In 1830, the Provost ceased to be used as a prison, and was prepared to serve as
the Register's office. The bell was taken down and remounted as a fire-alarm on
the roof of the Bridewell. The front and back of the dingy edifice were
pretentiously decorated with columns like those of the temple of Diana at
Ephesus;" and since then, the space thus made has been again walled in so that
the columns now appear as mere pilasters. In 1835, the building was ready for
the purpose which it has served ever since ; and to-day the title deeds to all
the real estate in the city are preserved under its venerable roof."
As for the Old Bridewell, if tradition be true, it followed the injunction
regarding coals of fire ; for in the war of 1812, many English captives were
confined there, and are said to have been treated by the keeper, old Tom Hazzard,
with marked kindness, and even to have been fed in secret at his own expense
when he considered their rations insufficient."
After this second experience as a war prison, the Bridewell resumed its
uneventful career as the general city jail. At first, trials were held only four
times a year, and prisoners commit much affected with caterpillars."
Although fairly healthy and clean, the Bridewell was far too small to suit the
city's growing needs, and the erection of the present City Hall,"'" just before
the war with England, had long made its presence in the crowded Park,
undesirable. In 1838, it was destroyed, some of its stones being used in the
erection of its successor, the Hall of Justice in Centre Street — early
rechristened "The Tombs," on account of its gloomy Egyptian exterior.
The old Provost bell, which had served as a f1re-alarm on the Bridewell, was
sent to the Naiad Hose Company's station in Beaver Street, to continue the same
office. It was soon after destroyed by the very fire to which, for the last
time, it had summoned the lines of wooden buckets.
The Bridewell and the Provost together had thus served during the latter years
of their existence as city jails, though they had been built for special
purposes — the one for debtors, the other for a long-term prison. Two reforms
had merged their interests. Imprisonment for debt had been practically
abolished, and the Debtors' Prison thus left free to receive other inmates. A
few years earlier a much-needed State's Prison had been erected, leaving in the
Bridewell, too, space for short commitments; while the convicts who were
sentenced to three years or more were sent to Greenwich.
The act appropriating about $208,000" to relieve the crowded prisons of the
city, had at first provided for two buildings, one to be at Albany; but on
deliberation it was decided to devote the entire fund to the Greenwich
building.'' It was ready for occupation in 1797, and seventy prisoners were
transferred to it from the other prisons. The big pile stood at the head of
Tenth Street—then Amos,—on the bank of the Hudson, a mile and a half from the
Bridewell and the Provost. Strange to say, the fashionable little village of
Greenwich seemed not to resent the intrusion, but rather to hail it as raising
the value of property, and giving a stately air to the otherwise rural scenery."
It was the handsomest prison and one of the most imposing buildings the city had
yet seen, being decorated with Doric columns, surmounted with a fine cupola, and
surrounded by nearly four acres of grounds. The whole was enclosed by a stone
wall fourteen feet high in the front, and twenty-three in the back, where the
four wings extended from the main building down to the river. . Beyond this wall
was the wharf where were landed convicts sent from points up the river."
In every earlier prison the criminals had been thrust all together into large
rooms." Here an approach to a better system was made, each of the fifty-two
cells lodging three persons only; while there were also twenty eight cells for
solitary confinement. In the north wing was a chapel, in the south a
dining-room, and the centre was given up to the quarters of the officers. There
were also good cellars, an ice-house, and store-rooms of various kinds ; and in
the courtyard there was a tank where the prisoners could bathe, so abundant was
the supply of water. The women were on the ground floor of the north wing, and
had a separate courtyard."
In 1787, the experiment had been tried in Philadelphia, of reserving capital
punishment— which had been the penalty of a dozen different crimes—for that of
premeditated murder alone." In New York many offences which are now termed
misdemeanors had been punishable with long imprisonment, or with the
humiliations of the whipping-post and pillory. At the close of the century the
example of the Quaker Commonwealth began to be followed, and imprisonment under
better conditions, with stated terms and definite regulations, became the rule.
