“Mushfaking” is prison slang for the construction of any contraband object made from whatever materials are at hand.
“Mushfake” is a very interesting word. It seems to have first appeared in underworld slang back in the early 19th century in England. “Mush” by itself was, in that period, slang for an umbrella, from its similarity in shape to a mushroom. The verb “to fake” during the same period was criminal slang for “putting something in shape to sell by covering its defects.” So a “mushroom faker” or “mushfake” was a con artist who repaired discarded umbrellas just enough to make them briefly functional and then sold them on the street, preferably during a downpour. Anyone who has ever bought one of those $3.00 umbrellas in a New York City rainstorm will recognize the racket. You’re wet again two blocks later.
Imported to America fairly quickly, “mushfaker” became hobo slang for an itinerant tinkerer or handyman. “Mushfakers” repaired pots and pans as well as umbrellas, but “mushfaking” was considered an occupation of last resort and “mushfakers” occupied the lowest rung of hobo society. By the 20th century, “mushfake” had become prison slang for making useful objects out of cast-off or less-useful materials. Ironically, a good “mushfaker” is probably a lot more popular in prison than on the street.
Below are some of our favorite mushfakes uncovered over the past three years of running Criminal Wisdom.
1. HOMEMADE SHOTGUN
“Shotgun made from iron bedposts; charge made of pieces of lead from curtain tape and match-heads, to be ignited by AA batteries and a broken light bulb. On May 21, 1984 two inmates of a prison in Celle, Germany, took a jailer as a hostage, showed off their fire power by letting go at a pane of bullet-proof glass, and escaped by car.”
From Marc Steinmetz’s photo collection of Escape Tools.
2. JAILHOUSE HOT PLATE MADE FROM A BRICK
Antonio Vega Macotela discovered this makeshift stove in one of his many visits to Santa Martha Acatitla, a Mexican prison where he makes collaborative art with the incarcerated.
Some of the inmates teach me their particular “skills” in exchange for my time. One of them, in trade for teaching his daughter to read, showed me how to kill someone with a shoelace. Basically, all you have to do is hold the shoelace in such a way that when you shake someone’s hand, his index finger gets caught in a little noose. Then you pull sharply, he loses his balance, and you twist the shoelace around his neck and pull as hard as you can. The prisoner who showed me this technique is a really tiny guy, but he can do it in one swift move. It’s crazy to watch, almost like a magic trick. He used to be a locksmith, and he says he has invented a lock that not even he can break into. He asked me to help him patent it so I am researching patent laws for him next week. There are really talented cons in there. Some are really brilliant in fact, you have no idea all the things I have learnt in the past two years. The prison is a great school for all the people inside them: though probably not in the way that society would like them to be. Re-adaptation, certainly; for what exactly is the mystery.
3. THE ELECTRIC CIGARETTE LIGHTER
“In 2001, the artists’ collective Temporary Services asked an incarcerated artist named Angelo to share with them the ways in which inmates adapt to their confinement. Angelo responded with over one hundred pages of meticulously detailed ink drawings and text. The resulting compilation, Prisoners’ Inventions, is a unique guide to prison life, covering subjects ranging from how to cook a grilled cheese sandwich in a locker to how to chill a soda using a toilet. “
4. COMB SHIV
Materials: “Unbreakable” plastic comb; three single-edge razor blades inserted into teeth; wrapped with copper wire and shoelace.
Backstory: During the 1980s, a modest stipend of $1.10 per day was deposited into each working prisoner’s personal account. The comb and shoelace used here were available from the prison commissary at that time. By completing an order form, prisoners could make purchases and tailor a shiv to their own design specifications.
5. THE STINGER
Because prison issued hot pots never get hot enough to boil water prisoners have created this ingeniously simple device. Simply plug it into the wall, drop the metal end into your cup of water and viola – electricity brings your drink to a boil. (If it doesn’t trip the circuit breaker on your cell block first – then look out. Hello, Mr. Popularity.) You can see the stinger in action on a video at Lockdown: The DIY Wizards of San Quentin, part one of Gizmodo’s 5 part series looking at technology in prison.
6. DOUBLE BARREL PISTOL
This gun was found along with other homemade firearms in the cell of two Celle prison inmates on November 15, 1984. The weapons had been made in the prison’s metal workshop. They were loaded with pieces of steel and match-heads.
Another one from Marc Steinmetz’s collection of Escape Tools.