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The 34-Year Nightmare – #1 Most Downloaded Podcast Episode

The Useless Information Podcast has had millions of downloads since it first launched in January 2008. This particular episode was first posted on September 10, 2010, and is the most downloaded story of all those that have been posted. If you have never heard it, take some time and check it out. The story of Stephen Dennison and his 34-year-nightmare is one that my wife and I have talked about quite a bit over the years.

My wife has been bugging me to do this podcast because it takes place in the small town of Salem, NY, which is just a few miles from where she was raised. The story is one of someone getting stuck in the system without any way out.

This is the story of Stephen Heath Dennison, who was born on February 19, 1909. Salem is about four miles east of the Vermont border.

His father was George R. Dennison, and he was left with six children after his first wife died. Unable to care for all of them, five were raised by other relatives. The only child he kept was the youngest – a son named George Jr.

George Sr. then married a woman named Hattie, who gave birth to a son Stephen. Two years later a daughter named Mary Grace was born, but she died at age five from Polio. Tension grew in the household and Steve’s dad started beating Hattie in anger. She grabbed Steve, who was age eight at the time and moved back in with her dad. When Steve was eleven, he learned that his dad George senior had died at age fifty-five.

Steve was not a great student and played hooky all the time. By age sixteen he had only completed the 7th grade and dropped out. That same year, on September 9, 1925, his life was to change in a big way on. He was walking along Route 22 just south of Salem looking for work, possibly by picking corn. Along his way he saw a roadside stand owned by a woman named Nellie Hill. The stand sold things like hotdogs, hamburgers, candy, cigarettes, and so on. Kind of like a primitive version of what a typical convenience store may sell today.

Nellie had closed the stand for lunch, so Steve sat down on a nearby stone to await her return. Steve, like so many others, had a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit and became desperate for a smoke. So, with no one around, he pulled out his pocketknife and cut a hole in the canvas surrounding the stand – just big enough for him to step through.

He took three boxes of chocolate, a carton of cigarettes, and some other candies and piled them in a burlap bag he had found there. He was spotted almost immediately and ran as fast as he could. Two men gave chase and he quickly dropped the sack of stolen goods. Steve hid behind a bale of hay in a nearby barn, but the police found him, and he voluntarily surrendered.

Stephen Dennison at age 17.
Stephen Dennison at age 17.

He apologized to Nellie Hill, returned everything except the one pack of cigarettes that he had smoked, and was then hauled off to jail. He was charged with third-degree burglary of (2) two-pound and (1) half-pound boxes of Lowney’s Chocolates, (10) packs of Lifesavers, and (6) chocolate marshmallow bars. For some reason they did not charge him with the theft of the cigarettes. Total value: 5 bucks. That doesn’t sound like much, but I checked, and it would about $60.00 today, adjusted for inflation. That must have been some really fine chocolate. He was released on $500.00 bond.

Three weeks later, on October 6th, Steve was brought before a judge. Steve immediately pleaded not guilty, but then the judge asked him if he had consulted a lawyer, which he had not. A lawyer in the courtroom offered his services pro bono but was only given ten minutes to discuss the case with Steve. He then changed his plea to guilty.

The judge gave Steve a one-year probationary sentence, during which he was required to meet with a Methodist Minister named Reverend Claude Winch once each month. Steve immediately got a job but was fired after three months for spending too much time smoking in the boy’s room. He also stopped going to see Reverend Winch because he did not want to admit that he lost his job. On August 12 he was picked up by an officer for violation of his probation. For the second time, cigarettes got him in trouble.

After his re-arrest, the undersherriff asked him several times about what he and other boys did down at the local fishing hole. Steve told him about their sexual experimentation and also of being molested by a man at eleven years of age.

He spent thirty-five days in the Salem jail before being transferred downstate to the New York State Reformatory at Elmira. He was told that, with good behavior, he would be out in thirteen months.

Upon arriving at Elmira, he was given an IQ test and scored a 56, which was estimated to be about nine years of age. Due to his previous interactions with other boys, he was labeled as a “moron – sex pervert.”

