Levi S. Burr’s A Voice from Sing-Sing

Despite the long and storied history of Sing Sing Penitentiary, there are very few accounts of life in the prison during its earliest years. Because of this, Levi S. Burr’s 1833 pamphlet regarding his three-year stint at Sing Sing in the early 1830s is even more important in looking at the prison’s history. Titled A Voice from Sing Sing, this pamphlet looked at the conditions of the prison between 1830 and 1833, including discussions of the labor prisoners were forced to perform, the forms of punishment inflicted upon them, and the overall quality of life at Sing Sing. Much of what Burr talks about is relevant for understanding the reality of inmate life during his time. However, a closer reading of Burr’s pamphlet raises many questions about his account in looking at what he does not say. A Voice from Sing-Sing is one of the most influential pieces of writing on life at Sing Sing during the early 19th Century, providing an inside history few others could.

The Origins of A Voice from Sing-Sing

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Figure 1

When A Voice from Sing-Sing was published in 1833, it had a specific purpose: get the New York State Legislature to address the problems within Sing Sing Penitentiary. To fully understand the meaning behind the pamphlet and its modern day significance, one must first look at the writing of A Voice from Sing-Sing and how Burr’s life informed much of what he wrote. The reaction of the New York State Assembly to the pamphlet is helpful in understanding both how the state viewed the prison as well as why Burr uses the tone present in the pamphlet.

The Life of Levi S. Burr

Details on the life of Burr are scarce, but the few sources of information that can be found both in Burr’s writing and other documents paint a curious picture of the man. Levi S. Burr was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. After participating in the battles of Fort Erie and Chippewa, he was promoted to his eventual position of colonel before leaving the military.[i] After retiring from the Army, he became a lawyer in Washington DC, though legal issues similar to those he would later face in New York eventually forced him out of the city and to Syracuse, New York during the late 1820s.[ii]

While serving as counsel on litigations, Burr was accused of perjury and put on trial.[iii]  Burr believed that he was falsely accused of the crimes, but discussion of his case in front of the Supreme Court of New York disputes his accounts. According to documents about a civil case which cited Burr’s State Court trials, he was accused during his time in Syracuse of vigorously pursuing unwilling potential clients, convincing a criminal to run away from prison, and acting disorderly as a lawyer. The legal decision to sue Burr in his own district for these crimes was appealed repeatedly to the point of becoming a State Supreme Court case, but Burr eventually lost and was convicted.[iv] Burr was sentenced to three years for perjury at Sing Sing Penitentiary in 1830 and following the completion of his time three years later he wrote this pamphlet.[v] Burr explains in the preface to the pamphlet that he was falsely accused, and denies the charges. However these are the only times where he mentions his reason for imprisonment directly.

The Pamphlet’s Reception by the New York State Assembly

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Figure 2

The pamphlet, titled in full A Voice from Sing Sing, Giving a General Description of the State Prison; a short and comprehensive geological history of the Quality of the Stone of the Quarries, and a synopsis of the Horrid Treatment of the Convicts in That Prison, aimed to persuade the New York State Assembly to correct the issues within the prison system. Burr sent his pamphlet to both the Senate and Assembly in the state in 1833, asking for the Assembly to address problems which Burr believed harmed the inmates.[vi] However, the state’s records show that while the New York State Assembly received and read the pamphlet, they ignored its pleas for help, indicating as well that other problems with the prison were equally ignored.[vii]

An assemblyman from Delaware County in New York, Samuel Gordon, brought the pamphlet to the attention of the Assembly. Gordon was a member of the committee on state prisoners and had received a similar request in the prior month. [viii] The Assembly believed “that the prayer of the petitioner ought not to be granted,” as the State Prison Committee had visited Sing Sing two months prior and deemed it safe and proper for the prisoners within.[ix] This provides an example of just how unwilling the state government was to look into the prison system during this time, as well as how the hopes for reform went unheard outside of the prison walls. Regardless of how the information was handled by its intended audience of the state, the pamphlet covers topics relevant to learning about life at Sing Sing during the period from 1830-1833.

The Contents of the Pamphlet

The majority of Burr’s argument in A Voice from Sing-Sing focuses on the concepts of labor, punishment, and the quality of life inside of Sing Sing for the prisoners. In particular it serves as a firsthand account of the work prisoners did in the quarries, the varieties of punishment inflicted upon inmates, and how prisoners were treated as second class citizen. His descriptions of Sing Sing’s quarry is one of very few that can be found anywhere, and his analysis of the labor and its toll on prisoners is detailed to the point of being disturbing to read. Yet while the information provided in Burr’s pamphlet is itself very interesting, mu2ch of the intrigue comes also from the language and voice that he uses in discussing his life at the penitentiary.

