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10.1177/0096144203253771
JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY / July 2003
Gilfoyle / AMERICAS GREATEST CRIMINAL BARRACKS

AMERICAS GREATEST CRIMINAL BARRACKS


The Tombs and the Experience of Criminal Justice
in New York City, 1838-1897
TIMOTHY J. GILFOYLE
Loyola University Chicago

New York Citys Halls of Justice, better known as the Tombs, was the physical representation of nineteenthcentury criminal justice. Considered by many to be the most famous prison on the continent, the Tombs contained the entire corpus of criminal law: judges, juries, magistrates, attorneys, courtrooms, and cells of incarceration. The daily operation, living conditions, and organization of the Tombs departed sharply from
nineteenth-century ideas of penal reform. The Tombs embodied an ideology more reminiscent of older,
preindustrial forms of punishmentthe absence of penal routine and labor; the lack of special diets; few
prisoners locked in separate cells; and easy access to family, friends, games, and recreation. The treatment of
the incarcerated depended less on penal ideology and more on informal procedures and personal relationships between law enforcement authorities and inmates. The Tombs ultimately symbolized the inadequacies
of nineteenth-century urban criminal justice: the abuse of bail, pigeonholed indictments, and a corrupt fee
system. Rather than the state imposing the conditions of punishment, inmates negotiated with a variety of officials regarding not only prison conditions but sometimes their legal status.
Keywords: the Tombs; criminal justice; police; urban jails; penitentiaries

How did nineteenth-century New Yorkers experience the criminal justice


system? For the indicted and the accused, the Tombs was the physical representation of criminal justice. Officially known as the Halls of Justice, the structure initially contained the entire corpus of criminal law: judges, juries,
magistrates, attorneys, courtrooms, and cells of incarceration. By the 1870s,
Sinclair Tousey of the Prison Association wrote that the Tombs has so often
been described by the press, that nearly everybody knows something about it.
Considered by many to be the most famous prison on the continent, the
Tombs was Americas greatest criminal barracks.1
The architecture of Gothams jail represented the labyrinthian dangers of
the urban underworld. By one account, the Tombs was vast, lofty and forbidding, . . . an echoless quarry of cold, unpitying stone. George Foster referred
to the Tombs as a grim mausoleum, a foul lazar-house of polluted and festering humanity. The very name of the Tombs was suggestive of death. Were
AUTHORS NOTE: I am indebted to Mary Rose Alexander, Elliott J. Gorn, Helene Greenwald, Craig
Wilder, and Michael Willrich for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this article.
JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY, Vol. 29 No. 5, July 2003 525-554
DOI: 10.1177/0096144203253771
2003 Sage Publications

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Figure 1: The Tombs: Halls of Justice, Publisher: W. Heine, 1850


SOURCE: Museum of the City of New York. Reprinted with permission.

it a veritable sepulchre [sic] it could not look more dreadful, wrote the Tribune
in 1887. The Tombs appropriately served as the final setting for the demise and
death of the protagonists in Herman Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener and
Pierre.2
Sensational melodrama remains what most remember about the Tombs.
Indeed, historians not only know little about the actual history of the Tombs;
the experience of jail in the United States remains largely unstudied.3 Constructed between 1835 and 1838 with materials from the old Bridewell and
white, Maine granite, New Yorks Halls of Justice faced Centre Street and
occupied the entire block bounded by Elm, Leonard, and Franklin streets.
Designed by architect John Haviland, the prison was reportedly modeled after
an Egyptian mausoleum found in John Stevenss popular travelogue Stevens
Travels. Almost immediately, the building was nicknamed the Tombs. Until
its destruction in 1897, the Tombs was the nations largest jail.4
The original Tombs housed 173 individual cells and 2 police court cells for
males and females, each capable of holding up to two hundred prisoners. In
addition, the Courts of General and Special Sessions; the First District Police
Court; the House of Detention; and the offices of the district attorney, sheriff,
and clerk were located in the Tombs. Most of these courts and officials offices
later moved to the new courthouse building (better known as the Tweed

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Figure 2: The Tombs, Engraved by J. Clement, 1892


SOURCE: Museum of the City of New York. Reprinted with permission.
NOTE: Engravings and printed views of the Tombs tended to exaggerate the prisons physical size.

Courthouse) in 1872. And by 1880, the constant overcrowding of inmates led


to the construction of two more buildings in the courtyard, increasing the number of cells to 303.5

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Figure 3: The Tombs Prison, N.Y., ca. 1870s


SOURCE: Museum of the City of New York. Reprinted with permission.
NOTE: As this photograph reveals, the Tombs was not as physically imposing as portrayed by
other images of the structure.

Inside, the main hall was divided into four tiers of cells, connected by narrow stairways and heated by two large stoves. Cells were eight feet long, six
feet wide, and eleven feet in height. Each contained a single bed thirty inches
wide and was lighted by a narrow window only twelve by three inches in
size. Tiers were allegedly divided by class of criminal. The bottom tier was
reserved for lunatics; delirium tremens cases; and convicted felons prior to
their removal to state prison, Blackwells Island, or the gallowshence the
name Murderers Row. The second tier was occupied by those charged with
murder, robbery, and the higher grade of crimes; while those charged with
lower grade crimes such as burglary and larceny were relegated to the third
tier. The uppermost level was filled with misdemeanants and petty criminals.6
Almost upon opening, the Tombs suffered from physical decay. Because the
stone edifice was constructed on the sinking, marshy landfill of the old Collect
Pond, dampness pervaded the entire structure. The unstable foundation
quickly produced four-inch cracks in some walls. As early as 1844, the wide
fissures and lumpy stairways that rattled at the touch of a foot convinced
George Wilkes that the Tombs was a miserable architectural abortion. Sewage regularly backed up through the drains into lower-level cells, while cesspools and pipes underneath the police court overflowed, permitting the

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Figure 4: The Tombs: Murderers Row, Photo: Richard Hoe Lawrence, ca. 1890
SOURCE: Museum of the City of New York, the Jacob A. Riis Collection, 90.13.1.90. Reprinted
with permission.
NOTE: This photograph by Richard Hoe Lawrence and sometimes erroneously attributed to Jacob
Riis illustrates the small cells in the Tombs, including those for prisoners awaiting execution.

effluvium to enter the courtroom. By the 1880s, sewer gas permeated the
Tombs ventilation system and individual cells, nearly suffocating the men confined there, claimed an official. One reporter believed living conditions in the
Tombs were comparable to the steerage quarters on a steamship. The difference is, he concluded, there is more fresh air in steerage quarters.7

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Overcrowding made these physical conditions even worse. City officials


admitted as early as 1850 that doubling and tripling up was a necessity. By
1860, with less than 300 cells, the Tombs regularly incarcerated between 400
and 600 persons. Consequently, nearly every cell contained 2 prisoners, sometimes 3. In January 1894, for example, only 280 cells were available for the 581
inmates. A year later, a grand jury concluded that the institution was utterly
inadequate to house the number of prisoners sent to it.8
When cells were doubled up, inmates usually slept on the narrow berth
found in each cell, each one sharing his pillow with the others feet. Just imagine, wrote Charles Gardner, two fat men being compelled to share a bed
thirty inches wide on a hot night in an atmosphere so stifling that an ordinary
human being would swelter if compelled to remain in it! In periods of severe
overcrowding, Tombs officials sometimes strung up hammocks for a third or
even fourth prisoner. Otherwise, they slept on the floor. I neednt say that I
had not slept a wink during the night, for the stone floor was the hardest bed I
ever laid my hand on, and the mice that scampered around me in droves were
very careless of my feelings Gardner remembered.9
Some never even had the floor. Five- to ten-day prisonersvagrants,
drunks, and minor offenderswere confined to a large, converted office room.
Nicknamed the bummers cell, bummers hall, or the ten day house,
accounts after 1860 claimed that various rooms used for the cell were as small
as twelve by thirty feet but held up to two hundred individuals. If they were
lucky, they slept on nothing but the stone floor. More often, wardens admitted, inmates sat around without beds and without sleep until they are
moved.10
The combination of overcrowding and deteriorating physical conditions
made the Tombs a sanitary nightmare. Drinking water came from a rooftop
tank where the water festered under the hot rays of the summer sun. Upon
reaching the faucets in the cells, the water was pretty near the boiling
point . . . and unfit to drink. Bathing facilities were worse. Since the Tombs
was built with no such provision in mind, few were given the opportunity to
bathe. Furthermore, bed sheets were changed every six or seven weeks, and
inmate clothing was never washed unless prisoners paid for the laundry services. Only in the 1890s were prisoners finally compelled to bathe every Saturday afternoon. But even then, the facilities were rusting, cold-water bath tubs
in converted cells.11
The Tombs was more than just an unsanitary, overcrowded jail; it was
Gotham writ small, a gathering place of nineteenth-century urban society, as
many commentators attested. All classes are seen here, admitted the Rev. J.
F. Richmond, from the ignorant imbruted [sic] bully to the expert and polished villain. While sensationalized accounts focused on murder, passion,
and deviance, most Tombs prisoners were not convicts. More often, those
incarcerated were individuals awaiting trial and too poor to afford bail.12 The
overwhelming majority (95 percent by 1895) of Tombs and other police court

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TABLE 1

New York City Police Court Cases, 1875-1895


Total

Male

Female

1875
1876
1877
1878
1879
1880
1881
1882
1883
1884
Ten-year total

84,399
87,307
79,865
78,533
65,344
68,477
67,135
66,867
70,701
74,647
743,275

60,331
63,789
57,859
56,004
46,631
49,801
48,998
49,625
51,471
54,317
538,826 (72%)

24,068
23,518
22,006
22,529
18,713
18,676
18,137
17,242
19,230
20,330
204,449 (28%)

1885
1886
1887
1888
1889
1890
1891
1892
1893
1894
Ten-year total

75,042
75,744
81,976
83,617
83,440
85,069
91,078
88,711
85,362
101,620
851,659

54,350
56,531
62,587
63,477
63,395
65,978
71,748
68,490
67,143
79,872
653,571 (77%)

20,692
19,213
19,389
20,140
20,045
19,091
19,330
20,221
18,219
21,748
198,088 (23%)

1895

112,719

91,033

21,686

SOURCE: Board of Police Justices of the City of New York, Second Annual Report for the Year
1875 (New York, 1876), 4-5; Board of Police Justices of the City of New York, Third Annual Report
for the Year 1876 (New York, 1877), 3-4; Board of Police Justices of the City of New York, Twelfth
Annual Report for the Year 1885 (New York, 1886), 4; New York City Board of City Magistrates,
Twenty-Second Annual Report for 1895 (New York, 1896), 3; unmarked clipping, December 1,
1885, vol. 15, District Attorney Scrapbooks, New York City Municipal Archives and Records Center; Mary Roberts Smith, The Social Aspect of the New York Police Courts, American Journal of
Sociology 5 (1899): 147; New York State Assembly, Report of the Select Committee Appointed by
the Assembly of 1875 to Investigate the Causes of the Increase of Crime in the City of New York
(New York, 1876), 41.

