Newgate State Prison recorded detailed information on its prisoners in its annual reports. Those data, digitised by our class, were analysed in detail to better understand the history of Newgate Prison and its prisoners. Aspects of Newgate State Prison such as its changing population, the crimes of its prisoners and the sentences for those crimes are represented graphically and discussed. Descriptors of Newgate prisoners – race, gender, occupation and age – are analysed as well.
The intent of this paper is to describe the population of Newgate State Prison in juxtaposition to that of New York by analysing Newgate’s annual reports taken on Dec 31st of each year from its opening in 1797 to 1810. Each annual report includes a manifest of the prison’s entire population at the end of its respective year. The manifests listed a plethora of personal information on the prisoners such as height and distinctive marks (Figure 1).[i] In addition, the prison kept a summary report regarding prisoners received into the prison for each year. These data relate counts of crimes, nativity and county of conviction. Length of sentence for received prisoners was tallied separately.[ii] Prisoners received during the year for their second and third offences were listed again in a separate manifest following the annual report. Most of the prisoner specific analysis such as Age and Occupation utilises the data recorded in the manifests from 1797 to 1803. The demographics of Newgate Prison often considers data from the entire period.
The population of Newgate State Prison grew steadily in its early years until it surpassed its maximum capacity of 450 prisoners: in 1806 Newgate had 461 prisoners, and in 1809 it had 477, yet over 150 more prisoners would be received each year from 1805 onward. Newgate managed to hold its population below capacity most years by pardoning large numbers of prisoners; thus, the yearly flux of prisoners was erratic. The number of prisoners received and the number of prisoners who remained increased over the period – until both plateaued as the population reached capacity in 1806 (Figure 2), but the prison’s population resumed growth after 1810.
Pardons increased exponentially over this short period to offset the overcrowding which resulted from the consistent inflow of prisoners (y=6.1107e0.2344x R²=0.8115).[iii] Leaving Newgate by pardon rather than serving one’s sentence became commonplace (Figures 3 & 4). The number of prisoners who left Newgate by finishing their sentences peaked in 1803 but declined thereafter. In 1807, 1809 and 1810, the number of prisoners pardoned exceeded the number of prisoners who had been released for serving their sentences in full; in 1810, there were three times as many prisoners pardoned than released for expiration of sentence. In addition to pardons, the state battled overcrowding by increasing the minimum sentence for coming to Newgate, by employing prisoners outside the prison and by redefining crimes and their punishments.[iv]
Deaths at Newgate prison increased overall – matching the increasing population of the prison, but the percentage of deaths varied year to year (Figure 5). Successful escapes at Newgate occurred in its early years but ceased by 1803. Presumably, attempting escape would be foolish when pardon was highly probable; in 1807 and 1810, around a quarter of the prison’s population was pardoned to make room, and in seven of the thirteen years of recorded data, pardons were given to over 10% of the prison’s population (Figure 4).
Newgate Prison hosted a myriad of criminals, but larceny was the most common crime committed amongst them (76% were petite or grand larceny) (Figure 6).[v] Almost all of the crimes were committed against property (95.8%). Crimes against persons made up a mere 3.5% of crimes. Life sentences were consistently (if not always) designated for forgery, burglary, rape and arson; these crimes made up around 15.5% of all crimes. Sentences varied greatly for petit and grand larceny with the sentences for petit larceny sometimes exceeding those for grand larceny. Life for larceny was extremely rare – only two prisoners in the manifests from 1797-1803 were given life for grand larceny. Data Table 1 lists the counts of crimes.
As mentioned earlier, Newgate State Prison faced chronic overcrowding, so it increased the minimum sentence to be incarcerated at Newgate. At its opening in 1797, Newgate held prisoners of any length of sentence, but from the years 1799 to 1808, Newgate Prison only took prisoners with sentences greater than one year. In 1808, this changed to sentences greater than three years. Figure 7 shows the average sentence length of prisoners received each year from 1797 to 1810 (omitting life sentences); it shows a jump between 1807 and 1808 – when no more prisoners with less than three years due were received into Newgate. The mean sentence length for prisoners received into Newgate from 1797 to 1810 was 3.35 years, though few would serve their sentences in full.
Although average sentence length of received prisoners increased as a result of changing the minimum sentence to enter Newgate, average sentence length increased steadily within periods unaffected by those change; this is illustrated in Figure 8 exclusive to 1800 through 1808. These changes could indicate that Newgate was concentrating increasingly on hardened criminals who earned lengthier sentences.
Below, Figure 9 shows the frequency of each sentence length with similar sentences grouped by rounding down.[vi]
The number of prisoners received who were sentenced to life each year did not show any trend (R² = 0.0648), but life sentences were frequent and made up a large portion of sentences ranging from 6% to 25% of prisoners received (Figure 10).
Censuses from 1790 to 1870 and Newgate’s annual reports of the prison from 1797 to 1810 only listed two races in their documentation. Therefore, to properly compare the proportion of races in the prison to that of the general population as given by the census, a two-proportion-z-test will compare the proportion of whites (male and female in aggregate) in both populations.[vii] The second data table includes census data from 1800 and 1810 as well as the prisoner demographics of Newgate from those years.
