Old Prisons and Punishments: Part V

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis
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 prudent."

Allen was exchanged in May, 1778, not long after this, and joined Washington at Valley Forge."

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 walk around!""

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 close confinement."

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 the time."

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 dollars."

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.


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


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