Quarry Labor at Sing Sing

A Voice from Sing-Sing opens with a section dedicated to the analysis of the quality of the stones in the quarry, which worked as an appeal to the Assembly for them to be closed on the basis of costliness.[x] Records from the Assembly during this time in the 1830s show that the quarry did not close and was awarded “the highest of praise” in 1833, with the quarries that had been operated by Sing Sing to remain open.[xi]

The labor that Burr did was incredibly difficult for a man of his age, and was far more painful than it should have been. He and many others were forced to break rocks for hours and were overly punished the entire time. Burr talks about how the labor was used as a way to further control the prisoners, for example how one inmate accidentally placed a stone in the wrong pile yet was beaten by a keeper until the guard’s authority “would be obeyed” by the prisoner.[xii] Another example provided by Burr’s is about men who failed to load a stone onto a cart before breakfast and were “scolded, threatened and beaten,” and when they failed again after breakfast and were again unsuccessful, they were beaten once more.[xiii] Burr explains that the labor was used as a means of making the inmates more productive monetarily with a form of “hard labor” as punishment.[xiv]

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Figure 3

In defining hard labor, Burr looks primarily at the practice of cart labor, which was an incredibly dangerous form of labor that involved men pulling carts of stones from the quarries to uphill locations, oftentimes with deadly consequences. Burr considers this the most hazardous form of labor at Sing Sing, with many inmates crippled and killed when the carts rolled out of control over them.[xv]

Burr discusses this from a very personal point of view, expressing his own feelings on the forms of labor in order to illustrate their problems. By openly discussing the hard labor in a way very few other sources ever could, Burr allows us to see what really happened at Sing Sing, and to better understand how they suffered and died.[xvi]

Forms of Punishment and Their Effects on Inmates

Burr also talks about what punishment was like during his stay at Sing Sing. Burr tells the reader that he himself was never punished, but that the things he witnessed instilled fear in him and every other prisoner at Sing Sing.

The Cat and the Cudgel

A majority of the inmates were forced to work past the point of exertion and physical ability. They would be punished throughout this time, regardless of the quality of work. Burr discusses the different forms of punishment that were inflicted at the time on the prisoners at Sing Sing, as well as why they were used in the first place. One of the forms that is discussed heavily is “the Cat,” a whip with “six strands of hard cord, about the size of a common whip lash” that was used by the guards to control and to beat the inmates. [xvii] The beatings were brutal, with Burr once counting at least 133 lashes received by a single inmate. The Cat was used in any case the keepers saw fit, with Burr once witnessing two men being beaten for “famishing with hunger, and… falling down with weakness.”[xviii]

Burr also discusses the “Cudgel,” a cane used to beat people and control behavior, with guards hitting the inmates to “keep them in line.”[xix] Some of the beatings occurred simply because of how a prisoner would look at a guard, punishment for the sake of punishment. This included an instance where Burr and another man walked past a guard beating two other inmates with a cudgel. When the guard saw Burr’s acquaintance staring, he said “‘Do you want some of this? Step out here!’ and commenced beating him” with the cudgel as well.[xx] All of this was just part of the norm of Sing Sing, with an inmate subject to punishment, for any reasoning the keepers had.

Driving Men as a Team Before Oxen

While these descriptions are incredibly informative and provide some of the definitive descriptions of these punishments, it is a section of the pamphlet titled “Driving Men as a Team Before Oxen” that provides the most horror.[xxi] Burr talks here about what he saw inflicted by the guards upon the men who worked with cart labor, in particular how men would be lashed at with an ox whip. The men driving these carts would stand in front of ox towing the same cart, with fifty men treated as equals to the animals they led, with the ox whip used in the place of the cat or cudgel, “with as little mercy as it is applied the oxen.”[xxii]

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Figure 4

This is an extension of the hard labor that Burr also discusses, here describing the punishment aspects of it. This includes a discussion of working the levers to lift stones, where “sometimes ten, twenty, and thirty [inmates] are beaten” with the cudgel in order to keep them working. The men on the line would be responsible for keeping the lever lifted and exerting every iota of strength that they had, but simultaneously would be beaten senselessly as a way to punish them for not being strong enough. The punishment that Burr witnessed terrified him, and he was happy any time he saw the lever operated without any men beaten, as rare as that was.[xxiii]

Quality of Life at Sing Sing

Among other issues, Burr talks about how humiliating the process of “receiving,” or prisoner intake, could be for the prisoners, with the newest inmates often receiving the worst treatment from the guards. The inmates would be shaved and dressed in the worst garments the prison had to offer, all before being harassed by the keepers. They were even told incorrect rules in order for the prisoners to have harder times adjusting to the prisons, with Burr explaining that they would be told “everything that is expected of them, in any situation,” regardless of whether it was what all guards agreed upon as appropriate behavior.[xxiv]

