Sing Sing Prison’s First Warden: Elam Lynds

The establishment and early development of Sing Sing prison cannot be understood without addressing one of the driving forces behind not only its physical creation, but also its internal doctrine: Sing Sing’s first warden, Elam Lynds.


Figure 1: Elam Lynds

In 1825 Elam Lynds was given the responsibility of finding a site for the new prison that would become Sing Sing. After considering several different sites, he chose to build the prison on the banks of the Hudson, next to the small village later known as Ossining. Elam Lynds, who had formerly been the warden at Auburn, was known for his strict disciplinary attitude towards inmates.[i] Lynds forced a party of over one hundred convicts to build their own prison, flogging anyone who displayed so much as a twitch or whisper. By May of 1828, Sing Sing had four hundred cells, enough to house all of Newgate’s male prisoners, and prisoners began pouring in to Lynds’s domain of terror.[ii]

Elam (male spelled backwards) Lynds was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1784. He was once a Hatter, but found himself drawn to military service, and joined the federal service in 1812 to become an infantry captain. Lynds’s military background is thought to be one of the chief influences in the harsh disciplinary systems he set in place first in Auburn and later in Sing Sing. For instance, the practice of marching in lockstep is thought to be derived from Lynds’s military experience. After the end of his military service Lynds had no desire to return to the hat business, and instead joined the Auburn staff in 1817.

He quickly established himself as a harsh disciplinarian, believing that prisons should be a place of punishment, designed to break a prisoner’s spirit. He believed that reformatory practices such as education were a waste of time.[iii] His ultimate goal was to reduce the prisoner to “a silent and insulated working machine.”[iv] Lynds became a legendary figure of terror for prisoners, ruling with an iron fist and the lash of the cat-o-nine tales.

Lynds believed flogging to be a humane form of punishment, and encouraged his subordinates to treat the inmates with contempt; however, this attitude was far from unusual in his time.[v] In fact, in the beginning of his prison career, Lynds was widely admired; New York was suffering from economic downturn, corruption, and rampant gang violence. Newgate prison was seen as a criminal hotbed, perpetuating criminal gangs rather than serving as a punishment. In this atmosphere, Elam Lynds was seen as a hero of the people, a strong man who could keep violent prisoners under control.[vi] One of the most important first hand accounts of Lynds’s wardenship comes from French magistrates and writers Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, who inverviewed Lynds as part of their analysis of American prison systems and were most favorably impressed with him.[vii]

The account of Beaumont and Tocqueville is extremely illuminating as to the nature of Elam Lynds. They conduct a face to face interview with him, in which he tells of his disbelief in the ability to reform prisoners, stating: “Nothing, in my opinion, is rarer than to see a convict of mature age become a religious and virtuous man…I do not put great faith in the sanctity of those who leave the prison.” When asked his opinion on bodily chastisement, Lynds responded that: “I consider chastisement by the whip, the most efficient, and, at the same time, the most humane which exists; it never injures health, and obliges the prisoners to lead a life essentially healthy…I consider it impossible to govern a large prison without a whip.” Lynds also addressed the systems of forced labor and the logistics of prison reform, and Beaumont and Tocqueville conclude by stating that: “Mr. Elam Lynds constantly returned to this point – that it was necessary to begin curbing the spirit of the prisoner, and convincing him of his weakness.”[viii]

Beaumont and Tocqueville also document a story that illustrates well the infamous nature of Lynds’s authoritative power. An inmate had threatened to kill Lynds at his first opportunity. Upon hearing this, Lynds called for the inmate to be sent to his chambers, and handing him a flat-edged razor, ordered the inmate to shave him. The inmate did so, and Lynds dismissed him with the following statement: “I knew you intended to kill me; but I despise you too much to believe that you would ever be bold enough to execute your design. Single and unarmed, I am always stronger than you are.”[ix]

Despite this aura of power, Lynds always had critics. Thomas Eddy disapproved of his predilection for whipping and harsh treatment of the prisoners, and many of his chaplains protested his cruel practices.[x] Lynds’s violent nature earned him more than just disapproval; the condemnation he received for his overly violent punishments lead him to resign from his position as Agent of Sing Sing in 1830. He returned to Auburn as warden in 1838, but was fired after a year due to the death of an inmate, found by the local coroner to have died, “from disease, the fatal termination of which was hastened by flogging, labor, and general harsh treatment, imposed by…Elam Lynds.”[xi] Despite this, Lynds was rehired at Sing Sing in 1843. His decline only continued, however: he only lasted a few months. During this time he failed to prevent several obvious escapes, and his continued brutality drew skepticism from not only the general public, but also those who served with him inside the prison. One of his assistants provided the following testimony to state legislature: “there is evidence so abundant to establish the fact of the Captain being an inebriate, a tyrant, abusive to the Assistant Keepers, oppressive and contradictory in his order, of his having cursed both the Board of Inspectors and his Excellency the Governor; and also od his having appropriated the property of the state for his own use…”[xii]

Elam Lynds did more than just oversee the physical building of Sing Sing: he was pivotal in the development of the internal law and order of the prison, as well as establishing its fierce reputation. He was so intertwined in the creation of the prison that it would be impossible to understand it without examining his influence. This can be seen in direct ways; for example, Lynds’s successor, Robert Wiltse was also Lynds’s deputy.[xiii] However, Lynds did more than just dominate the design of Sing Sing; he dictated its purpose, turning it into a place of horror from its birth.

– Briana Boland

[i] Fiddler, Michael “Modernity, The New Republic and Sing Sing: The Creation of a Disciplined Workforce and Citizenry” in Punishment and Control in Historical Perspective (Palgrave Macmillian, 2008), 15-20

[ii] Brian, Denis The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison, Sing Sing (New York: Prometheus, 2005), 15-19

[iii] Lewis, David W. From Newgate to Dannemora, The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848, (New York: Cornell, 1965)


[iv] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 88, quoting DS, 69th Session (1846), Vol. IV, No. 20, p 6

[v] Department of Correction, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, NY: Its History, Purpose, Makeup and Program, pg 2-3

[vi] Brian, Sing Sing, 16-18

[vii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 87-91

[viii] Beaumont de la Bonnière, Gustave Auguste de, and Alexis de Tocqueville On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and Its Application in France (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833), 199-203

[ix] ibid, 203

[x] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 89-90

[xi] Conover, Ted, Newjack, Guarding Sing Sing (Toronto: Random House, 2000), 180

[xii] Conover, Newjack180-181

[xiii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 84


Figure 1: Brian, Denis The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison, Sing Sing (New York: Prometheus, 2005)