Newgate: The Nursery of Vice

Modern-day penitentiaries draw their origins from Newgate, one the first American penitentiaries, that operated from 1796 to 1828 and was situated in West Village overlooking the Hudson River.[i] The designer and main advocate for the construction of Newgate was Thomas Eddy, a Quaker philanthropist who devoted himself to reform movements all across the city. Eddy’s initial certainty of the success of the institution is evident from the 1801 excerpt of his own account of Newgate (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Thomas Eddy, founder at first agent of Newgate Penitentiary. Prominent Quaker reformer.

He stipulated it would “become a durable monument of the wisdom, justice, and humanity of its legislators, more glorious than the most splendid achievements of conquerors or kings; and be remembered when the magnificent structures of folly and pride, with their founders, are alike exterminated and forgotten.”[ii]

But by 1825, Eddy was entirely disillusioned with the institution he had created and directed for eight years. His initial vision of a reform-oriented institution mediated by solace and silence became in practice a corrupt, fragmented bureaucracy which, in Eddy’s eyes, brought Newgate to its knees. In a letter to the New York legislature who had been commissioned to review the state of Newgate, Eddy wrote “[t]he state prison in this city is so badly contrived, that it never can be successfully used as a Penitentiary.”[iii] With the passage of 29 years, Eddy deemed the prison a failure. After his time as agent, now the position of warden, the way the prison was operated changed and initial design flaws became evident over time.

The first snag in Eddy’s vision occurred in 1803 with the appointment of new inspectors in 1803 who were of a different political persuasion than himself. Whereas the previous inspectors had been Federalists like Eddy, the new group was composed of Jeffersonians. The inspectors were physically brutal to the inmates which contrasted sharply with Eddy’s idea of spiritual and moral discipline through silence and a simple diet. Moreover, the inspectors contracted the prisoners’ labor out to private enterprises which decreased the amount of revenue that went to the upkeep of Newgate and her prisoners. Since Eddy had designed the system to be fiscally solvent, the introduction of private labor greatly displeased him.[iv] However, violence was rampant in Newgate before the administrative change. From the beginning, the discrepancy between the number of keepers and the number of inmates made pacifism almost impossible. The prisoners were not passive objects: they were caged humans in a severe environment. In 1799, fifty or sixty men revolted against the keepers who in response opened fire on the inmates. Another bloody riot occurred just a year later which needed to be put down with assistance from the military. Throughout the turbulence, Eddy continued to pronounce the efficacy of the institution and failed to mention the uprisings and escape attempts to his friends and benefactors (Figure 2).[v]

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Figure 2: Location of Newgate on a map of New York issued in 1828.

Friction with the new administration eventually lead Eddy to retire as agent in 1804.[vi] The same restructuring of the prison staff would occur with each election cycle. The result was regular periods of instability in the administrative rank that sapped funds, made general maintenance of the facility difficult, and rendered improvements to the system almost impossible.[vii] Moreover, keepers were not hired based on their skill but rather on their political obedience which put men “unsuitable to the task” in positions of power.[viii] The position of prison keeper was polarized, dependent upon the system of patronage fueled by the Newgate administration.

In addition to the creation of political posts out of the prison offices, the administrative structure was plagued by the Montesquieu’s theory of checks and balances that was particularly popular in the founding of the United States. Seven inspectors and the state supreme court were the main controllers of the prisons. The management of the prison fell into the hands of these men in addition to the mayor and recorder of New York City. The bureaucracy of Newgate was further complicated by the positions of agent, principal keeper (the chief disciplinary officer), and the military prison guard. The three bodies coordinate with one another and could easily be at odds concerning the goals and operation of the prison. The intention of this wide distribution of power was to prevent corruption and have more voices involved in the reform process.[iv] In reality, the administration was cumbersome and fragmented which harmed the reformation process intended by Eddy.

The lack of adequate financial support from the legislature exacerbated several problems already in the works. The upkeep of the prison grounds, the salaries of the keepers, and the maintenance of the prisoners – who required food, clothing, and sanitation – relied predominantly on the taxpayer. Therefore, the government could rarely convince law-abiding citizens to doll out more of their hard-earned savings to support the debauched members of society. The quality of the keepers was poor as the salaries afforded to them were menial and the job required the men to stay away from their families for thirteen out of fourteen days. Moreover the reformatory program never got off the ground at Newgate as there was no paid position available for a prison chaplain until 1812, and even then the work was supposed to be part-time. Thus one chaplain was to be in-charge of leading prayer services, visiting the sick and dying, establishing the penitentiary library, and running night classes for hundreds of people.[x] In the end, these flaws attributed to lack of funds made Eddy’s model of Quaker reform at Newgate impossible in practice.

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Figure 3: Accounts of prisoners at Newgate.

