Artists In Prison Once Created Functional Carnivals Made Of Toothpicks

At a local San Francisco landmark, Musée Mécanique, you can see old entertainment machines like zoetropes and laughing robotic clowns. You can also see elaborate, moving carnivals made of toothpicks, most of which were created by people who were incarcerated.


In the 1940s, at least two inmates in California spent their time sculpting and mechanizing elaborate worlds. Some of those worlds have been preserved. Go to the right places in San Francisco and you can see these moving carnivals made almost entirely out of toothpicks. Hundreds of thousands of toothpicks form ferris wheels, pavilions, and dancing couples that still work.

Of the two people who created the carnivals, one is more well-known than the other. The more obscure, Jack Harrington, was a set designer in Hollywood before being sent to San Quentin, where he designed toothpick carnivals. That's all the information readily available about him.


William Jennings-Bryan Burke is more of a public figure. Born in 1909, he was still a teenager when he was sent to Folsom Prison, the prison Johnny Cash later made famous in "Folsom Prison Blues." He began building carnivals out of toothpicks in the early 1940s. These examples of his art are the best-preserved, because they were either preserved by the prison or bought by museums. Burke made several escape attempts, and, when released, was reincarcerated several times before he finally was paroled for good in 1956. He married and had four children. Two of those children started a website about his life and work, with pictures and videos. (Be careful if you're at work or have headphones in because the home page does have an autoplay video.) Burke continued constructing and touring elaborate, beautiful toothpick carnivals until his death at the age of 92.

[Source: Toothpick Carnival.]

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