A curator of the
creepy and grisly
on a prison museum
TRENTON - Officer Joseph Baranyi,
the curator of New Jersey's only museum of prison paraphernalia, does not
go out of his way to dispel the notion that life in jail is gruesome.
"You don't mind if I talk hard-core, do you?" he said the
other day to three Department of Corrections officers who had stopped by
to see Baranyi's collection of chains, locks and other implements of
The three shook their heads. Baranyi had already talked a blue streak
for more than 10 minutes, during which he used much the same language he
used in 23 years of handling prisoners, which is to say he was pretty
There was no stopping him now.
"You're about to see the star of the show," he said,
preparing the visitors before showing them the finger in the jar.
Seems there was a war between religious factions at Trenton State
Prison in 1977, after which the guards went on a cell-by-cell search for
weapons. They collected 11 buckets of knives and sharpened screwdrivers,
most of which the prisoners had tossed out the windows.
"Now, going through all this . . . I find a human finger. It had
been bit off right about here," he said, pointing to the first joint
of his own finger.
The story varies each time Baranyi tells it, but basically they never
found a prisoner with a missing finger. At any rate, Baranyi thought this
dislocated digit should be preserved, so he went to a pharmacist.
"How do you pickle human flesh?" he asked. He was told that
formaldehyde would do the job, but that it was easier to obtain denatured
Alcohol it was.
"If you can't handle it, don't look at it," he said to his
guests, holding out the bottle capped with a rubber stopper. They did not
The finger is actually not Baranyi's most treasured piece on display in
the cluttered one-room museum tucked into the Corrections Officer Training
Academy in West Trenton.
His favorite is the 20-penny nail that a prisoner ingeniously pounded
into a sophisticated lock pick.
Although some of his collection is devoted to badges, keys and billy
clubs, Baranyi's best stories are reserved for the confiscated examples of
Baranyi has a rope braided from mattress ticking, a tattooing machine
made from a phonograph turntable, and a headlamp made by a Hungarian
freedom fighter and former miner who unsuccessfully tried to dig his way
under the Wall - that's shorthand for Trenton State Prison.
He has hollow shoes used for smuggling narcotics into prison. He once
had a glass case full of the drugs themselves, but the display pieces
started disappearing at night. "I had to get rid of it," he
He pointed out a sword disguised as a cane, which, a label says,
officers confiscated from an electrician on his way into a prison. Baranyi
said he cleansed the official version of the story. "I had to word it
that way, but they found it when the guy was on his way out of the
Baranyi, 55, has worked 30 years with the Department of Corrections,
most of them at the Bordentown Youth Correctional Facility, which he
refers to as "my alma mater."
After he was disabled in a motorcycle accident in 1980, the department
reassigned Baranyi to the training academy, where he created the museum
from some of the memorabilia he had collected during the 1970s, when he
was president of the correction officers' union.
Most of the people who visit the museum are raw recruits undergoing
training down the hall. They are a receptive audience for the yarns
Baranyi spins about life behind the wall.
Now and then, a busload of high school students visit Baranyi's
treasure trove, and the curator cleans up his stories.
who visits wants to see the Chair.
"Here's the electric chair, the original," Baranyi said,
pointing out the chips of wood removed by souvenir-seekers after the chair
was retired in 1973.
"One hundred and sixty guys said bye-bye in this chair," he
said, his spiel picking up speed. "No female ever sat in it. Two
women died while waiting to sit in it, and two others were pardoned."
Baranyi demonstrated the different sizes of metal-mesh helmets that
were used to conduct the 2,400 volts through the condemned man's head.
"You want to see really barbaric stuff? Before they had helmets,
they would just wrap this around the guy's head," he said, showing a
metal head strap. "They'd put this on and, zippity-doo-dah, he's
"Only one guy asked to have a bag on his head - he was crying like
a baby," said Baranyi. "I can't remember the (guy's) name. He
was sent here after he blew away his girlfriend through a door."
The most famous victim of the electric chair was Bruno Richard
Hauptmann, who was electrocuted in 1936 for kidnapping and killing Charles
Lindbergh's baby. Baranyi has a copy of the death certificate next to the
In 1982, when New Jersey reinstituted capital punishment, state
legislators decided to use a more humane method of killing prisoners, by
injecting them with barbiturates. "Now they get to O.D.," said
If any message comes through to visitors who let Baranyi run loose with
his stories, it is that prisoners live downright comfortably in prisons
today compared with the dungeons of the past.
"I mean, look at this," he said, motioning to a glass case
that contained a 1912 menu from the defunct Industrial Training School for
Girls. The reformatory served a breakfast that day of "bread
crumbs." The morning before, the entree was "odds &
"They didn't have their choice between Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops
and Shredded Wheat," Baranyi said.
He pointed to a chain with numerous ankle shackles. "These guys
think they have it bad now, but they used to have a seven-man
hookup," he said.
He also has a sheet-metal flagpole decoration, made by the boys at his
alma mater, Bordentown, which just goes to show the sort of industrial
skills inmates used to learn when they were in the slammer. "You
can't get them to do anything these days."
Modern prisoners are less violent than in the old days, Baranyi said.
They are more knowledgeable about their legal rights, and more adept at
playing mental games with their keepers.
About then, a trusty who is part of the janitorial crew at the training
academy was listening in.
"He's one of the good ones, that guy," Baranyi said.
"What's your name? Yosef or Jose?"
"Left hook," the trusty said.
"I'm telling you," Baranyi said. "They have it a lot
better these days."