There isn’t a lot left of the famous rock garden at OSR—it looks like a broken memory; half-remembered fragments of something that happened long ago. That’s exactly what it is.
The long ago was 1930, when the first stones were moved into place, and there are some fairly amazing headline stories that came both before and after that milestone.
The story actually starts in 1926 in Cleveland when Dorothy Kirk fell ill and suddenly died. The headlines always called her Pretty Dorothy Kirk, like that was part of her name.
She had been poisoned…sort of. It came to light that her boyfriend was a pre-med student who worked at a pharmacy. He had been trying out love potions on her that apparently went rather lethally sour. Newspapers all over the country called him the “Love Pill Killer.”
The trial was quite sensational in that classic 1920s love & murder, tabloid-jury media frenzy. From the very first hearing there were not nearly enough seats in the courtroom for all the women who jammed in every day for live soap opera.
The defendant was Emil “Frenchy” Balanescu who was clearly a nice young man: soft spoken, darkly handsome, little bit of an accent, romantically inclined. Passionate, that’s the word that all those Cleveland shoved-in-like-sardines women ached to hear spoken aloud.
At the trial they read Dolly’s diary and love letters to those breathless and sighing women. The touching affair unfolded page by page with flowers and candies, kisses and arguments, perfume and poetry. And, of course, those love pills. There were a couple of them left behind in her nightstand, and a chemist testified they were made of herbs and spices and maybe a little Deadly Nightshade for color.
When she lost consciousness Frenchy raced her to the hospital, but when everyone’s attention was focused on reviving Pretty Dorothy he ducked out without leaving his name.
There was a manhunt, then a speedy trial, and then Frenchy was sentenced to 20 years at OSR in Mansfield.
Frenchy kept a shrine in his prison cell—a picture of Pretty Dorothy that always had a light burning in front of it. This is what the papers said, also fresh flowers every day; though its hard to imagine that “lights out” didn’t include Frenchy’s cell, or that FTD made prison deliveries in 1930.
The penal system had a very different tone back then.
Admittedly Frenchy was an ideal model prisoner and they afforded him commensurate leeway. In September of 1930 they let him start carrying rocks to the banks of the pond out in the front lawn with the aim of beautifying a small corner of the property. When his project was completed a year later it put OSR on the map.
The story—carried by Associate Press and printed as far away as San Bernardino CA—said the rock garden had “winding stone walks about the slope, observatories finished with rustic rails, a round bed in the water, and a cleverly designed cascade. At the cascade is a miniature mill with a realistic water wheel run from the water at a drinking fountain above.”
There was a streetcar that ran out to the Reformatory back then, and people came out by the dozens and the hundreds to admire the charming lakeside walkways…and they weren’t just local people.
And waiting there to greet them, to stroll with them through their nature tour, was Frenchy himself—not in prison stripes, but decked out in “white duck trousers, white shirt and beret.” It was a bona fide tourist attraction: they sold postcards.
By 1931 Frenchy had made the headlines twice already—in cities as far flung as Bismark SD and Waco TX—but his story wasn’t finished and was yet to require still more ink. In March the judges determined that he was no big threat to society and they paroled him.
As far away as Leadville CO the next headline read, “Killer Refuses Parole.” Frenchy always insisted he never killed Pretty Dorothy, and to him accepting a parole was tantamount to a confession of guilt. He demanded to finish out his 20-year sentence.
The State of Ohio suddenly had the unique problem of having to forcibly eject a prisoner. Fate played into their hands, however, and the problem resolved with no bruises:
Frenchy’s poor mother, whose passionate Parisian blood was suffering terrible pressure from her son’s plight, couldn’t take it any more and attempted suicide. She took poison.
Frenchy earnestly begged permission to visit his mother in the hospital, and promised to come right back. The Warden graciously sent the young man on his mission of mercy and then, as soon as he was out of sight, quickly locked the door behind him.
Time and Stone
Eighty years is a lifetime for us, but not for a rock. Many of those stones that Frenchy cemented into place remain much the same as they were in 1931. Ambling along the edge of the Reformatory lake today it is easy to recognize bits of stairway and pedestal, landing and retaining walls.
Most of the stonework was obscured through the decades by giant ornamental shrubberies gone feral, but this year the old landmark remnants were once again brought back into the light.
The ruins are oddly bittersweet: cheery and ambitious in the sunlight, but sad too, like Once there was a garden; or Once there was a love-torn boy; or Once there was a romance spun tragic and here is the culmination of all that grief slowly etching away in the seasons.