Old Prisons and Punishments: Part IV

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis
The Debtors confined in the Gaol of the City of New York, impressed with a grateful sense of the obligations they are under to a respectable publick for the generous contributions that have been made to them, beg leave to return their hearty thanks, . . . because they have been . . . preserved from perishing in a dreary prison, from hunger and cold."

Among these men was one Major Rogers, who was the innocent cause of a serious riot. The soldiers, to evince their contempt of civil power, forced an entrance into the Gaol, and demanded his person. They opened all the doors, and told the prisoners they had leave to depart freely, which, says the chronicler, they were "too honourabel to do" and the only real outcome of the disturbance was the death of one of the sergeants."

The Fields—later called the Common, and now the Park—was in 1769, and the years following, so decidedly the centre of the struggle for Independence, that it has been called " the Fanueil Hall of New York." It was the scene of many of the riotous meetings of the Sons of Liberty, and the poles repeatedly erected by them and torn down by the soldiery stood at its northwestern corner. The handbill calling one of these meetings, though signed merely "A Son of Liberty," was traced to the office of James Parker, and he was thrust into the still extant dungeon in the Fort." The printer then betrayed the writer, Alexander McDougall, who' many years later was to be the Major-General in charge of West Point. He too was arrested, and thrown into the Debtors' Prison; whence in April, 1770, he was released on bail to await his trial.

While confined there he published a "personal" in the New York Journal, inviting his friends to an original kind of afternoon tea." He would be, he notified them, " Glad of the Honour of their Company from Three O'clock in the afternoon till Six," and the date aff1xed was "New Gaol, February 10, 1770."

As the Debtors' Prison was not large enough to accommodate all classes of prisoners, the city authorities had seen fit to order a new city jail;" and in 1775, the Bridewell came to make part of the historic surroundings of the Common. It stood to the west of the Debtors' Prison, between Broadway and the site of the present City Hall, and would have been a handsome building if the original design, calling for a pediment and columns, had ever been carried out. It was of dark gray stone, two stories high, and contained, on the ground floor the jailer's quarters and the famous Long Room for common prisoners,—on the upper story, apartments for the better class of convicts."

It was not f1nished, however, when the Revolution opened ; and on the twenty-seventh of August, 1776, when the British took
possession of the city, they found not only the wooden barracks just abandoned by Washington's troops, but the Debtors' Prison on one side and the new Bridewell on the other, all empty, and ready for their occupation.

The Debtors' Prison was placed in charge of the wicked Provost Marshal Cunningham, and was thereafter called The Provost. It was made the principal prison, though besides the Bridewell and old City Hall, the British pressed into military service the old sugar houses, the churches, Columbia College, the hospital, and the abandoned, half-rotten ships-of-war in the Bay.'1 Space requires the omission of any details regarding these temporary prisons, whose interesting history does not, strictly speaking, form a part of the history of the prisons of the city.

The Provost and its peculiar terrors were reserved for the most important prisoners. Compared to the physical sufferings of the men conf1ned in the hulks of the Jersey," and the other "floating hells," as they were termed, the discomforts of the prisoners in the Provost were mild. Though they were too cold, and frightfully crowded, they had less disease and degradation to contend with. But Cunningham was a tyrant who did not stop half way. His was a reign of terror, and a secret scourge, searing-iron, and gallows, awaited the unfortunate man who furnished him with the slightest excuse for persecution. There is no evidence that he ever executed any one without trial; but his trials may have been conducted in a cursory manner. The gallows, which was practically a private institution of his own, stood on a little hill in Chambers Street; and thither he is said to have accompanied his victims in person, after giving orders that all householders along the route from there to the prison should close their windows on pain of death. He took care to make this gallows a terror by keeping it always occupied; and when a real man was lacking, he would fill it with an effigy of Hancock or some other obnoxious rebel."

This infamous marshal deliberately allowed many men to starve by reducing or withholding their rations to enrich himself. The extent of his crimes is unknown, and it is useless to catalogue their reported horrors. Some writers relate that he was hanged at Tyburn shortly after his return to England,3 and even give in detail his dying confession, in which he says:"

"... 1 shudder to think of the murders I have been accessory to—both with and without orders from government—especially while in New York, during which time there were more than two thousand starved in the churches by stopping their rations, which I sold. There were also two hundred and seventy-five American prisoners executed . . . hung without ceremony, and then buried by the Black Pioneer of the Provost. ."

This interesting document is, however, almost a palpable fabrication. No record has ever been found of any such execution, either at Tyburn or elsewhere; and the best authorities insist that Cunningham died peacefully many years later, in a country home."


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


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