You Tube video of Mae West trailer
Saturday April 19 was the 81st anniversary of Mae West's imprisonment at the Women's Workhouse on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) for the crime of obscenity and the corruption of morals. According to today in history by blogger Dr. Caligari's Cabinet:
April 19, 1927 -
Mae West, suspected transvestite, was jailed for her performance in Sex, the Broadway play she wrote, directed, and starred in. She was sentenced to ten days in prison. While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue and the warden reportedly took her to dinner every night. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior....
Image of Mae West sex poster from NYC10044
The Bowery Boys have more on Roosevelt Island prison life:
... The prison and workhouse has seen its share of celebrity lawbreakers; one could imagine Paris Hilton feeling at home here. (I'm kidding; she wouldn't last a day.) Many of the purported crimes wouldn't even get you a slap on the wrist today.
Margaret Sanger's sister Ethel Byrne was locked up for providing birth control advice to women in Brooklyn. Anarchist Emma Goldman was a frequent 'guest' for incendiary remarks and inciting riots, joining other frequenter Madame Restell, an early 20th century abortionist. Well before her singing career took off Billie Holiday spent four months here for a "vagrant and dissipated adult" (code for prostitution), although she was still a minor.
However its two most recognizable residents to the public at the time stand at either end of the justice scale; Boss Tweed served there for a year as the instigator of New York's corruption woes, while comedian Mae West was locked up for eight days in 1927 on public obscenity charges, due to the 'salacious' nature of her Broadway show 'Sex'. She received so much media attention that she was allowed to wear silk underpants at night and was eventually let off for good behavior. (The picture above is Mae in court, possibly on the day receiving her sentence.)
The celebrity element also helped shine spotlights on the prison's squalid conditions -- a sorry hall of overcrowding, drug addiction and corruption. By the 20th century, gangs of prisoners virtually ran the place. It would become the inspiration for dozens of pulp novels and films, including one actually called Blackwell's Island.
Image of 1932 Roosevelt Island Prison is from nyc10044