Horace Lane, a sailor who lived from 1789 to 1866, spent a significant portion of his life inside a prison cell. His varied insight into the workings of international jails and several prisons in the United States make his voice particularly unique. After spending two years in Sing Sing prison in the years 1830-1832, Lane wrote about his time in Sing Sing and compared it to his stay at Auburn prison from 1827-1830. This essay will detail Lane’s experience of imprisonment, in particular his observations with regard to the treatment of prisoners by the keepers, the labor tasks he was assigned, the way Sing Sing prison handled epidemics, and the aspects in which Auburn and Sing Sing prison differed.
For a different perspective on the Sing Sing prison experience, read about Levi S. Burr.
While still physically fit enough to travel the world as a deckhand in 1814, Lane was imprisoned in Holland for larceny. Soon after returning home to the United States, Lane was sentenced to fifteen months of hard labor in the Simsbury mines for robbing a house.
After this experience, Lane had every intention “to lead the life of a Christian” but unfortunately became involved with “lewd, intemperate company.” While under the influence of alcohol, Lane stole materials from a wool factory and was punished with three years in Auburn Prison. After being released from Auburn in 1830, Lane was hastily married only to discover that his new wife was an alcoholic. The tumultuous situation exacerbated Lane’s own alcoholism, and his predilection for thievery again overwhelmed his desire to make an honest living.[i]
Lane’s struggle with alcoholism was not uncommon for a man of his occupation—in the nineteenth century, the major punishable offense aboard ships was drunkenness.[ii] Sailors were infamous drunkards. In fact, alcoholics who lost their occupations on land as a result of their alcoholism often went to sea, where their vice would be accepted.[iii] Lane himself was no exception. During his first year as a ship’s boy at the age of ten, Lane became so drunk that he did not recall the next morning what had happened at the tavern the night previous.[iv]
One night after drinking heavily, Lane broke into a dye shop and stole some clothing. He then proceeded to steal a feather mattress from a private home and brought it to the house at which he was boarding. When the woman who owned the boarding house woke up, she discovered the mattress hanging on her fence and identified it as her neighbor’s. Lane was sent to prison “half drunk.” When he woke up in his cell, he “began [his] repentance” and was thankful that “the Lord granted [him] that repentance” so necessary for eternal life.[v] Though Lane had repented spiritually for his crimes, he still faced prosecution by the state.
Abuse from the Keepers
In 1830, Lane was initially sentenced to ninety days in the county jail; however, the sheriff recognized Lane as a repeat offender and found stolen leather contraband on his person. The justice amended Lane’s sentence to two years at Sing Sing prison. When Lane protested, the justice replied “Don’t you think you deserve it?”. Lane claimed he “never felt such horrors of a guilty conscience before.” Lane described his first night in prison:
They shoved me in a little hole with a bit of bran bread, and a small piece of shank beef, and a few cold potatoes, there was a board and a blanket to lie on, and a tub that answered for table, chair, and privy; all that I could see was stone and iron. What a horrid situation! the fruits of sin.[vi]
Lane was often so exhausted that he could not steady himself. Whenever he tripped, the keepers would beat him. Lane recalled that he “never suffered so much in my life as I did during that time; I had such pains in my bones that I could hardly stir, and if I stopped a moment, even to tie up my shoe…I was sure to get a flogging.” One day, as he sat crying of despair in his cell, a passing guard stopped to laugh jeeringly at him.
Lane claimed that the guards at Sing Sing would steal the barrels of provisions provided for the prisoners and sell them as swill, food for pigs. Out of desperation, Lane would wait “for every chance [he] could get, to pull up some grass, or weeds, to eat.” He observed that a significant number of his fellow prisoners would do the same. The prisoners would eat alone in their cells. Sometimes, the cooks would neglect to put meat or bread in certain tubs of food. If the prisoner took issue with his meal, the keeper would beat him.
At Auburn prison, the keepers carried thin switches. At Sing Sing, they carried thick and heavy cudgels, what Lane described as “quite large clubs.” Lane recalled one experience during which he was loading heavy stone onto a truck. A keeper named Mr. Haff observed Lane pause and cut Lane’s head open so badly that “blood ran to the ground.”[vii] To learn more about the origins of the disciplinary system at Sing Sing, click here.
