Citizens once valued the “out of sight, out of mind” nature of its country’s prisons. But starting in the early 1800s, American prisons saw a new wave of visitors clamoring to go beyond the high gates and witness the encaged criminals for themselves. This voyeurism was originally promoted by the prisons hoping to increase revenue to expand the cramped prisons and to fund extras like chaplains and books for the inmates. Beginning prominently in the late 1820s and gaining high popularity in the 1850s, guidebooks pointed to prisons as destination spots and visitors began coming by the thousands seeking to self-educate, to better their society, and to sneak a glance into the underbelly of society.
With overcrowding came the need to expand prisons; however, prisons were very limited in their resources and funds. Various efforts were made to bring in revenue outside of state dollars like Agent Elam Lynds promising to make Sing Sing Prison self-supporting through the labor of prisoners. This would unfortunately prove to not be nearly as effective as it needed to be. He would be fired in 1845 after causing public stir that the prison was actually costing taxpayers “$30,000 a year.” (i)
The next best idea to fund the prisons was institutional tourism. After receiving six thousand visitors in one year at an admission fee of twenty-five cents, the Massachusetts State Prison saw an increase in revenue by $15,000. (ii) This helped fund prison expansion as well as “extras like chaplains, musical instruments, and libraries.” (iii) Opening prisons for visitation was a practical response to help with the lack of funds. However, the prisons were not the only institutions promoting the life of the prisoner as a Sunday afternoon activity. The recent growth of the tourism and guidebook industry helped push the prison’s efforts to the next level.
In the nineteenth century, tourist guidebooks were very popular. With a rise in literacy rates, mass-circulated presses were able to expand and reach a wider audience. (iv) The tourism business took advantage of this and began printing a plethora of guidebooks citing must-see attractions for the cultured family to visit. Additionally, as travel became more “comfortable, convenient, and accessible to the non-elite,”the everyday family had a chance to partake in this new era of tourism. (v) With the masses at the ready, guidebooks began directing them to the grand penitentiaries and prisons.
Prisons began to gain acclaim as highly favorable and necessary places to visit. Guidebooks like The New World in 1859 listed prisons in the table of contents under “most remarkable objects and places of interest.” (vi) In the same breath as describing a beautiful dell upstate, the guidebook praised Sing Sing as a “celebrated prison” and an “object of great interest for visiting with cells for upwards of 1000 prisoners.” (vii) And above all, these guidebooks asserted the ease at which these prisons could be visited saying it was a simple three hour trip by steamer. (viii)
After a while, prison visitation began to be promoted beyond guidebooks. Word of mouth between neighbors and common people supplied a great deal of allure with “even those who had very little time to see all of the sights of a particular city often [making] time for the custodial institutions.” (ix) Newspapers would print long articles about visits to the state prisons often with positive and encouraging messages. One article about a visit to Sing Sing stated that it was “a cool place to visit on a scorching forenoon” and wrote up an all-star list of the prisoners including people like Henrietta Robinson who was described as “superstitious” and “indulgent in odd fancies.” (x) Because of this odd new fascination to gawk at the inmates and to see beyond the gate, the institutions for reform of troubled and dangerous people were becoming more akin to amusement parks or zoos.
Even the transportation companies advertised prisons as places of interest. In Mitchell’s New Traveller’s Guide, a three page advertisement was printed up explaining the benefits of using the railroad lines and how they could be easily accessed promising that the information “has been carefully compiled from the best authorities, and will be found to be as complete in every particular as it could be made in so condensed a form.” (xi)
Even with all the advertising, a place with a great deal of caged criminals would seem to be a place to avoid. But guides promised that there would be “no difficulty in obtaining permission” to see all that the tourists could possibly imagine. (xii) The entire prison environment was being tamed and cultivated for maximum profit, and admission fee was the only requirement for access.
Another cause for the surging numbers of prison visitors was the increasing value found in self-education and self-improvement. Self-proclaimed scholars wished to gain scientific knowledge through empirical evidence. This knowledge could only be received through
“first-hand observation” that would then be written down in various narratives claiming that the prisons “must be witnessed in person to be duly understood.” (xiv, xv) These visitors claimed progressive purposes as their aims for visiting the prisons. But even those “special” individuals coming for means of reform or research were still viewing with a wish to “cross over into the netherworld of normal society” often times ridiculing and looking down upon the helpless inmates. (xvi) A visitor was still a voyeur regardless of what classification they granted themselves.
Prompted by the prisons, visitors began seeing themselves as inspectors. They would write intensive reports on the state of the prison writing on the quality of the institutions. One self-appointed inspector wrote, “The premises are scrupulously clean, destitute of the minutest speck of dirt.” (xvii) They would also speak to inmates about what they thought of the conditions of the prison and often record their conversations. People wanted to know that all the ills eating at society were being remedied in some way. They wanted to see that the cities and their institutions were becoming more civilized. This visitation to them was a way of participating in society and contributing positively to a greater humanity.
While some reform would come about from these writings, the voyeurism quality would still persist. Prison visitation would remain a primarily practical way of producing revenue for the overcrowded and underfunded prisons and an easy way of making a profit for the tourism industry.
-Isabella St. Ivany
(i) Denis Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), 32.
(ii) Janet Miron, Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 47.
(iv) Ibid, 60.
(v) Ibid, 63.
(vi) The New World in 1859: Being the United States and Canada, Illustrated and Described in Four Parts (London: H. Bailliere, 1859), 9.
(vii) Ibid, 66.
(ix) Miron, Prisons, Asylums, and the Public, 62.
(x) “A Visit to the State Prison,” New York Times. 16 June 1859.
(xii) S. Augustus Mitchell, Mitchell’s New Traveller’s Guide Through the United States and the Canadas (Philadelphia: C. Desilver, 1855), iv.
(xiii) The New World in 1859, 61.
(xiv) Miron, Prisons, Asylums, and the Public, 72.
(xv) Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828 (Edinburgh: Printed for Cadell, 1829), 31.
(xvi) Miron, Prisons, Asylums, and the Public, 64.
(xvii) Ibid, 67.
Figure 1: Admission ticket for Eastern State Penitentiary. The Library Company of Philadelphia, ca 1835.
Figure 2: Cover of The New World in 1859: Being the United States and Canada, Illustrated and Described in Four Parts. London: H. Bailliere, 1859.
Figure 3: South Wing Cells, Auburn Prison, Auburn, New York, postcard [n.d.]. Janet Miron’s collection. Prisons, Asylums, and the Public: Institutional Visiting in the Nineteenth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011, 71.
Figure 4: Rendering, 1859. Stone Lombardi, Kate. “Would a Sing Sing Museum Be in Bad Taste?” The New York Times, May 20, 2007.