Old Prisons and Punishments: Part VI

By Elizabeth Dike Lewis
 
 
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.
 

 

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

Source:

Historic New York by Eva Palmer Brownell; Harvard College Library 1898
Time & Date Stamp: