was actually the New York State Training School for Boys, but most people referred to it as Warwick. As can be expected, the opinions of these institutions varied. Some of those incarcerated had fond memories, and others recalled miserable experiences. In my research I came across an interesting-looking letter head for an institution I hadn’t heard of until that point – Berkshire Industrial Farm.
Berkshire Industrial Farm was in the countryside of Canaan, New York and was a facility for young men from New York that was on 2,000 acres of land.
(Begin Update Dec.26, 2016)
In 2008, I conducted an interview with “Bobby” who was at Berkshire from 1957-1961. Over a wide-ranging two hour interview, he shared about growing up in Brooklyn as well as living at Berkshire.
At first, he hated Berkshire, and ran away 13 times, twice making it home. But years later his perspective changed when he saw that most of his friends turned to drugs and that Berkshire likely saved his life. Even when he got out in 1961, he still ran with a gang in Brooklyn called the Mau Maus and became entangled with other gangs like the Apaches, Fort Greene Chaplains and Cross Park Chaplains. He had many colorful stories to share, but at this time, gangs were losing their grasp on New York City and he was eventually able to get out of the gang life.
Before he was sent to Berkshire in 1957, Bobby lived in very poor conditions. His mother was alone with three kids and living on welfare. Corn bread was a staple in their home. Corn bread for breakfast, corn bread for lunch and corn bread for dinner. Sometimes to spice things up she would “put a little vanilla extract in the son of a bitch,” so it would taste like a cake. For the times he didn’t have corn bread, his mother provided spam and “bonina” (phonetic) in a can which was a cheaper substitute than tuna fish.
When we discussed the food quality at Berkshire, he said, “You got three square meals a day. I’m not saying it was…(trails off) Yeah! It was good food, it wasn’t bad food, shit!”
Berkshire was only for boys and was set up into several different cottages. Each boy belonged to a cottage and had to take care of his area and make his bed. You were allowed to smoke if your mother signed for you. School was provided at Berkshire, but if you didn’t like school, you had the option to join a work detail for half a day and do school the other half. Bobby missed his family, and although he ran away so many times, his final verdict was that, “all in all, shit, it was paradise.”
(End Update Dec.26, 2016)
Berkshire is still around today, but under a different name. The other reformatories listed above were probably the most common. Which reformatory was the most feared among the gang jitterbuggers in the 1950s? I guess it could vary from person to person, but “Frenchy” of the Deacons (a gang in Bedford-Stuyvesant) who was the subject of Out of the Burning, by Ira Freeman, felt that it was a place called Hampton Farms. In his opinion it was the worst place to be:
“I had heard plenty about Hampton Farms already. It was a junior Sing Sing, with cell blocks and hard labour, no pansy reform school. Hampton was for youths sixteen to twenty-one and for those juveniles too hard to handle at Warwick. Like every state-o bum at Warwick, I feared shipment to the annex more than anything else.”
Below is a picture of Hampton Farms circa 1916.