On the day Lane was to begin his labor task at Sing Sing, he was very ill. The keepers gave him a cold bath and a meal of beans and sent him to work picking wool. Lane claimed that the abuse he suffered aboard man-of-wars was incomparable to the extraordinary degree of cruelty the keepers directed towards the prisoners at Sing Sing. Lane remarked that there were “so many heads cut open, and so many bloody faces, when spectators came along, that I suppose [the keepers] got ashamed of it.” Lane was assigned to work in the shoe factory, where the only tools available were in disrepair. Lane’s next task involved excavating and transporting stone to create a dock. The assistant keeper in charge of overseeing the operation, Mr. Knapp, was particularly cruel. Knapp would “give [Lane] five or six raps with his cudgel every half hour” to prevent Lane from pausing due to exhaustion. Lane proclaimed, “Oh! how I longed for the night; and in the morning my bones would ache so I could barely stir.” Lane’s despair was so profound that he almost “put an end to [his] mortal existence.”
The keepers would carry planks of wood that were two feet long. They appeared to be measuring sticks so they might “blind the eyes of the humane public,” but were actually punishing devices. If a keeper struck a prisoner with the corner of the plank, his head would be split open.[viii] Though Lane claimed that the guards often inflicted cruelty on the prisoners directly, he argued that their brutality was also felt in their neglect of the prisoners during times of epidemic.
An outbreak of cholera in 1832 led to the death of one hundred and fifty prisoners. Lane recalled waking several times a night to the sounds of nails being driven into coffins and dying men rapping on their prison bars with metal spoons. During the epidemic, guards refused to feed the healthy prisoners and kept the prisoners in from their daily work assignments.[ix] To learn more about epidemics of cholera and other diseases at Sing Sing prison, click here.
Auburn versus Sing Sing
Lane recounted his time at Sing Sing as significantly more miserable than his three years at Auburn prison. In his autobiography, Lane revealed that his “Auburn suffering was the voice of mercy, and the extremely rigid treatment at Sing Sing that of judgment.”[x] Lane claimed that in “Auburn the rules are strict, but they are so calculated for the comfort of the prisoners.” The prisoners were always fed and had at least the bare necessities. The beds were hammocks and they were given enough blankets to prevent hypothermia. Prisoners were given money and a few changes of clothes upon release. When Lane’s sentence expired at Sing Sing in 1832, but contrast, he departed with two dollars and “a suit of clothes that could scarcely hang together.” Lane argued that “it would be for the credit of the country to give poor fellows a chance after they served so long.” [xi] The lack of support in place for released convicts like Lane often prevented ex-convicts from rebuilding their lives. Though Lane avoided prison for the rest of his life, he would fail to provide for himself and died impoverished.
[i] Horace Lane, The Wandering Boy, Careless Sailor, and Result of Inconsideration: A True Narrative (Skaneatles: Printed for the Author by Luther A. Pratt, 1839), 119, 185, 190-197. For quote, see 190.
[ii] Myra C. Glenn, Campaigns against Corporal Punishment: Prisoners, Sailors, Women, and Children in Antebellum America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 89.
[iii] W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 144.
[iv] Horace Lane, The Wandering Boy, 27.
[v] Horace Lane, Five Years in State’s Prison (New York: Printed for the Author by Luther Pratt & Son, 1835), 8-9. For quote, see 9.
[vi] Ibid., 10.
[vii] Ibid., 9-13. See 12 and 13 for quotes.
[viii] Ibid., 11-13. See 13, 11, and 12 for quotes, respectively.
[ix] Ibid., 15-16.
[x] Lane, The Wandering Boy, 197.
[xi] Lane, Five Years, 17-19. For quotes, see 17 and 18.
Figure 1- “View of the guard-house and Simsbury-mines, now called Newgate – a prison for the confinement of loyalists in Connecticut.” November 1, 1781. In The Political Magazine. London.
Figure 2- “Sing Sing Prison, with Warden T. M. Osborne and Two Other Men.” ca. 1915. George Grantham Bain Collection.
Figure 3- “State Prison, at Sing Sing, New York.”1855. Digital image. Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion (Boston) via Wikipedia. Accessed October 3, 2016.
Figure 4- “Cell — Sing Sing.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, Washington, D.C. Bain News Service, ca. 1910-1915.