This nonfiction account explores the lives of four members of a poetry workshop at Green Haven in Stormville, NY in 1976-67 – two of whom are still alive, one still in prison, while one became the subject of a Paul Simon Broadway Musical. The short section below highlights both Salvador Agron’s transformational experience in prison, as well as the very different points of view, still visible in America, about people in prison and rehabilitation.
“Echo of a Rumble:” Letters to Sal
One of the first cracks in the cement gates of Green Haven for Sal was an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on January 29, 1975 with the title Echo of a Rumble1, more than a year before the workshops. I wasn’t aware of the article in the 70s, but in retrospect it struck me as presenting a rather abstract, and at times awkward, summary of Sal’s miserable childhood and his terrible crime, with a more compelling discussion of his rehabilitation.
Here are some excerpts:
In the 50’s, more so during the latter parts, the wave of teen-age gang violence was rampant in New York City. It was very difficult to remain passive under such (an) atmosphere. One either fought or one became the punching bag of rival gangs. Violence only engenders more violence, and this was the case in 1959 when the culmination of gang violence took its toll and youthful energy was not properly directed by the civic and social agencies in the New York City area.
For a boy, as I was then, with the mentality of a twelve-year-old child, during a time of social transition, without the proper guidance, there was not much that I could have done to prevent what occurred…
Prison has been a hard life for me, but in spite of the system that it is, I have managed to use it to my advantage and betterment. Perhaps this is due to something that I learned while I was in the Sing Sing Prison Death Row, at the age of seventeen.
During one of my highest spiritual moments, a time in which the soul is able to see the complete past of one’s existence or life, while facing the shadows of death, it occurred to me that one must do his best to take evil and turn it into good.
It is due to this acknowledgment of life and reality that I have been able to maintain the little humanity that was left within me, and working at it in the face of backward surroundings, I have been able to cultivate my humanity and increase the value and respect for all human beings…
All those who came to prison for youthful gang participation during the 50’s are all out on the street. It seems to me that I am the example gratis (for exempli gratia – roughly scapegoat) of this society. I think that I have suffered enough…
The article generated an outpouring of public sentiment that provided a cross-section of American attitudes toward those behind bars at the time. In fact, Sal got quite a few encouraging letters2 ranging from those just expressing support to those seeking to help him in various ways. Some of the more boosterish letters came from clergymen and educators. Here are two representative comments:
“I read the piece about you in yesterday’s Times, most of it telling your story in your own words. It surely is a poignant story, and your way of telling it was beautiful and deeply moving.” (a clergyman)
“I have read your ‘Echo of a Rumble’ which appeared in The New York Times several weeks ago, and I am very favorably impressed with your case, and so are many of my students. If you tell me what sort of books you would like, I will see what I can do towards supplying them. I entirely agree, from the evidence at hand, that rehabilitation certainly seems to have worked in your case.” (Chairman of a college English Department)
But not all the letters were nearly as kind or sympathetic. Some were frankly horrific. In my view, the most memorable of these ‘letter-attacks’ wasn’t actually a result of Sal’s article. The letter quoted was dated Dec. 7, 1974, nearly two months before the New York Times piece. It was written on pink stationery in blue ink by someone who seemed to have a personal vendetta against Sal. (The underlining is entirely the work of the letter’s author.)
“Brave Cape Man,
“… You must have felt very brave stabbing two boys to death, who couldn’t fight back! I’ll never forget the ‘wise-guy’ smirk on your face, as I saw it on T.V.
“You felt like a hero, didn’t you?! Why didn’t you fight with your HANDS? You came back to kill those 2 boys, with a knife! You dirty, rotten rat! Your helpers are as guilty as you are and they should be there with you, too.
“I hope the ghosts of the two boys you murdered will haunt you in your sleep. Their families should tear you to pieces, you scum. I hope you rot there until 1993!
The next letter is dated January 30, 1975 and was written in direct response to Sal’s own editorial in the New York Times: Echo of a Rumble. It is different in tone and intention from all the rest cited here. The reference to what occurred in ‘the Tombs’ may well have been Tony Hernandez, ‘the Umbrella Man,’ as Sal was settled back at Green Haven in 1965.
“Dear Mr. Agron:
“I read with interest your letter, or should I say, excerpts from your letter, which was published in the Times on 1/29/75. And captioned ‘ECHO of a RUMBLE.’ Your letter also was the subject of one of those N.Y.C. radio shows on the above date, where the announcer makes a comment on some current matter and different people phone in and agree or disagree with his point of view. I only listened to the show from 12 to 1: P.M. during my lunch hour, but since the announcer was critical of your letter, in that he stressed the point with regard to the victims in your case, the vast majority of people who phoned him during the short period I listened to the show thought as you do, how much time is enough and what useful purpose will society gain by further confinement, now that you are 31 years of age and have done a great deal educationalwise etc., perhaps you may have been listening to that particular radio program yourself.
“Now I had one other purpose in writing you this letter and it has to do with you or your companion in the case. In 1965 either you or your companion were confined in the ‘Tombs,’” (a prison in New York City) “if I recall correctly on either the 7th or 8th floor, one evening at visiting time, two N.Y.C. so-called Correction Officers administered a brutal assault on whichever one of you were there, for no apparent reason, these two officers after wrestling you to the floor stomped you with their feet and after you lost consciousness, one of the officers still kept kicking you about the head and neck and stopped only when all the inmates awaiting their visits started screaming. Well, I reported this incident to the then Commissioner of Correction and went so far as to report the incident to the F.B.I. who contacted me and I made a signed and detailed statement of the incident, however, I was never called before any Grand Jury. Did you ever file any action relative to the above incident?
“Wishing you the best of luck.”
Just in case you’re wondering about the abrupt ending, I did, too. I reread it several times to see if I had missed a critical sentence. But what you see, as far as the end of the letter goes, is complete. I left out nothing except the signature.
1The letter in the New York Times, along with some of the more critical excerpts of Sal’s writing in “From Another World,” were taken from Richard Jacoby’s engaging book, “Conversations with the Capeman,” Painted Leaf Press, 2000.
2All the letters to Sal in this excerpt from the book came from the collection of reverend Ed Muller, the Protestant chaplain at Green Haven at that time, who ran a most compelling series workshops to help prepare prisoners for their transition into the outside world. Ed was to play a critical role in Sal’s rehabilitation.