Auburn, New York- Points of Interest

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Auburn State Prison

(Not open to the public), 133 State Street., bordering the Owasco Outlet on the south and Wall St. on the north, dominates the city skyline with tall smokestacks rearing from behind its concrete walls. The State Street gate is in the castellated Gothic style. The old main building was replaced in 1939 by a modern structure. ' Copper John, ' the metal figure of a soldier which was perched atop the old building, has been transferred to the new one and remains the institution's mascot. The ambition of inmates is to look him in the face, which can be accomplished only from outside the prison walls.

The prison accommodates between 1,500 and 1,750 inmates; the products of its industries, with a value of about $600,000 a year, include cloth, school and office furniture, all the auto license plates and road signs for the State, baskets, brooms, and iron beds.

The original prison was constructed in 1816 on land donated by Auburn citizens, and the first building was patterned after the then typical congregate system. A small band of reformers, led by John Griscom of New York City, secured passage in 1819 and 1821 of laws requiring construction of solitary cells, the favorite prison reform panacea of the day. Since the laws did not specify the size of the cells, the contractor and the first warden, interested in economy, hit upon the smallest area in which a man could both lie dow and stand up: 3 1/2 x 7 x 7 feet. These cages were erected in rows, back to back, and piled several tiers high, forming the first cell-block, which became the model of American prison architecture for the next hundred years and is still in use in Auburn in a modified form. It was soon discovered that, while the solitary convicts became anything but penitent and insanity increased among them, the prisoners in the old congregate rooms were earning profits for the prison by laboring for outside contractors. The "silent system" was devised in 1823 by John Cray, Elam Lynds, and Gersham Powers, whereby the inmates were taken out of their cages during the day and marched in lockstep to the contractors' shops, where they worked under strict rules of silence, infractions being punished by the generous use of the "cat-o-nine tails."

Though public indignation was frequently aroused by the brutal excesses of punishment, the system gained official favor because of the economy of cell construction and the returns from contract labor. In 1825 Captain Elam Lynds took a crew of Auburn prisoners as his construction force to what is now Ossining and built Sing Sing on the Auburn cell-block pattern. After 1876 the more liberal discipline of the Elmira Reformatory gradually replaced the unnatural silent system. Long before that date, however, efforts had been made at Auburn to modify the harsh discipline. In 1847 whipping was replaced by the "shower-bath" the convict was fastened in stocks and cold water was poured over him.

Thomas Mott Osborne (1859-1926), one-time head of D.M. Osborne & Company, was appointed State prison commissioner in 1913 and began his duties by serving a week's term in Auburn under the name of Tom Brown. To him a fellow-prisoner suggested the organization of the Mutual Welfare League as a means of fitting the prisoners for social life. Osborne introduced the plan, and although his league came to a bloody end at Auburn in the riots of July and December 1929, in which several convicts and a keeper lost their lives, the principle of enlisting the co-operation of inmates remains a feature of modern penology.

Fort Hill Cemetery

19 Fort Street., includes a hill that once formed part of the ramparts of Fort Alleghan, believed to have been erected by the prehistoric mound builders. Artifacts taken from the site are in the State Museum, Albany, and in the Cayuga Museum of History and Art. Near the mound are the grave of William H. Seward and the 30-foot Logan Memorial. Logan (1725-80), famous Indian orator and pacifist, was the white man's friend until in 1774 a group of white ruffians murdered his family in the Ohio Valley. In retaliation he gathered a party of warriors and began murdering whites up and down the countryside. Later in the same year, in a meeting at which he laid down his arms, he delivered an oration, a bitter indictment of white inhumanity, that is one of the most moving documents in Indian history. "Logan never felt fear," he concluded. He will not turn his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one!'

The Seward Mansion

(Private), 33 South St., a brick, vine-covered post-Colonial home, stands in the center of a five-acre plot with Lombardy poplars, locust and cherry trees, and cast-iron griffins in the front yard. The house was built in 1816 by Elijah Miller, Seward's father-in-law. Here during the Civil War period Seward entertained many political leaders, American and foreign. In the small park adjoining the mansion is a statue of Seward.

William H. Seward (1801-72), born in Orange County and graduated from Union College, practiced law in Auburn and was elected to the state senate at the age of 29 by the anti-Masonic party. Later he followed Thurlow Weed into the Whig party and was elected governor in 1838. But his program of school expansion and internal improvements aroused antagonism, so that in 1843 he retired to his law practice in Auburn. After Horace Greeley and Weed had succeeded in absorbing most of the Free Soilers, Abolitionists, and Liberty Party into the Whigs, Seward was elected to the United States Senate, where he served from 1849 to 1861. By 1860 he was prominent enough to be a contender for the presidential nomination won by Lincoln. He was Lincoln's secretary of state, and an attempt on his life was made on the same day Lincoln was assassinated: a man named Payne stole into Seward's home and wounded him and his son. Seward was largely responsible for the purchase of Alaska in 1867; called 'Seward's Folly' and 'Seward's Frog Pond,' it has since paid for itself many times over.

The Memorial City Hall

South St. near Genesee St., built in 1930, is a fine Georgian structure designed by Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott, Boston architects. The building, of red brick with limestone trim and a wood protico of four Ionic columns, is a memorial to David Munson Osborne, manufacturer of agricultural machinery and mayor from 1879 to 1881.


Website: The History
Article Name: Auburn, New York- Points of Interest
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY......New York--A Guide to the Empire State
Publisher: Oxford University Press--New York
Copyright: 1940 Compiled by the workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of New York and sponsored by New York State Historical Association.
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