MN Historical Society acquires makeshift weapons, tools from Stillwater prison

A toothbrush shank was among the makeshift weapons from the Stillwater prison preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) This drug scale was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) A makeshift tattoo gun was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) A makeshift tattoo gun was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) This bludgeon was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society) This match bomb was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)
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A makeshift tattoo gun was among inmate-made items from the Stillwater prison recently acquired by the Minnesota Historical Society. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

A stash of makeshift weapons and tools found in a vault at the Stillwater Prison offers a glimpse of inmate life from the 1970s to 1990s, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Minnesota State Archives staff members Charles Rodgers and Anjanette Schussler were going through paper records from a vault in the 103-year-old prison’s administration building, when they came across an evidence box full of materials confiscated from prisoners between the 1970s and 1990s.

When archivists invited Sondra Reierson — associate curator of 3-D objects for the Minnesota Historical Society — to review the find, she decided to acquire some of the objects for the historical
society’s collection.

“The primary find for three-dimensional material was weapons and tools made by inmates at the prison,” she said. “Primarily we’re talking about shanks and bludgeons. … One of them is a toothbrush where the plastic end of the toothbrush has been melted, and they inserted a razor blade.”

The items also included two makeshift tattoo guns from about 10 years apart. One used an electric shaver as a power source, and the other used a computer disk-drive for a motor — available because inmates would assemble computers at the prison, Reierson said. In both cases, the designers used a guitar string for a needle, and the body of a pen to keep it straight.

Reierson believes the items represent “some pretty creative and innovative toolmaking.”

“All of this is found and repurposed materials,” she said.

The items interested Reierson because they represent life in the prison from inmates’ perspectives.

“Weapons and tools like these don’t often find their way into museum collections, and it can be hard to document the experiences of prisoners through objects,” she said. “These items help give us a sense of what life could be like for inmates at Stillwater.”

Although state archives have a “plethora” of records on prison life, Reierson said the 3-D collection had only a “handful of objects up until this point,” and of those, few represented the inmates themselves.

“These pieces that were made by inmates for their use are unique in our collection,” she said. “We’re definitely trying to tell the whole story of Minnesota history, so we’re not just looking for the pretty parts, and these are definitely not pretty.”

Reierson didn’t take all the items found, but selected representative samples.

“We try to be judicious,” she said. “We’re allotting space for long-term preservation, so we have to be careful about how much space we take up.”

In addition to the prisoner-made items, she acquired a place-setting of china that belonged to the last resident warden, a full-body straight jacket that’s “pretty terrifying,” a stretcher, patches worn by prison officers and more.

Reierson said the acquisition complements other collection items related to crime and criminal justice in Minnesota, including crack pipes confiscated by the Minneapolis Police Department in the 1990s and the revolver used to injure gangster John Dillinger in a St. Paul police shootout.

Although there are no current plans for public display, records of the newly acquired items will be digitized and be available to view on the Minnesota Historical Society website by September, and the items could be incorporated in future exhibits.

Contact Jonathan Young at jonathan.young@ecm-inc.com