defendants were arrested summarily and without process, that is, without a
warrant.13 By the mid-1870s, New Yorks police courts annually disposed of
more than eighty-four thousand cases, equivalent to one of every nine male
residents. Indeed, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the total
number of men arrested every five years roughly equaled New York Citys
entire male population (see Table 1). Tombs justice thus became a commonly
shared experience not only for the lawbreaker but for transient working-class
men. For these reasons, Eugene Debs later argued that every community
should have at least as much interest in the condition and management of its
jail as it pretends to have in its schoolhouse.14
The overwhelming majority of Tombs inmates were prison casesindividuals charged with a criminal violation but unable to procure bail. For them,

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incarceration in the Tombs was a Kafkaesque experience. Once inside a Tombs


cell, prisoners encountered a corrupt and confusing array of runners, steerers, drummers, shyster lawyers, and straw bondsmenTombs vermin in the words of Congressman Mike Walsh. Criminal attorneys routinely
hired Tombs guards (called keepers) and other officers of the court as runners who were always on the lookout for a prize, namely, an arrested individual with money. In return for being touted, some lawyers paid keepers for
the referral (usually half the fee), thereby doubling their salaries. Other keepers allowed outside steerers and drummers working on behalf of certain
criminal attorneys to interview different prisoners, determine who had
money or friends, and then intimidate them into choosing their lawyer for legal
representation. Nearly all claimed they enjoyed influence with judges or the
district attorney. Numerous attorneys complained that it was next to impossible for a lawyer to represent any clients in criminal cases unless he resorts to
bribing keepers in the Tombs.15
Tombs keepers were frequently described as a rough set of men, governed
by money considerations only. In 1875, only 14 keepers guarded the 450 to
500 prisoners, a ratio of more than 30 prisoners for each keeper. They earned
such small salaries that most regarded extorting prisoners and sharing fees
with lawyers as their legitimate perquisites. Like those in the state prison
system, Tombs keepers were political appointees and not selected by the warden. Consequently, one state assembly report concluded that the Tombs warden possessed less power than the nearly irresponsible keepers. A lawyer
bluntly proclaimed, The keepers are absolute monarchs and in many cases
petty tyrants. Prison reformer Frederick Wines described Tombs keepers as
little better than . . . the inmates under his charge. A German visitor echoed
Wines, concluding that many of these jailers looked as if they ought to have
been among the prisoners.16
While awaiting trial, Tombs prison cases were not treated according to the
prescriptions of law but rather according to the social and economic status of
the accused. Up for sale were extended visiting hours, longer periods of exercise, free movement within the prison, better food, and clean sheets. For a
price, inmates were allowed to walk from their cells to court without handcuffs. Some visited friends and saloons on the way. Bribed guards even sold
sexual favors. On Sunday afternoons, when everything was quiet, a woman
was allowed to pass through the front gate, enter a cell and be with a prisoner
for immoral purposes! wrote John Munro. If a prisoner was rich or had political influence, the Tribune alleged, he lived like a gentleman, surrounded with
every comfort. Matthew Hale Smith concurred, declaring that affluent prisoners lived in style while in prison.17
A single cell was among the most desirable privileges. The man of cleanly
habits, who has money, in the interest of common decency will surely try to
buy a separate cell, wrote one observer. Consequently, keepers routinely kept
six to ten cells located over the main entrance reserved for wealthy criminals.

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One attorney complained that the poor and friendless were placed in damp,
noisy cells on the lower tier, where a mop or broom is a total stranger. In
1875, a former prisoner testified that he shared a cell with four inmates while
eight nearby cells were entirely empty, kept doubtless in the hope of extorting
money from the prisoners for their use. George Foster found that inmates
along the more aristocratic corridors, enjoyed clean bed linen, books, and
comfortable surroundings. To the radical George Wilkes, the Tombs showed
how the rich man feels the benefits of government, while the poor man only
knows of its burdens and its restraints.18
Such disparities in treatment were legal. Tombs keepers were among a host
of municipal officeholders (sheriffs, tax collectors, excise officers, customs
officials, county clerks) who derived considerable legal income from fees. In
1890, a grand jury concluded that it was impossible to indict persons participating in the general system of corruption. Only the sheriff and arresting officer were prohibited from receiving a gratuity or reward for keeping a prisoner
out of jail or helping him find bail. Thus, jailers, clerks, deputies, and others
could legally accept feeslater called bribeson behalf of prisoners. Here
money governs everything, charged one attorney.19
Tombs authorities did little to hide these administrative policies. Indeed,
inmates with public or well-known reputations were labeled fancy prisoners
or stars because of the favors and special privileges they received inside the
Tombs. When Alderman Henry Jaehne was incarcerated for bribery, the World
remarked that despite being confined to a ten- by six-foot cell, Jaehne lives
well, . . . for he gets his meals from the Wardens kitchen, and is kept fully supplied with cigars by his friends. Charles Sutton, a former Tombs warden,
admitted that one wealthy prisoner, Edward S. Stokes, had a personal servant
who waited on him and brought food from a nearby restaurant. At times,
guards even allowed Stokes to leave the prison for short intervals. Former
police chief George Walling conceded that if one wants luxuries he has to pay
for them.20
Extravagant wealth was not a prerequisite to purchase Tombs privileges. In
1888, for example, shoplifters Kate Brown and Eliza Versa served thirty-day
sentences and paid warden Thomas Walsh twenty-five dollars weekly. In
return, they were never locked up during the day, roamed the Tombs freely,
enjoyed access to the wardens sitting room and garden, and had friends admitted at all hours. Similarly, when brothel keeper Matilda Hermann was denied
bail in 1891, she paid for special accommodations during her eleven days in
the Tombs.21
Tombs inmates also enjoyed a level of internal freedom unknown to the
twentieth-century prisoner. Daily visitors numbered more than three hundred
and frequently came and went with little supervision. It is easy to get into the
Tombs, admitted one visitor. Your business is not too closely questioned.
Entering on a side street, visitors met two guards, one standing by a desk and
the other by a narrow gateway. The guards recorded the name of each visitor

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and whom he or she wished to see, then issued an admittance ticket. Once
inside, visitors witnessed a scene of considerable confusion, with people
continually streaming in and out. One reporter described the balconies of
each tier alive with visitors, and, instead of sobs and expressions of remorse,
there was a general exhibition of good-humor and encouragement. While visitors usually met prisoners in their cells, at least until the famous escape by
William J. Sharkey in 1873, Fredrika Bremer was surprised to find prisoners
walking about, talking, and smoking cigars. Indeed, court officers admitted
that for five dollars per week, prisoners could walk throughout the Tombs
without handcuffs. Other inmates met with their wives privately in the counsel
room at night. In 1899, Tombs warden James J. Hagan admitted that women
prisoners were routinely released from their cells into the main corridor of the
Tombs where they congregated and were allowed to sit and lounge around the
rest of the day.22
In some respects, Tombs administrators had little choice but to allow
unusual levels of internal movement. Feeding large numbers of prisoners in the
Tombs, for example, was nearly impossible. The prison not only lacked a dining room but the kitchen was twenty-five by twenty-five feet in size, only modestly larger than that found in an ordinary dwelling house. Prisoners had no
choice but to eat their meals in their cells. Food, consisting of meat (or fish on
Fridays), vegetables, and potatoes, was served as a stew, eliminating the need
for knives and forks. For this wretched and stinted fare, inmates were
charged between twelve and twenty-five dollars per week.23
Inadequate kitchen facilities forced Tombs officials to permit family members and friends to bring in food to inmates. In time, an informal, privatized
system of feeding emerged whereby prisoners purchased their meals from
neighboring restaurants. Eventually, outside vendors were allowed to sell
food, cigars, and other items. Fredrika Bremer discovered dealers of various
goods wending about freely from tier to tier, shouting out what items were
for sale. Some wardens, like Thomas Walsh, allegedly extorted prisoners for
any food they ate, frequently at rates equal to first-class restaurants.24
Not surprisingly, visitors supplying inmates with food smuggled in other
items. Liquor was the most common contraband. Keepers reported finding
sandwiches and whole chickens concealing flasks of whiskey. Other prisoners
simply arranged with the keepers to smuggle in alcohol, which was then distributed among other prisoners. On one occasion, a murder suspect was
allowed to have so much liquor that when he went to court, he was too drunk
to respond to his name.25
Even access to legal assistance was for sale. Within the Tombs, a distinct
criminal attorney subculture emerged by midcenturyshyster lawyers in
the language of their critics. Such counselors were described as a lower
order of attorneys, a class peculiar to the Tombs, and seedy guerillas
attached to the outskirts of the legal camp. Tombs wardens like Thomas Walsh
acknowledged that a lot of shysters came daily fishing for clients. Walsh

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Figure 5: Tombs Interior


SOURCE: George Walling, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police (1887).
NOTE: The surveillance associated with modern prisons was absent in the Tombs. Note the large
number of visitors freely walking about the complex.

was warden for less than two weeks when one attorney came before him asking
to consult with a client. Before I had got through asking him for credentials a
second one came to see the same prisoner, remembered Walsh, then a third

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Figure 6: Tombs Prison Shyster Must Go


SOURCE: Unmarked clipping, July 11, 1886, vol. 22, District Attorney Scrapbooks, New York City
Municipal Archives. Reprinted with permission from the New York City Municipal Archives.
NOTE: Shyster lawyers were a source of complaint and ridicule, as illustrated in this newspaper
cartoon.

and presently a fourth put in an appearanceall claiming that they were


engaged, or would be, as the felons counsel.
George Foster mocked Tombs lawyers as turkey-buzzards, whose touch is
pollution and whose breath is pestilence. To George Wilkes, they were simply
bloodsucking lawyers.26
Despite such attacks, these attorneys were frequently effective. The good
ones sued for writs of habeas corpus, claiming their clients were illegally
deprived of their liberty. This often took the case out of the hands of the police
court justice. Most were successful, as procuring a writ was easy if the proper
complaint was filed, and refusal to grant such a writ was a misdemeanor for a
state supreme court justice. When a case came before a New York court, insufficient evidence usually led to the prisoners discharge. Although procuring a
writ cost only twenty-five cents, lawyers charged fees between ten and twentyfive dollars, which defendants viewed as preferable to three months on
Blackwells Island. Prostitutes adopt this plan to get free, complained one
writer, despite that fact that their lovers often are the most dangerous rowdies in the city.27
The free flow of people in and out of the Tombs made for easy escapes,
which some commentators described as quite common. For example, while
roaming the halls, pickpockets often heisted the pass tickets of visitors, used

