Page images


A history of our state would be far from complete without some reference to its Penitentiary System. Therefore, the following account of its origin and progress, prepared by Hon. JOHN L. O'SULLIVAN, is here introduced. It was originally furnished for the Introduction to "The Natural History of the State of New York," and appears in that work as a note to Governor Seward's Introduction.-ED. THE Penitentiary System of New York, as it has now existed for a period of nearly a quarter of a century, is a subject of the highest interest to the stranger, and of pride to our own citizens. The two great establishments in which it is to be seen in operation, on a larger scale than in any of the other states of the Union, are situated at the villages of Auburn and Sing-Sing; the former for the reception of convicts from the western, the latter from the eastern district of the state. The Mount-Pleasant prison, at Sing-Sing, on the Hudson, about thirty-three miles north of the city of New York, has also a separate building for the reception of female convicts from the whole state. The former of these establishments, at the village of Auburn, in the county of Cayuga, one hundred and sixty-nine miles west of Albany, was the first in the Union in which the peculiar system now prevailing in both was adopted, or at least carried out to that degree of completeness and efficiency, which has become the just subject of the admiration of the civilized world. It has, therefore, given its name to the system, notwithstanding that its leading features were by no means novel to the science of prison diseipline, or original with the founder of this institution. It has constituted the model from which most of the other states of the Union have derived the plans of the penitentiaries which most of them have, of late years, been led to establish, under the stimulus of an example so successful in itself and so honorable in the eyes of the world; and in the vehement controversy which has been waged, through many modes of publication, between the respective partisans of this system and of the rival system in operation in the state of Pennsylvania, it is always and everywhere designated as the Auburn system. A brief sketch of its origin, as well as of its present condition, will not be deemed misplaced.

Previously to the year 1786, the different states of this Union were governed, in the main, by the sanguinary criminal code which all as colonies had inherited from their mother-country. In that year, Pennsylvania, in which had been more widely sown than in any other the seeds of that philanthropic wisdom which so peculiarly marked the character of its immortal founder, as well as of the religious communion of which he was an ornament, was the first to lead the way to her sister-republics in the direction of reform in criminal law and penal discipline. A new criminal code was created, the most interesting feature of which was the abolition of the former barbarism of eapital punishment for all offences short of the highest felonies-treason, murder, rape, and arson. In a few years, under the auspices of such intellects and such hearts as those of a Benjamin Franklin, a Benjamin Rush, a William Bradford, and a Caleb

Lowndes, a still further amelioration took place. The year 1790 was marked by important mitigations of the former corporeal severities inflicted; and in 1794, the penalty of death was restricted to the single crime of murder in the first degree. The first penitentiary erected in the state was the Walnut-street prison in Philadelphia, in the year 1790; in which imprisonment at hard labor was substituted for the ancient modes of punishment for crime by the gallows, the lash, and the brand. A certain degree of classification was adopted for prisoners, according to their offences and characters; while solitary cells were provided for those who, for the more heinous grades of crime, were condemned to that penalty, as also for those whose violent resistance to the ordinary discipline of the prison required unusual means of restraint or punishment. The solitary cells were without the provision of labor, which in the other portions of the establishment was designed to afford one of the chief reformatory influences.

New York was not slow to follow in the track of a more enlightened penal policy, in which Pennsylvania thus bore off the honor of leading the way. The year 1796 marks the first prominent era in the history of penitentiary reform in this state. In his first message to the legislature, on the 6th January, Governor Jay recommended the mitigation of the criminal code, and the erection of establishments for the employment and reformation of criminals. Two years previously, two citizens of New York, distinguished for their humanity and liberality-Thomas Eddy, of the Society of Friends, and General Schuyler, alike in peace and in war one of the most illustrious of the founders of this commonwealth-had visited the Philadelphia prison, for the purpose of acquiring a more accurate knowledge of its tendency, structure, and its internal arrangements; and so favorable was the impression produced on their minds, that the latter gentleman, who was then in the senate of the state, immediately draughted a law for the erection of a penitentiary in the city of New York. This bill, “for making alterations in the criminal law of this state, and the erecting of stateprisons,” in harmony with the recommendation of the governor, was brought forward in the senate, and ably and successfully sustained by Ambrose Spencer, the subsequent eminent chiefjustice of the state, and finally became a law on the 26th of March, 1796. This law directed the establishment of two stateprisons, the one at Albany and the other at New York; though the idea of the former was afterward abandoned, and the whole appropriation expended in New York, under a commission consisting of Matthew Clarkson, John Murray, jr., John Watt, Thomas Eddy, and Isaac Stoutenburgh. This establishment (known as "Newgate") was opened for the reception of its inmates on the 25th of November, 1797. The building was 204 feet in length, a wing projecting from each end, and from those wings two other smaller wings. The whole structure was of the Doric order, containing 54 rooms, 12 feet by 18; besides the cells for solitary confinement, on the ground-floor. Criminals sentenced to imprisonment had heretofore been simply confined in the jails of the counties in which they were convicted. The law of 1796 effected at the same time an important amelioration in our criminal code. Previously to that period there were no less than sixteen species of crime punishable with death. Corporeal punishment was used, and in many cases felonies which were not capital on their first, became so on their second commission. In fourteen of these offences, imprisonment for life, or for shorter periods, was substituted for the capital penalty, which was only retained for treason and murder. The model afforded by the Philadelphia and New York prisons was soon successively imitated by other states. The stateprison at Richmond, Virginia, was erected in 1800; that at Windsor, Vermont, in 1808; at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1811; at Concord, New Hampshire, in 1812; and at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1816.

