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  • Thomas Riddell

The Story Behind Poppy's Prison: Poppy's Ghost?


There hasn't been a week in the last twenty-five years that I haven't given thought to this story; which until recently only existed in a binder of over sixty-two newspaper articles. It's a story that my grandfather, at least during his life, never wanted told. My grandfather had made it crystal clear to my grandmother that I shouldn't be told of his dark past, because as my grandmother explained to me back in 1975: "If he found out that you knew, it would kill him." That was before his death in 1979 and before that rainy day in 1993 when I went to the library looking for something to read. What I uncovered during those few hours in the library shocked me and led me on a path which inspired me to finally write and publish the book Poppy's Prison in 2020, almost thirty years later.


The process of writing and researching the book took me well over a year to complete. During that time I meticulously combed through several online resources that weren't available to me in '93. While doing so, I was able to add to the incredible story of a man who seemed much different in his younger years than the kind and lovable man who raised and cared for me.


During my most recent online research, I was almost obsessed with finding a photo of my grandfather back during the 1920s which would have put a face on his "misdeeds". I was also possessed with finding and learning more about a jail that he reportedly escaped from with his partner in Lake Hopatcong, N.J. Here's what happened with the photo and the jail:


I was reading every article and account that Google delivered to me but I couldn't find a picture of "Russell Brice". I was frustrated and said to the computer screen, "There's got to be a picture of a man who was involved in all of that bootlegging activity..." A minute later, up pops an article with a picture of "Sing Sing inmate Russell Brice". (Seen on the left in the photo to this post.). The only thing was it didn't look like my pop. I wanted to include it in the book but I wouldn't publish it if I couldn't verify that it was in fact him. A day later, my cousin, who I haven't seen in many years, sends me a picture of Russell Brice taken in 1950. It was eerie because the 1950 photo was an identical mug shot straight on view of his face. What was the clincher to answer my question of whether the 1920 newspaper photo was my grandfather? The eyebrow lines, the upper eyelids and the ears were a dead on match.


As for locating the jail, I had no luck in my searches so my girlfriend and I drove down to Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey from Syracuse, N.Y. I was determined. We drove all around that magnificent little town of Hopatcong, and as we were feeling defeated in finding the jail and about to drive out of town, I said to Kay, "I just wish we could find that jail!" About 1/4 mile further down the road, Kay said, "Stop! There it is!" It was like another gift given to me by......???


Another gift was offered up back in my office. I was putting the final touches on the manuscript when I vocalized another wish: "Pop, I wish you could talk to me and tell me more about your involvement with Robert Eckert and this murder case..." My wish was answered by another article that popped up within two hours. I had never seen this news piece before and it was like mining for gold. I had hit pay dirt! It was actually an interview that Russell Brice gave to the New York Times a few days after he was sent to Sing Sing Prison for unrelated crimes.


I combine these three occurrences as having something to do with a gentle push and an approval from the other side to write the story. I thank Poppy's Ghost for the nudge. You can purchase your copy of Poppy's Prison on the "Shop" page on this site or go to the homepage, scroll down to the Poppy's Prison and click it. Enjoy the Mystery!


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