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those tickets to walk out of the Tombs, and were long gone before anyone
noticed. Because record keeping was sloppy, however, it was impossible to
know with any precision the frequency of such breakouts.28
Lax disciplinary procedures in the Tombs gave some the impression that the
inmates ran the asylum. In some respects, they did. Ten-day prisonersconvicts with comparatively light offences and numbering between twenty-five
and thirtydid most of the cleaning, repair, and kitchen work. They also
enjoyed certain harmless liberties, such as eating at tables. Such inmates had
little desire to run away, their terms being short and the penalty of attempted
escapes being severe. Consequently, they roamed about the Tombs doing
their work without much interference.29
In extreme cases, some became voluntary inmates. One Irish immigrant
named Duffy willingly lived in the Tombs for more than twenty years. An alcoholic with a knowledge of Greek and Latin, he performed unpleasant tasks like
cleaning drains and sewers. In consideration of these services he is allowed to
reside in the Tombs, and serve the prisoners with papers, and do other little
chores to turn a penny, testified warden Charles Sutton. Similarly, Mary Valentine was a voluntary inmate in the Tombs for twenty-five years. An alcoholic
by early adulthood, she requested incarceration in the Tombs to control her
drinking habit. When her sentence expired in 1854, she refused to leave and
eventually became a tier woman, responsible for prisoners on the tier.
Reportedly, over time, Valentine grew to love the place, leaving the Tombs
only twice a yearon New Years Day and the Fourth of July.30
The combination of overcrowding, lax security, and inmate maintenance
allowed for considerable interaction among the incarcerated. Unlike the
enforced isolation at Eastern State Penitentiary or hard labor and the lockstep
at Sing Sing, Tombs inmates constantly socialized with each other, much to the
chagrin of many observers and prison reformers. By 1850, the Tombs commingled innocent and guilty inmates, a fact Tombs Warden W. Edmonds admitted
was the great evil of this establishment.31
This problem was hardly unique to the Tombs. The mixing of criminal and
noncriminal populations was so commonplace that in 1877, prison reformers
in New York deemed the common jail as a leading facilitator of crime. County
jails were so poorly run that observers charged they bred contempt for authority and hostility to the law. Rather than discouraging wrongdoing, jails encouraged vicious indulgence and revenge upon society, educating many to find
the best methods of success in criminal undertakings. Simply put, in the
words of Frederick Wines, every jail is a school of vice.32
These tales of carceral laxity may strike contemporary readers as outrageous. But nineteenth-century law never specified how jails should be structured or provided guidelines for the management of such institutions. Every
jail was dependent upon common sense and the enlightenment of a constantly changing board of supervisors, most of whom never saw another penal
institution and knew little regarding the requirements of a prison. Wardens

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and keepers alike were selected not because of merit or qualification but rather
because they happen to be backed by a certain quantity of ward politicians.
by Tammany officials and their allies to establish a regular brigandage.33

POLICE COURT

Sooner or later, Tombs prison cases had their day in court. After being
confined to an overcrowded detention pen, defendants were brought to the
police court and placed before the judge and the bridge, a raised platform
where the complainant, usually a police officer, stood. Beside the judge sat
clerks and police attendants collecting fines or taking down complaints, many
of whom were described as frequently brusque and discourteous. Here a
judge examined prisoners, received complaints, issued warrants, took bail, and
discharged all the business of the police court.34
Below the bridge and separated by a railing was the defendant, surrounded
by a scene described by some as bedlam. Noise and disorder were the order of
the day (or night). Cases were heard quickly with little deliberation or orderly
presentation of evidence. Lawyers might be shouting at each others witnesses, all while the magistrate is with difficulty trying to preserve order.
Attorneys screamed epithets at each other, frequently invoking the language of
ruffianism and blackguardism. By many accounts, prisoners did not
know what was going on and that the hearing was one only in name. In general, the court room presented an appearance of confusion and lack of dignity.35
Under such conditions, judges made hasty decisions. Magistrates, wrote
one critic, fire sharp and decisive justice at the prisoners, as out of a Gatling
gun. Many consulted all sorts of persons with no direct or proper interest in
the case. While listening to cases before them, judges often processed legal
documents and made facetious, sometimes positively vulgar, comments in
the intervals, wrote another. While signing the commitment for prisoner A,
wrote one reporter. the Justice is swearing in the officer in the case of prisoner
B, and the officer has given his evidence before he has quite made up his mind
whether he kissed the cleanest part of the binding of the Bible. Another
reporter recounted how he was once inebriated and hauled into Tombs police
court. The police officer whispered to the Judge, the Judge winked mysteriously, the officer smiled satanically, the Judge noddedmy trial was over. I
was convicted, sentenced. A defendant undoubtedly felt his or her insignificance under such conditions, wrote one attorney; he is merely one of a huge
multitude of miserable people who are all in the same box.36
Since police courts required no prosecuting officer and lacked a chief magistrate, judges retained enormous power. They often heard the charge of the
police officer and the explanation of the prisoner and then rendered an immediate verdict. Sentencing was inconsistent since each judge had his own idea

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Figure 7: Scene at the Tombs Police Court


SOURCE: Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, February 1, 1873.

Figure 8: Tombs Police Court


SOURCE: J. F. Richardson, New York and Its Institutions (1871).
NOTE: Police courts differed from courtrooms with juries. Note the absence of a jury box, the elevated position of the judge, the separation of judge and defendant by the bridge, the various clerks
standing around the judge, the considerable space reserved for spectators, and the crowding of
the accused between the bridge and spectators.

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about proper punishment. The penalty inflicted upon a prisoner, complained


one inmate, depends less upon what he or she has done than upon his or her
luck finding a sympathetic judge.37 In theory, cases involving doubt, argument, or proof were remanded to the Court of General Sessions for a jury trial,
a right that all convicted police court defendants enjoyed. Few, however, were
advised of such rights. By the 1890s, 79 percent of all police court cases went
without appeal. In effect, magistrates not only acted as both judge and jury but
as prosecuting attorneys and counsel for the prisoners.38
Most important, police court judges enjoyed summary jurisdiction over all
offences classed as disorderly conduct, violations of corporation ordinances
(i.e., peddling without a license), Sabbath law infractions, disposition of persons alleged to be insane, and vagrant or suspicious behavior. These powers
convinced Mayor Abram Hewitt that police court magistrates were more
important than judges on the court of appeals: the latter finally settles the law,
but the former applies it in the first instance, in nearly all cases affecting the
life, liberty, and property of the citizens. Police courts were, in effect, the
great clearing house of crime, The Poor Mans Court of Appeals. 39
Others were more sanguine. The police magistrate, wrote one, is generally an absolute autocrat in the cases that come before him. The wheels of justice moved so swiftly against wrongdoers, wrote another observer, that the
innocent has a chance to being locked up for several days, without redress.
Together, police officers and police court judges were transformed into the
regulators of personal conduct in society. Their jurisprudence was so inept,
charged David Dudley Field in 1878, that appealed cases were nearly half the
time sent back for retrial.40
Some critics of police court justice blamed democracy. Prior to 1895, police
court judges did not even have to be attorneys. Consequently, complained the
Times in 1861, judges were elected by the acclaim of bar-room rabbles.
George Walling believed that some magistrates were not only illiterate but
controlled in a great measure by the very elements they are called upon to
punish and keep in check. Numerous observers noted that police justices were
subject to the constant interference of politicians on behalf of prisoners.
Upon taking their seat on the bench, they protected any partisan or friend who
happens to be convicted before them. George Templeton Strong concluded
that police court magistrates were elective, worthless, and corrupt, more
accurately described as ministers of . . . injustice.41
Others believed that police court justice favored the rich. In 1860, the Times
rued that men of wealth and position have little . . . to fear from police court
magistrates. In 1876, state officials admitted that in New York, the rich criminal has a decided advantage over the poor criminal. District Attorney
DeLancey Nicoll, himself a member of an old-time Knickerbocker family,
conceded that in New York, the rich can go practically unpunished, unless
their crime is so glaring as to make their immediate trial imperative, while the
poor have to receive the penalty of their offense in every instance.42

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BAIL CASES

The great divide in the distribution of justice at the Tombs centered around
access to bail. Defendants charged with misdemeanors and certain felonies
were routinely granted bail if they pledged money or property to guarantee
their future appearance in court. In theory, bail assumed defendants were innocent and ensured that they show up for trial or else forfeit the posted property or
bond. In reality, however, bail was unaffordable for most defendants; their
resort was a private bail bondsman who placed their capital or property as bond
while charging the defendant a fee (usually 10 percent of the bond).43
By the mid-nineteenth century, bail in New York was an unregulated commercial enterprise riddled with abuse. Prisoners with little or no property
employed professional, bogus, or straw bondsman, sometimes for as little as five or ten dollars. Such bondsmen routinely offered real estate for bail
and shortly thereafter secretly transferred title to that property to another individual. If the defendant forfeited the bail for failing to appear for trial, there
was no property or collateral to confiscate.44 Bondsmen, like shyster lawyers,
were touted and notified by court officers and jail attendants in return for
sharing their profits. One reporter described the straw-bail man as an individual who can own real estate at a moments notice. The real estate owned
by straw bondsmen, satirized another court observer, lies this side of the lowwater line at Hoboken, and being of an aquatic, marshy nature, whose survey
has to be made in a boat, its barriers are naturally adapted for the process of
bailing out. By the 1860s, critics described New Yorks system of bail as little better than a sham and a mockery.45
In 1876, at least two straw bail gangs reportedly did a flourishing business earning several hundred dollars per week before the police arrested several members. The Tribune reported that only ten straw bondsmen worked in
the city and that most of the business was broken up. But by the 1890s,
another organized band of men ran an network providing phony bail. Members of such gangs engaged in perjury, employed fictitious names, and repeatedly used the same piece of real estate as collateral. The practice was so
lucrative that such bondsmen recruited small property owners and petty proprietors in invest in bail bonds, promising returns of up to 10 percent. One
paper cynically reported that many bail bondsmen do not own enough real
estate for the building of a dog kennel.46
At times, bail abuse bordered on the comic. In 1896, when a male fugitive
with an expired bond failed to appear in court, bondsman Leopold
Hirschkowitz tried to substitute an Italian female defendant. When court officers discovered the attempted subterfuge, Hirschkowitz apologized, promising to bring the right person the next day.47
More significant, securing bail was tantamount to acquittal. An 1876 state
investigation concluded that defendants able to procure bail were effectively
released from further prosecution. Numerous elected officials concurred.

