That time Norbert Wiener visited Attica Prison

One of the pleasures of doing archival work is of discovering something about the people you are studying that gives insights into who they were as people, that aren’t big enough to get into the published literature.

During my time studying Norbert Wiener’s papers at MIT’s institute archives, I came across some letters that Wiener had exchanged with Frank J. Scimone, prisoner #1158, who was serving time for murder in Attica Prison, a maximum security facility in upstate New York.

Scimone’s first letter to Wiener was dated September 19, 1938, a decade before Wiener would publish his book on cybernetics. Scimone had read about Wiener’s mathematical work in the New York Times, and was compelled to write Wiener to express his own interest in mathematics. This was accompanied with a request for study materials.

[M]ight I prevail upon you to send me something on this new science in the field of Mathematics that deals with “Chaos”?

The next letter from Scimone was from September 25, 1938. In the interim, Wiener seems to have replied to Scimone with enthusiasm (in a letter I did not see, but which is reproduced here) writing,

In the meantime I should like to hear something more about the scope of your reading in Mathematics so that I may be able to suggest and possibly put at your disposal the necessary introductory material.

In an awkward attempt to reassure Mr. Scimone of his seriousness, Wiener closed that letter by writing:

While I have not the facts at hand, I have heard of several cases where war prisoners in concentration camps carried on important research under conditions of confinement, therefore, I am taking your interest in mathematics very seriously and should like to hear something about your studies and to give you any advice in my power as to profitable ways of continuing.

Buoyed by Wiener’s response, Scimone quickly wrote back with information about his studies, and asks for further direction. A few days later (30 September) Wiener responded, saying that he had discussed things with Norman Levinson, one of Wiener’s Ph.D. students and colleagues, and that they had identified a problem area they wanted Scimone to work on. This came with a gift of books.

The following year, Scimone updated Wiener on his progress, and this time Levinson responded with more direction and more books.

Two years after that, Wiener went to the prison to visit Scimone. In a letter dated November 6, 1941, Wiener wrote the chief clerk of Attica Prison, thanking him for the courtesy shown to him during his visit. An accompanying letter was for Scimone, where Wiener described some problems to work on, with the reassurance that “I am giving you something that I really could use and that is not merely to make you work.”

Scattered throughout these letters are details of Scimone’s life. As of 1938, he was 29-years-old and had been in prison for seven years. Scimone says that he attended NYU for a year and a half, but was convicted for murder in 1931 and given a life sentence. In prison, he continued studying math, listing the subjects and books he has studied. He also taught math in the prison school. Scimone speaks French, Spanish, and Italian fluently. Scimone also mentions a brother doing graduate studies in bacteriology at Columbia. In the prison, he earned 10 cents a day, which he was saving to buy books.

In all, I came across nine letters to or from Frank J. Scimone: 5 from Scimone to Wiener, 2 from Wiener to Scimone (with a reference to one more), one from Scimone to Levinson, one from Levinson to Simone. This correspondence began in 1938, and appears to have ended soon after Wiener’s visit to the prison in 1941. There may be other Scimone letters in the MIT collection, but it does not seem likely that they communicated much after that, if at all.

I searched online for “Frank J. Scimone” and variations, and found little except for this reference to a Frank Scimone, born October 25, 1909, died in Brooklyn, on March 22 1993 at the age of 83, which matches the age Scimone mentions in his letter. If he died in Brooklyn, then it seems that Mr. Scimone was able to have his life sentence shortened.

Scimone rarely appears in the voluminous writings about Wiener. Wiener’s student and biographer, Pesi R. Masani, mentions Wiener’s correspondence with Scimone as an illustration of the care that Wiener could show to the people who reached out to him. Conway & Siegelman’s biography of Wiener, Dark Hero of the Information Age, does not refer to Scimone at all. Wiener does not mention Scimone in his autobiographies, to the best of my recollection.

Scimone is almost literally a historical footnote. But I wonder how he must have felt to be exchanging letters and discussing math with a person who would become world famous not long after. One day, he wrote a letter to Wiener, probably without any expectation of a reply. In return, he received dozens of paper reprints and books, guidance in his studies, and the chance to welcome Wiener to his maximum security prison.

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