Old Prisons and Punishments: Part III

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis

The charges of the hard-worked Schout were adapted to his broad f1eld of duty, as may be seen by the table published in 1693:

Serving a writ, taking into custody, and bail Bond (without any pretence of riding in the county) ........................6s

Returning a writ ..........1s

A venire........3s

Returning the same ...1s

Serving an execution under 100 pound . . . 5s

Every ten pound more ...1s

Serving a writ of possession.....12s

Scire facias serving and return ....3s

Every person committed into the common prison, ...3ws

In criminal matters fees to be correspondingly the same."

The Stadt Huys continued to serve as the civil and judicial centre of the town through its first period of domination by the English ; again during the Dutch restoration, and even after the English power was finally established, until 1699, when the building was condemned as unsound, and sold to John Rodman." The Government removed the bell, the King's arms, iron-work, fetters, and other accessories ot the prison, and reserved the right to have the "cage, pillory, and stocks before the same remain one year, and prisoners within said jail within the same City Hall remain one month," after the sale.'

The new City Hall was on the site of the present United States Sub-Treasury building in Wall Street, fronting Broad Street, on the corner of Nassau. It was completed in 1700, and was a fine building for the time, though it did not suit the "Congress" until numerous alterations had been made. The whole building projected over the street, and formed an imposing arcade across the sidewalk, under the lower story.10 The ground floor was an " open walk" except for the jailer's rooms.

As soon as it was ready to open its doors for the courts and public meetings, it received also the prisoners, who were put in the basement. Later, the cellar below was used as a dungeon for dangerous characters, while debtors and other transients were lodged in the garret."

The stocks and pillory were not placed immediately in front of the prison this time, but were on Broad Street, a little below Wall. From here the cart used to start when criminals were whipped around town at its tail, and here, too, were formed the processions which attended the wooden horse and its unlucky rider. The victim at this time was put on the horse, and then both were placed in the cart and trotted up and down, with added suffering and humiliation. In honor of the first person treated to the torture in its improved form, this device was always after called "the horse of Mary Price."

The city at this time was obliged to maintain a long list of officials: a mayor, recorder, town clerk, six aldermen, six assistants, one chamberlain or treasurer, one sheriff, one coroner, one clerk of the market, one high constable, seven sub-constables, and one marshal or sergeant-at-mace. The mayor, recorder, and aldermen might commit any persons for misdemeanors, and the mayor and aldermen alone were to try offenders who could not give bail. The sheriff was appointed yearly, and was obliged to give "a thousand pounds bonds for his faithfulness."" There were also a number of justices of the peace, and the prevailing impression seems to have been that they were not only too numerous but too ignorant. Many of them were appointed with no higher qualif1cation than a seven years' apprenticeship in some clerk's off1ce." The Court of Chancery was also very obnoxious to the people, and altogether it was an open question whether New York, with her complicated system imported from the mother country, or New England, with her own cruder experiments and innovations, was the better fitted to cope with new and problematic conditions.

The City Hall was the only prison until about 1760, and it must therefore have been in one of its rooms that Zenger was confined "" during his notable struggle for the freedom of the press." Here, too, suffered the negroes and the whites concerned with them in the supposed plot of 1741."

After this great panic the blacks were more carefully restricted. They were not allowed to sell anything at any price whatever, on pain of a fine of five pounds or under; and if more than three of them met and talked together anywhere, they were to be arrested and whipped at the post."

At the same time several new penalties were established. Any person working on the Lord's Day was fined ten shillings; and children breaking the Sabbath by playing, one shilling. It was forbidden to build on any street not yet laid out, on pain of forty shillings,—rather a tardy effort to guard against tangled city streets. Six shillings was the fine exacted from a householder who had no fire buckets, or who did not keep them in good condition; and firemen who failed to answer the alarm bell promptly were also fined.

For many years the jail in the basement of the City Hall had been pronounced unsafe, and in 1727, extra precautions were taken by appointing a watch of four men to guard it and prevent escapes. In this same year, too, a new gallows was placed at the upper end of the Fields." About 1756, though the date cannot be ascertained within a decade, a new stone prison, with four stories, grated windows, and a cupola," was erected in its neighborhood.'0 This, the first real jail of the city, still stands as the Hall of Records, at the northeastern corner of the City Hall Park.

It was called at first the New Gaol, but from the wretched purpose it served, soon won the title of the Debtors' Prison. The history of imprisonment for debt is a long record of stupid injustice; and nowhere was its folly more bitterly fruitful than in old New York. It was upon the laborers and mechanics, who relied wholly on their daily efforts for their daily bread, that the prosperity of the growing city depended; and they were, of course, the very people most likely to get into debt. Let a workingman fall ill, and immediately on his recovery he would be clapped into jail, because he had not paid for his provisions and medicine; while the family either starved or piled up more debts, which kept him still longer in idle captivity." An advertisement in a newspaper of the time" shows both the painful condition of the men thus conf1ned, and the peculiar attitude of the public toward them.


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


Historic New York by Eva Palmer Brownell; Harvard College Library 1898
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