Steve’s biggest problem at Elmira was the same problem that got him in trouble the first time – he was desperate for a cigarette, but the rules prohibited it. A fellow inmate suggested that he act insane and get transferred to Naponach – officially the “State Institution for Male Defective Delinquents at Naponach, New York.” He did just that the next time he saw a staff doctor and was transferred on September 15, 1927 to Naponach. As you will soon see, this was a big mistake on Steve’s part. Cigarettes would once again be the cause of it all.

Stephen Denison at age 17.
Stephen Denison at age 17.

Steve’s mom did try to get him released from Naponach, but her attempts were denied. Judge Rogers, the Salem judge that originally sentenced Steve, wrote to the Naponach warden that he should not be released until he was “cured of his degeneracy”. The arresting officer also wrote to say, “I would not feel justified in consenting his release without some assurance from the authorities in Naponach that he is cured.” He also added that “he was the most disgusting beast that I have ever met up with”. If it is not obvious, they were referring to his sexuality, not his crimes.

At this point Steve’s mom learned that he had been sentenced for “an indeterminate period”, with a maximum of five years. Unfortunately, his only advocate, his mom, died on March 23, 1930 and that was the end of anyone trying to get him out.

His five-years were up on August 13, 1931 and he was all set to leave. Instead, Steve was told that there had been a so-called “clerical error” and that he was recommitted for an additional five years. This time, however, the doctor included a recommendation for parole.

Steve was placed with his mom’s sister on December 16, 1931. Unfortunately, it was the height of the Great Depression and Steve was unable to get a job. His aunt needed the money desperately and demanded that he pay room and board. The friction between them escalated quickly. Without an income, she repeatedly denied Steve the right to date a woman that he had become interested in. The whole situation blew up one day and Steve grabbed a razor and threatened to kill himself. His uncle grabbed the razor away and the situation was diffused. After less than a month of freedom, he was sent back to Naponach on January 14th.

Steve fell into a deep depression and began to show increasing signs of mental instability. On March 3, 1936, he was transferred to Dannemora State Hospital, about twenty miles south of the Canadian border. It is sometimes referred to as “New York’s Siberia” because it is so isolated and cold in the winter. Steve was scheduled to be released in about seven months, but, as you have probably guessed, this did not happen.

Dannemora was very different from Naponach – Dannemora was for the criminally insane and, at the time, offered no treatment, job training, or rehabilitation programs. It was basically a place for prisoners who had become mentally ill to spend out their remaining time on Earth.

Most of the time the prisoners would be placed in a large room where they would stare at each other day-after-day, year-after-year. As one would expect, after years of being deprived of normal stimulation and any chance to lead a normal life, Steve’s condition deteriorated greatly. He was subjected to both drug treatments, one of which placed him in a coma, and electro-shock therapy. Records show that he grew angrier each time he was subjected to these treatments.

George Dennison
George Dennison

Believe it or not, Steve was still in Dannemora in the summer of 1960 (he went in back in 1926) when he received word that a visitor had come to see him. It was his half-brother George, who had last visited Steve twenty-six years earlier. I should point out that this was the last time anyone from the outside had contacted him in any way.

George had drive 125 miles from home in Schuylerville, NY to let Steve know that their Uncle Tom died. Since he had no children of his own, the money was to be split among George, Sr’s seven children from those two different marriages. Each, including Steve, received $1300.

Now if you had been stuck in prison for 34 years for stealing $5.00 worth of chocolate, what would you do with the money? Steve told his brother to keep the cash. He had no use for it in prison. Okay, bad joke. He asked George to use the money to get him out of that place.

George was fairly certain that Steve was sane and hired law firm of George Wein and Arthur Greenburg in Glens Falls, NY. They sought to get Stephen out on Writ of Habeas Corpus, which would ask the court to determine if he was sane and therefore illegally held.

Their first step was to determine if Stephen was sane or not and this move proved to be a big step backward. Since Stephen could not be taken out of Dannemora for examination, they hired a psychologist named Dr. Alan Krakowski to do so. His report of October 4, 1960 diagnosed Steve as being schizophrenic and provided childish and inappropriate responses – the same condition that he had been diagnosed with when he had entered Dannemora.

