The Treatment of Prisoners at Newgate Before and After Thomas Eddy
Thomas Eddy (figure 1), the founder, designer, and first agent of Newgate, believed in the treatment of prisoners as individuals. This was not a matter of kindness or compassion—Eddy still believed that he had to be a stern agent (the 1800s equivalent of a warden) and treat every prisoner as “wicked and depraved” in order to foresee and prevent violent rebellions. Rather, the treatment of prisoners was a practical matter, one that Eddy saw as necessary for the prison to function properly. To assume that each convict fit into some broad category of “felon” would be a mistake; instead, Eddy believed that there were three kinds of prisoners, each of which must be handled differently.
“The character of men are endlessly diversified, and their motives and actions assume a thousand different hues. In considering convicts, we may, in general, distinguish them into three classes: Men grown old in habits of profligacy and violence, unfeeling and desperate offenders, who discover no signs of contrition, and yield little hope of amendment: those who, in early life, have received a moral and religious education, and, though afterwards led by passion and evil example into the commission of crimes, still retain some sense of virtue: those who, have sustained a fair reputation, are arrested for the first public offense, before they have become familiar with vice; who wished, perhaps, to return to the path of virtue, but had not energy enough to retrace their steps.”
-Thomas Eddy, 1801[i]
An Admirable Plan: Reforming the Individual
Eddy did his best to stop the more hardened criminals from corrupting the other two kinds. He separated the twenty-two most serious offenders from the rest, confining them and forcing them to work alone. These prisoners were assumed to be beyond reform.
Eddy also believed that for any reform to be possible, the convicts must have good living conditions (Figure 2). In his 1801 account of the prison, Eddy goes into great detail about the treatment of the prisoners, especially their cleanliness, diet, and general health.[ii] The same meticulous record keeping can be seen in the annual prison registers. The registers were very well organized during Eddy’s time, listing name, place of nativity, age, occupation, residence, crimes committed, skin color, hair color, marks, stature, place of sentencing, sentence date, and length of sentence. [iii]
In reforming the prisoners, Eddy made sure that several systems were put in place. The most important of these was labor. He believed that through rigorous and regular labor prisoners could learn “habits of industry” and again become moral members of society.[iv] Education, while a privilege, was also seen as important for reform. In winter, several convicts were allowed to learn “reading, writing and arithmetic.” The most educated convicts were selected to teach, and the twenty prisoners who were the most hard working and willing to be reformed were selected to meet for two hours each day.[v]
Religion, too, was important, as it was seen as a powerful form of moral instruction. Eddy describes this in detail as well:
A large room in the prison, very neatly finished, is set apart for the purpose of divine worship. This room, and the gallery round it, will accommodate around six hundred persons. In this place the prisoners are assembled on the first day of each week, when one of their number reads a sermon and prayers, and the rest join in singing psalms. It is expected that the public preachers of the gospel in the city will cheerily devote a small portion of their time to the service of these unhappy beings, who have so much need of their instruction, and of the counsel of the truly good and benevolent.”
-Thomas Eddy, 1801[vi]
Newgate’s Downfall: The Treatment of Prisoners en Masse
Eddy’s ideas and plans for the institution were certainly admirable. He truly believed that he could reform and rehabilitate the prisoners as individuals by instilling in them religious and moral values and habits of industry. However, by the time Eddy retired in 1804, much had changed. There had been several riots over the years; in 1799, over fifty men revolted and guards were forced to open fire, wounding several convicts.[vii] In 1803, four inmates were shot and killed in an unsuccessful attempt to climb the walls and escape.[viii] Despite this, Eddy remained optimistic until the conditions and the corrupt politics of the prison became unbearable and he had to resign.[ix]
After his resignation, the conditions grew even worse. Inmates were no longer treated on the individual level. Different kinds of prisoners became increasingly integrated; adult male and female felons were mixed in with juvenile delinquents and the criminally insane.[x] The wide variety in criminal offenders, all being treated broadly as felons, made rehabilitation virtually impossible and individual reform nonexistent. Instead, prisoners that fell into the latter two of Eddy’s categories (prisoners with the potential to be reformed and first time offenders) were corrupted by the hardened criminals before being pardoned.
Pardoning, in fact, became a standard method of controlling the population.[xi] Most prisoners were pardoned after completing only half of their sentence. From 1812-1816, of the 817 prisoners who were released, only 77 were released because their sentence had actually expired. The other 740 were pardoned.[xii] Even with the frequent pardoning, though, overcrowding was the biggest issue for Newgate. The prison had been built to house 450 inmates, but by the time it was closed in 1821, there were 817 prisoners. [xiii] This led to worse living conditions, more internal corruption, and severe punishments.
In 1817, the death penalty was legalized for arsonists and attempted murderers of officers.[xiv] In 1819, flogging, as well as the use of stocks and irons was permitted. [xv] Individual reform was no longer a goal of the penitentiary-turned-prison—the purpose of Newgate had become quickly punishing prisoners and sending them on their way.
This change is perhaps most evident in the prison registers. The aforementioned meticulously kept prison records changed drastically in the years following Eddy’s retirement. After the 1803, the record-keepers began to list only name, place of nativity, crime, county convicted in, sentence, and date of sentence (Figure 6). There were no longer any personal details about the prisoners—even age was not listed. Newgate had transformed from a place of individual reform to a warehouse for the criminal masses.
[i] Eddy, Thomas. An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House in the City of New York (New York: Isaac Collins and Son, 1801), 51, Archive.org
[ii] Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many of the Most Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries (New York: Conner & Cooke, 1834), 59, Archive.org
[iii] New York State Archives. New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810 (Provo, UT: ANcestry.com Operations, 2014). Ancestry.com.
[iv] Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy, 61
[v] ibid., 62
[vi] Eddy, An Account of the State Prison, 54-55
[vii] Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965), 33
[viii] ibid., 34
[x] ibid., 37
[xi] ibid., 41
[xii] New York (State), Legislature, Senate, Journal of the Senate of the State of New-York, at their Fortieth Session, Begun and held at the Capitol, in the City of Albany, the Fifth Day of November, 1816, 40th sess., 1816, S. Doc., 167, HathiTrust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.74684649;view=1up;seq=10
[xiii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 41, 43
[xiv] ibid., 45
[xv] ibid., 47
Figure 1: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Thomas Eddy.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-938d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 2: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “State Prison Greenwich Village” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2355-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 3: “New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810.” Digital image. Ancestry.com. 2014. http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=8937.
Figure 4: ibid.
Figure 5: Davancens, Emily. “Fifty Portraits: Identifying the Prisoners of Newgate.” Digital image. Paved with Good Intentions: Origins of the New York Penitentiary. Nyprisonorigins.com.
Figure 6: “New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810.” Digital image. Ancestry.com. 2014. http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=8937.