Henry Ford’s Digital Collections Initiatives Manager Ellice Engdahl recently wrote about one of his favorite artifacts of the 18,000 published online: The Monkey Bar diorama. This diorama was created by a man known as Patrick J. Culhane (various spellings) in 1914-15 during his time at the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown where he’d been sent after a conviction of “larceny from a conveyance.” Culhane carved and assembled this incredibly detailed piece of prison art by hand from a variety of materials, including peach pits, and scraps of wood, fabric, metal, cellulose, and plastic, all fitting into a base measuring only 16″ x 20″.
Engdahl notes that Monkey Bars were created by other prisoners in the early 20th century, and that “Culhane intended the diorama to depict many of the worldly pitfalls that had put him and his fellow inmates on a path to prison. The Bar is chock full of monkeys engaged in all kinds of rambunctious activities—drinking alcohol, gluttonous eating, smoking (cigarettes, cigars, and opium), gambling and gaming in many forms (craps, roulette, checkers, shell game, and cards), playing music, monitoring the stock market via a ticker, and even paying off a policemonkey. Clearly some of the monkeys are ready to check into (or out of) the associated hotel, as they have their suitcases with them and keys and mail are visible behind the desk.”
After Culhane finished his piece, he arranged to have it sent to Henry Ford, with a hand-written note, “Presented to Mr. Henry Ford / As a token of appreciation and esteem for his many benevolent and magnanimous acts toward, and keen interest in, prisoners / By A Prisoner.”
Engdahl surmises that Ford became interested in Culhane, and may have a hand in his release from prison, as Culhane was hired to work at the Ford Motor Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1916 and Ford’s secretary corresponded with Culhane regularly.