Quakers, Prisons, and Thomas Eddy’s Newgate Policy


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

Newgate Prison was founded by Quaker philanthropists in 1796, run by these reformers until 1804, and built on the premise that good habits, labor, and time to reflect could cause criminals to see the error of their ways and find Christianity. While the Quakers lost control of the prison in 1804, due to Jeffersonians taking control of the New York City Council, a program of irregular volunteer chaplains in prisons continued until 1813, when the Particular Baptist minister John Stanford was established as the first and only Chaplain of Newgate.[i]

Quakers, the Great Law, and Penal Reform


Figure 2: Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia, built 1713

Newgate State Penitentiary was not the Society of Friends’ first involvement with penal reform. In the 17th century Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, as founded by William Penn, the penal code differed from that of the English in several significant ways. Under this highly Quaker-influenced “Great Law”, there was only one crime punishable by death –intentional murder–while under the English criminal code there were two.[ii] The Great Law replaced traditional physical punishments with fines and imprisonment.[iii] Additionally, the Great Law strove to regulate many moral aspects of Pennsylvanians’ lives by such manner as outlawing both profanity and bestiality.[iv] An important aspect of the Quaker faith is the belief that all humans are capable of receiving Inner Light, and must therefore be treated with respect, a belief that also drives Quaker pacifism. The Great Law reflected this ideal by treating criminals as individuals to be saved, rather than an irredeemable class.[v]


Figure 3: Dr. Benjamin Rush, founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.

After the American Revolution, in 1787, a group of prominent Quakers in Philadelphia were founding members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Prisons.[vi] Dr. Benjamin Rush, an important reformer and member of the society, kept in close contact with John Howard, and English Calvinist reformer.[vii] Howard was Sherriff of Bedfordshire, and the author of the scathing 1777 work The State of the Prisons in England and Wales. Howard believed physical punishments to be unnecessary, and advocated for a British penitentiary system modeled on Dutch workhouses.[viii] In 1784, a model prison was erected in Norfolk based on Howard’s ideas.[ix] PSAMPP advocated for a prison in Philadelphia in the manner of the Norfolk prison.[x]

In 1788, the society told the Pennsylvania State Legislature that “solitary confinement to hard labor and a total abstinence from spirituous liquors will prove the means of reforming these unhappy creatures.”[xi] By 1790, Walnut Street Jail was up and running.[xii] Walnut Street Jail was constructed on the premise of solitude, which was one of the first recommendations of the Society for Alleviating the Misery of Prisons.[xiii] The center cell-block had solitary cells, and was reserved for those who had committed felonies.[xiv] PSAMPP provided the prisoners with religious instruction and Bibles, and the inmates were taught crafts including tailoring, shoemaking, log-chipping, and wool-carding.[xv] The Quaker reformers of Philadelphia believed wholeheartedly that criminals could be saved.


Figure 4: Walnut Street Jail, Philadelphia.

Thomas Eddy, Quakerism, and Newgate’s Beginnings

Thomas Eddy was a Quaker and a reformer, who believed in the role of conversion in penitentiary punishment.  Eddy’s quest to reform the prison system in New York was sparked in part by empathy for convicts he gained while imprisoned on suspicion of spying for the British during the Revolutionary War in 1781.[xvi] After reading Quaker William Bradford’s report on the newly reformed legal system in Pennsylvania, Eddy successfully lobbied the New York State Legislature to abolish the death penalty for all but three crimes, and establish a penitentiary system, in 1796.[xvii] Eddy became the leader of a team of seven “inspectors” to the new Newgate Prison, and appointed to the team four society Quakers and two civil servants. Eddy also acted as agent for the prison[xviii].

Eddy’s Quaker beliefs clashed with the desires of the State Legislature on a number of points. Eddy called management of the state’s appointed armed guard for the prison a duty that anyone who called themselves a Quaker could not “with propriety discharge”, believing it to be unnecessary.[xix] While Eddy was agent at Newgate, however, he also referred to the inmates as “wicked and depraved” and “capable of every atrocity.”[xx] To combat these tendencies, Eddy promoted Christianity and started night school classes for the prisoners.[xxi] Eddy based this Newgate system on Walnut Street Jail, with an emphasis on labor and order.[xxii]  Eddy believed that penitentiary punishment’s combination of hard labor, solitude, and religious education could work, but only over a period of four to five years.[xxiii]

