New York in 1799 wasn’t exactly a civilized haven: murder, corruption, gangs, and general chaos were just a part of daily life. The constitution was only twenty years old, and the Bill of Rights, including the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, was only ratified in 1791. So what happened if you got caught committing a crime? Some of that depended on how much money you had, or if you were unlucky enough to end up in Bridewell Prison. Of course, there was always the chance of escape…
Paddy Hirsch provides some information on what life might look like for a criminal at the end of the eighteenth century in New York City.
- The city had three prisons. The New Gaol was reserved as a debtors’ prison, and stood just north of the Common, on the south eastern edge of what is now City Hall Park. The Bridewell Prison was located on the north west edge of the same piece of ground, along Broadway. A new State Prison, known as the Newgate, was situated up the Hudson, in Greenwich.
- The Bridewell Prison was notorious for having no windows. Imprisonment in the Bridewell was considered tantamount to a death sentence, which is why Aaron Burr fled New York after his duel with Alexander Hamilton, fearing he might be incarcerated there.
- The debtors’ prison was essentially self-governed. The inmates lived in wildly different conditions, depending on how much support they could expect from family and friends. Some lived in the cellars in filth and misery, while others had comfortable rooms on the upper floors, and even servants.
- On the afternoon Thursday June 13, New York was shaken by reports of a prison break from Newgate. A group of 50 or 60 convicts employed as shoemakers “seized upon their keepers” and made “a most daring attempt” to escape from the state prison. The attempt started well, but “they were soon discovered by the guards and fired upon, wounding several, and the rest gave up.” The would-be escapees were locked up, but three or four days later, seven of them managed to get out “under the cover off the darkness and storm.” The Gazette reported, “They were naked when they left the prison walls behind them.”
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