was nowhere crowned with success.

But this system, the object of so much sanguine hope to its philanthropic projectors, It is in the state of New York in particular that we are here to regard its operation. The great body of the convicts were thrown together in the prison, in numbers which soon became improperly crowded, and were kept at work through the day. The only punishment which their keepers had a right to inflict, for violation of the discipline, was solitary confinement, with bread and water. A small proportion of them, who before the reform of the penal laws would have been sentenced to death, were confined in perpetual solitude, unrelieved by the solace of labor. The system was found not only totally ineffective to reform, but on the contrary most perniciously active to corrupt and to harden. It was an enormous drain on the public treasury. It soon ceased to have any terrors for the depraved; while to young offenders, thrown for the first time into the midst of the polluted atmosphere and the fatal society assembled in the rooms of the prison, it was certain and irrecoverable ruin. And partly from the increase of population, but in probably a still greater degree from the tendency of the system itself to manufacture new rogues and to continue old ones, it became so overstocked as soon to make it necessary annually to pardon out large numbers of offenders for no other reason than to accommodate the reception of the fresh influx! Though adapted to the suitable accommodation of not more than between three and four hundred, it was at times occupied by upward of seven hundredcrowded and herded together beyond any possibility of proper classification. A report made to the legislature in 1817, by commissioners appointed to examine into the subject, stated that, within a period of five years, 740 had been pardoned, while only 77 had been discharged by the expiration of their sentences. In the two years, 1816 and 1817, the number of pardons was 573. A report made to the senate in 1822, by the Hon. Samuel Miles Hopkins, states the whole number of convicts committed since 1796 to have been 5,069, of which number there had been pardoned not less than 2,819. The necessary effect of such a system to promote the multiplication of crime, need scarcely be adverted to. It will be sufficient to state that, of twenty-three convicted of second and third offences in the year 1815, twenty had been previously pardoned, and only three discharged by the ordinary course of law. The average number of deaths was about seven per cent. Fires and insurrections were of not unfrequent


The first suggestion of the necessity of another penitentiary in the interior of the state, was made in the annual report of the officers of the prison in 1809. The friends of the existing system, notwithstanding the annually-developed evidence of its total failure for every other than the worst purposes, still clung to their old ideas; and the admitted evils, manifest in the existing establishment, being ascribed to its crowded condition, when the erection of a second prison, at the village of Auburn, was determined upon in 1816, it was hoped that ampler space of accommodation, and smaller subdivisions of numbers, would yet produce the salutary results originally expected. The south wing of this building was completed in 1818, containing sixty-one double cells, and twenty-eight rooms, each of which was to contain from eight to twelve prisoners. But, for reasons obvious to those at all familiar with the vicious tendencies of imprisoned convicts, this plan was soon found to be the most fatal that could be adopted; and it was evident that it would be better to throw fifty criminals together in the same room, than to divide them in small numbers, and especially in pairs. The subject was much discussed at about this period, in both the legislature and the community at large; and in 1819 the erection of the north wing was ordered, to consist entirely of cells for solitary confinement. By a law of this year, too, for the first

time the use of the whip was permitted when deemed necessary for the maintenance of the discipline of the prisons.

At about the same period the public attention in the state of Pennsylvania also was much engaged with the same subject. In the year 1817, the manifest failure of the old system, as prevailing in the Walnut-street prison, led to the passage of a law for the construction of the Western penitentiary at Pittsburgh, and in 1821 for the Eastern penitentiary at Cherry hill, near Philadelphia; in which it was determined to adopt entirely the system of uninterrupted separate confinement. Desirous of making a similar experiment, the legislature of New York, on the 2d of April, 1821, directed the agent of the Auburn prison to select a number of the most hardened criminals, and to lock them up in solitary cells, night and day, without interruption and without labor; and in December of the same year a sufficient number of cells were completed for the purpose, and eighty criminals placed in them.

