A fine historically important tramp art box by the colorful ‘Gus’ Wynn. One of the largest known by his hand and only the second found with three drawers. The box exhibits the unique characteristics of his signature style having the outside handles, sliding top, scalloped skirt, and drawers. The box is finely chip carved and has a rich color. It appears to be an early example from the period when he first preformed in his ‘Wynn’s Carnival’. He preformed for visitors to the Tennessee State Prison where he spent 30 years for murdering his brother-in-law in 1936. In the enclosed photograph Wynn is preforming on a stage and there are several of the tramp art boxes visible. He would open the sliding tops on the tramp art so the audience could deposit their mostly silver coins. At one time he was considered to be the richest man in the prison system.
Below is an excerpt from A Legacy in Tramp Art, page 23.
Augustus “Gus” Wynn: “I Made a Big Mistake”
Augustus, known by his nickname “Gus,” Wynn was convicted of murdering his brother-in-law in 1936. Gus was a poor farmer from Harris County, Tennessee, and, according to newspaper accounts of the trial, there was bad blood between the two men. Gus could have been sentenced to the death penalty, but instead was given a thirty year sentence in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. He pleaded self-defense his entire life, even though he emptied his revolver into an unarmed man on the steps of the town’s church.
On September 3, 1936, at age 46, Wynn entered prison. Newspaper accounts depicted Wynn as small in stature with thinning grey hair, shy, and “unlearned.” He barely spoke in public and survived by his wits and talent. While living with the toughest felons in the state he acquired the skills to play the banjo, the harmonica, and a crude drum, all at the same time. He built an ingenious miniature carnival operated by pulleys, chains, and levers connected to pedals he would depress with his feet. On Sunday afternoons he entertained visitors to the prison as he sat in the midst of a hodgepodge of airplanes, Ferris wheels, ducks, eagles, boxers, animals, and for good measure, a miniature electric chair with a little man strapped to it. He had a steel frame holding a harmonica around his neck and as he played the banjo, he used his left foot to bang his crude drum and his right foot to press the pedal that operated the flywheel and made the carnival come to life. Men boxed, acrobats tumbled, animals wiggled and danced while Wynn played mournful tunes.
In a historical photograph of Wynn surrounded by his handmade carnival, he placed several tramp art boxes on the front of the stage with their sliding tops open for the audience to deposit coins. If he was not getting the amount of donations he felt his act warranted he stopped playing and told the story of his hard life. He spoke of his unjust conviction and the plight of his wife and nine children as he offered sage advice about a life of crime. This usually did the trick and the coins, as well as a few tears, were shed.
His story is continued on page 24 please see the image to read the rest.