Archive for Thursday, January 5, 2006

New book explores penitentiary

January 5, 2006

A Leavenworth writer has turned his interest in local history and the U.S. Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth into a new book.

Johnny Johnston, who worked 35 years for the Leavenworth Times as a reporter, editor and publisher, has published "Leavenworth Penitentiary: A History of America's Oldest Federal Prison."

For the book's research, he interviewed retired prison employees and searched the Times' archives. For documents on the prisons early years, he viewed documents at the National Archives in Kansas City, Mo.

Johnston said he had been interested in history "for the greater part of my adult life."

It began when he was a reporter for the Times, writing the paper's "On This Date in History"-type feature, which required reading many old clippings in the paper's archive.

"I became familiar with all the names," Johnston said of the subjects who repeatedly appeared in old stories. "I felt like I knew them."

Johnston estimated he printed out more than 1,500 local newspaper articles from the National Archive's microfilms of old newspapers while researching material for his book.

An author of nine previous books on local history, Johnston self-published his latest through a press in Topeka and reported good sales - about 500 copies - since the book was published a couple months ago.

Johnson spoke earlier this month to Lansing Historical Society members about his new book,

Johnston recounted for the group some memorable anecdotes he discovered in researching the book, including the history of the prison's construction, which began in 1897. Prisoners from the Fort Leavenworth military prison served as the laborers. The establishment housed its first inmates in 1903.

Verlin Tompkins, secretary of the society, said he found it interesting to learn from Johnston's talk that Native Americans were considered the best stonemasons for cutting limestone from a local quarry.

"They knew where to hit a stone to break it," Tompkins said.

Johnston's book includes some anecdotes involving Lansing, too.

For example, in 1908, the federal prison contracted with the state penitentiary in Lansing to house female inmates in its women's ward. The arrangement lasted about eight years, and, Johnston said, was one of the earliest examples of the federal government contracting out services to the state of Kansas.

READ ALL ABOUT IT

"Leavenworth Penitentiary: A History of America's Oldest Federal Prison" by Johnny Johnston is available in Leavenworth stores, he said, including The Book Barn, 410 Delaware St. Anyone interested in buying a copy of the book also can contact him directly at (913) 682-8932.

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