For the year 1800, the null hypothesis is given as H0 : the proportion of the whites in Newgate State Prison is equal to the proportion of whites in the population of New York and the alternative hypothesis is given as Ha : the proportion of the whites in Newgate State Prison is not equal to the proportion of whites in the population of New York. Using an alpha of α=0.05, H0 is rejected in favour of Ha with a p-value of p=1.4026×10-27 and z=10.8843. Therefore, the proportion of whites in Newgate State Prison is significantly less than that of New York State. Figures 11 & 12 show the ratio of race and gender in the population of Newgate as well as the yearly prisoners received at Newgate.
Although the incarceration of blacks was significantly greater than expected given their percentage of the population, the stacked bar graphs above demonstrate that the ratio of blacks to whites imprisoned (received yearly or in total) did not change greatly over the period. Blacks and whites must have had similar opportunity for pardon; otherwise, the proportion of blacks in the prison would increase as more prisoners were pardoned.
Black prisoners on the whole were younger than white prisoners with a median age of 24 and mean age of 25.7 as compared to those of the white population (29 and 31.4 respectively). Of prisoners 16 years old or younger, 25 were black compared to the total 43 prisoners (58%).
Women made up a small but consistent population in the prison with women making up 7.2% to 13.0% of the total population as shown Figure 13 below. Significantly fewer women were incarcerated than men reflecting the social norms of the 19th century.
Black women however, were far more likely to be imprisoned than white women, and this difference is more significant than that of blacks and whites generally; Figure 14 illustrates this more clearly.
Newgate prisoners held a variety of occupations that varied greatly across and within industries. Figure 15 breaks down the skill levels of Newgate Prisoners. The majority of the prisoner population was unskilled; of those prisoners, 20% were farmers. 34% of prisoners possessed a trade skill. Prisoners could be put to work during their incarceration to earn revenue for the prison. Data Table 3 breaks down which occupations were considered skilled along with how occupations were organised by industry and similar type. To give a sense of the spread of occupations in context of the early 19th century, below in Figure 16 prisoners are grouped by those who have similar trades such as tobacconists and farmers or carpenters and shipwrights. In addition, in Figure 17, occupations were grouped by industry per the 2012 North American Industry Classification System (using the 19th century definitions of the prisoners’ occupations) to give a modern comparison.[viii]
The age distribution of prisoners at Newgate from 1797 to 1803 shows a clear concentration on men their twenties. The age distribution for New York State in 1800 was very skew right (Figure 19). Newgate State Prison, although also skew right (Figure 18), did not admit many children; only 43 prisoners were age 16 or less at the time of annual report during 1797 to 1803. Census reports show that the median age for white men in both 1800 and 1810 was 16 years old whereas the median age for a Newgate prisoner was 28 years old.[ix] For 1797-1803, the mean age of a Newgate prisoner was 31 years old; the standard deviation of prisoner ages was 11.204. The distribution of ages in Newgate State Prison does not appear to differ interestingly from that of New York State after considering the absence of children at the prison.
As noted earlier, there were significant differences between the age distribution of the Black and White populations of Newgate. Further detail is given in the final paragraph under the Race heading.
[i] The manifests from 1797 to 1803 list the following data for each prisoner: name, nativity, age, occupation, residence, crime, hair colour, height, distinctive marks, county of conviction, sentence length and date of sentence. From 1804 to 1810, data recorded in the annual reports diminished to name, nativity, crime, county of conviction, sentence length and date of sentence. Nativity most often listed a state or country but occasionally included county or city. The manifests organised prisoners alphabetically under categories as follows: White Men, White Women, Black Men, Black Women. Many of the graphs and statistics use data from only 1797-1803 as a result of the more thorough records during that period.
[ii] For 1799, no tally of sentencing for prisoners received was recorded. An approximation of the distribution of sentencing was made using the prisoner manifest. The 115 prisoners in the manifest for 1799 with dates of sentence in the year 1799 had sentence length listed. Calculations regarding sentence length of prisoners received use these 115 prisoners for 1799 in which 121 prisoners were reportedly received.
[iii] Data for escapes, pardons, expired sentences and deaths were not included in the 1804 annual report. The bar chart and line graph (Figures 3 and 4) omit that year.
[iv]The New York legislature took steps to redefine crimes. For example, petit larceny was redefined to be amounts under $25 and could be reconciled by payment of a fine and time in a county jail rather than the state prison. The governor could employ inmates outside the prison when Newgate’s population exceeded 450. W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora; the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965), 44-45.
[v] Crimes statistics concern prisoners in annual reports from 1797-1803.
[vi] See endnote ii
[vii] United States., Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition, Part 2 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1975), 32. Because the census data on races only includes Blacks and Whites, omitting other races, from 1790 to 1870, the sum of each race does not total to the entire US (and New York), so using the proportion of whites to compare the prison and state population is more accurate. Additionally, there is no census data until 1820 which distinguishes male and female for Blacks, so the proportions tested will include Whites and Blacks of both sexes.
[ix] 16 is the median age of the United States population; median age is not listed for New York.
Figure 1: “New York, Prisoners Received at Newgate State Prison, 1797-1810.” Digital image. Ancestry.com. 2014. http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=8937.
Figures 2 through 19: Rodrigues, Caleb. “Title of Chart.” Digital image. Paved with Good Intentions: Origins of the New York Penitentiary. Nyprisonorigins.com.