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The district attorneys office was so badly managed that important criminals
were discharged not only without good reason but without the knowledge of
the district attorney. Criminals who furnished bail or bribed officials pursued
their vocations untried and in no apprehension of trial, wrote the World. Not
only was the trial of a bail case the rarest occurrence, but almost any criminal who has money and influence can escape punishment.48
In some instances, even conviction did not mean punishment. In 1867,
police court justices Richard Kelly and Joseph Dowling admitted convicted
parties were often discharged on bail, allegedly to allow for review of their
cases. In no instance, however, was the writ served upon either the justices or
the clerk. In at least thirty-seven cases, some of whom were the worst of their
class, individuals escaped punishment altogether by raising bail and supposedly having the proceedings reviewed by a higher tribunal. Even for those
convicted and sentenced to prison, lawyers often successfully appealed their
cases, obtained a writ of habeas corpus, and posted bail. Out on bail nowadays is practically out for good, wrote one observer in 1887.49
Those with the right political connections secured more than just bail.
Indictments were often pigeonholed and never prosecuted by the district
attorney.50 In 1875, district attorney Benjamin Phelps admitted that disorderly
house, gambling, and excise indictments were so numerous they were almost
impossible to try. Excise violationsdive cases in the vernacular of the
periodenjoyed a two-year statute of limitations, encouraging bailed defendants to seek court delays. So plentiful were excise infractions, complained the
Sun, that it is a thousand to one against a man arrested for violating the Excise
law ever getting as far as the court room door. Even when convicted, most
simply paid the fine and reopened under a new name. Since defendants
retained the right to a jury trial, the court of general sessions, Phelps insisted,
would have nothing else to do if prosecutors vigilantly pursued all such
cases. In 1887, former police superintendent George Walling claimed that the
district attorney routinely failed to prosecute thousands of cases, accumulating there in the pigeon-holes for years and years; most of them are covered
with dust and many of them are actually mouldy [sic] with age.51
The precise number of pigeonholed indictments was and remains impossible to measure. Walling claimed twenty thousand existed by 1887. Later estimates were much more cautious. In 1892, the Telegram counted six thousand
pigeonholed indictments in the district attorneys office, thirty-two of which
were for murder. In 1895, the Sunday Advertiser reported that fifteen hundred
forgotten indictments were discovered, covering the years 1863 to 1883. Not
surprisingly, the indicted included dive keeper Theodore Allen, State Senator
Michael Norton, theater owner Jacob Aberle, and several prominent gamblers.
Some were even discharged in the custody of future police chief Thomas
Byrnes, who consented to be responsible for them. By the early twentieth
century, Arthur Train estimated that 75 percent of all cases were disposed of by
court recommendation because of the difficulty of obtaining convictions.

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The great wrong done to this community, complained one observer, is the
fact that some men if they have money and influence can commit crime and
never be tried.52
Straw bondsmen, phony bail, and unprosecuted indictments flourished for
multiple reasons. First, city courts were poorly administered. In 1875, Prison
Association investigators charged that defective and falsified record keeping
was commonplace. Sheriffs and other officials failed to keep jail registers;
county clerks neglected filing monthly records with the secretary of state, as
required by law; well into the twentieth century, police court clerks not only
failed to document the fines collected but admitted to depositing such fines and
other court funds in their personal bank accounts. In other cases, clerks willingly falsified, mutilated, or destroyed public documents in return for bribes,
allowing defendants to escape trial. The absence of any index made identification of repeat offenders impossible. When bonds were issued by different
police court judges, they were mixed indiscriminately before being sent to the
Court of Special Sessions in the Tombs. Others were simply wrapped in a bundle and marked by month; locating a specific bond thereafter was nearly
impossible. Bondsmen thus knew that failure to repay would not result in their
prosecution. Prisoners were released on bonds for good behavior, later arrested
on another charge, and released again on a similar bond. A policeman takes a
disorderly character to court, and hears him put under bonds, wrote one
observer. When he returns to his post his late prisoner is there before him,
with his finger at his nose. Needless to say, this taking of bonds is a perfect
farce.53
Furthermore, a veil of secrecy covered the criminal justice process. The
docket of cases was closed to the public, making it impossible to learn the
schedule and disposition of individual cases. Bondsmen were never regulated
or adequately monitored, allowing defendants and bondsmen alike to play fast
and loose with their obligations. On other occasions, the district attorneys
office was simply unable to verify the collateral of bondsmen. Finally, courts
were hindered by an overload of cases, so expeditious judges routinely lumped
disparate cases togetherespecially those of prostituteseven if they
occurred at different times and places.54
Most important, the bail business was driven by politics. One observer
charged that if a man has friends, political influence, or money, he can readily
procure bail. One newspaper editorialized in 1885 that if judges prosecuted
bondsmen when prisoners reappeared, the result would be a panic among the
politicians and professional bondsmen, and disreputable characters would go
to Blackwells Island instead of being released to prey on the community.55 In
the end, the well-connected and well-financed criminal purchased his release,
while the needy and friendless individual went to jail.

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Figure 9: Tearing Down the Tombs Prison


SOURCE: Frank Moss, The American Metropolis (1897).
NOTE: The first Tombs was destroyed in 1897, but two more structures by that name were built in
the vicinity during the twentieth century.

CONCLUSION

When there is no justice, wrote Augustine of Hippo, what is the state but
a robber band enlarged?56 For those arrested in nineteenth-century New York,
the Tombs embodied such a robber band enlarged, a legal system dominated
by unscrupulous keepers, shyster lawyers, straw bondsmen, and inept judges.
While legal theorists argued (and still do) that a purpose of law is to prevent felonies by punishing those who commit them, the reality in nineteenth-century
New York was much different. Bail was abused because, in part, New York and
other American municipalities relied upon commercial concerns to assume the
risk of bonding defendants. Indictments were pigeonholed because of inadequate administrative oversight. Guards sold privileges because of poor pay and
a fee system that encouraged it. For many of the incarcerated, the Tombs represented not a legal system but a structure of inequality if not illegality. In 1895,
the sociologist A. G. Warner had the Tombs in mind when he observed that
local and lower-level representatives of the statepolicemen, police justices,
sheriffs, sheriffs deputies, jail-keeperswere only a shade, if at all, better
than the criminals themselves. Warner echoed Augustine, concluding that
the classes that tend to criminality cannot but infer that the state is fundamentally as criminal as themselves.57

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The legal, administrative, and physical abuses associated with the Tombs
and Gothams police courts spawned several generations of reform. Indeed,
the judicial reforms promulgated by the Page Commission in 1910, the Inferior
Criminal Courts Act of 1910, and the Samuel Seabury report in 1932 were the
by-product of the inequities associated with New Yorks nineteenth-century
criminal justice system. A centralized judicial bureaucracy with specialized
branches replaced the negotiated and informal system found in the Tombs.
New courts were created to address specific forms of criminal behavior and
make the administration of justice more efficient, exemplified by a domestic
relations court (1910) and womens courts (1907 and 1910). Police courts
were transformed into magistrates courts with new and more specialized
jurisdictions. In the courtroom itself, officials physically removed the bridge
and brought defendants closer to the magistrates desk. Complaint clerks were
moved to a separate room. In 1911, for the first time, silence was required in
police courtrooms. In time, officials sought to eliminate political abuses by
prohibiting judges from holding executive positions in political organizations
and reforming the bail system.58
Finally, the daily operation, living conditions, and organization of the
Tombs departed sharply from nineteenth-century ideas of penal reform. The
Tombs embodied an ideology more reminiscent of older, preindustrial forms
of punishmentthe absence of penal routine and labor; the lack of special
diets; few prisoners locked in separate cells; and easy access to family, friends,
games, and recreation. Although the Tombs was constructed simultaneously
with new, experimental forms of incarceration, jails and penitentiaries shared
little similarity. Tombs and other officials permitted casual, unregulated systems to emerge, not the isolating institutions of total surveillance over all modern penitentiary inmates so well described by recent historians.59 The
treatment of the incarcerated depended less on penal ideology and more on
informal procedures and personal relationships between law enforcement
authorities and inmates. Rather than the state imposing the conditions of punishment, inmates negotiated with a variety of officials regarding not only
prison conditions but sometimes their legal status.

1. Prison Association of New York (hereafter, PANY), Thirtieth Annual Report for 1874, Senate Doc.
78 (Albany, 1875), 68 (Tousey, everybody); John Josiah Munro, The New York Tombs, Inside and Out!
(Brooklyn, 1909), 17 (criminal barracks); Alfred Trumble [Richard K. Fox], The New York Tombs: Its History and Its Mysteries (New York, 1881), esp. 5 (most famous); Augustine E. Costello, Our Police Protectors: History of the New York Police (New York, 1885), 507.
2. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, The Newsboy (New York, 1854), 90-2 (touch is death); Charles Dickens,
American Notes (London, 1842), 83-6; George Foster, New York in Slices; By an Experienced Carver (New
York, 1849), 5 (palace), 19-22 (lazar-house); Charles Sutton, The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and Its Mysteries (New York, 1874), 274 (O horror!); Tribune, May 29, 1887 (sepulchre); Herman Melville, Bartleby,

