Forty-three years later, it remains a grisly benchmark: Aside from the Indian massacres of the late 19th century and an infamous 1921 race riot in Tulsa, the State Police assault that quelled the four-day uprising at Attica prison in upstate New York in 1971 was, investigators concluded, “the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”
When it ended, 10 correction officers and civilian employees and 33 prisoners were dead — all but one guard and three inmates killed in what a prosecutor branded a wanton “turkey shoot” by state troopers.
Prosecutions stemming from the uprising were resolved long ago; scores of inmates and one state trooper were charged. Civil suits by relatives of the dead and injured were settled (the state paid $12 million, including legal fees, to families of the inmates, and another $12 million to families of prison employees).
But even after more than four decades, the scars have never healed.
This year, state officials finally began cataloging the bloodstained uniforms of both guards and inmates, barrels of baseball bats, a homemade cannon, makeshift knives and other ephemera that had been stored in a Quonset hut to determine which were personal belongings that could be returned to the victims’ families, and which other artifacts to ultimately discard or to retain for research or eventual display in the New York State Museum.
In August, property belonging to 12 state employees was identified. Their families were invited privately to Attica on Sept. 13, before the solemn annual public memorial service held to mark the end of the siege.
Eleven of the families accepted the state’s invitation. All but one left with some memento — a bloody or bullet-ridden uniform, a wallet, keys, a thermos, a cap — that the state Department of Correctional Services could establish as having belonged either to an individual or to an unknown colleague. The twelfth family was still considering the state’s offer.
“It was a shock,” recalled Vickie Menz, who discovered a package of personal items belonging to her father, Arthur J. Smith, when she returned to the prison for the memorial. “There was a box of my father’s things, the clothing that he was wearing for the five days he was a hostage. The pants were caked with mud. They hadn’t been laundered.”
Mr. Smith, who had been a guard at Attica for more than two decades, was badly beaten on the first day of the uprising. Then, on the last day, he said he was pushed into a trench that had been dug by the inmates and filled with gasoline. “He did survive, but was beaten so badly on the first day of the riot that he had internal scarring,” Ms. Menz said. He died of cancer in 1995, at 68.
One common goal of state archivists, correction officials and relatives of the former guards and inmates is that what happened at Attica should not be forgotten. The objects collected from the prison yard and cellblocks after the uprising was quelled offer one tangible way of remembering.
“Those pieces of clothing, they’re not pristine, they’re dirty, bloodstained, ripped, have bullet holes in them — it’s not pretty stuff,” said Dee Quinn Miller, whose father, William Quinn, was the only guard killed by the inmates during the uprising (he was severely beaten and died two days later in a hospital). “For the families it’s meaningful, but incredibly difficult. All they want is information and a piece of something.”
The state also plans to return personal items to families of inmates.
“God knows what’s in that stuff,” said Elizabeth M. Fink, lawyer for the Attica Brothers Legal Defense, which represents former inmates and their families. “It’s a record of a big event in American history. It’s also their lives.”
Archivists turned over about 400 objects to the state’s correction department, mostly those identified as having belonged to guards or inmates. Another 1,700 are described as “general contraband,” including weapons fashioned from sports equipment, the typed first page of the prisoners’ original manifesto and the key to the prison’s front gate, which was found on a dead inmate.
“These are enormously significant objects embedded with a story,” said Mark Schaming, director of the New York State Museum in Albany. “They help tell the story of this terrible event.”
He hopes to eventually open the collection to researchers and possibly mount an exhibition.
Correction officials said that Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci, who attended the annual memorial this year, was the highest ranking member of the department to have done so.
“Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds,” Mr. Annucci said. “There are certain wounds and certain scars that just run too deep to ever completely heal, regardless of how much time has elapsed although those events occurred many years ago.”
For the time being, Ms. Menz is keeping her father’s uniform in her living room in the wooden box prison officials presented to her last month, deciding whether to share it with her siblings or to donate it to a museum.
“I’ve gone back every year,” she said, of the memorial service. “Going and being part of the group, as hard as it was, brought comfort and I guess I feel that it’s my duty to my father to go.”
“After my father was released, state investigators came to the house and he gave them a statement,” she added. “He told his family, ‘I want you all to read this and we will discuss it and we will never discuss it again.’ And we never did,” she said. “It was so long ago, but I take it as my mission to keep educating people.”
via The New York Times