Monday, September 7, 2020

The Lost 1797 N. Y. State Prison - Christopher Street near West Street

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
After the last of the British soldiers left New York City on November 25, 1783 the newly-formed state government was faced with deciding how to handle crime and punishment.   On March 26, 1796 the State Legislature passed an act directing the erection of two New York State prisons--one in Albany and the other in New York City.

Testimony given during a property suit a century later mentioned "In 1786 Christopher Street was a lane, and had fences on each side of it.  It terminated in Sandy Hill Road east, and Greenwich Road west."  

That remote, rural area was chosen for the prison site.  (In fact, at the time the street was known as Skinner Road, named for Colonel William Skinner.  It would not be renamed Christopher Street, after Christopher Charles Amos, until 1799.)  The road was extended to access the site.  It now reached the Hudson River where a dock was erected to receive prisoners.

French-born architect Joseph-Francois Mangin was selected to design the Federal style prison.  He is best remembered today for his magnificent City Hall, completed in 1811.   He created a massive and dignified structure within a four-acre walled yard that stretched to Amos Street (later renamed West 10th Street).  Above the 22-foot high stone wall could be glimpsed a classical triangular pediment over the projecting central pavilion.  An octagonal belfry atop the roof could, no doubt, be seen from far away.  

image from In Old New York, 1894 (copyright expired)
On November 25, 1797 the Governor, John Jay, issued a proclamation which said in part "the State Prison in the City of New York is ready for the Reception of Prisoners."  Three days later 71 prisoners arrived at the prison wharf.

That wharf, incidentally, was ill-planned.  Historian Thomas A. Janvier recalled in his 1894 In Old New York that the "wharf was built out into the stream, but that it did not extend far enough to be available at all stages of the tide."  This meant that if the boat carrying prisoners arrived during low tide, it could not access the pier.  Janvier spoke to a former river captain.  "His passengers did not like it at all, he said, when, the tide not serving, he was compelled to carry them past the prison to which they were bound and to land them at the Battery."

Among the earliest prisoners was a Quaker, Noah Gardner, who was initially sentenced to be executed for forgery.  He was taken to Washington Square to be hanged, but, according to Grant Thorburn later, "One day I went up to the Park to see a man hung.  After gazing two hours at the gallows the Sheriff announced a reprieve.  I must own I was disappointed."

Gardner's life had been spared by the pleas of the Society of Friends.  A boot maker, he was eventually permitted to have the tools necessary to continue his craft inside.  Maud Wilder Goodwin wrote in her 1897 Historic New York, "He undertook to teach his trade to his fellow-prisoners, and soon had organized a body of three hundred skilled shoemakers, and thus began the system of State Prison Manufactures."

An ironic twist came about several years later when Grant Thorburn was imprisoned and was put to work under Gardner.  According to Goodwin, when Gardner chastised Thorburn for failing to deliver work on time, he replied "yes, I know it's a terrible thing to be disappointed.  I remember I went to see you hanged and was so disappointed when the Sheriff read the reprieve."  (Incidentally, after his term was served, according to Maud Wilder Goodwin, Gardner went back to boot making and "gathered up all the money he could lay hands on, eloped with a young and pretty Quakeress, and was never heard of again.")

The prison manufacturing system started by Gardner expanded.  An advertisement in The New York Evening Post on May 27, 1817 offered for sale "brushes, cedar pails and tubs, large and small wheel barrows, children's waggons, trunks, a general assortment of whips, oakum, mats and points, curl'd maple bedsteads, a number of baskets, spinning wheels, reels and swifts, a general assortment of Chair Stuff, together with a variety of other articles, not mentioned."

Trouble first came on June 13, 1799 when, according to historian Emmons Clark in 1889, "a desperate attempt was made by the convicts to escape from the State-prison, located at the foot of Christopher Street.  They seized the keepers and such of the prisoners as were not disposed to join in the revolt."  Thomas Janvier estimated the that "fifty or sixty men revolted."

Coincidentally, the First Battalion of Artillery of the Seventh Regiment was drilling in Washington Square.  The Gazette reported "information came that the prisoners were forcing the gates and making their escape.  The companies formed instantly, marched out to the prison on the run, and were soon followed by many other uniformed companies."  The soldiers fired on the prisoners and quelled the revolt.  No one was killed in the uprising.

But that was not the case four years later, in April 1803, when, according to Janvier, "about forty men broke from the prison to the prison-yard, and, after setting fire to the building, attempted to scale the walls; and again the guards came with their muskets and compelled order--this time killing as well as wounding--while the keepers put out the fire."

Only a year later an even more serious attempt occurred.  On May 8, 1804 The Evening Post reported that the previous evening at around 5:00 six prisoners plotted a break that again included arson.  They overtook guards in several areas "and made the keepers prisoners" and then set the fire at around 11:00.  Thankfully one of the plotters had a change of heart.  The newspaper reported that he "refused going any further and returned and liberated the keepers least they should perish in the fire also."

The bulk of the prisoners were unaware of the danger.  The Evening Post reported "The inhabitants were with much difficulty roused from sleep, for it was nearly an hour after the bursting out of the flames from the roof before much assistance arrived from town.  It was not got under until the north west wing had been burnt down to the tower story; damaged estimated at 25,000 dollars."  It was significant damage, equal to about $560,000 today.

The State Prison was given the nickname Newgate by locals.  It was a reference to London's notorious prison known for its harsh conditions.  While not nearly so bleak as at Newgate, life in the Christopher Street facility was not comfortable.  A request for bids to provide rations to feed the criminals on May 13, 1817, gives a glimpse of their daily meals.  The Agent of the State Prison sought: potatoes, salt, "beans or pease," pepper, "1-2 lb of salted Codfish per man once a week," vinegar, salted pork, rye flour, Indian meal, and gill molasses.  The list flatly noted "Beef is not mentioned."

The worsening conditions were pointed out by The Evening Post on January 8, 1819.  The article complained about overcrowding and the mixing of white collar criminals with murderers and thieves.  Each cell, said the article, held 18 prisoners.  "All descriptions of convicts are crowded together without distinction--the young and the old--the healthy and the unhealthy--the novice and the adept in crime; and here the hardened offender boasts of his vices, unfolds his expedients and completely eradicates every remaining impression of rectitude."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Two months earlier the prison held 603 convicts.  Of those, said The Evening Post, "410 were convicted of grand larceny, and 36 for offences relating to the counterfeiting & uttering [i.e. altering] bank notes."  

In February 1820 a committee of commissioners was formed by the State Assembly "to examine into the propriety of disposing of the present state prison at New-York, and erecting a new prison at some other place on the island of New-York."  But instead, the location chosen was Ossining, New York on the Hudson River in Westchester County.   Construction was begun in May 1825 and was completed in the 1828.

The male prisoners were transferred to Sing Sing that year and the female prisoners in the spring of 1829.  (Their transport by boat led to a popular expression.  For more than a century afterward convicts sentenced to prison were said to be "sent up the river.")

The old State Prison building--only 22 years old--was demolished.  Little Weekhawken Street was laid out on the site and a brewery and markets rose on the former grounds.  A solitary reminder of the State Prison can be found in the Christopher Street subway station, where mosaic depictions of the old facility adorn the walls.

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