Depression-Era Recipes from an Inmate at the Ohio Penitentiary
Posted September 19, 2022

By Wendy Korwin, Manuscripts Curator

This summer, while working with the Isabel Hatton Simmons collection, I spied her recipe for a raspberry spice cake and decided to give it a whirl. As an obedient and generally uninventive baker, Isabel’s instructions perplexed me. Did “spoon” mean teaspoon or tablespoon? Was I supposed to heat the caramel until it was “ropey,” or was I misreading her handwriting? The result was hideous, but I had no backup dessert for this particular dinner party. Everyone was very kind about it. It tasted fine. It was very brown.

I returned to work curious about other recipes I might find in our collections at the Ohio History Connection. Were there more brown foods I could entice my friends, coworkers, and relatives to try? As a manuscripts curator, I was particularly interested in unpublished documents – recipes that an Ohioan had personally chosen or created and then written down, either for their own use or to give to someone they cared about. As I browsed our archives catalog, a descriptive note for Mrs. J.C. Woodward's Recipe Book caught my attention:

“Harry LaPlante, a prisoner at the Ohio Penitentiary (Prisoner number 61804), created this volume of recipes, menus and cooking information for the wife of Warden J.C. Woodard in April, 1931.”

I had to know more! Below, I’ll share some of my questions and what I learned as I tried to answer them.

Who was Harry LaPlante?

The 1930 U. S. Census identifies Harry LaPlante as: male; white; 43 years old; a widow; born in Washington, D. C.; a prisoner in the Ohio Penitentiary. In his recipe book, LaPlante writes that he learned his trade by working in hotels in the South. He has a particular attachment to the racialized space of his culinary apprenticeship: “It may be the climate, the atmosphere, or the environment of the Southern Hospitality that has a tendency to make this food so appetizing, for I have never been able to enjoy the same food North of the Mason-Dixon Line.”[1]

It’s not clear what brought him northward, or when exactly LaPlante moved to Ohio. At the time of his arrest for writing bad checks, he was working as a cook in Lima.[2] The Lima News reported that Harry L. LaPlante was also wanted in Dayton, Columbus, and Wheeling, West Virginia on charges that included auto theft.[3] The forgery conviction sent LaPlante to prison on a sentence of two-to-twenty years. He entered the Ohio Penitentiary on March 28, 1930.

Three weeks later, 322 inmates died when a fire broke out at the overcrowded prison. LaPlante was not among the victims, but others who entered the facility at the same time were not as fortunate. In the penitentiary register, “Died in O. P. Fire” appears matter-of-factly in the column intended for their discharge dates. LaPlante’s parole on May 5, 1932 means that he served close to the shortest possible sentence, even with an unexplained 30 days of added time.

What’s the story of this cookbook?

LaPlante wrote his recipe book roughly halfway into his two-year sentence, and he dedicated it to Grace Apple Woodard, the wife of the Ohio Pen’s assistant warden, James C. Woodard. Woodard was praised for how he handled the catastrophic fire in 1930, and a few years later would be named head warden. In 1939, he was forced out of the position, charged with 22 counts that included allowing gambling and the circulation of cigarettes, liquor, and marijuana; showing favoritism toward wealthy inmates; “fail[ing] to segregate perverts, degenerates, and syphilitics from other prisoners”; and granting state property to his son, James C. Woodard, Jr.[4]

Given some of the accusations Woodard later faced, I have to wonder if Harry LaPlante viewed this recipe book as a way to generate favor with the assistant warden. (Woodard’s career was, at this time, still on the rise.) The book’s pristine condition suggests that Grace Woodard barely, if ever, used it. The Ohio History Connection acquired it in 2015 as a gift from MaryEve Corrigan, who explains that in the 1950s, her father served in the U.S. Army alongside the warden’s son, J. C. Woodard, Jr.: “Woodard was a bachelor who became a part of our family during our years in Austria and beyond.” After they all resettled in Ohio, the junior Woodard introduced MaryEve's family to his mother. Following Grace Woodard’s death, he gifted MaryEve’s mother the recipe book that Harry LaPlante had made for her decades earlier.[5] He donated the bulk of his family’s papers to the Kent State University Library.

What can we learn from this document?

Like many cookbooks, LaPlante’s work offers more than instructions and ingredient lists. It begins with “A Chef’s Creed,” and interspersed with the actual recipes are passages with titles like “Cooking is in Fashion” and “The Truth about Chop Suey.” There are menus for eight-course holiday suppers, a multi-page glossary of French cooking terms, and charts listing how many hours it takes to digest different foods. LaPlante strikes me as an audacious educator -- as an inmate, he was unafraid to offer the warden’s wife advice on her role as “the modern housewife.”[6] His conclusion is the most direct appeal for an early release from prison, as a man who loves both freedom and knowledge.

And what about the recipes? While I didn’t tackle any of the more complex dishes, I did try my hand at a few of LaPlante’s sandwiches. Below, you can scroll through some photographs from his recipe book and evidence of my experiments.


[1] LaPlante credits the “Old Black Mammies who really knew how to cook” for teaching him “Receipts [sic] from the Southland.” Mrs. J. C. Woodard Recipe Book, MSS 2290, Ohio History Connection, page 66.

[2] He appears in the 1930 Lima city directory, but not the 1927 edition.

[3] “Four Cities Want Man Jailed in Lima.” Lima Morning Star and Republican-Gazette (Lima, Ohio), February 13, 1930.

[4] “Woodard Dismissed as Prison Warden.” Columbus Evening Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), March 25, 1939. Woodard won his appeal but nevertheless resigned.

[5] MaryEve Corrigan, email message to the author, September 2, 2022.

[6] Mrs. J. C. Woodard Recipe Book, MSS 2290, Ohio History Connection, page 98.

Thank you to MaryEve Corrigan, both for donating this item and for illuminating its provenance, and to the Kent State Libraries Special Collections and Archives for providing the photograph of the Woodard family.

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