THE Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, having founded their colony in a spirit
more commercial than religious, felt earlier
than did their Puritan neighbors, the need of a place of imprisonment. This does
not mean that the wicked flourished there to an alarming degree. In fact the
city was well advanced in years before it felt the presence of crime, or the
want of anything like a penal system. A means of punishing peccadillos, of
frightening scolds, and of maintaining military discipline, was all that was at
first necessary. Consequently more than a century passed before there was a
prison building on Manhattan Island, space having been easily provided for
offenders in the town's off1cial headquarters, wherever such government as there
was, had chanced to house itself.
As is perfectly natural, therefore, the f1rst dungeon was within the ramparts of
Fort Amsterdam. Somewhere in the quadrangle, along with the Governor's mansion,
the military post, and the little church, was a lock-up, no doubt of the most
primitive order, and probably of a migratory habit. The earliest prisoners were
the Indians captured in skirmishes, who were confined in some part of the
barracks of the soldiers who had taken them. It is not certain that any civil
offenders were ever imprisoned there, but even after the building of the Stadt
Huys, the captive Indians seem to have been kept in the Fort dungeons.
In 1644, one Lieutenant Baxter marched to the "castels" of the Westchester
Indians, destroyed their crops and killed many of them, and returned to the Fort
with several prisoners.1 At about the same time an expedition to Heemstede,
where troubles had become complicated, resulted in the capture of two Indians,
who were brought to the Fort and cruelly dealt with. One was dragged into a
circle of soldiers, abused, and cut at with knives till he whirled in his
death-dance, and finally dropped amid the jeers of his persecutors. The other
was also mutilated, and the same horrible scene might have been repeated had not
another party of soldiers interfered and mercifully beheaded him on a block
behind the barracks.'
While the colonists were few and mutually dependent, there was no mention of any
prisoners save those of war. But other than warlike measures soon became
imperatively necessary to protect the community from its terrifying foes. A
drunken Indian was a menace to a whole neighborhood, and one armed with
civilized weapons was a trebly dangerous enemy. It was, therefore, ordained at
various times that he who should be found selling liquors to Indians should be
"arbitrarily corrected," or imprisoned, or "condemned " : or if the selling
could not be proved on any one person, then the whole street in which the
drunken Indian had been found was fined.' From very early times death was the
penalty for providing Indians with f1rearms, or any munitions of war.'
Other offences less serious than these, and generally of a personal character,
were none the less deemed a menace to the dignity of the colony, and as early as
1638, a record is opened of curious sins, and still more droll punishments. A
certain Hendrick Jansen, convicted of having slandered the Governor, is
compelled to stand at the Fort gates at the ringing of the bell, and to ask the
The Reverend E. Bogardus—who had succeeded Dominie Megapolensis as pastor of the
church within the Fort—is "scandalized by a
female," who is forthwith summoned to appear, also at the ringing of the bell,
and "to declare before the council that she knew he was honest and pious, and
that she had lied falsely." The Bogardus family seem to have been the objects of
something like animosity on the part of their fellow-citizens, for presently the
wife of the reverend gentleman is accused of "having drawn up her petticoat a
little way." Several people were involved in this case, among whom was Hendrick
Jansen, perhaps the same who had slandered the Governor, seeking an indirect
revenge for his own public humiliation.
A Solomon-like judgment is that in another slander case, in which Jan Jansen
complains of a party who has "lied falsely" about him, and each side is ordered
to contribute twenty five guilders to the poor box ! Guyshert Van Regerslard,
apparently a sailor on the yacht " Hope," having drawn his knife upon a fellow,
was sentenced to receive three stripes from each of the crew, and to throw
himself three times from the sail-yard of the yacht.
The famous wooden horse makes his entry into the annals of the city in December,
1638, when two soldiers were condemned to bestride him for two hours. This
punishment seems to have been brought from Holland, where it had long been used
as a military discipline. The horse had a razor-like back, upon which the
prisoner was forced to sit, while weights and chains were hung on his feet. '
The only recorded case of any criminal proceedings during the days of the Fort
is that of Manuel Gerrit.'
More serious attempts at local discipline began in 1642, when the Stadt Huys was
erected on Dock, now Pearl Street,' at the head of Coenties Slip. This building,
which Kieft had ordered for the Company's tavern, soon entered on its generous
career as tavern, court, city hall, and prison combined. All the courts and
public meetings of the citizens were held here, and although there were two
stories— with perhaps a third under the gables—only one small room on the first
floor in the rear could be spared for the prisoners. Their quarters were
nevertheless far more ample, and their doings more carefully regulated than they
had been in the dungeons of the Fort.
The Provost Marshal, as combined sheriff, warden, policeman, and jailer, had
entire command of the prison, and frequent ordinances controlled his various
duties." He was to live in the town, where a dwelling was provided for him. He
was to visit the prison constantly, to feed and lock up the prisoners, and to be
responsible for the keys and for the state of the locks, taking especial care
that no "file or rope or anything sharp " be left on the premises.