Old Prisons and Punishments: Part I

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis

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 Governor's pardon.'

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.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Old Prisons and Punishments Part I
Transcriber/Researcher Miriam Medina


Historic New York b y Eva Palmer Brownell; Harvard College Library 1898








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