The connection between the creation of the penitentiary system in New York and Thomas Eddy is intimate. In addition to his desire to reform the Six Nations people, Eddy worked adamantly for prison reform. His vision for the penitentiary was — like his plans to raise Native Americans from poverty — simultaneously sweeping and meticulous. Moreover, his reforms were informed by a background in business and particularly by his faith. Eddy’s fiscal acumen and Quaker values allowed him to craft a plan for a prison system that was solvent and geared toward moral conversion (Figure 1).
In letter sent to Eddy’s biographer, Samuel L. Knapp, on May 11th 1833, James Kent describes the impressionable young Quaker who he met in 1795. “I was struck with the simplicity of his manners, and the reasonableness and benevolence of his views…he possessed sound judgement, purity of principle, and an uncommon zeal for the promotion of all kinds of public improvement.”[i] Kent recounts that from early on, Eddy was determined to rid the penal system of its “enormous abuses and uncompromising severity.” Beginning in 1794, Eddy campaigned in Congress and in the public domain for the establishment of penitentiaries to replace the cruel system. His tenacity paid off. In 1796, Newgate Prison – the first New York penitentiary – was erected in Far West Village on the eastern shores of the Hudson River. Eddy remained the prison’s Inspector and Agent from its opening up until 1803. Even after leaving his position at Newgate, Eddy continued to show dedication to a vision of a penal system concerned with reformation rather than fear-mongering and brutality. This is evident in a letter he wrote to the mayor of New York in 1823, advising him to de-emphasize corporeal discipline (Figure 2).[ii]
Through prolific grant-writing to donors and Congressmen for the reformation of both Native American communities and the prison system , Eddy demonstrates an understanding of money. He knew full well that in order for his programs to be successful and long-lived, they needed to be fiscally self-sustainable. For the Six Nation communities, the establishment of working farms and Western school systems were supposed to reinvigorate the economies of the tribes. As noted in Cost of Civilization, Eddy was adamant that the tribes pay back the Friends for any resources provided. In the same way, the expenses associated with operating the prison was, in Eddy’s plan, to be offset by money-making, internal labor systems.
Business ran in the blood of the Eddy family. James Eddy, Thomas Eddy’s father, served as an apprentice to a successful merchant and eventually established his own business in Belfast in the 1740s. The Presbyterian family converted to Quakerism in this Northern Irish town after a family friend, Robert Bradshaw, loaned them books and invited them to meetings. In 1753, the Eddy family immigrated to Philadelphia where James set up a shipping company and later broke into the field of ironmongery. Five years after moving to the New World, James Eddy passed away when young Thomas had not yet reached the age of one. The family business fell into the capable hands of Mary Eddy née Darragh, Eddy’s mother, who kept herself and her two children afloat with her acumen. From age 13 to 15, Thomas was apprenticed to a tannery in Burlington by his mother’s will. However, the teenage years of Eddy were consumed by the tumult of the Revolution. Communities were fragmented along several lines: people who wanted independence, people who desired to remain loyal to the crown. Further fracturing occurred these groups had divergent visions on the way to fulfill their goals. Eddy’s position in the war, like everything else in his life, hinged upon faith:
[I]t would have been more wise and consistent with the principles of Friends, if they had more carefully avoided the intemperate political zeal, then manifested by all parties. The advice of George Fox, was for the Friends to keep out of all civil commotions, &c., as they are mostly carried on in a temper very opposite to the meek and quiet spirit of the Gospel.[iii]
In the new, anxious atmosphere of post-independence United States, Eddy survived based on his knack for commerce, eventually starting the Virginia based shipping company Eddy, Sykes & Co. with his brother and partner Benjamin Sykes in 1780. Sykes turned out to be a poor businessman, leaving Eddy to handle all the paperwork and communications required to ship products from Ireland and England; with “every packet we had to write twenty or thirty letters to” Europe. The venture was successful up until 1786, when cheap tobacco flooded the market caused shipping companies such as Eddy, Sykes & Co. to lose large sums of revenue, culminating in bankruptcy in 1788. Two years later, Eddy moved back to New York with only fifty pounds in his pocket, loaned to him by his father-in-law. With his meager fortune, he opened up an insurance office, the only one in the city, and his business was enormously successful. Eddy was a man of his times in the sense that he was apart of the wave of middle-class lead charity groups that formed in early 1800s New York due to mass urbanization that created enormous economic prosperity as well as social malaise. Affluence permitted Eddy to devote himself to his philanthropic pursuits, particularly the penal system.[iv] [v]
With a good head for business and charitable intentions, Eddy and General Philip Schuyler, senator of New York, traveled to Philadelphia in 1796 to examine Walnut Street Jail (1773-1838) (Figure 3).
