Monday, March 11, 2013

The Lost 1756 Debtors' Prison - City Hall Park

print from the NYPL Collection
In 1756 the population of New York City numbered 10,530.  There were about 2,000 buildings, nearly all of them below what is now City Hall Park.  By now Native Americans were essentially gone (a letter from the city that year mentioned “There are very few Indians on this island, all being either cut off by intestine wars or diseases.”), and parts of the upper portions of Manhattan were becoming cultivated into farmland.  Before long luxurious summer estates of the city’s wealthy merchants and British officers would begin dotting the upper reaches.

Until now the growing city did not have, nor need, a dedicated jail building.  Law breakers were housed in the old City Hall.  But the arrangement was quickly growing insufficient.  According to “The Old Martyrs’ Prison” written in 1902, “the City was growing in wickedness as it grew in population, and it was decided to erect a New Gaol on the northeastern corner of the Common (or ‘The Fields,’ as it was then called), adjoining the High Road to Boston."

The Fields was the center of public activity in mid-18th century New York.  It remains today, somewhat altered, as City Hall Park.  The new jail would be erected off the northeast corner of the common; a site north of the hubbub of business and residences, but prominent to assemblies in The Field.

The jail was completed either in 1756 or 1758; a square stone building about 60 by 75 feet and three stories tall.  The basement, which would be more appropriately termed a dungeon today, was a series of great brick arches, nine feet tall with walls two feet thick.  Heavy doors connected the dungeon spaces.

print from the collection of the NYPL

The handsome Georgian structure above ground was built of rough-cut stone.  A cupola surmounting the roof contained a bell used to give alarms of fire.  The location of the fire would be indicated at night by a lantern suspended from a pole in the direction of the fire.

Costing $12,000, it was New York City’s first jail built expressly for that purpose.  “The Old Martyrs’ Prison” noted “It was an imposing edifice in its day, and, standing as it did the most conspicuous object to the traveler as he entered the town by the old Boston High Road, was a powerful admonition to all comers to lead a sober, righteous and upright life—and to pay their debts.”

In 1759 an act was passed that removed all remaining prisoners from City Hall to the new jail.  The Fields was soon a visible object lesson in righteous living.  The Poor-House sat near the New Goal, approximately where City Hall now stands, had been erected in 1735 and in 1764 the whipping post, pillory, cage and stocks were transferred from Wall Street to an area in front of the jail.

That year the jail received a surprising prisoner.  Major Rogers of His Majesty’s Army was a prominent figure in town and lived far beyond his means.  Finally, in January, his frustrated creditors had him arrested.   Rogers’ companions demanded his release, feeling his imprisonment was an insult to the Royal Army and a threat to the military authority.  The jailor rebuffed them.

The soldiers descended on the jail, breaking into the doors with axes and muskets and releasing their Major.   The other prisoners had the chance to escape; but decided it best to remain in their cells.  The ensuing riot was finally squashed by the militia, but not before one of the British Sergeants was killed.

Among the prisoners here were those who failed to made good on their debts.  By the American colonial legal system, based on the British Statute of Merchants of 1285, creditors could simply report a debtor to the sheriff who would arrest the offender and toss him into the jail.  Since the prisoners had no money, they were unable to pay their bail and relied on the charity of friends to bail them out.

Prisoners with a view of the common watched the events of a growing revolution unfold.  The Sons of Liberty erected, time and again, a Liberty Pole; only to have it pulled down by the British.  King’s College student Alexander Hamilton began drilling his artillery company on the green.

In 1770 a public pump sat near the fence of the Gaol -- NYPL Collection
In the meantime, on July 27, 1772 Gaines’ Gazette and Mercury ran a paid advertisement that said “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.”

The New-York Tribune would later describe conditions in the building.  “There was no settled allowance in this jail for the prisoners, nor had they bedding.  The Humane Society…and donations from friends and the public were all they could rely on.”  Some diarists noted that inmates would dangle a bag or old shoe out the window from a pole hoping to a charitable passerby would drop a coin in.

By 1775 the New Goal was no longer sufficient for the rapidly growing city.  That year the Bridewell was built—a prison that lined up with the jail and the Poor-House along the northern fringe of the common.  Now the New Goal was used exclusively for debtors, earning its new name, The Debtors’ Prison. 

Within the year the Debtors’ Prison would receive another, chilling, name: The Provost Prison.  On August 27, 1776 the British took possession of the city.   They found the Debtors’ Prison and the Bridewell sitting empty.  Provost Marshall William Cunningham clearly remembered the humiliation he had received the year before at the foot of the Liberty Pole and he was out for revenge. 

Cunningham took command of the Debtors’ Prison, reserving it for rebels and military personnel.  “The Old Martyrs’ Prison” said “He was a corrupt, hard-hearted and cruel tyrant, who hesitated at nothing that would add to the miseries of his helpless victims or to his own wealth and comfort.  His hatred for the Americans found vent in the application of torture with searing-irons and secret scourges to those of his charges who, for any reason, fell under the ban of his displeasure.”

A contemporary account added “The cruelty practiced toward the inmates of the Provost rivals all that may be found in the annals of Christendom.  Not content with seeing them die a slow death from cold and starvation, he poisoned many by mingling a preparation of arsenic with their food, and is said to have boasted that he had thus killed more of the rebels with his own hand than had been slain by all the King’s forces in America.”  Among those incarcerated here was Ethan Allen.  In May, 1778 he was traded for Colonel Campbell of the British Army.

print NYPL Collection

After the war the building returned to use as a debtors’ prison.  But slowly reform tempered the practice of imprisoning debtors.  The futility of the action was more and more obvious.   The New-York Tribune pointed out that “The consequence was that the last condition of the man was far worse than the first.  His family, unable to obtain money except by begging, which was also severely punished, were either driven to starvation or to greater depths of debt.”  In 1817 a law was enacted that prohibited incarceration for anyone whose debts were less than $25.  Finally in 1830 debtors’ prisons were essentially outlawed and a committee of the Common Council chose the old jail to house the public records.