The greatest importance attaches to the persevering attempts here made to
introduce prison labor. For the first time it seemed to have entered the minds
of the authorities that the work of a prison should be not only to punish, but
to reform. A method of accomplishing both ends was suggested to them by a
shoemaker who begged for occupation, and proposed to make himself profitable to
the institution,—inspiring his fellow-prisoners to do the same." Spacious brick
workshops went up in the yards of the Greenwich prison." To a certain extent the
men were permitted to follow their own callings. If a man had none, one was
assigned him. The principal trades were weaving, spinning, shoe- and brushmaking,
and carpenter work ; but the locksmith's art was the most popular among the
convicts, who hoped to profit by their skill in it on their release. For twelve
hours a day they were compelled to work, being marched into the dining-hall at
meal-times, and locked into their cells at night. Each convict on his arrival
was compelled to strip and wash, and dress himself in the striped prison
uniform. This was always made in the prison, and was of different grades. When
an offender was convicted for the second time, the right side of his coat and
left of his trousers were black. If a third time, he wore a figure 3 on his
back, and his food was coarser and less abundant than before."
The keeper's salary was eight hundred dollars. The rations of each prisoner came
to about five cents a day, the chief items being oxheads and hearts, indian meal
mush and molasses, pork, black bread, and "lambs' plucks."
For a few years the system promised wonders ; but the ease of communication soon
undid everything. The numerous escapes and extreme corruption may be ascribed to
three distinct causes. First, the solitary cells were too few. Second, not even
they were secure, as they were not connected by passages, and so could not be
easily kept under watch. Third, there was so little hope of pardon, that the men
were incited to attempt escapes, rather than to win commutations of their
sentences by good behavior."
As the better class of officials became disgusted with the inadequate adaptation
of the building to its purpose, and weary of their fruitless attempts to contend
against heavy odds, it was natural that inferior keepers should take their
places. In a few years a low class of men had control of the prison, and the
convicts were corrupted not only by each other's society, but by the example of
their officers, who are said to have been profane and drunken tyrants. Laziness
ruled everywhere. The men were again herded together, and children thrust in
with them, because it was easier to care for a crowded room, than for individual
cells. Many prisoners are known to have falsely confessed themselves guilty of
special misdemeanors, that they might be confined in the less offensive,
solitary cells. Books were withheld on the pretext that the prisoners destroyed
them. Inhuman whippings were administered by the keepers for real or fancied
personal insults ; and the bodies of dead convicts were either buried without
ceremony in the Potter's Field, or disposed of to the dissectors."
The hospital, consisting of four rooms with a straw bed in each, was in the
north wing. The resident physician was frequently a youth easily imposed on by
the convicts, who were skilled in counterfeiting illness and were generally glad
of a few days' rest from the workshop. The most serious of the real diseases
treated in the hospital were those unavoidably attendant on the close
confinement of the prisoners." Deaths were numerous, being as one in two hundred
and fifty each month.
Very few troubles seem to have come from the undoubtedly coarse, but abundant
food ; and no complaints are made of uncleanliness. Indeed to such an extent
were these humane and saving points insisted upon by the prison authorities,
that many citizens regarded the good treatment as equivalent to laxity in
discipline ! Less easily refuted are the complaints that the system of solitary
conf1nement was never thoroughly tried. The inspectors pointed out that one
Smith had been placed in a solitary cell for six months, and had emerged "a
revengeful desperado"; while the complainants maintained that, as he had been
allowed daily converse with his keeper, extra diet, and reading matter, the
experiment had not been a fair one.
In spite of all that was said against the discipline and plan of the Greenwich
prison, it marks the beginning of at least an attempt at a system aiming at
reform. For the first time punishments were regulated by their duration as well
as by mere severity; and the good effects of prison labor were proved, while its
weak points began to be understood, and could be guarded against.
It was in 1829, that the prison was sold and destroyed. A small part of its old
wall is still in existence, having been built into the brewery on the same site.
The prisoners were gradually transferred, in 1828, and 1829, to the enormous new
pile at Sing Sing.
In 1826, the penitentiary on Blackwell's Island had been opened ; " and with the
closing of the careers of Greenwich, the Debtors' Prison, and the Bridewell, and
the substitution of Sing Sing, Blackwell's, and the Tombs, the old city prisons
and the first quarter of the century came to an end together.