In the summer of 1900, Goldie Kinsella played music at in a house just outside the walls of the Western Penitentiary to cover up the sound of a tunnel being dug from the basement of the house to a shed within the prison yard. The secretive construction project was funded by author and anarchist Emma Goldman, who wanted her associate (and lover), Alexander Berkman, out of jail. Berkman was serving a sentence for attempting to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie Steel Company, shortly after the notorious Homestead Strike in 1892. Re-imagining this historic soundscape today, composer Doug Levine (above, left) contributed the Mon River Dreams Ringtone to the project.
As Wikipedia tells, it, “Newspapers across the country defended the union workers, and Berkman and Goldman decided to assassinate Frick. Berkman believed the assassination would arouse the working class to unite and revolt against the capitalist system.”
There’s a great article from July 1, 1937 here (excerpted images above), but Kinsella’s efforts were also described more recently by a Pittsburgh Post staff reporter Marylynne Pitz on January 20, 1997. Here’s Pitz’s report on the turn-of-the-century pianist as told to her by an “avocational turn-of-the-century historian” from West Mifflin, Gary L. Doebler:
“As the men continued their slow, arduous project, anarchist Goldie Kinsella sat on her piano bench inside the Sterling Street home, observing prison guards on the wall and passers-by in the street.
While [Eric B.] Morton [an anarchist with an engineering and mining background] and his crew dug right underneath those guards, Kinsella sat and played piano all day and into the evening to cover up the noise. Prison guards enjoyed the music.
The men even installed an electronic buzzer system that Kinsella used to warn them to be quiet. She played certain staccato chords to signal that the coast was clear.”
What does an attempted prison break sound like? If someone had asked me this question before I read about this plot, I would have imagined picks and shovels digging in the ground, or explosions. I would not have imagined a pianist on the job, to entertain and distract nearby guards. I wondered what kind of music Kinsella might have played at that piano on Sterling Street in 1900, and invited composer Doug Levine to create a brief composition recalling the event, to reference the history of the anarchist movement in Pittsburgh.
Doug Levine is a pianist, composer and music director–a supporter and member of the thriving cultural scene in Pittsburgh. He’s written music for City Theater, Attack Theater, Dreams of Hope, and the Renaissance City Women’s Choir (among others). Currently, he’s collaborating with an LA-based screenwriter and librettist, Julie Tosh, on a new opera called Orphan Train. Busy as he is, Levine also set aside time recently to compose and record a lovely little ragtime in remembrance of a little-known anarchist-pianist, Goldie Kinsella.
When I asked Levine how he approached writing the music, he said, “the story that you shared with me was new to me. It had these unique components to consider–anarchy, a jail break, and love. The colorful aspects of that story informed the melancholic tone of this composition.”
Because I couldn’t find any photographs of Kinsella, I asked the artist Mary Mack Tremonte to produce a portrait of the pianist the Blog.
RINGTONE BACK STORY
A couple of years ago, when I was preparing to post the Western Penitentiary Whistle Tone, I requested permission to photograph the whistle at the prison, and to interview the person who operated it. The steam whistle blows every evening on Pittsburgh’s North Side at 8:40pm, at what’s now State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh (SCI Pittsburgh).
My requests were denied. The institution rarely granted admission to the press, and I had worked with a former inmate to capture the sound as a ringtone. As the former inmate explained his sonic experience to me, from inside the prison, the whistle literally restricted the inmates’ physical confinement (it blew when they were to report back to their cells). But now that the former felon was outside prison walls, the sound of the whistle (which he heard faintly from within his apartment) reminded him of his freedom. He wanted to use the ringtone as an identifier for his cronies he served time with, and I wanted to share the sound of the whistle with the broader public, as reminder of the forgotten, the incarcerated.
Frustrated that I would not be able to learn about the steam whistle from the institution, I went to the Pennsylvania Department at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to root through the folder of clippings on Western Pen. I found no mention of the whistle in the dozens of clippings I read, but I found articles referencing interesting sounds associated with the history of the prison. I read about an orchestra at Western Pen, and found clippings about pianist Goldie Kinsella.
I’m grateful to Levine for playing along with the concept, and to Tremonte for providing Locally Toned with a sketch of Kinsella. To see and read about a drawing of the Western Pen whistle created by and sent to Locally Toned by a man serving time at SCI Pittsburgh, click on this link.