Enter the picture a guy named William Vincent Canale, who had just graduated from law school and was hired by Wein and Greenburg. One of his first assignments was to research the legal aspects of Stephen Dennison’s case. What he found out was quite interesting.

As you may recall, Steve was originally sentenced to five years, which was then extended to ten years due to that so-called “clerical error”. Just one-day prior to the expiration of his 10-year sentence, Dannemora petitioned the Clinton County court on September 17, 1936, to declare Stephen as insane. Eight days later Judge Thomas F. Croake issued the commitment order to do just that.

At the same time, the court made the decision to commit Steve without telling him what was happening. That means that he was not provided a lawyer, a hearing, a trial nor the chance to produce witnesses to prove that he was sane. He was recommitted after his prison sentence had expired and without any knowledge that it had been done. In other words, he was denied his due process of law provided for by the 14th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Canale realized this was the ticket to get Stephen out. While they could not prove that he was sane, they could prove that he was imprisoned illegally for 24 of the 34 years he had been held by the state. As you know, chocolate thieves are incredibly dangerous. As a result, Steve was transported to the county courthouse handcuffed with a ball-and-chain attached to his leg, which they were nice enough to remove just prior to entering the courtroom.

The presiding judge heard both sides of the case, but the State did not have much of a leg to stand on. On December 16, 1960, after 34 years, 4 months, and 5 days in prison, 51-year-old Stephen Dennison became a free man. The scary part is that he really was not imprisoned this long for the theft of the chocolates; he was really there because of his sexuality.

Steve was immediately taken back to Dannemora, but this time without the shackles. The state provided him with new clothes – a suit, underwear, hat, coat, etc, and a razor. Taped to his discharge paper was all the money that he had saved over his 34 years in the system – two pennies. They even had him sign to confirm that he received them.

Stephen Dennison's discharge paper with the two pennies taped to it.
Stephen Dennison’s discharge paper with the two pennies taped to it.

He went to live with his half-brother upon his release, but life was exceedingly difficult for Steve. It was like he had time-traveled and was just dropped into a different era. Just think how much the world changed technologically during the time of his imprisonment. Steve did not know how to operate even the simplest of things like electric light switches or dial a telephone number.

Clearly a lawsuit was to follow. Illegally imprisoning someone for all those years comes at a great cost – the inability to work and accumulate a savings, date, get married, the right to vote, and let us not forget the toll that imprisonment in a psychiatric institution has on one’s mental state.

In February of 1961 they sued the state for $500,500 in damages. The trial started in Albany, NY on November 3, 1965 and took a full month, although the actual court proceedings took just four days.

Upon his release he was tested by several psychologists and found to be fairly average in IQ. It was also learned during testimony that the psychologist that they hired – Dr. Alan Krakowski – never examined Steve in any way, shape, or form – he just read through his 34 years of prison records and determined that he was schizophrenic.

Stephen Dennison in 1970.
Stephen Dennison in 1970.

But the records had a major flaw – Steve had only been given two psychological examinations during his entire 34 years in the system. The first was when he initially entered Elmira as a teenager and the second a year later when he was transferred to Naponach so he could smoke his cigarettes. For the next thirty-three years, every psychological report was basically a reworking of these two initial reports.

A decision was made on March 24th, 1966 to award Steve $115,000, but he would never see a penny of it. The State of New York filed an appeal and one year later, on May 22, 1967, the Appellate Court in Albany reversed the decision. It seems that it was standard practice at the time to recommit prisoners after their term had expired if deemed mentally ill. You cannot go back and apply modern rules and regulations to practices in the past that were deemed correct at the time.

They appealed to the Supreme Court, but the case was never heard. At that point, his story fell out of the headlines and I could find little more about Stephen Dennison. I do know that he had to go on public assistance and worked as a janitor for a while, but that is about it. I was able to confirm that he died on May 4, 1991 ate the age of 82.

So, kids, stay away from those cigarettes. Just look at what they did for Stephen Dennison. A 34-year nightmare that only ended because Steve was fortunate enough to inherit some money. Just think how many people may have been stuck there because they were not that lucky.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Stephen Dennison visiting his mother's grave.
Stephen Dennison visiting his mother’s grave.
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