A Tour of the Tombs: A New York City Prison
 

 
 
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Leaving Broadway at Leonard or Franklin streets, one finds himself, after a walk of two blocks in an easterly direction, in a wide thoroughfare, called Centre street. His attention is at once attracted by a large, heavy granite building, constructed in the style of an Egyptian temple. This is the Tombs.

The proper name of the building is "The Halls of Justice," but it is now by common consent spoken of simply as the Tombs. It occupies an entire square, and is bounded by Centre, Elm, Franklin, and Leonard streets. The main entrance is on Centre street, through a vast and gloomy corridor, the sternness of which is enough to strike terror to the soul of a criminal. Within the walls which face the street, is a large quadrangle. In this there are three prisons, several stories high. One of these is for men, the other for boys, and the third for women. The gallows stands in the prison yard, when there is need for it, all executions of criminals in this city being conducted as privately as possible.

The prison is one of the smallest in America, and is utterly inadequate to the necessities of the city. It was built at a time when New York was hardly half as large as the metropolis of to-day, and is now almost always overcrowded to an extent which renders it fearful. It is kept perfectly clean, its sanitary regulations being very rigid. It is very gloomy in its interior, and is one of the strongest and securest prisons in the world.
 

No lights are allowed in the cells, which are very small, but a narrow aperture cut obliquely in the wall, near the ceiling, admits the sunshine, and at the same time cuts off the inmates from a view of what is passing without. Besides these, there are six comfortable cells located just over the main entrance. These are for the use of criminals of the wealthier class, who can afford to pay for such comforts. Forgers, fraudulent merchants, and the like, pass the hours of their detention in these rooms, while their humbler, but no more guilty brothers in crime are shut up in the close, narrow cells we have described. These rooms command a view of the street, so that their occupants are not entirely cut off from the outer world.

The Bummer's Cell

The main cell in the prison is a large room, with a capacity for holding about two hundred persons. It is known as the "Bummer's Cell." It is generally full on Saturday night, which is always a busy time for the police. The working classes are paid their weekly wages on Saturday, and having no labor to perform on the Sabbath, take Saturday night for their periodical dissipation, comforting themselves with the reflection that if they carry their revels to too great an excess, they can sleep off the bad effects on Sunday.

From sunset until long after midnight on Saturday, the police are busy ridding the streets of drunken and disorderly persons. As soon as a person is arrested, he is taken to the Toombs, or one of the station houses. It is the duty of the captain in charge of the precinct to lock up every person thus brought in. He has no discretion, and he is often compelled to throw those of whose innocence he is satisfied, into the company of the most abandoned wretches for an entire night. Drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and fighting are the principal charges brought against the Saturday night inmates of the Bummer's Cell. Many visitors to the city, by yielding to the temptation to drink too much liquor, pay for their folly by an acquaintance with the Bummer's Cell. They lose their self control in the splendid gin palaces of the city, and when they recover their consciousness find themselves in a hot, close room, filled with the vilest and most depraved wretches. The noise, profanity, and obscenity, are fearful. All classes, all ages, are represented there. Even little children are lost forever by being immured for a single night in such horrible company. The females are confined in a separate part of the prison. No entreaties or explanations are of the least avail. All must await with as much patience as possible, the opening of the court the next morning.

The Tombs Police Court

The Court opens at six o'clock on Sunday morning. It is presided over by Justice Joseph Bowling, a short, thick-set man, with a handsome face, and a full, well-shaped head, indicating both ability and determination. Judge Dowling is still a young man, and is one of the most efficient magistrates in the city. His decisions are quickly rendered, and are generally just. He has a hard class of people to deal with, and this has made him not a little sharp in his manner. A stranger is at once struck with the quick, penetrating power of his glance. He seems to look right through a criminal, and persons brought before him generally find it impossible to deceive him. This has made him the terror of criminals, who have come to regard an arraignment before him as equivalent to a conviction, as the one is tolerably sure to follow the other. At the same time he is kind and considerate to those who are simply unfortunate. Vice finds him an unrelenting foe, and virtue a fearless defender. So much for the man.

As soon as the Court is opened, the prisoners are called up in the order of their arrival during the previous night. Here drunkenness without disorder, and first offences of a minor character, are punished with a reprimand, and the prisoners are discharged. These cases constitute a majority of the arrests, and the number of persons in the dock is soon reduced to a mere handfull. The more serious cases are either held for further examination or sent on trial before a higher court.

All classes of people come to the Justice with complaints of every description. Women come to complain of their husbands, and men of their wives. The Justice listens to them all, and if a remedy is needed, applies the proper one without delay. In most instances, he dismisses the parties with good advice, as their cases are not provided for by the law.

A Sad Case

Some of the cases which are brought up before the Tombs Court are deeply interesting. We take the following from the report of the General Agent of the New York Prison Association:

The case referred to is that of a woman indicted for burglary and grand larceny. She was guilty, and she felt and acknowledged it. She had lived in a neighboring city for the last six years, and for the last three years on the same floor with the complainant, and the consequence was they were very friendly and intimate. Her husband sustained a severe injury from a fall, and has since been in declining health, earning nothing for the last eighteen months. At length his mind gave way and his friends advised his removal to the Lunatic Asylum. He had been an inmate for six months, and his wife frequently visited him, always contributing to his wants and comforts. He improved so rapidly that the doctor informed his wife that on the following week, if the weather proved clear and fine, he should discharge him.

