The most notable 0f Cunningham's prisoners was Ethan Allen, who, having been
released on parole in New York, was seized in January, 1777, and thrust into
solitary confinement, in spite of his energetic denial of the charge that he had
broken his parole. He had been first taken at Montreal in 1776, transported to
England, and after a painful voyage brought back to New York. Here General Howe
offered him a commission, with the promise of large tracts of land in Vermont at
the close of the war, if he would only "desert his lost cause, and serve his
King "; but Allen replied that he did not think the king would have enough land
in America at the close of the war to redeem any such promise."
When he had been some eight months in the Provost, he seems to have begun to
chafe under the apparent neglect of his countrymen; as Joseph Webb writes to
Governor Trumbull, in a letter arranging for an exchange of prisoners:"
" Ethan Allen begs me to represent his Situation to You that he has been a most
Attached friend to America and he says he's forgot—he's spending his Life, his
very prime and now is confined in the Provost and they say for breaking his
parole without he own's it in part—I cou'd wish some of 'em wou'd be more
Allen was exchanged in May, 1778, not long after this, and joined Washington at
The Provost had at this time been strengthened by the British. Barricades had
been erected between the external and internal lobbies, and grated doors placed
at the foot of the stairs, where sentinels were stationed night and day. On the
right of the main hall was the Marshal's room, now the Register's off1ce, and
opposite was the guard, and the chamber of O'Keefe, Cunningham's deputy and
accomplice. Most of the prisoners were conf1ned on the second floor, in the
northeast chamber, ironically called "Congress Hall"; and it is here that they
were so crowded as they lay down in rows on the floor, that when one wished to
turn over, he had to wake all the others, and give the word of command for all
to turn at once.
It was to the door of this room that Cunningham ushered his guests, drunk as
himself, after a luxurious dinner, while he exhibited his prisoners as one would
a cage of animals.
"There is that d__d rebel, Ethan Allen,sir," he would cry; "Allen! get up and
Condition of the Prisoners
It is to be said, on the other hand, that while the seamen on the Jersey were
being exposed to small-pox and abandoned to filth and starvation," the crowded
inmates of "Congress Hall" were carefully guarded against disease and vermin.
Their packs and blankets were aired every morning and then hung on the walls
during the day; and in illness they received medical attention."
When the British troops evacuated the city, Cunningham and his deputy were among
the last to leave. In the Provost there were still a few prisoners, and as
O'Keefe prepared to rush off they cried out to know what was to become of them.
" You may go to the Devil ! " he exclaimed, throwing the keys on the floor.
"Thank you," they replied; "We have had enough of your company in this world."
The chief sufferings of the American patriots in the Bridewell arose from the
extreme cold, for the unfinished building had only iron gratings at the
windows." There were several old veterans who claimed to have been among eight
hundred and sixteen prisoners-of-war conf1ned in these crowded quarters from
Saturday to the following Thursday, without food of any kind." No deaths are
mentioned, however, and as it is scarcely possible that a large body of
exhausted and wounded soldiers can have survived such treatment, the story lacks
credibility. It is certain that the rations of the prisoners here were at times
withheld from them, but the reports that many men had been poisoned by the
physicians have never been verified.'"
When Washington at one time complained that the men who had been released from
New York were in such desperate condition that they were not a fair exchange 1or
the British prisoners, Howe replied: "
"... All the prisoners are conf1ned in the most airy buildings and on board the
largest transports of the fleet, which are the very healthiest places that could
possibly be provided for them. They are supplied with the same provisions as are
allowed to the King's troops not on service, . . . the sick are separated and
especially cared for by surgeons. . . ."
At the same time Congress was publishing in its Journal, regarding the prisoners
in New York:
"... Many of them were near four days kept without food altogether. When they
received a supply, it was both insuff1cient in point of quantity, and often of
the worst kind. They suffered the utmost distress from cold, nakedness, and
If we balance the off1cial assertions on each side, we may come to the
conclusion that the extreme stories of both should be discredited altogether.
The tales, however, were believed by many who heard them and by some close who
told them, and they played a prominent of the part in the minds of the people at
After the Revolution the Provost was again used for debtors, and at one time
five per cent, of the whole number of citizens were imprisoned for debt." Much
of the misery was done away with in 1817, when the laws were so amended as to
confine only those who had incurred debts for amounts larger than twenty five
About 1787, the Provost was again the scene of a riot." The methods employed by
some doctors for obtaining bodies for dissection had aroused the most bitter
feeling against the whole profession." A mob gathered, and assailed the houses
of the obnoxious physicians, while their friends covered their hasty retreat to
the jail. There the mob followed them and did much damage, both to the police,
and to the citizens, who made a feeble defence at the prison door. One of the
doctors was "wounded by a stone which laid him up some time, in the head," and
the riot was quelled only by promises of reform.
A drawing of City Hall Park made by W. G. Wall in 1826, pictures the Hall of
Records as of pale gray stone, while the Bridewell is green, with tan blinds. A
note in the corner explains that the artist did not "feel justified in
representing the foliage of the Park as in a handsome state, because it wasn't,
being much affected with caterpillars." '" One might question whether this
gentleman had been equally conscientious, when he sprinkled the foreground with
ladies in hoops and poke bonnets.