Kevin Riordan: Historic Burlington County Prison Museum revives piece of storied jailhouse art

From left, John Oddo, Mike Weaver, and Jim MacIntyre of the Philadelphia Ship Model Society with the model they restored. It was made 100 years ago by a prison inmate.
From left, John Oddo, Mike Weaver, and Jim MacIntyre of the Philadelphia Ship Model Society with the model they restored. It was made 100 years ago by a prison inmate. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: August 09, 2011

As the story goes, a Philadelphia shipyard worker who killed a man became a shipbuilder again while serving a life term in the old Mount Holly jail.

His name is lost to history, but the inmate's handiwork - an imaginatively detailed, four-foot-long model of the majestic steamer Saint Paul - is not.

This unusual piece of jailhouse art will soon be displayed at the Historic Burlington County Prison Museum, where the inmate crafted it from scraps of wood, paper, and wire more than a century ago.

"There was an auction last year at the home of an antiques dealer in Burlington City, and we were the only ones who bid on it," museum association president Janet Sozio says.

The model, which stands 42 inches tall, "looked terrible" after being stored for years in a basement, Sozio recalls. "We carried it back to the office, and we thought, 'Boy, this is really neat. But what are we going to do with it?' "

They soon discovered that professional restoration would cost several times more than the winning $1,000 bid. Then Sozio, an Edgewater Park lawyer with a contagious enthusiasm that's indispensable for this sort of undertaking, discovered the Philadelphia Ship Model Society online.

She reached out to its vice president, Jim MacIntyre, who lives in Medford, and the 70-year-old retired salesman put together a team. Mike Weaver, a 62-year-old Philadelphia police captain who is president of the model society, and member John Oddo, 52, an engineer from Garnet Valley, made the dirty, damaged model shipshape again.

The trio performed their labor of love for about 100 hours in the "model shack" at the Independence Seaport Museum. They painstakingly removed layers of tobacco smoke stains and analyzed the ship's materials. It turned out that the black color of the hull was not from paint, but printer's ink mixed with linseed oil.

Other components included pine wood (probably from a rafter), Bristol board from a book binding, and upholstery tacks. The apparent use of primitive, homemade tools suggested the model was built by someone whose freedom and budget were limited, the restorers say.

"We tried to maintain the integrity of the model, as close as we could to what the prisoner was trying to convey," Oddo says.

Given that the model is a re-creation, not a replica, of the ship - it has an additional smokestack, for example - the restorers weren't seeking perfection anyway.

Legend has it that the model's creator helped build the actual Saint Paul at Cramp's Shipyard in Philadelphia in 1895. The 12,000-ton ship, christened by First Lady Frances Cleveland, was famous in its time and a point of pride locally.

It was the first ship outfitted with "wireless" technology, a task accomplished by none other than future Nobel Prize winner Guglielmo Marconi, the father of long-distance radio transmission. After transporting U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War and World War I, the steamer was scrapped in 1922.

According to a summary written by the Burlington City antiques dealer Jack Blackeby, the model's maker landed in the Mount Holly jail after killing a man in a barroom brawl. He worked from memory and presented the finished product to Burlington County Sheriff Joseph Fleetwood.

The model was passed down through several Fleetwood generations; Blackeby purchased it from great-great-grandson Alvin Fleetwood Shinn in 1993. Shinn recalled his mother's telling the story of the ship model, but the name of the maker - possibly written on a piece of paper once attached to the model - is not included in the account.

"There's no question the sheriff at one time owned it," says Dave Kimball, 81, of Willingboro, vice president of the museum society and coauthor of a history titled The Burlington County Prison (Stories From the Stones).

The prison museum draws about 3,000 visitors every year, and several thousand more attend the facility's Halloween festivities.

"My goal is to make history come alive for people, and for people to want to come to this site," Sozio says. "They're going to be excited to see this ship."

As for the man who built the model, "we may not know his name" now," she says. "But we're going to find out."


Kevin Riordan:

To see a video about the ship model restoration, go to www.philly.com/shipsociety


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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