About $15,000 was spent in remodeling and refitting the structure, partly to make it look less jail-like.  The floors and windows were changed, the cupola and Georgian roof were removed and the building was lengthened at each end about seventeen feet by the addition of a portico and steps.  The handsome 18th century structure was now a Greek Revival temple—said to resemble the Doric Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The renovate structure was unrecognizable.  Seen here in 1890, an odd third story had been added. -- NYPL Collection

Remodeling stopped in 1832 when the city was overtaken by the cholera epidemic.  Residents fled northward to outlying villages and businesses were paralyzed.  Work on the old jail was suspended and it was temporarily used as a hospital.

In the second half of the century the Tweed administration spent another $140,000 to remodel the structure—now a century old.  An architecturally-incongruous story was added above the entablature and pediments, and interior was enlarged by moving the front and back walls outward, so that the free-standing columns were now engaged, almost like pilasters.

As the turn of the century approached, pedestrians navigate around construction debris -- photo NYPL Collection

As the 20th century crept closer, the New Gaol, turned Debtors’ Prison, turned Provost Prison, turned Hall of Records was endangered.  In 1894 Thomas A. Janvier wrote in his “In Old New York,” "That the remaining tenant has made exceedingly bad use of his exclusive property is patent to the eyes and nose of whoever ventures within its dirty precincts; nor will such adventurer question the tradition of the office that within it are recorded all the bad smells which have been known on this island from the earliest Dutch times…Fortunately this defilement of the interior of the Hall of Records has not affected its exterior, which essentially is unchanged since Recorder Riker took possession of his new quarters sixty years ago.”

Few, however, shared Janvier’s appreciation of vintage architecture.  The new Hall of Records was in the course of construction in 1897 and the outdated building was termed by most an “eyesore.”   The National Historical Museum lobbied Mayor Strong to preserve the structure.  In December 1897 the Board of Aldermen voted to place it, when vacated, in the care of the Museum to be used as a public museum of historic relics.

Subway construction threatens the old building. -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
But outcry for the demolition of the old building continued.  The Sun commented on November 29, 1896 “Probably no other building in the city, which has been used for public purposes, has created so much discussion as the present Register’s office.”  The newspaper denounced it saying “It has been pronounced unsafe the by Building Department, unhealthy by the Board of Health, and inadequate for the work intended for it by those in charge of the records of the metropolis.  That it is all of these a trip through its musty, ill-smelling rooms would convince the most inexperienced.”

On the other side of the lines was the Daughters of the American Revolution.  On April 15, 1901 the women enthusiastically unveiled a bronze plaque that was intended to focus attention on the history of the building and push for its preservation.  The inscription was full of historical inaccuracies, however, and the newspapers reveled in mocking the group.

“Not often has there been a neater comedy of errors than that performed yesterday in the dignified Hall of Records by the earnest and enthusiastic Mary Washington Colonial Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution,” scoffed the New-York Tribune.  The newspaper pointed out the first line “This tablet marks the site of the Provost Prison, where patriots died for the cause of freedom about 1756.”  The date was clearly wrong, it said, “unless the popular belief that the Colonies did not rebel until nearly a score of years later than that date is a popular delusion.”

Included in the list of slip-ups was the fact that the main speaker, the Rev. Dr. John Peters said “that he was somewhat at a loss to understand why he should have been honored by an invitation to speak, as his ancestors fought on the British side.”

The plaque did not impress subway contractor John B. McDonald who was determined to have the old building demolished.  On September 9, 1902 he marched into Mayor Seth Low’s office demanding that “the building must come down.”  He complained that work had been stopped because of the obstacle.

The Building Committee of the Board of Aldermen voted to demolish the structure.  Despite the New-York Historical Society and other groups pointing out that this was one of the few extant pre-Revolutionary structures in the city, the Committee found that it was “small and unsightly, and should be removed.”  Controller Grout added that “The architecture…is not in keeping with the modern architecture of the other buildings.”

The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society disagreed, protesting “The old revolutionary prison is a unique landmark.  There is not another building with a like history in the United States.  It is a monument to the patriotism and devotion of a generation of heroes, the benefits of whose sufferings and sacrifices we enjoy; and gratitude and pride alike dictate that in some form and in some place these historic stones should be preserved.”

The preservation of the “historic stones,” however, was not to be.   Instead what The Sun called a “hideous example of the brown stone age, the old Hall of Records,” was demolished in 1903.  The newspaper reported that “the axe and crowbar laid bare the cells in its cellar where Ethan Allen and other leaders of the Revolutionary forces were held in durance vile.”
Old City Hall (far left) sat across from the Debtors' Prison -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. The growing metropolis of NYC has never been a great friend of preservation and as the city moved northward so much was lost whether from the revolutionary era or the early twentieth century which is why your blog is so important to make aware all the true gems that still exist and all too often go unrecognized NYarch

    1. Well I don't think anyone has ever deemed my blog "important" before, but thank you very much!

    2. Are there any surviving records about prisoners?

    3. I recently discovered that one of my ancestors was there for 7 weeks during the revolutionary war

  2. What happened to Cunnignham? I hope he lost his head... literally.