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The Scrivener. A Story of Wall Street, Putnams Monthly Magazine, November/December 1853, pp. 54657, 609-15, reprinted in Howard P. Vincent, ed., Bartleby the Scrivener (Kent, OH, 1966); Herman Melville,
Pierre, or, The Ambiguities (London, 1923), 502-5. Descriptions of the Tombs were frequently linked to an
exploration or plunge into Five Points. See Wyn Kelley, Melvilles City: Literary and Urban Form in
Nineteenth-Century New York (New York, 1996), 94-161. For other accounts of the Tombs, see Fredrika
Bremer, The Homes of the New World; Impressions of America, vol. 2 (New York, 1853), 603-9; Junius
Henri Browne, The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York (Hartford, NJ, 1869), 528-34; J. H. Green,
Twelve Days in the Tombs; or, A Sketch of the Last Eight Years of the Reformed Gamblers Life (New York,
1850), 70-80; James D. MacCabe [Edward Winslow Martin], Secrets of the Great City (Philadelphia, 1868),
98-105; Munro, New York Tombs; Arthur Pember [A.P., the Amateur Vagabond], The Mysteries and Miseries of the Great Metropolis (New York, 1874), 159-79; J. F. Richmond, New York and Its Institutions,
1609-1871 (New York, 1871), 514-8; Joel Ross, What I Saw in New York (Auburn, NY, 1852), 78-81; Matthew Hale Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (Hartford, CT, 1868), 165-72; Trumble, The New York
Tombs, esp. 5; George W. Walling, Recollections of a New York Chief of Police (New York, 1887), 296, 3908; George Wilkes, The Mysteries of the Tombs: A Journal of Thirty Days Imprisonment in the New York City
Prison for Libel (New York, 1844).
3. In the United States, a jail is generally a county or municipal prison for the purpose of short-term
incarceration. Few studies exist on the history of jails in the United States, much less New York City. State
and federal penitentiaries have attracted a far larger body of historical examination. On the relatively small
body of historical literature on jails and police courts, see Sean McConville, Local Justice: The Jail, in
Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, eds., The Oxford History of the Prison (New York, 1997), 296-327;
Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York, 1993), 48-50, 166-8, 2369, 469. On the lack of historical work on the criminal justice process, see Lawrence M. Friedman and Robert
V. Percival, The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1981), 5. A good overview of the evolution of the inferior court judicial apparatus appears in
Michael Willrich, City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago (New York, 2003). On
criminal justice in other locales, see Allen Steinberg, The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia,
1800-1880 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1989); Michael Hindus, Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and
South Carolina, 1767-1878 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1980).
4. New York Evening Post, April 1, 1837 (Egyptian); New-York As It Is (New York, 1839), 24
(Haviland); Sutton, New York Tombs, 48; Governors of the Almshouse, Second Annual Report for 1850
(New York, 1851), 4 (marshy); Trumble, New York Tombs, 5-6 (proportions), 38; Munro, New York Tombs,
31. Trumbles work is largely derived from Suttons, even extracting chapters from Sutton. On the history of
New York City jails and the naming of the Tombs, see Sutton, New York Tombs, 20-49. In 1897, New York
opened a new city prison, closing for the last time the original Tombs. For a description and drawing of the
new Tombs, see Sun clipping, February 19, 1897, vol. 162, District Attorney Scrapbooks, New York City
Municipal Archives and Records Center (hereafter, DAS). Charles Dickens reported that the name Tombs
was a cant name originating because of several suicides in the early years of the prison. See Dickens,
American Notes. No work by John Stevens titled Stevens Travels appears in National Union Catalogue:
Pre-1956 Imprints, vol. 568 (Chicago, 1978), 454-66. No image like the Tombs appears in John Stevens,
trans., A New Collection of Voyages and Travels, into Several Parts of the World, 2 vols. (London, 1711); or
in John Stevens, A New Collection of Voyages, Discoveries and Travels, 7 vols. (London, 1767). In the latter,
vol. 6, p. 133 has an image of Ptolemys Marble Watch Tower, which is the only Egyptian image in the seven
volume collection. By 1870, the Tombs was one of five major carceral institutions directly attached to the
police courts under the jurisdiction of the Commissioners of Charities and Correction. Other jails served
various police courts but lacked the extensive facilities of the Tombs and were little more than holding cells
with no beds. In most cases, incarcerated inmates stayed no longer than one night. The other major carceral
institutions were the Workhouse and Penitentiary on Blackwells Island, the School-ship Mercury and
Harts Island. See New York State Assembly (hereafter, NYSA), Report of the Select Committee Appointed
by the Assembly of 1875 to Investigate the Causes of the Increase of Crime in the City of New York (New
York, 1876), 102-17. Portions of Increase of Crime were plagiarized and appeared verbatim in Costello, Our
Police Protectors, 504. Other New York City jails included the New York County Jail (or the Ludlow Street
Jail), which opened in 1862 at Ludlow Street and Essex Market Place and was used only for the detention
and incarceration of those arrested upon civil process or charged with crimes under federal law. Police
courts, created in 1846, were located in the Tombs, Jefferson Market at Greenwich Avenue and 10th Street,
Essex Market at 69 Essex Street, Lexington Avenue and 57th Street, Yorkville, Harlem and Fordham. For
brief overviews, see Herald clipping, December 14, 1884, vol. 9; unmarked clipping, August 7, 1887, vol.

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38, both in DAS; Costello, Our Police Protectors, 503-10; Henry E. Howland, The Practice of Law in New
York, Century 62 (1901): 803-25.
5. Contemporaries were never consistent on the number of cells in the Tombs. Upon opening in 1838,
there were 143 males cells and 30 female cells. As new facilities were added, the number fluctuated over the
course of the century. At various times, some cells were converted to storage and other uses. See Morning
Journal clippings, January 8, 9, 1894, vol. 123, DAS. On the various numbers of cells, see Presentment of
the Grand Jury, January 1890, Box 88-GHJ-5, Mayors Papers, New York City Municipal Archives and
Records Center (hereafter, MP) (303 cells); Times, June 4, 1890 (303 cells); Tribune, June 16, 1895 (295
cells); Morning Journal clippings, January 8, 9, 1894 (280 cells; 292 cells broken down as follows: old
prison, 142; new male prison, 80; female prison, 45; young mens prison, 25), vol. 123; unmarked clipping,
August 31, 1895 (298 cells), vol. 145; Sun clipping, April 8, 1896 (271 cells for 449 inmates), vol. 153, all in
DAS; Frank Leslies Illustrated Weekly, October 16, 1896 (296 cells for 500 inmates). The capacity of the
Tombs was similar to the leading penitentiaries constructed in antebellum America. Eastern State Penitentiary (1835) had 400 cells, Trenton State Prison (1833) had 192, Western State Penitentiary (1829) had 170.
See Blake McKelvey, American Prisons: A Study in American Social History Prior to 1915 (Chicago,
1936), 11-2. On the jurisdictions of various courts, see Howland, Practice of the Law in New York, 818;
Times, April 25, 1910; Train, Prisoner at the Bar, 57-9, 81; To Reform Courts of Inferior Jurisdiction, Survey 24 (April 30, 1910), 178.
6. Tribune, June 29, 1895; Charles Gardner, The Tombs Mint, Morning Journal, August 12, 1894
(cells), vol. 130; Sun clipping, April 8, 1896 (caves; 5 8 cells, windows), vol. 153, both in DAS. On the
tiers, see New York State Senate (hereafter, NYSS), Proceedings Before the Special Committee of the New
York State Senate (Albany, 1876), 72; Sutton, Tombs, 50-1, 331-2; Helen Campbell, Thomas W. Knox, and
Thomas Byrnes, Darkness and Daylight: or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (Hartford, CT, 1891),
339; Trumble, New York Tombs, 6; Walling, Recollections, 398; Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, February 1, 1873 (Murderers Row). For examples about the frequent stories on murderers in the Tombs, see
National Police Gazette, December 31, 1881. Charles Dickens reported that the first tier housed only African Americans. See Dickens, American Notes. On folklore of Murderers Row, see Herbert Asbury, All
About the Town (New York, 1934), 184-5.
7. Wilkes, Mysteries of the Tombs, 10; Governors of the Almshouse, Second Annual Report for 1850, 4
(small cells); Sun clipping, April 8, 1896 (stairways, sewer gas, steerage, foul air), vol. 153; unmarked clippings, February 8, 1887 (elluvia), vol. 30, all in DAS; Times, February 9, 1887; Sutton, Tombs, 51; Browne,
Metropolis, 529 (poisonous, nuisance). On the dampness of the Tombs, see NYSA, Increase of Crime, 103;
Trumble, New York Tombs, 7; Walling, Recollections, 394; Tribune, June 16, 1895. The Collect was filled in
between 1800 and 1816. See Frank Leslies Illustrated Weekly, March 29, 1873. Other examples of physical
deterioration and lack of sanitary conditions appear in unmarked clipping, August 7, 1887, vol. 38; Morning
Advertiser clippings, July 27, 1895, vol. 144; unmarked clipping, October 5, 1885, vol. 13; unmarked clipping, December 21, 1895; Morning Advertiser clipping, December 21, 1895 (disgrace), both in vol. 149,
all in DAS; Richmond, Institutions, 516; Frank Moss, The American Metropolis, vol. 3 (New York, 1897),
68-9; Harpers Weekly, June 8, 1867; Tribune, August 6, 1877 (tear down); National Police Gazette, March
22, 1879 (police court); Richmond, Institutions, 516; Frank Leslies Illustrated Weekly, October 16, 1896.
For rare examples of the Tombs being described as sanitary and orderly, see Herald, April 10, 1860; Tribune,
May 29, 1887; MacCabe, Secrets, 98.
8. Unmarked clipping, August 31, 1895 (428 in 298 cells), vol. 145; Morning Journal clippings, January 8, 9, 1894 (581 in 280 cells), vol. 123, all in DAS. On doubling up in the 1850s, see Governors of the
Almshouse, Second Annual Report for 1850, 4; Bremer, Homes, vol. 2, p. 605. For later accounts of overcrowding, see Sutton, Tombs, 52 (517 prisoners on December 31, 1872); Frank Leslies Illustrated Weekly,
March 29, 1873; Times, September 15, 1881; Gardner, Tombs Mint (every cell); Tribune, June 16, 1895
(295 cells), October 3, 1896; PANY, Thirtieth Annual Report for 1874, 70 (499 prisoners per day); Costello,
Our Police Protectors, 507; Walling, Recollections, 394; Browne, Metropolis, 529 (400 prisoners); Times
clipping, January 7, 1894 (550 prisoners), vol. 123; World clipping, June 5, 1895; Herald clipping, June 10,
1895, both in vol. 142; Morning Advertiser clipping, June 28, 1895; Sun, Times (grand jury), Morning Journal, Tribune, Recorder, and Mercury clippings, June 29, 1895, all in vol. 143; unmarked clipping, August 31,
1895, vol. 145; Sun clipping, April 8, 1896, vol. 153; Morning Telegraph clipping, April 21, 1900, vol. 190
(3-4 inmates/cell), all in DAS. On the 1883 legislation and its requirement to transfer prisoners to the sheriffs office and the county jail, see unmarked clipping, June 7, 1883, DAS. On the average, the Tombs housed
450 inmates. See Morning Journal clippings, January 8, 9, 1894, vol. 123, DAS. On prosecution of excise

