Robert J. Kirby

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Robert John Kirby
Robert J. Kirby.jpg
Warden of Sing Sing
In office
Personal details
Born(1889-10-20)October 20, 1889
Beekmantown, Clinton, New York, USA
DiedJanuary 15, 1944(1944-01-15) (aged 54)
Ossining, Westchester, New York, USA
Resting placeSt. Vincent Cemetery
Attica, NY
Spouse(s)Anna Lillian (Conners) Kirby
(1914-1934) {her death} Gladys Nora (Kelly) Kirby
(1935-1944) {his death}
Ada F. (Kirby) Kennerson
Irene E. (Kirby) Eagan
Mary Gladys (Kirby) Janes
Robert J. Kirby, Jr.
G. Shirley (Kirby) Brei
Edward A. Kirby
Edward Albert Kirby
Bridget Graham (Loughan) Kirby

Robert John Kirby (October 20, 1889 – January 15, 1944) was the Warden of Sing Sing prison from 1941 until 1944. Highly regarded for his integrity, Kirby brought respect back to the administration of Sing Sing, and order to the prison after the often controversial tenure of Lewis Lawes.


Kirby was born on October 20, 1889 in Beekmantown, New York to dairy farmer Edward A. Kirby and his wife Bridget G. (Loughan) Kirby. He entered state service in October, 1909 as a $22-per-month hospital attendant at Dannemora State Hospital, and in 1911 was appointed Prison Guard at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, New York. He remained there until 1917, when he left State Corrections to operate the family farm due to his father's illness.

Upon his father's death in 1920, Kirby returned to the New York State Department of Correctional Services as a Prison Guard at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. On March 1, 1928, he was named Sergeant of the Guard at Clinton.

Upon its opening on September 1, 1931, Kirby was appointed Principal Keeper at Attica Correctional Facility, where, despite a prison population as high as 2,286, there was never a prison escape during his decade-long tenure.

Kirby was named Warden of Sing Sing Correctional Facility by New York Governor Herbert Lehman on July 1, 1941 following the resignation of Lewis Lawes.[1] At the time of his appointment, New York State Corrections Commissioner John A. Lyons termed Kirby as "the most outstanding prison man in the state", according to the Buffalo Courier-Express.[2] The Batavia Times reported of Kirby that "many stated they had never heard a man leaving an institution with so many friends among the officials and also the high regard of the inmates of the prison." [3]

Robert J. Kirby being sworn in as Warden of Sing Sing Prison by John A. Lyons, Commissioner of Corrections, July 7, 1941.

Robert Kirby would serve as Warden of Sing Sing Prison from 1941 through 1944. Staunchly against capital punishment, he took over the reins at a prison that would ultimately execute 614 prisoners before the state banned capital punishment in 1972.[4] During his tenure he would preside over the executions of 33 inmates, including those of Frank Castellano, Anthony and William Esposito, Edward Haight, Joseph Mascari, and Murder, Inc. conspirators Harry Maione and Frank Abbandando.[5]

Kirby contracted pneumonia in early January, 1944. Although his condition was initially considered serious, his infection had reportedly cleared up and he was "considerably improved and his complete recovery was expected." [6] However, late in the evening of January 15, he took a turn for the worse. Soon after, with nurses and his physician at his bedside, he raised his right hand, made the sign of the cross, and died.[7]

"The high principles of humanitarianism which Warden Kirby brought to the Wardenship won for him the commendation of all those Interested in penology and sociology," expressed Chauncey E. Long, Commander of the American Legion, upon Kirby's death.

Kirby was laid to rest at Saint Vincent Cemetery in Attica, New York on January 19, 1944.

Popular culture[edit]

Warden Kirby was portrayed by Ben Taggart in the 1942 crime drama Escape from Crime.


  1. ^ "Attica Official Gets Lawes Job, New York Sun, July 7, 1941.
  2. ^ "Kirby Sworn as Warden of Sing Sing", Buffalo Courier Express, July 8, 1941.
  3. ^ "Sing Sing Warden Honored at Dinner Held Here Monday", The Batavia Times, Batavia, NY July 17, 1941.
  4. ^ List of executions in New York State, 1941-1963 @
  5. ^ Christianson, Scott. "Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House", New York University Press, 2000.
  6. ^ "Late Warden is Eulogized, Ossinning Citizen-Register, January 18, 1944.
  7. ^ Citizen-Register, January 18, 1944, p.2
  • "Crash Out: The True Story of a Hell's Kitchen Kid and the Bloodiest Escape in Sing Sing History", by David Goewey (Crown, 2005)
  • "Miracle at Sing Sing: How one man transformed the lives of America's most dangerous criminals", by Ralph Blumenthal (St. Martin's Press, 2004)
  • "Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison", by Denis Brian (Prometheus, 2005)