Burr also touches on the problems of starvation of prisoners and poor medical treatment in the prisons. Burr’s emotions on the issues are very enlightening. Unlike his terror and pain that he exudes while writing about the labor and punishment at Sing Sing, the problems with food and healthcare cause him general disgust at the establishment he was housed in. Discussing the hospitals, Burr mentions that men who claimed to be sick would be “sent back to their employment, and sometimes with a flogging” were the doctor to decide they were healthy enough. Furthermore, he explains how after the doctor leaves in the morning, the hospital ward would be “under the charge of one of the convicts,” giving the inmates run of the facility while the doctor allowed patients to get sick while he was gone.[xxv]

Regarding the starvation at the prison, Burr explains how prisoners would be beaten for stealing food because it was their only option. In many cases, if inmates were caught passing food between cells, they were “sent into the kitchen to receive a flogging,” as well as being separately “flogged by the keeper who detects them.” Regardless of the implications of these beatings, the servings of food were too small for one to survive off of for a day of labor, and caused harm to inmates who tried to do so.[xxvi]

Burr describes all of these prison systems with anger. Burr attempts to point out how vile he and others were treated for want of common amenities like sustenance and health.[xxvii]

The Problems with A Voice from Sing-Sing

Burr manages to insert a lot of information into a forty-four page pamphlet, but it is just as informative to look at the sides of the story that Burr does not discuss. Burr does not go into the life of the prison guards or their opinions, but instead willingly excludes information that could have been provided. In doing this, the willful removal of details creates a much different view of life inside the prison.

Burr’s Reluctance to Talk About Himself

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One of the first problems with the pamphlet is Burr’s reluctance to include himself in the events he describes. From the beginning, Burr mentions that he believes himself to be wrongly convicted of perjury, a charge which is partially refuted by court documents about his conviction.[xxviii] Regardless of this, details of Burr’s life both inside and outside of Sing Sing are rare. Aside from the fact that he worked in the quarry and was apparently a witness to many of the events that he describes, Burr removes himself from the narrative he builds. Writing the way he does, Burr attempts to make himself seem like an impartial observer to what he describes, despite this not being the case. He even implies that he never received any of the punishment that ran rampant through the prison. This seems counter-intuitive to his own argument, as it makes it seem as if those receiving punishment are more deserving of it than Burr.[xxix]

While there is no proof that Burr was ever punished, the language that he himself uses in his writing implies that every prisoner had been, save apparently for him. In truth, the only person who comes across positively is Burr himself, writing as if he is doing so as a personal defense. This coincides with the lack of information about Burr, which acts as both an advantage and a disadvantage for Burr as well as the reader. Burr’s anonymity in his own description allows him to be separate from his writings, almost as if he were a third-party describing the horrors he sees. This also allows Burr to seem more separate from what he describes, which makes him out to be not a prisoner, but a viewer of the events. However, Burr’s vagueness about himself also prevents the reader from understanding the motivations for why Burr writes what he does and, perhaps more importantly, why we are supposed to care about or even believe what he says.[xxx]

Avoidance of Descriptions of Prisoner Punishment

Further discrediting some of what Burr writes is his lack of depth in discussing reasons for punishment of the inmates. Though Burr does both describe why beatings were received during work in the quarry and provide an anecdote about the theft of food, he never discusses the rules of the prison, nor why most of the punishments were inflicted in the first place. By avoiding the causes for punishment and making the guards into even worse players in the prison system, Burr undercuts his own argument in a number of ways.[xxxi] First off, the people who were hired to work at Sing Sing were themselves state employees, so in making the guards seem to be abusing their power, Burr implies that the government was not in control of its own people, a charge that it denied when the Assembly read the pamphlet.[xxxii] Furthermore, Burr’s lack of clear explanations for any reasons of punishment make the prisoners out to be victims of the penitentiary, something that is inherently unlikely.

While this is understandable from his perspective as a self-proclaimed wrongly convicted man, it has the implication that he is unwilling to see the wrongdoings of anyone but the keepers and workers of the prison, themselves employees of the government he is appealing to. In making the keepers and wardens of the prison the perpetrators of these crimes, Burr is implicating not just the prison, but the state which operates it. By making the prison out to be the criminal and the convicted prisoners, like himself, seem more innocent, Burr builds an argument that positions him as David against the Sing Sing Goliath. While this allows himself to be seen as the better person once more, it makes his account much less reliable and possibly exaggerated.