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and misdemeanor cases clogging the courts and overcrowding in the Tombs, see MacCabe, Secrets, 98-9;
unmarked clippings, August 31, 1895, vol. 145; December 3, 1895, vol. 148, both in DAS.
9. Sun clipping, April 8, 1896, vol. 153; Gardner, Tombs Mint (fat men); World clipping, October 3,
1896 (tripling; quotes), vol. 159; Morning Journal clippings, January 8, 9, 1894 (4 and 5 per cell), vol. 123,
all in DAS; Tribune, June 29, 1895 (other mans face); NYSA, Increase of Crime, 59 (envy; 3-4 per cell). On
sleeping conditions, also see Morning Advertiser clipping, December 21, 1895, vol. 149, DAS. For other
descriptions of overcrowding in the Tombs, see Tribune, Morning Advertiser, Recorder, and other clippings,
July 27, 1895, vol. 144; clipping, February 29, 1896, vol. 152; World clipping, October 9, 1896, vol. 158;
Journal clipping, December 19, 1896, vol. 160; Times clipping, January 4, 1899, vol. 176, all in DAS;
Campbell et al., Darkness, 337.
10. Sutton, New York Tombs, 283 (bummers hall), 329 (ten day house); Tribune, June 29, 1895 (12
by 30 feet, stone floor); Costello, Our Police Protectors, 508-9 (four stories, 200 feet by 40 feet); PANY,
Thirtieth Annual Report for 1874, 68 (bummers hall); MacCabe, Secrets, 99-100 (bummers cell);
NYSA, Increase of Crime, 58 (5-10 day prisoners); Munro, New York Tombs, 31-3 (Special Sessions);
Trumble, New York Tombs, 6. In 1840, the Tombs had 143 mens cells and 30 womens cells. By 1890, only
80 more adult and 42 boys cells had been added. Meanwhile, New York grew from 300,000 to 1.8 million.
See Governors of the Almshouse, Second Annual Report for 1850, 47 (173 cells); unmarked clipping, May
29, 1887, vol. 35; Grand Jury Presentment, in Times clipping, June 29, 1895, vol. 143; unmarked clipping,
July 1, 1895 (295), vol. 143, all in DAS; Tribune, June 16, 29, 1895 (143 and 295 cells). The male cell was
150 square feet for men and one 216 square feet for women, each with a tiny window. See unmarked clipping, August 7, 1887, vol. 38, DAS. In 1875, bummers hall was divided into two stories, the ground floor
to be used by day, the upper floor as a lodging house. See PANY, Thirty-first Annual Report for 1875, Senate
Doc. 54 (Albany, 1876), 28. Before the construction of the Tombs, prisoners were confined to dungeons in
City Hall, the Provost or the Bridewell. See Richmond, Institutions, 514-7; Sutton, Tombs, 23-4, 51
(bummers hall); Smith, Sunshine and Shadow, 166 (200 in bummers cell); Campbell et al., Darkness,
339 (bummers hall); Grand Jury Presentment, in Times clipping, June 29, 1895, vol. 143, DAS.
11. Gardner, Tombs Mint (drinking water); NYSA, Increase of Crime, 59 (permitted to bathe; sheets);
NYSA, Special Committee Appointed to Investigate Public Officers and Departments of the City of New
York (Albany, 1900) (hereafter, Mazet Committee), May 31, 1899, p. 1313. On baths in the Tombs, see Times
clipping, January 7, 1894, vol. 123; World clipping, June 5, 1895; Herald clipping, June 10, 1895, both in
vol. 142; Morning Advertiser clipping, December 21, 1895 (claimed one tub per floor), vol. 149; Sun clipping, April 8, 1896 (claimed a dozen cells were converted to baths), vol. 153, all in DAS. On the internal
physical expansion of the Tombs and the prisoners loss of the open yard over time, see NYSA, Increase of
Crime, 106; PANY, Thirtieth Annual Report for 1874, 68; unmarked clipping, April 12, 1885, vol. 11; Morning Advertiser clipping, December 21, 1895, vol. 149, all in DAS. By the 1880s, prisoners were divided into
two squads to avoid crowding. For a fee, some prisoners were allowed to exercise with both squads, thereby
doubling their amount of exercise.
12. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 58-9; Richmond, Institutions, 516-7. On the wide variety of people
encountered in the Tombs (in both the jail and courts), see MacCabe, Secrets, 101; Munro, Tombs, 206; Foster, New York in Slices, 5. For complaints regarding the large number of innocent or noncriminal individuals
in the Tombs, see unmarked clippings, May 13, 1883; Daily Register clipping, January 16, 1886; unmarked
clipping, February 24, 1886, both in vol. 17, all in DAS; Governors of the Almshouse, Second Annual
Report for 1850, 4. In 1863, clerks in the criminal courts of Pennsylvania reported that more than half the trials resulted in acquittals. From 1873 to 1874, Michigan officials committed more than 17,000 individuals to
county jails. Seventy-five percent (13,000) were eventually released without conviction. In Pennsylvania,
2,819 defendants were acquitted in 5,650 trials. See Wines, County Jail System, 13.
13. Mary Roberts Smith, The Social Aspect of the New York Police Courts, American Journal of Sociology 5 (1899): 152 (95 percent). This appears to have been true in other U.S. cities. See Friedman, Crime,
150-1. Under new vagrancy statutes, the process of justice was summary. On sight or complaint, police
could arrest offenders and lock them up without bail until trial. No warrant was required for the arrest, and
suspects were tried without a jury and assumed guilty unless they could rebut police testimony with a good
account of themselves. This gave great power to police officers. See Amy Dru Stanley, Beggars Cant Be
Choosers: Compulsion and Contract in Postbellum America, Journal of American History 78 (1992):
1265-93, esp. 1278-80. On the fear of vagrants and beggars, see Warren, Thirty Years, 174-87, 195-256.
14. Eugene Victor Debs, Walls and Bars (Chicago, 1927), 45. Separating adult and teenage males in the
statistics below is difficult. In 1876 alone, New Yorks police justices convicted more than 9,500 youths 19
years old or younger, including more than 2,600 younger than 14. Most of those arrested gave New York

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City addresses as their residence. In 1876, 95 percent (82,620) of those arrested lived in the city. See Tribune,
December 30, 1876. The male and female populations of New York County between 1870 and 1900 are
shown in the following table:

Year

Male

Female
a

1870
1880
1890
1900

457,117
590,514
747,579
1,020,015

485,175
615,785
767,722
1,030,585

Total
942,292
1,206,299
1,515,301
2,050,600

a. 249,990 aged 21 or older.


See U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, The Statistics of the Population of the United States, vol.
1 (Washington, DC, 1872), 633; U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, Report on the Social Statistics of Cities, vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1886), 533; U.S. Department of the Interior, Census Office, Twelfth
Census of the United States: Population, Part I, vol. 1 (Washington, DC, 1901), 513 (for years 1880, 1890,
1900). By comparison, Chicagos inferior courts never processed 80,000 criminal cases annually until the
early twentieth century. See Michael Willrich, City of Courts.
15. Tribune, August 6, 1877 (pay tribute); Wilkes, Mysteries of the Tombs, 13-4 (pettifogers,
fraud); NYSS, Investigation of the Police Department of New York City, vol. 3 (Albany, NY, 1895) (hereafter, Lexow Committee), 3310-2 (keepers favor certain lawyers); World clipping, June 29, 1886 (bribing),
vol. 22; World clipping, December 20, 1896, vol. 160 (drummers); unmarked clipping, July 16, 1899, vol.
182 (steerers), all in DAS; PANY, Twenty-fourth Annual Report for 1868, Senate Doc. 10 (Albany, 1869),
3 (stripped); Tribune, June 26, 1886, July 8, 1886 (half the fee); Times, July 17, 1880 (lookout, prize). For
similar stories, see Tribune, August 6, 1877 (ring); World clipping, June 26, 1886; Tribune and other clippings, July 9, 1886, all in vol. 22; unmarked clippings, July 17, 1886, vol. 23; Times and other clippings, January 11, 15, 1887, vol. 30; Morning Advertiser clipping, May 18, 1896, vol. 154; Herald clipping (shyster)
and Morning Advertiser clipping, December 19, 1896; World clipping (warden), December 20, 1896, all in
vol. 160, all in DAS.
16. Frederick Howard Wines, The County Jail System: An Argument and Appeal for Its Abolition
(Springfield, IL, 1877), 14 (little better); Bremer, Homes, vol. 2, p. 605 (jailers); Tribune, August 6, 1877
(rough set, money considerations); Sutton, New York Tombs, 333-5 (drunk); NYSS, Proceedings Before the
Special Committee of the New York State Senate (Albany, 1876), 53 (14 keepers), 1093, 1095 (political influence); NYSA, Increase of Crime, 59 (irresponsible keepers); Tribune, August 6, 1877 (monarchs); World
clippings, June 26, 29, 1886 (perquisites), vol. 22; Gardner, Tombs Mint, all in DAS.
17. Tribune, August 6, 1877 (like a gentleman); Times, July 17, 1880 (list of privileges); Smith, Sunshine
and Shadow, 166 (in style); Munro, Tombs, 20 (sex).
18. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 105 (empty cells; extorting); MacCabe, Secrets, 99 (wealthier class);
Gardner, Tombs Mint (privileges; potent pull); Foster, New York in Slices, 21; Wilkes, Mysteries of the
Tombs, 23-4; Morning Advertiser, December 21, 1895 (separate cell, cleanly habits), vol. 149, all in DAS;
World, September 21, 1875 (best cells). Gardner paid $5 per week to both day and night keepers for a single
cell.
19. Morning Advertiser[?] clipping, April 4, 1890, vol. 72, DAS; Tribune, August 6, 1877 (money governs). For the statutory authorization of fees, see New York State Laws and Statutes, Draft of the Political
Code of the State of New York (Albany, 1859), 312-33. On the widespread abuse of fee collections, see Tribune, October 4, 1871; World, April 15, 1874; David Dudley Field, Municipal Officers (1879), in A. P.
Sprague, ed. Speeches, Arguments, and Miscellaneous Papers of David Dudley Field, vol. 2 (New York,
1884), 178-9; and the report of the so-called Roosevelt Committee in NYSA, Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Local Government of the City and County of New York, Assembly Doc. 125,
in Assembly Documents, vol. 8 (Albany, 1884), 2-12. On the fee system and its origins in British jails, see
McConville, Local Justice, 300-2; Reginald Heber Smith, Justice and the Poor (New York, 1924), 21-2.
On the excessive fees (totaling more than $77,000) charged by Sheriff Matthew Brennan, see Times, June
15, 1872. On the excessive fees in Ludlow Street jail during the 1870s, see Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New
York, 2001), 331-2. At least 14 states employed some type of fee system in their local jails into the early
twentieth century. See Joseph F. Fishman, Crucibles of Crime: The Shocking Story of American Jails
(Montclair, NJ, [1923] 1969), 69.