Eddy and Newgate Post-1804

Eddy resigned from his post as agent of Newgate in 1804, after the last remaining Quaker advisors had been pushed out of prison inspection and replaced with paid bureaucrats[xxiv]. 20 years later, in 1824, when asked about the prison for a state investigation, Thomas stated that only two real conversions had taken place in his six years as Warden[25]. Eddy’s proposed fixes for this problem were numerous, including having unpaid inspectors motivated by “principles of benevolence, and a love of justice and humanity,” and ending whippings, which he had not allowed[xxvi]. Eddy believed that Quakers were best qualified to run penitentiaries because of their value for the individual[xxvii]. In Eddy’s words, the purpose of prison officials was to “advise and admonish the most profligate and abandoned,” a stricture he said was “solemnly enjoined by the precepts of the Founder of our holy religion.”[xxviii]

Thomas Eddy thought that some hardened criminals were beyond redemption, but that if they were kept separate from the less jaded, these relative innocents could be brought to a knowledge of their sins.[xxix] Eddy believed in “just punishments” more fitting to the strength of the crime than traditional sanguinity; he disapproved of the physical punishment on the grounds that it hardened criminals’ hearts, and he disagreed with death penalty because it eliminated the possibility of reform.[xxx] Even though he had been disillusioned to some extent by the end of his life, Thomas Eddy’s Quaker faith still led him to believe that penitentiary punishment could be a path to redemption.


-Julia Marostica

[i] Matthew W. Meskell, “An American Resolution: The History of Prisons in the United States from 1777 to 1877”, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 51, No. 4 (April, 1999): 851, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/1229442, accessed 12 October 2016; Charles G. Sommers, Memoir of the Reverend John Stanford, D.D. (New York, Stanford and Swords: 1844), 163, https://archive.org/details/revjohnstanfordd00somm, accessed 12 October 2016

[ii] Thomas L. Dumm, “Friendly Persuasion: Quakers, Liberal Toleration, and the Birth of the Prison”, Political Theory, vol. 13, no. 3 (August, 1985): 398, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/191239, accessed 19 October 2016

[iii] Ibid., 399

[iv] Ibid., 399

[v] Ibid., 400

[vi] Michael Kraus, “Eighteenth Century Humanitarianism: Collaboration between Europe and America”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 60, no. 3 (July, 1936): 272, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/20086989 accessed October 19th, 2016

[vii] Ibid., 272-3

[viii] Michael Meranze, “The Penitential Ideal in Late Eighteenth Century Philadelphia”, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 108, No. 4 (October, 1984): 432-434, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091885 accessed November 27th, 2016

[ix] Blake McKelvey, American Prisons: A Study in American Social History prior to 1915 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1936): 4-5, Hathi Trust Digital Library http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b3943777, accessed November 27th, 2016

[x] William G. Staples, “In the Interest of the State: Production Politics in the Nineteenth Century Prison”, Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990): 381, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/1389066, accessed October 19th, 2016

[xi] Ibid., 381

[xxii] Ibid., 381

[xxiii] Meskell, 846

[xiv] McKelvey, 5-6

[xv] McKelvey, 6

[xvi] Samuel L. Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy: Comprising an Extensive Correspondence with Many of the Most Distinguished Philosophers and Philanthropists in This and Other Countries (New York, Conner & Cooke: 1834): 50-51, https://archive.org/details/lifethomaseddyc00knapgoog, accessed October 12th, 2016

[xvii] Jennifer Graber, “‘When Friends Had the Management, It Was Entirely Different’: Quakers and Calvinists in the Making of New York Prison Discipline”, Quaker History, vol. 97, no. 2 (Fall, 2008): 22, accessed via PDF October 19th, 2016

[xviii] Ibid., 22

[xix] Jennifer Graber, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons & Religion in Antebellum America, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011): 15, ProQuest Ebrary, http://site.ebrary.com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/lib/fordham/reader.action?docID=10456381#, accessed October 19th, 2016

[xx] Meskell, 849

[xxi] Ibid., 849

[xxii] Ibid., 848

[xxiii] Knapp, 76-81

[xxiv] Graber, “‘When the Friends Had the Management’”, 28-29

[xv] Knapp, 77-81

[xvi] Graber, “‘When the Friends Had the Management’”, 32-33, 28-29

[xvii] Ibid., 28-29

[xxviii] Ibid., 32-33

[xxix] Knapp, 76-81

[xxx] Ibid., 3, 76-81


Figure 1: Unknown via The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Thomas Eddy. 1830s. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28th, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-23df-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 2: Cremer, James via The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. Quaker Almshouse, erected 1713. 19th century. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28th, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-aacc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 3: Peale, Charles W. via Wikimedia Commons. Benjamin Rush. 18th century. Accessed November 28th, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABenjamin_Rush_Painting_by_Peale.jpg

Figure 4: Birch, William and Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons. Goal in Walnut Street, Philadelphia. 1800. Accessed November 28th, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGoal_in_Walnut_Street_Philadelphia_Birch’s_views_plate_24_(cropped).jpg