Eddy notes several other failings of Newgate to the New York legislature. He believed that the practice of pardoning was far too rampant. For Eddy, true reform took four to five years to accomplish. Pardoning disrupted this process of reformation and “prevented the good effects that the system might otherwise have produced…[i]n fact, it may be truly said, that under a mild system, pardons materially contribute to the increase of crimes.”[xi] On the other hand, overcrowding rendered the fulfillment of five year sentences practically impossible. Operating under the truism “build it and they will come,” Newgate harbored more prisoners than it was designed for from the very beginning (Figure 3). The 1796 bill had originally allowed for the construction of two penitentiaries, one in Greenwich Village and one in Albany. A year later, the commissioners of the bill – including Eddy – deemed the prison in upstate New York unnecessary as Newgate was expected to provide ample space for the prisoners. Clearly, Eddy did not predict that the Greenwich facility would exceed its carrying capacity so quickly.[xii]

The overcrowded conditions at Newgate also prevented reformation through solace. Eddy recognized that the ideal configuration for moral conversion was solitary confinement. “[L]eft in solitude to ruminate at leisure…with his thoughts continually directed to his present condition and past conduct, he may sooner or later perceive the wickedness and folly of his former course of life, feel the bitter pangs of remorse, and be disposed to future amendment.”[xiii] From the outset, Eddy knew that Newgate could not spatially accommodate solitary confinement for each prisoner.[xiv] However, he could never have predicted the swarms of people flooding into the penitentiary. Twenty people or more slept in one room which did not permit the silence needed for convicement to occur and instead created a “nursery and seminary of vice” whereby criminals corrupted one another. Thus even as Newgate was near closure, Eddy lobbied for the primacy of solitary confinement in the penitentiary system despite its cost to the taxpayer (Figure 4).[xv]

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Figure 4: View of New York from rural Veahawk, the site where Newgate would be constructed.

All the factors mentioned above – political maneuvering, disjointed administration, lack of funding, abuse of pardoning power, overcrowding – drove Thomas Eddy’s glistening vision of the salvation of the society’s scofflaws to falter and sputter out after only 32 years in operation. After the War of 1812, a new wave of reformers took a harsher stance towards crime and called for a penal system with stricter punishment to deter people from committing offenses in the first place. This new generation blamed the broken justice system on the superfluous compassion of the post-war reform movements to which Eddy belonged.[xvi] Yet, even after the philanthropist admitted to the failure of Newgate, he maintained that the obligation to improve society rested upon the shoulders of all members of society:“[W]e are bound by every feeling of humanity, and by all the precepts of the christian religion, to adopt that course which may raise a fellow-creature from degradation, fit him for usefulness in this life, and prepare him for that which is to come.”[xvii]

-Fiona V. Whalen

 

[i] W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965), 29.

[ii] Thomas Eddy, An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House, in the City of New-York (New York: Isaac Collins and Sons, 1801), 70.

[iii] Thomas Eddy, Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries (New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834), 88.

[vi] Ibid., 34.

[v] W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 33.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thomas Eddy, Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy, 81-82.

[viii] Ibid., 81.

[ix] W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 35-36.

[x] Ibid., 39.

[xi] Thomas Eddy, Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy, 81-82.

[xii] W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora, 29.

[xiii] Thomas Eddy, An Account of the State Prison, 32.

[xiv] M. J. Heale, “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic: The Moral Reformers of New York, 1776-1825,” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 2, (1968): 170, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552838.

[xv] Thomas Eddy, Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy, 81-87.

[xvi] M. J. Heale, “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic,” 172.

[xvii] Thomas Eddy, Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy, 87.

Works Cited

Eddy, Thomas. An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House, in the City of New-York. New York: Isaac Collins and Sons, 1801.

Eddy, Thomas. Eddy to George Tibbits, Stephen Allen, and Samuel M. Hopkins, Jan. 7 1825. Letter. From Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries. New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834.

Heale, M. J. “Humanitarianism in the Early Republic: The Moral Reformers of New York, 1776-1825.” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 2 (1968): 161-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27552838.

Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965.

Images

Fig. 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 18, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-23df-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Fig. 2. Smith, E. “Map of Mr. Richard Amos’ Lands, Lying on the East Side of the State Prison in the […]th Ward of New York.” Digital image. Museum of the City of New York. August 12, 2015. http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWEFSAXKC&SMLS=1&RW=1381&RH=664.

Fig. 3. New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810. Digital image. A3Genealogy. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-hx6yOjQn84Y/U9KpuJzHMUI/AAAAAAAAL2o/txaPekciBTo/s1600/Blackwomen1.jpg

Fig. 4. Garneray, Ambroise-Louis. A View of New-York, taken from Veahawk. Digital image. Barry Lawrence Rudeman Antique Maps Inc. https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/enlarge/38993.