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20. Times, December 22, 1872 (fancy), July 17, 1880 (list of privileges); World clippings, March 24,
1886 (Jaehne), October 3, 1896 (stars), vol. 159, both in DAS; Sun, October 14, 1882 (stars); Sutton, Tombs,
94-6, 332-3 (Stokes), 491; Tribune, August 6, 1877 (meals furnished); Walling, Recollections, 397; Green,
Twelve Days in the Tombs, 70-80.
21. World clipping, February 5, 1888 (Brown and Versa), vol. 45, DAS; World, November 3, 1894
(Hermann, special accommodations); Lexow Committee, vol. 4, p. 4166 (Hermann).
22. Times, January 7, 1887 (300 visitors); Tribune, May 29, 1887 (easy to get into); Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, February 1, 1873 (good-humor); Costello, Police Protectors, 509 (few guards); Tribune[?] clipping, May 29, 1887 (visitors in cells), vol. 35, DAS; Tribune, December 15, 1879 (country people; indignant); Munro, New York Tombs, 232 (heroes and martyrs); Campbell, Darkness, 341; Bremer,
Homes, vol. 2, p. 605 (prisoners walking about); World, September 21, 1875 (no handcuffs); unmarked clipping, May 2, 1896 (meet with wives), vol. 154, DAS; Mazet Committee, May 31, 1899, p. 1310 (Hagan;
women prisoners). On the eve of his execution in 1888, Danny Driscolls wife claimed that she had a private
key to her husbands cell. See World clipping, January 21, 1888), vol. 44, DAS. Visitors were allowed
between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., but the warden had discretionary power to allow visitors at any time. See
NYSS, Proceedings Before the Special Committee of the NYSS (Albany, 1876), 74, 80 (discretionary
power). On the poor quality and corruption of Tombs keepers, see ibid, 45. On William J. Sharkey, his escape
and the ensuing legend surrounding it, see Sutton, Tombs, 485-97; Phil Farley, Criminals of America (New
York, 1876), 411, 518-25; Herald, November 20, 1873; Times, November 25, 26, 1873; Trumble, New York
Tombs, 42-4; NPG, July 5, 1879; Walling, Recollections, 393-6; Tribune, May 29, 1887, May 23, 1897;
Times, June 10, 1893; Herbert Asbury, All Around the Town (New York, 1934), 180-9.
23. Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper, March 29, 1873; NYSA, Increase of Crime, 59 (like dogs);
Tribune, June 29, 1895 (25 by 25); Morning Advertiser, December 21, 1895 (pans), vol. 149; July 1, 1895
clipping (kitchen), vol. 143, both in DAS; Mazet Committee, May 31, 1899, p. 1311-2, 1318 (Hagan). Prices
were $1.50 for dinner, 75 cents for breakfast, and 50 cents for supper. Individual items ranged from 10 cents
for coffee, 50 cents for dinner, and $1.80 for three eggs and coffee. Those wanting to use knives and forks
were required to apply to the warden for permission. Inmates generally received less than two ounces of
meat daily, potatoes only three times per week, and watered-down stews. See World clippings, February 5, 6,
8, 1888, vol. 45; World clipping, April 13, 1888 (wretched), vol. 47; unmarked clipping, July 1, 1888, vol.
50, all in DAS; Times, April 21, 1888.
24. Bremer, Homes, vol. 2, p. 605; Trumble, New York Tombs, 9 (smoking permitted); World clipping,
February 5, 1888, vol. 45; unmarked clippings, April 1, 1888, vol. 47; July 1, 1888, vol. 50 (Delmonico),
all in DAS; Mazet Committee, May 31, 1899, pp. 1311-2, 1318 (Hagan). On purchasing meals from restaurants, see Herald, April 10, 1860; Trumble, New York Tombs, 9. A later grand jury investigation exonerated
Walsh of these specific charges. See unmarked clipping, March 1, 1888, vol. 46, DAS. For a defense of
Walsh, see Star clipping, April 3, 1888, vol. 47, DAS. On the worthlessness of such investigations, see
unmarked clipping, April 9, 1888, vol. 47, DAS. Abe Hummel considered Walshs tenure as warden to be
the most disgraceful in the history of the Tombs. See ibid. Walsh finally resigned on April 12, 1888. See
Tribune, Times, World, and other clippings, April 13, 1888, vol. 47, DAS.
25. G. F. Britton to Abram Hewitt, January 11, 1888, Charities and Correction folder, Box 87-HAS-2,
MP (dressing; flasks of whiskey); unmarked clipping, May 22, 1896 (arranged with keepers), vol. 154;
unmarked clipping, January 26, 1895 (so much liquor), vol. 137, DAS. For examples of the visitors smuggling various goods into prisoners, see Press clipping, June 3, 1899, vol. 181, DAS; Trumble, New York
Tombs, 49. To control the supply of contraband, Tombs officials in the late 1880s briefly instituted a restaurant, enabling inmates to purchase food. See World clippings, February 5, 6, 8, 1888, vol. 45; World clipping, April 13, 1888 (wretched), vol. 47; unmarked clipping, July 1, 1888, vol. 50, all in DAS; Times, April
21, 1888.
26. National Police Gazette, July 19, 1879 (seedy guerillas); Wilkes, Mysteries, 13-4; Campbell, Darkness, 341-2 (class); Foster, New York in Slices, 20; unmarked clipping, September 10, 1887 (quack), vol. 39;
Herald clipping, January 16, 1887 (Walsh), vol. 30, all in DAS; Richard H. Rovere, Howe & Hummel: Their
True and Scandalous History (New York, 1947), 10-1 (1840s). For similar stories, see unmarked clipping,
August 25, 1894, vol. 131, DAS. The origins of the term shyster are unclear and disputed. The first
recorded uses of the term appeared after 1870. See Ashley Cockrill, The Shyster Lawyer, Yale Law Journal 21 (1912): 383-90. For other descriptions, see National Police Gazette, July 19, 1879; World, July 11,
1899; Eddie Guerin, I Was a Bandit (New York, 1929), 32. Folklore claimed that the term shyster lawyer
originated with the antebellum German-American lawyer Jacob Scheuster, who continually overstepped the
bounds of legal procedure. When other attorneys similarly tried to stretch the law, police justice Barnabus

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W. Osborne remarked, Oh, hes as bad as Scheuster, and later Hes a Scheuster. See Sun clipping,
December 26, 1896, vol. 161, DAS. Arguments and complaints on the decline in the quality of attorneys
appeared throughout the nineteenth century. Compare, for example, David Dudley Field, The Study and
Practice of the Law, Democratic Review 14 (1844): 345; and John R. Dos Passos, The American Lawyer: As
He WasAs He IsAs He Can Be (New York, 1907), 33-4, 76-7. On the professionalization of the bar in the
twentieth century, see Jerold S. Auerbach, Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America (New York, 1976). On lawyers fees including police protection, see Lexow Committee, vol. 4, p. 4179.
While Walsh promised to put an end to this system, others accused Walsh and later wardens like James J.
Hagan of working in alliance with such lawyers. See Herald clipping, January 16, 1887 (Walsh), vol. 30,
DAS. On Warden Hagan, see unmarked clippings, September 20, 1899; Press, Herald, and other clippings,
September 27, 1899, all in vol. 184, DAS.
27. Mail & Express clipping, September 9, 1884, vol. 9, DAS. For other complaints about shyster or
corrupt police court attorneys, see Times, July 17, 1886, December 21, 1891; unmarked clipping, April 6,
1885, vol. 11; Press clipping, November 26, 1894, vol. 134, both in DAS. In 1909, city magistrate Otto H.
Droege was removed from office for releasing disorderly women committed by him to the workhouse after
fees were paid to shyster lawyers representing the women. See Times, January 9, 1909, January 28, 1909.
On the persistence of sharks or shyster lawyers in the twentieth century, see To Reform Courts of Inferior
Jurisdiction, Survey 24 (30 April 1910): 178. Most courts had eliminated them by the 1920s. See Kate
Holladay Claghorn, The Immigrants Day in Court (New York, 1923), 230-1.
28. Trumble, New York Tombs, 49 (quite common). On pickpockets, see Times, January 31, 1873 (John
Russell, Donohoe). On escapes from the Tombs, see Tribune, June 14, 1893. George Walling claimed that
there were only 28 escapes from the Tombs between 1852 and 1887. See Walling, Recollections, 296. Other
accounts claimed there were no escapes from the Tombs from 1873 to 1892. See Times, June 10, 1893. For
accounts of escapes from the Tombs, see Times, July 6, 1872; January 22, 1887; December 16, 17, 1892;
June 10, 11, 1893; September 7, 8, 18, 19, 1888. On escapes for other jails, see unmarked clipping, July 2,
1899, vol. 182, DAS.
29. Tribune, May 29, 1887; Trumble, New York Tombs, 9 (ten-day prisoners). Such prisoners were later
called stripespersons who have graduated from the presumably innocent class into the guilty class and
work out their term in the prison there. See Mazet Committee, May 31, 1899, pp. 1310-1.
30. Sutton, Tombs, 83-4, 333, 338 (Duffy); Times, August 13, 14, 1879 (voluntary inmates; Valentine).
31. Governors of the Almshouse, Second Annual Report for 1850 (New York, 1851), 47-49; Governors
of the Almshouse, Fourth Annual Report for 1852 (New York, 1853), 44 (great evil); PANY, Twenty-Fourth
Annual Report for 1868, 2; PANY, Thirtieth Annual Report for 1874, 69; NYSA, Increase of Crime, 59;
Charles Gardner, The Tombs Mint, Morning Journal, August 12, 1894, vol. 130, DAS; Inspectors of the
State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 56th Annual Report for the Year 1885 (Philadelphia, 1886), 100 (first offenders); unmarked clipping, August 7, 1887, vol. 38; Morning Journal clipping,
November 4, 1894, vol. 133, both in DAS.
32. Wines, County Jail System, 9, 12-4.
33. Levi L. Barbour, Jails: A Paper Read at the Convention of the County Agents of the State Board of
Corrections and Charities of Michigan, (1885), 4-5, in Prisons Box, Warshaw Collection, Museum of
American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (common sense, enlightenment); NYSA,
Increase of Crime, 62 (qualification); Tribune, June 16, 1895 (brigandage). On the close relationship of
criminal law and Tammany Hall politics, see Raymond Moley, Our Criminal Courts (New York, 1930), 71.
34. Smith, New York Police Courts, 150 (Hewitt); Smith, Justice and the Poor, 10 (Poor Mans
Court). For similar views, see Warner, Politics and Crime, 290-1; Howland, Practice of the Law in New
York, 818.
35. To Reform Courts of Inferior Jurisdiction, Survey, 24 (April 30, 1910), 177-8; Times, April 4,
1910; June 28, 1910; July 15, 1910; Claghorn, Immigrants Day in Court, 220 (rough manner of police
attendants). Court reforms in 1910 based on the recommendations of the Page Commission finally removed
the complaint clerks to a separate room and took away the bridge to bring the defendant up to the magistratess desk.
36. Train, Prisoner at the Bar, 58-9; Smith, New York Police Courts, 150-1; Sutton, Tombs, 328 (drunk
reporter); Times, May 12, 1860 (ruffianism, blackguardism), March 20, 1881 (Gatling gun); World, May 17,
1875 (Prisoner A). For a similar description of summary justice, see Foster, New York in Slices, 20. On
judges ignoring police testimony, see William McAdoo, Guarding a Great City (New York, 1906), 317. On
the typicality of fast, assembly-line justice in lower courts, see Friedman and Percival, Roots of Justice,
120-5; Maureen Mileski, Courtroom Encounters: An Observation of a Lower Criminal Court, Law and

