In the early years of Newgate, the prison registers were very detailed. The records listed race, gender, name, place of nativity, age, occupation, usual residence, crime, skin color, hair color, stature, marks, county convicted in, length of sentence, and date convicted.
Using these records, specifically race, gender, skin color, hair color, and marks, I created portraits of 35 prisoners at Newgate from the years 1798 – 1804. I created generic male and female faces and adjusted them based on the information provided.
This allows us not only to get a glimpse of the prisoners, but also to begin to understand a complicated issue the reformers faced–balancing the treatment of prisoners both as individuals and as a criminal class. Though their faces are all fundamentally the same, the prisoners are each unique, differentiated by their markings.
This begs the question of why the record-keepers chose to write down these particular bits of information. One answer might be phrenology, the idea that a person’s features directly influence their temperament. Alternatively, this cataloguing might have been an attempt to recognize prisoners in the event of an escape.
Whatever the reason, upon Eddy’s retirement in 1804 the records dropped off suddenly. The few clues we have to the prisoner’s identities disappear completely, and only race, gender, name, place of nativity, and information pertinent to the crime (sentence length, etc) were catalogued. If depictions such as the ones below were made of the prisoners after 1804, there would only be four distinct portraits: a white man, a black man, a white woman, and a black woman.
Faces of the Convicted: 1798 – 1804
Click on each face for more information.
For statistical analysis of the prisoners at Newgate, see https://nyprisonorigins.com/newgate-statistics/