Sordid Histories of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Volume 2

Today’s sordid history from Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary is the tale of Adolph Fein, the one-time vice-president of the Hebrew chapter of St. Louis’ Jefferson Club, a local organization of young Democrats that wielded considerable power throughout the state of Missouri at the turn of the century.

Fein was a well-known politician in St. Louis but as we will see, not very well-liked. His steady rise through the ranks of the state party was abruptly halted when he was indicted with Jacob Weissman in late 1903, for helping immigrants fraudulently obtain U.S. citizenship, i.e., naturalization fraud.

For a man accused of a felony, Fein did not appear overly anxious. He had been on trial twice before and emerged with no serious consequences for his behavior.

In a news article from January 1904 titled Fein Says He Will Peach, the Omaha Bee quoted a blustery Fein:

“I’ll tell the Grand Jury who the fellows were behind those frauds, and they were big fellows, too. When I was indicted, my friends said they would come to the front for me, and I made up my mind to keep my mouth shut, but they deserted me. I waited until December 27. Then I made up my mind that if they wouldn’t come to the front for me, the government would. So I wrote to Col. Dyer, the U.S. District Attorney, and told him I would give up everything I knew.”

Adolph Fein’s friends certainly came forward as promised, but they weren’t there to help their old friend out of a jam. Instead, his former colleagues, also vice-presidents of the Jefferson Club, testified against him. Ferdinand Schwartz told the court that Adolph had instigated all the wrongdoing. Frank Hertz said that Fein had repeatedly cajoled he and others to get involved in his racket. And William Novak said Fein gave him instructions to help create fraudulent papers.

It took three trials, but the law finally caught up to Adolph Fein. Late in the afternoon on November 5, 1904, a jury in the United States District Court convicted him of aiding and abetting naturalization fraud. He was sentenced to five years in prison, plus a $1,000 fine.

In 1905, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Fein had been sent up to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, and the trouble started at once.

“Fein Feigned”: the newspaper’s editor has some fun with headlines

Upon arrival at Leavenworth, Fein convinced another prisoner that he was ill, blind, and suffering serious heart trouble. The other convict escorted Fein to the room where Deputy McClaughry was waiting to take his fingerprints. Despite the convict’s “strenuous” objections, McClaughry recorded his measurements on a Bertillion card, which was used with mugshots to identify prisoners. I’ll do a separate post on Bertillion cards soon.

Unfortunately for Adolph Fein, a Leavenworth doctor was on hand to examine him. He looked the new prisoner over, then he assured the deputy that Fein had excellent eyesight and was enjoying the best of health. McClaughry was not amused, and when Fein continued to insist he was really blind, the deputy sent him to solitary confinement for several days.

Adolph’s behavior grew increasingly strange. He continued to protest that he was blind and vague reports were heard back in St. Louis that he was a troublemaker. His hometown newspaper reported that Adolph was “most unruly”, and added with perceptible glee that his job while at Leavenworth was to “run a wheelbarrow”.

The guards told strange stories about Fein wandering around in a disoriented way, claiming he did not know who he was. Adolph continued to talk about his eyesight yet he had no trouble navigating the prison and the yard. They suspected he was trying to get out of work, and resorted to harsher treatment. The guards punished him by taking away his glasses and frequently locking him in solitary confinement.


Things began to change in 1906, when a different physician told the warden that Fein did have poor eyesight and could not work because he would injure himself.

In late March, Mrs. Adolph Fein received a letter from Leavenworth prison, informing her that her husband had been examined and pronounced insane. Three weeks later, a small blurb appeared in the Topeka State Journal that claimed Fein had been showing signs of insanity for the past six weeks, and had recently become violent. The article noted that Fein was transferred to an insane asylum in Washington, D.C., having spent about 5-and-a-half months at Leavenworth.

There were a few asylums in Washington D.C. at that time, but I haven’t been able to find out any more about Adolph Fein. It’s hard to say whether he was really insane, but I would guess he was — that prison just broke him, and his mind snapped. He had a very comfortable life in St. Louis and because he had more money and power than most, people indulged him, even if they didn’t like him. And he couldn’t tolerate his new reality – with the guards bullying him and being alone so much – so he retreated into a new world he invented for himself.