The town of Ossining and the institution of Sing Sing Prison are inexorably linked by geography and economy, but, from the construction of the prison in the late 1820s until the 1970s, the most controversial connection was in their names. During the noted time span, the impact of being associated with a prison changed drastically and cyclically based on societal conceptions of how prisons operate. Attempts by elites in both the town and the prison to regulate the impact each had on one another resulted in a game of tag where each led and followed each other in name changes over time.
Both “Ossining” and “Sing Sing” are derived from “Sint Sinck”, a name for the Wappinger Indians that lived in the area.[i] Sint Sinck roughly translates to “stone upon stone,” a reference to the striations of limestone in the region. This limestone is a major economic driver in the region, with many nearby quarries driving the industry of the town. The quarried limestone is what brought the state prison to Sing Sing, in fact.[ii]
The village that became Ossining had the name Sing Sing first, when it incorporated in 1813. The prison began construction in 1825, planned in the town of Mount Pleasant, in Westchester County by the Hudson. While at first the prison planned to take the name of that town, as construction completed it became clear that the prison was more accurately located by the village of Sing Sing. It was, of course, built to be in the middle of the marble quarry, the stone upon stone. The construction process was a boon for local business, with the marble of the quarry being purchased by the state for the construction. [iii] The use of locally sourced stone was the beginning of an economic relationship between the village and the prison, one that was successful at stimulating the local business of the quarry.
The arrival of the prison, however, also brough the arrival of prison labor. The first use of
prison labor in the village was to construct the prison itself. Prisoners from Auburn State Prison in New York were made to construct Sing Sing, a move that was said to save tax payer money. It was Elam Lynds, who was warden of Auburn in the 1820s, who came up with the idea to use his prisoners to construct the new prison. Lynds used convict labor to a degree that bordered on exploitation, cutting food rations to inflate the prison’s bottom line.[iv] This precedent would be followed throughout the prison at Sing Sing’s history, with harsh inmate labor used consistently and efficiently to take burden off the taxpayer and stimulate industry.
The tide in the relationship between the village and the prison began to turn in the beginning of the 20th century. Sing Sing State Prison’s reputation as one of the only prisons that practiced capital punishment in the state gave the village an undesirable reputation. [v] As a result, the village changed its name to Ossining in 1901. This provided a social distinction between the two institutions, as popular culture had taken up a love of the prison at Sing Sing through its appearances in media that idealized the harshness and brutality of the place.[vi] Letters to the editors of the New York Times were written by villagers, decrying that the journalists would write daily of prisoners sent to “Sing Sing” rather than “Sing Sing Prison,” pleading to preserve the valuable culture of the village. These Sing Sing traditionalists wanted to preserve the names of local heroes and the stories of the founding of churches in the village, rather than hear only of the prison.[vii] Ossining renamed themselves to create a pronounceable difference between the village and the prison, and to find an escape from the stigma of sharing a name with the state prison.
The village also was motivated to change its name in order to avoid the economic pressure caused by confusion of local goods with those from Sing Sing Prison. Manufacturers that did not use convict labor in the village still found a stigma attached to their goods based on labels that said “Made in Sing Sing.” The name failed to differentiate between the free citizens who produced goods for paid labor and the convicts who worked for nothing. The name Sing Sing was tainted, and the economy of the town struggled as trade slowed.[viii] The local economic stagnation at the hands of this confusion accelerated the decision to find a unique name for the town. Based on a desire to hold onto the Algonquin influence in the name, the village actually first changed its name to Ossinsing,[ix] retaining the same linguistic roots as the name Sing Sing. This name ended up being simplified for the ease of pronunciation.
The name-changing took an interesting turn in the 1970s, when the prison was renamed after the village to become Ossining Correctional Facility. By this point, there was a clear change in how prisons were seen in America. The growth of the middle class over the 20th century had created a not-insignificant economic interest in tourism, some of which lead to search out the icons of their popular culture, including Sing Sing, which was the subject of popular films 20,000 Years in Sing Sing and Castle on the Hudson.[x] People from all over the United States could come to Ossining at the time to see the walls of the prison, and spend money at local businesses. With the prison renamed to Ossining Correctional Facility, some said the institution was squandering the notoriety it had accrued over the years, slowing tourism to the village.
Ossining’s ultimate acceptance of the prison which was shown in 1983, when the village asked for the prison’s name to become Sing Sing Correctional Facility. This time, the reasons for the name change came not from a desire to evade stigma, but to bring back the tourism boon that was the name “Sing Sing”.[xi] The village returned full circle, coming to rest as the benefactor of its relationship with the prison.
The intertwining histories of Ossining and Sing Sing go beyond economic or political, and extend into the culture of each place. The cyclic stages of the relationship between the two entities were typical of reactions to the suburbanization of the prison as it occurred throughout America. The people who lived in Ossining were first aided by its economic activity, but as American culture began to shift its ideas on how correctional facilities should be thought of, became embarrassed by the connection and sought to evade it. Eventually, the village embraced the perceived darkness for tourism and economic gain.
[ii] Reynolds, William J. “Ossining, a Brief History.” Village History. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://www.villageofossining.org/Cit-e-Access/webpage.cfm?TID=24.
[iii] “Marble Quarries of Westchester and the Hudson Valley.” Quarry History of NY. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://yonkersgranite.com/quarry-history-of-ny.html.
[iv] Brian, Denis. Sing Sing: The inside Story of a Notorious Prison. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005. 18-19
[v] Williams, Lena. “FOR OSSINING, A SING SING PRISON BY ANY OTHER NAME DIDN’T SMELL AS SWEET.” New York Times. November 19, 1983. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/11/19/nyregion/for-ossining-a-sing-sing-prison-by-any-other-name-didn-t-smell-as-sweet.html.
[vi] Whitehouse, Franklin. “OSSINING PRISON LINGERING SOURCE OF DISCONTENT.” New York Times. June 7, 1981. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/07/nyregion/ossining-prison-lingering-source-of-discontent.html.
[vii] “SING SING NOT ALL PRISON.” 1893.New York Times (1857-1922), Oct 15, 12. http://search.proquest.com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/docview/95128313?accountid=10932.
[viii] Williams, Lena. “FOR OSSINING, A SING SING PRISON BY ANY OTHER NAME DIDN’T SMELL AS SWEET.” The New York Times. 1983. Accessed October 04, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/11/19/nyregion/for-ossining-a-sing-sing-prison-by-any-other-name-didn-t-smell-as-sweet.html.
[ix] Nestor, Sandy. Indian Placenames in America. Jefferson, (NC: McFarland, 2003), 123.
[x] “20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932) – Overview – TCM.com.” Turner Classic Movies. Accessed October 31, 2016. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/2742/20-000-Years-in-Sing-Sing/.
[xi] Williams, Lena. “FOR OSSINING, A SING SING PRISON BY ANY OTHER NAME DIDN’T SMELL AS SWEET.” The New York Times. 1983. Accessed October 04, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/1983/11/19/nyregion/for-ossining-a-sing-sing-prison-by-any-other-name-didn-t-smell-as-sweet.html.
Figure 1- The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing Prison and Tappan Sea” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2359-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 2- The New York Public Library. “Plate 52: Sing Sing, Town of Ossining, Westchester Co.N.Y.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-13d7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 3- The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing Prison. (Prisoners at work at the quarries.)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5ea2-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99