The result of this experiment, which was founded on the recommendation of a committee of the legislature, was disastrous in the extreme. Human nature could not endure the solitary horrors of such a doom. Within the year, five of the eighty died: one became insane; another, watching an opportunity when his keeper opened his door for some necessary purpose, in a fit of despair precipitated himself from the gal lery, running the almost certain chance of destruction by the fall; and the rest sank into a state of such deep depression, and of failing health, that their lives must have been sacrificed had they been kept longer in this situation. Under these circumstances the governor pardoned twenty-six, and the remainder were withdrawn from their cells during the day to work in the shops of the prison. From this period, 1823, this system of uninterrupted solitude was abandoned at Auburn.

The failure of this experiment for a time seemed to endanger the success of the whole penitentiary system. The ardent hopes of its friends were nearly exhausted; and even some, whose feelings revolted at the idea of capital punishment, began to fear that it would again become necessary to resort to the more frequent use of the scaffold. But, as it is stated in a report by the late agent of the Mount-Pleasant prison, Mr. Robert Wiltse, made in March, 1884 (from which document we have already drawn considerably in the preparation of this narrative), Captain Elam Lynds, who was at this time the agent of the Auburn prison, was too wise to give up the idea that the beneficial moral influences of solitude might yet be combined with some successful system of congregated labor. He felt convinced that this result could be attained by a union of the two opposite principles-by confining the convicts to solitary cells at night and on Sundays, and compelling them to work during the day in large workshops in absolute silence, and under such a vigilant inspection as should preclude, so far as possible, all intercourse in any manner between them.

It has been a subject of some controversy who was entitled to the credit of having originated this system; a point necessarily difficult to decide, when it is considered how naturally, during the progress of its experimental growth, the suggestions which might proceed informally from the various minds engaged in and about it, would flow into one general current of opinion, common perhaps to several. Captain Lynds, having unquestionably been the first to complete, mature, and execute the plan, has generally received from public opinion the credit of its invention — an honor which justice would probably require to be divided with Mr. John D. Cray, one of the master-workmen or architects employed in the construction of the building.

The experiment was tried. Captain Lynds, a man of remarkable energy and firmness of character, who had formerly served in the army of the United States, and who

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

retained all the habits of rigid and severe military discipline there to be acquired, assembled the convicts together, and giving them the rules by which their conduct must be governed, told them that they must henceforth labor diligently, and labor in perfect silence and non-intercourse; and that, for every infringement of the rules, a swift and summary punishment should follow, of corporeal chastisement. This was soon proved to be no unmeaning threat; and in a short time, seconded by the able and unwavering exertions of his assistant-keepers, he succeeded in establishing this new discipline with a degree of efficiency scarcely conceivable to those who had not the opportunity of witnessing it.* Inspected in 1824 by a committee of the legisla ture, a high eulogium was passed upon it, and it was sanctioned by the formal approbation of that body.

The Auburn system, therefore, in its mature and complete state, may be said to date from the year 1824.

But it was soon found that its adoption must render necessary the construction of another prison for the eastern portion of the state, that of Auburn containing, as it was enlarged in 1824, only 550 cells. An act was therefore passed to that effect on the 7th of March, 1824; under which three commissioners were appointed-Stephen Allen, Samuel Miles Hopkins, and George Tibbitts-to select a suitable site. The village of Sing-Sing, on the Hudson river, thirty-three miles from New York, was selected, and a piece of ground purchased containing an inexhaustible quarry of white marble, which it was designed to make not only the material for the construction of the building, by the hands of the convicts themselves, but also a profitable article on which their future labor should be employed for the benefit of the state. To Captain Lynds, who had chiefly presided over the construction of the Auburn prison, as well as having performed the whole service of organizing its system of discipline and labor, was intrusted the charge of bringing forth the new establishment, as it were, out of the bowels of the earth. Were it possible to question its truth, as a literal historical fact, the manner in which he carried this into effect would be deemed incredible. According to his own plan, he was directed to take a hundred of the convicts from the Auburn prison, to remove them to the selected site, to purchase materials, employ keepers and guards, and make them commence the construction of their own future abode. The novel spectacle was exhibited on the 14th of May, 1825, of the arrival of this band on the open ground which was to be the theatre of operations, without a place to receive, or even a wall to enclose them. The remarkable moral energy of the man effected it with a success which must always remain astonishing. The first day sufficed to erect a temporary barrack for shelter at night; and ever after they continued in unpausing labor, watched by a small number of guards, but held under perpetual government of their accustomed discipline, and submission to the power whose vigilant eye and unrelaxing hand they felt to be perpetually upon them and around them. It was finished according to the original plan, in 1829, containing 800 cells; to which 200 more were ordered to be added by an act of the following year. Another story being therefore raised for this purpose, the final completion of this vast and massive edifice was in the year 1831. A sufficient number of cells having been completed in May, 1828, the convicts in the old prison at New York were removed to Sing-Sing, and that building abandoned and sold.

In the year 1835, the legislature directed the erection of another building at SingSing, adjacent to the main prison, though unconnected with it, for the reception of the

This system of discipline has since given place to one of less severity, in which corporeal punish ments are prohibited.-ED.

VOL. II.-12

« PreviousContinue »