The wife felt anxious to make her home more than ever cheerful and her husband happy, but she had no means. She thought of the abundance of clothing her neighbor possessed, and that some articles could be spared for a short time, probably without detection; and if she should be detected before she could redeem them, her friend would excuse her. She devised means to enter, and conveyed to the pawnbroker's two parcels of clothing, upon which she realized nine dollars; she made some purchases for the house, redeemed a coat for her husband, and then started for the asylum for the purpose of fetching him to her home. But on her arrival there, the physician told her that he had left a few hours before, that he was well and happy, and that she must keep him so. On her return home the larceny had been discovered, and the property found at the pawnbroker's; it had been pledged in her own name, and where she was well and favorably known. An officer was waiting, and she was taxed with the crime; she had destroyed the duplicate. The complainant gave her into the custody of the officer, but promised to forgive her if all the property was recovered. The husband went to his friends, and they advanced funds to redeem the property. It was returned, and also a hat paid for which had been taken.

I carefully examined into this case and all its surroundings. The woman had sustained the reputation of being a sober, industrious, honest person; her state of mind was truly distressing, her greatest fear was that her husband would relapse, and she would be the cause of all his future misery. I submitted all these facts to the district attorney; he could not consent to any compromise, and again referred me to the county judge, who would not yield a title. Counsel having been assigned, a plea of guilty of grand larceny was put in by him, and she was remanded for sentence until Saturday. I felt very unhappy at her condition. On Friday evening I endeavored to find the district attorney, but failed; on Saturday morning I wrote him and asked him to concede that she could not be convicted of burglary, and then, was it not very doubtful whether she could be convicted of any thing more than petit larceny? If so, I urged him to consent to the withdrawal of the plea put in by her counsel, and then permit it to be substituted by one of petit larceny. My proposition met with favor; its suggestions were adopted, and the prisoner, instead of ignominy in the State Prison, was sent to the Penitentiary for three months. The woman is now in a situation at work, but her mind is ill at ease, as her husband has not been heard of since her imprisonment.

Saved In Time

"A member of an eminent firm in this city," says the gentleman from whose report the above case is taken, "called upon me with a request that I would visit a youth, aged seventeen years, now in the Tombs, charged upon his complaint with embezzling various sums of money whilst in their employ as collecting clerk. He felt anxious I should see him, and then advise what should be done. The next morning I repaired to the prison, and had the youth brought from his cell, when he made the following statement: That he lived and boarded with his widowed mother and sisters in a neighboring city, where also he had taken an active part in all their religious meetings and enterprises. He thinks he experienced a great moral change when first he became a member, and until of late had made religious duties his greatest delight. He had regarded his family as one of the happiest that could be found. Some seven or eight months since he was introduced to the firm referred to, and they engaged his services, agreeing to give him five dollars per week. He was soon appreciated by his employers, and they advanced his salary to seven dollars a week, out of which he paid his mother for board five dollars, and one dollar for his weekly fare on the railroad. This left him but one dollar for his own use.

He soon became acquainted with other collecting clerks, with whom he took lunch, first a sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then dinners and dessert. In this way the money of his employers disappeared. He could not charge himself with any one special act of extravagance. He felt, he said, ashamed of himself, and deeply pained before God, and wondered that he could not see and feel before that he has sinned grievously. I now urged him to conceal nothing, but tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, and to pause and consider before he answered the next question I should put to him, as it was a very serious one. 'How long would it take to induce him, with solemn purpose of heart, to resolve, unalterably resolve, never to be guilty of a repetition of crime, never to spend a cent belonging to another?' The penalty for his offence was from one year to five in a State prison. I then begged him to inform me how I should approach his honor the judge, before whom he must be brought if prosecuted. Should I ask the court to show him mercy, and send him but for two years? or would it require a longer sentence to effect a permanent change in his life? He wept distressingly, and said: 'Oh, save me from such a fate, if not for mine, for my mother's sake. Beg and pray of the firm to show me mercy, and I will be careful and honest for the future.' One of the gentlemen called upon me and inquired if I had seen this youth."

I replied that I had. 'Then what do you advise?' I asked if it was known in the house that the lad was a defaulter. 'To none but my partner' he replied. Then, said I, the best advice I am capable of giving is, forgive him, ask the court to discharge him, and take him back again into your office. I am happy to say that my advice was adopted. The youth was discharged, forgiven, and taken back again into the house, and is now performing his duties with alacrity, very grateful to the Association, and more especially to the firm for their noble conduct in this matter. That young man has no doubt been saved from a career of crime.

Religious Services

The prisoners confined in the Tombs are provided with the means of hearing divine service every Sunday. The Roman Catholic clergy have the exclusive privilege of ministering to the spiritual wants of the women and children, and for this purpose have quite a nice little chapel fitted up in the female department of the prison. The Sisters of Charity preside over this part of the prison at all times, and no one is permitted to interfere with them.

The Protestant clergy are permitted to preach to the male prisoners in the main corridor of the prison. The preacher stands on the platform at the upper end of the passage, and the prisoners in their cells can hear him without seeing him. They pay little or no attention to him, but receive their friends in their cells, or employ themselves according to their own fancies during the preaching. The bummers are grouped in the corridor just below the preacher, and are called out from time to time by the keepers, as they are wanted in the court room. The minister is frequently annoyed and embarrassed by the shouts; jeers, and imitations of the prisoners in their cells.


 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Tour of the Tombs: A New York City Prison
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City, by James Dabney McCabe (aka Edward Winslow Martin) Published: Philadelphia, Chicago, Jones Brothers & Co., 1868
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