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Thomas Mott Osborne

Forest, Fish, and Game Commissioner/Prison Reformer

Centurion, 1911–1926

Born 23 September 1859 in Auburn, New York

Died 10 October 1926 in Auburn, New York

Buried Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York

Proposed by Edward M. Shepard and George Foster Peabody

Elected 4 November 1911 at age fifty-two

Archivist’s Note: Father of Lithgow Osborne

Century Memorial

We are accustomed, in the men whom we call our reformers, to wide variety of program and method. In public life, the course of action ranges all the way from Cleveland’s calm, inflexible pressure on unwilling legislators to Roosevelt’s spectacular assault upon one after another of the strongholds of privilege; from Lincoln’s appeal to reason and experience against extension of slavery to the random denunciation, by the La Follettes and Hiram Johnsons, of anything they believe their constituents dislike. All of them accomplish something, and so do reformers in private station whose methods are as far apart as those of William Lloyd Garrison and President Eliot. Thomas Mott Osborne employed alternately nearly all of these varying methods. He could be a calm and convincing reasoner when he chose, in his long campaign for prison reform; but he did not object to the spectacular, and doubtless rather welcomed the rôle of martyr to the cause. The widest hearing which he ever won for his much-disputed principles came when, in 1913, he transformed himself into “Tom Brown, Convict 33,333,” and arranged to be immured in Auburn Prison. Whether or not he was gratified (as Garrison very probably would have been) by the foolish indictment of 1915, obtained by his enemies on allegations of laxity and perjury, his propaganda undoubtedly benefited by the publicity of the incident, with the prompt throwing-out of the case when it came before the court.

That Osborne accomplished much in the way of removing futile and mischievous ideas of prison discipline, nobody seriously questions. Like most ardent apostles of a single creed, however, he carried his own ideas of concrete reform pretty far. In the difficult task of determining the point at which enlightened effort to reclaim the criminal becomes outright “coddling” of offenders whom society is rightly punishing, he did not always hold the balance, and the wardens who succeeded him at Sing Sing have, with the best of purposes, been compelled by actual test to discard many of Osborne’s innovations. But the really important elements in his reform remained.

The general public undoubtedly pictured Osborne as a stern and unrelenting fighter, with a character unrelieved by the amenities of life. But in this the public was mistaken, as it usually is. He was a good talker in the lighter vein of conversation, a shrewd observer of the little oddities of politics. Nobody who was fond, as Osborne was, of passing his leisure moments at the piano, singing snatches from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, could qualify for a gloomy fanatic.

Alexander Dana Noyes
1927 Century Association Yearbook