The two men took notes on the architecture, the management style, and the inmates at Walnut Street.[vi] Based on this information, Schuyler and Eddy drew up a bill for the establishment of a penitentiary system in New York. Both statesmen, Schuyler and Ambrose Spencer were key allies of Eddy’s in the state legislature who lobbied successfully for the bill’s passage. Eddy and other trusted Society of Friends members were then commissioned to carry out the building plans, minimizing the possibility of disputes over the vision of the prison as they were all Quakers.[vii]
Newgate was thus erected in 1796 in Far West Village, modern-day Greenwich Village. The land, called Sapokanican by the Lenape peoples, had been snatched up by the New Amsterdam government in 1630s and transformed into the private tobacco plantation of the then director general of the colony, Wouter van Twiller. When the colony fell under British rule, Sapokanican and other large tracts of land were purchased by the British naval officer Sir Peter Warren who ran a profitable business based on slave labor. After Warren’s death, the land was divvied up and sold to form the small, rural town of Greenwich on the outskirts of New York which Thomas Eddy saw as the perfect location for Newgate (Figure 4).[viii]
Thomas Eddy and his fellow commissioners had to envision the transformation of this plot of land into a facility of moral conversion and enlightenment. Eddy believed that“[a]ll were once innocent; but, blinded by passion, allured by present temptation, they have mistaken their true interest, and been gradually led into the depths of vice and criminality.”[ix] The penitentiary’s structure had to align with its function, reformation. Therefore, Christian precepts were cemented into the very bones of Newgate. Christian religious doctrine views the body as a mere vessel for the soul; to be connected with God and experience true conversion meant a transformation of the soul.
Eddy applied this same principle to the penal system. Capital punishment and intolerable physical torture did nothing to reforge the convict into a citizen because they only attacked the body. On the other hand, labor, solitude, and discipline could induce a moral conversion among the vast majority of prisoners. In an account of the New York State penitentiary system published in 1801, Eddy professed, “[t]he most efficacious means of reformation are to be found in that system of regular labour and exact temperance by which habits of industry and sobriety are formed.” A more overtly religious aspect of Eddy’s penal framework was mandatory prayer. To him, the prison was responsible for religious and moral instruction among the incarcerated in order to spur conversion. Thus, a large room for prayer was built to house 600 people where, every Monday, mandatory service took place, lead by a few of the prisoners. Visiting Christian preachers were also to come to give sermons and see the prisoners one-on-one.[x]
Thus, the faith and financial background of Thomas Eddy acted as the brick and mortar to build the New York penitentiary system.
-Fiona V. Whalen
[i] James Kent, James Kent to Samuel L. Knapp, May 11 1933. 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), 10.
[ii] Ibid., 10-11.
[iii] Thomas Eddy, Thomas Eddy to the Eddy Family, 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), 44.
[iv] Ibid. 42-55.
[vi] John H. Barnhill, “Eddy, Thomas,” in The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Wilbur R. Miller (Nw York: SAGE Publications, 2012).
[vii] 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), 57-58.
[viii] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, Weehawken Street Historic District Designation Report (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2006), 11.
[ix] Thomas Eddy, Thomas Eddy to the New York State Legislature, 1801. 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), 60.
[x] Ibid., 61-63.
Barnhill, John H.. “Eddy, Thomas.” In The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia, edited by Wilbur R. Miller. New York: SAGE Publications, 2012.
Eddy, Thomas. Thomas Eddy to the Eddy Family. Letter. From Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence withMany Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries. New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834.
Eddy, Thomas. Thomas Eddy to the New York State Legislature, 1801. Letter. From Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence withMany 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.
Kent, James. James Kent to Samuel L. Knapp, May 11 1933. Letter. From Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence withMany Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries. New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834.
Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo. The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence withMany Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists of This and Other Countries. New York: Conner and Cooke, 1834.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Weehawken Street Historic District Designation Report. New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2006.
Fig. 1. “State Prison on the Bank of the North River, New York.” Digital image. http://66.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m39jovcGNZ1r6q9d2o1_1280.jpg.
Fig. 2. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “A perspective view of the temporary gallows in the Old Bailey.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-1d72-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Fig. 3. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Major General Philip Schuyler” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/a90eb168-65f3-2d34-e040-e00a1806399f
Fig. 4. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “Plan von der Stadt New-York.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-efeb-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99