Problems with the Perspective Burr Uses

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Figure 6

One of the other major flaws in Burr’s writing is the way he constructs his narrative of his time at the prison. In discussing the pamphlet, Jodi Schorb explains how Burr’s writing works as almost a tour of Sing Sing, working simultaneously as a critique of the guards and the treatment prisoners received. She explains how Burr uses an “objective and distanced tone” throughout, describing everything in a very matter-of-fact style.[xxxiii] The examples that Burr uses and the style in which he describes the events he witnesses is detached, oftentimes dry and artificial.

Because of this, Burr’s account is almost like a documentary in its construction, built to inform an audience while keeping itself light and succinct on the details. One of the examples of this compression of information appears in Burr’s not providing names for prisoners, with very few mentioned given any real identities. When Burr cites particular inmates by name, he gives a greater level of authority to his stories, putting an identity to a problem in the prison. Burr’s account and the examples he uses make it sound as if he has only heard all of this from others, as if he was rarely directly involved. This is partially Burr’s way of removing himself from his story, no longer just an inmate but also a man telling a story. Burr’s language in the essay provides an authoritative and almost elite style of writing, which has a two-fold purpose. First, it lets the audience see Burr in only the way he wants to be seen, only writing about himself what he wants the audience to know. But aside from that, Burr’s style of writing allows the audience to understand more directly his views on prisons, seeing what Burr thinks and only that.

Conclusion

A Voice from Sing-Sing is one of very few first-hand looks at the life inside of a penitentiary, along with the writings of William Coffey and Horace Lane. While Burr did not succeed in his goal to reform the prison system, he still managed to show readers exactly how troubling life at Sing Sing was in its early history. With his depictions of the labor, punishment and lifestyle of the prisoners, Burr captures just how tragic the lives of inmates could be, and how everyone inside were victims of the prison system. A Voice from Sing-Sing is flawed in the perspective that Burr uses and how much of his writing works only as a self-defense, but the information provided is nevertheless a shocking look at the lives of Sing Sing’s prisoners and how terrible working conditions and punishment were at the penitentiary during the early 1830s.

– Liam Haber

Citations:

[i] Burr, Levi S. A Voice from Sing-Sing: Giving a General Description of the State Prison. Albany, NY. 1833. p. 2

[ii] Graber, Jennifer. “Engaging the Trope of Redemptive Suffering: Inmate Voices in the Antebellum Prison Debates.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 79.2 (2012): 209-33. Accessed November 12, 2016. https://muse-jhu-edu.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/article/475783/pdf , 219

[iii] Burr, p. 2

[iv] United States Circuit Court (District of Columbia), William Cranch. Reports of Cases Civil and Criminal in the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia from 1801 to 1841. New York, 1852. https://books.google.com/books?id=i0dKAAAAYAAJ&lpg=PA381&dq=levi%20s%20burr&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false. p. 380-383

[v] Burr, p. 3

[vi] Ibid p. 1-5

[vii] New York (State) Legislature. Assembly. Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. Volume 57, Issues 3-4. Albany, 1834. https://books.google.com/books?id=FuhKAAAAMAAJ&pg=PP7#v=onepage&q&f=false. p. 2

[viii] Croswell, E.. Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York at their 57th Session. Albany, 1834. https://books.google.com/books?id=xLQFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false. p. 4

[ix] New York State Legislature, p. 2

[x] Burr, p. 1-8

[xi] New York State Legislature, p. 2

[xii] Burr, p. 33

[xiii] Burr, p. 31

[xiv] Ibid, p. 29-34

[xv] Ibid, p. 4-33

[xvi] Ibid, p. 1-33

[xvii] Ibid, p. 17

[xviii] Ibid

[xix] Ibid, p. 18

[xx] Ibid, p. 18

[xxi] Ibid, p. 35

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 35-37

[xiv] Ibid, p. 19-20

[xv] Ibid, p. 38-39

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 23-30

[xxvii] Ibid, p. 18-41

[xxviii] Cranch, p. 380-383

[xxiv] Burr, p. 20

[xxx] Ibid, p. 1-44

[xxxi] Ibid, p. 1-27

[xxxii] New York Legislature, p. 2

[xxxiii] Schorb, Jodi. Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700-1845. New Brunswick, NJ. 2014. p. 142

Figures:

Figure 1: Liam Haber. A Voice From Sing-Sing Cover. 2016.

Figure 2: An Inmate’s First Day at Sing Sing. c. 1860. Guy Cheli’s Sing Sing Prison.

Figure 3: Sing Sing Prison. (Prisoners at work at the quarries.). 1863-1885?. Photography Collection, New York Public Library.

Figure 4: Sing Sing Prison. (Prisoners at work at the R.R. tracks.). 1863-1885?. Photography Collection, New York Public Library.

Figure 5: State Prison, at Sing Sing, New York1885.

Figure 6: Illustration Depicting Sing Sing. c. 1868. Guy Cheli’s Sing Sing Prison.