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Society Review 5 (1971): 473, 479. Only in 1911 did newly appointed Chief Magistrate William McAdoo
require silence in police courtrooms. See Times, January 14, 1911. Short trials were commonplace in AngloAmerican law. See J. S. Cockburn, A History of English Assizes, 1558-1714 (Cambridge, 1972), 109; J. H.
Baker, Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law, 1550-1800, in Cockburn, History of English
Assizes (Princeton, NJ, 1977), 38.
37. Times, October 23, 1909 (luck).
38. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 38-47, quote p. 44 (loading of responsibility); Richmond, Institutions,
517 (vast majority); Times, March 20, 1881 (Gatling gun), October 23, 1909 (luck); Conkling, City Government in the United States, as quoted in Smith, New York Police Courts,, 149 (regulators), 150 (autocrat),
151 (79 percent); Train, Prisoner at the Bar, 61, 57-9 (defendants guilty until proven innocent); Munro, New
York Tombs, 206 (redress). On the lack of any permanent chief judge in the court of special sessions and the
police court contributing to the neglect of administrative work, see To Reform Courts of Inferior Jurisdiction, Survey 24 (April 30, 1910): 178. On the operations of New York courts, see Smith, Sunshine and
Shadow, 572-3. For complaints about police court judges only working two to five hours per day and three
out of every four weeks, see Herald clipping, December 14, 1884, vol. 9; World clipping, May 29, 1887, vol.
35, both in DAS; Times, May 4, 1890. The courts were served by squads of police attached to each court who
served papers, ran errands, and performed other duties. On the persistence of judicial discretion and inconsistency, see Claghorn, Immigrants Day in Court, 220-9.
39. Smith, New York Police Courts, 150 (Hewitt); Smith, Justice and the Poor, 10 (Poor Mans
Court). For similar views, see Warner, Politics and Crime, 290-1; Howland, Practice of the Law in New
York, 818.
40. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 38-47, quote p. 44 (loading of responsibility); Richmond, Institutions,
517 (vast majority); Times, March 20, 1881 (Gatling gun), October 23, 1909 (luck); Conkling, City Government in the United States, as quoted in Smith, New York Police Courts,, 149 (regulators), 150 (autocrat),
151 (79 percent); Train, Prisoner at the Bar, 61, 57-9 (defendants guilty until proven innocent); Munro, New
York Tombs, 206 (redress); David Dudley Field, Municipal Officers (1879), in Sprague, Speeches, vol. 2,
p. 177. Judicial offices were made elective with the adoption of a new state constitution in 1846. See
Howland, Practice of the Law in New York, 806.
41. Times, January 4, 1861 (quote); NYSA, Increase of Crime, 41 (interference); Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds., The Diary of George Templeton Strong, vol. 4 (New York, 1952), 241, 271 (1869);
Smith, New York Police Courts,, 146 (not attorneys); Walling, Recollections, 599; Tribune clipping, July
2, 1895, vol. 143; Tribune clipping, April 24, 1890, vol. 73, both in DAS. State law was contradictory regarding eligibility for police justices, indicating that no person is eligible to the office [of police justice] except a
counselor-at-law. See State of New York, The Political Code of the State of New York (Albany, 1860), 184.
By 1890, the judges earned $8,000 annually, double the salary of a U.S. district court judge. For complaints
about the lack of legal training for police court justices as early as the 1860, see Times, May 14, 1860;
Walling, Recollections, 599; NYSA, Increase of Crime, 44. For other examples of judges releasing prisoners
with influence, see Times, February 16, 1880. On complaints by organized labor regarding the bias of the
citys criminal justice process (as evidenced in sentencing procedures), see Edward T. ODonnell, Henry
George for Mayor! Irish Nationalism, Labor Radicalism, and Independent Politics in Gilded Age New York
City (New York, forthcoming), esp. chap. 6. I am indebted to Prof. ODonnell for permitting me to read this
in manuscript form.
42. Times, May 14, 1860; NYSA, Increase of Crime, 52; NYSS, Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the
Inspectors of State Prisons [for 1872], Senate Doc. 30 (Albany, 1873), 236; unmarked clipping, February 9,
1891 (Nicoll), vol. 82, DAS. For later evidence on inequities in the administration of criminal between the
rich and poor, see Smith, Justice and the Poor.
43. On bail as grantable as of course in nearly all misdemeanors, see Seymour D. Thompson, Bail in
Criminal Cases, Criminal Law Magazine 6 (January 1885): 6-7. On the history of bail, see McConville,
Local Justice, 311-3. Like the U.S. Constitution, New Yorks state constitution of 1846 prohibited excessive bail. See Thompson, Bail in Criminal Cases, 44-5. Despite such limits, some American communities
employed excessive bail as a form of detention. See Friedman and Percival, Roots of Justice, 161-3.
44. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 51. On the extensiveness of judicial discretion, see Thompson, Bail in
Criminal Cases, 10-37. Straw bail was criticized by James Gordon Bennett as early as the 1840s. See
Herald, January 21, 1843.
45. National Police Gazette, July 26, 1879 (owners of property); Sun, August 30, 1885 (pocket the
money); PANY, Twenty-Fifth Annual Report for 1869, Senate Doc. 21 (Albany, 1870), 41 (sham); A. G.,

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Politics and Crime, American Journal of Sociology 1 (1895): 291-3. Observers insisted that a large proportion of Tombs inmates were innocent individuals unable to obtain bail. See Tribune, June 29, 1895.
46. Tribune, December 28, 1876 (Centre Street gang), December 30, 1876 (flourishing); World,
December 2, 1894 (organized band); World, October 23, 1894 (dog kennel); unmarked clipping, June 12,
1895, vol. 142, DAS. The group in 1894 included Charles L. Jaehne, a professional bondsman and brother of
exboodle alderman Henry Jaehne. For accounts of the sophisticated ways bogus or straw bondsmen operated and secured capital, see World, Sun clippings, April 24, 25, 1895, vol. 140; unmarked clipping, December 1, 1896, vol. 160, all in DAS; World, December 2, 1894. Officials linked to the bail bonding business
included Senators George Washington Plunkitt, Aldermen Robert Hall, Thomas Cleary, Thomas Maher,
Barney Golden, and Richard Knave and district leaders Max Hochstim and Gustave Blumenthal, On
Hochstim and Blumenthal, see Morning Advertiser clipping, July 24, 1894, vol. 129; July 26, 1894, vol. 130,
both in DAS. On Hochstims membership in Tammany Hall and political opposition to him by the socialist
labor party, see Herald clipping, September 25, 1894, vol. 132, DAS. Blumenthal was a member of the
Tammany Hall General Committee. World, October 29, 1894 (lounging place); Sun clippings, August 20,
1885 (has friends); September 2, 1885, both in vol. 13, DAS. For similar complaints of political influence
and corruption of bail bondsmen, see unmarked clipping, February 24, 1886, vol. 17; Journal clipping, June
11, 1900, vol. 191, all in DAS.
47. Unmarked clipping, September 13, 1896, vol. 159, DAS.
48. NYSA, Increase of Crime, 49-50 (released); see pp. 87-8 in transcript; Tribune, October 2, 1876 (bail
equivalent to discharge); Herald clipping, January 8, 1887 (Davis), vol. 30; World clipping, December 20,
1896 (no apprehension of trial), vol. 160, all in DAS; World, October 22, 1894 (rarest occurrence).
49. NYSS, Report of the Justices of the Special Sessions of New York City, Senate Doc. 26 (Albany,
1867), 2-3; Herald clipping, January 6, 1887 (out), vol. 30.
50. Prior to January 1, 1895, General Sessions indictments did not have to be filed with the clerk of the
court. Consequently, the district attorney retained complete custody over all indictments. See Sunday Advertiser clipping, September 8, 1895, vol. 145, DAS; World, October 22, 1894. In 1894, Judge Rufus B. Cowing
failed in attempting to force District Attorney Fellows to file all criminal papers with the clerk of the courts
of General Sessions and Oyer and Terminer, instead of pigeonholing them in the district attorneys office.
See World clipping, October 26, 1894, vol. 133, DAS.
51. NYSS, Proceedings Before the Special Committee of the New York State Senate (Albany, 1876),
1034; Sun clipping, September 5, 1886 (thousand to one), vol. 25; Herald clipping, January 6, 1887 (dive
cases), vol. 30; unmarked clipping, February 9, 1891 (statute of limitations), vol. 82; Sun clipping, September 5, 1886, vol. 25; Sun, August 30, 1885; unmarked clipping, January 22, 1900 (dive cases), vol. 187, all in
DAS; Walling, Recollections, 514 (20,000), 572 (pigeonholes), 601-2. Also see NYSA, Increase of Crime,
43, for the same complaint a decade earlier. For lists of alleged murderers, forgers and robbers released on
bail and never tried, see World, November 4, 1894. During the 1870s, Moses Clarke, chief clerk for the district attorney, allegedly removed approximately 5,000 indictments regarding illegal lotteries from the district attorneys office. See Tribune and other clippings, May 20, 1894, vol. 127, DAS. New York was the last
state (1957) to allow defendants to waive a jury trial for a bench trial. See Friedman, Crime, 389.
52. Train, The Prisoner at the Bar, 219-21; Walling, Recollections, 514 (20,000); Sunday Advertiser
clipping, September 8, 1895 (1,500); Recorder clipping, September 16, 1895 (names, Byrnes), both in vol.
145; Telegram clipping, May 10, 1892 (6,000 pigeonholed indictments), vol. 98; unmarked clipping, February 9, 1891 (1,800), vol. 82, all in DAS; World, October 23, 1894 (can commit crime); also see World clipping, June 9, 1895, vol. 142, DAS. In 1894, the district attorney decided to destroy all old documents (mostly
affidavits) from 1860 to 1886 and save only those after 1886. See Tribune, August 24, 1894. By 1930,
observers estimated that more than 90 percent of all felony arrests in New York City were pleaded out as
administrative discretion increasingly supplanted the jury trial. See Moley, Our Criminal Courts, xi, 14. For
later examples of defense attorneys bribing court officers to change court records on behalf of their clients,
see Times, March 20, 1909.
53. PANY, Thirty-First Annual Report for 1875, 78-9; Sun, August 30, 1885; Sun clipping, September 2,
1885 (no index), vol. 13; World clipping, December 20, 1896 (pursue), vol. 160; unmarked clipping, January
22, 1900 (entertainment establishments), vol. 187, both in DAS; Times, March 20; April 13, 18, 23; August
9, 1909. For extensive coverage of clerks in the Court of Special Sessions, see charges against Charles W.
Culkin, Chief Clerk of the Court of Special Sessions, and William M. Fuller, Acting Chief Clerk, in Times,
March 24, 25, 28, 31; April 1, 8, 24; May 6, 1909. This system existed as early as the 1860s. See NYSA,
Increase of Crime, 49-51. The New York district attorney did not index indictments until 1891. See
unmarked clipping, February 9, 1891, vol. 82, DAS.

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54. Smith, New York Police Courts, 145 (dockets closed to public; overload); World, October 22, 1894
(unable to verify); Herald clipping, January 8, 1887 (lumping cases), vol. 30, DAS. On the persistence of
rapidly deliberated cases, see Times, August 9, 12, 1909.
55. Sun, August 30, 1885 (panic); Franklin Matthews, Wide-Open New York, Harpers Weekly,
October 22, 1898.
56. Quoted in Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (New York, 1994), 226.
57. Warner, Politics and Crime, 290-1.
58. The reform of so-called inferior courts in New York requires a separate study. The best places to
begin include New York State Commission to Inquire into Courts of Inferior Criminal Jurisdiction in Cities
of the First Class (Page Commission), Proceedings, 5 vols. (Albany, 1909); To Reform Courts of Inferior
Jurisdiction, Survey 24 (April 30, 1910); Times, January 14, 1911 (silence); Moley, Our Criminal Courts;
Moley, Tribunes of the People (New York, 1932). On bail reform after 1894 and the replacement of individual bondsmen by surety companies, see World, October 22, 23, 26, 1894; Tribune clipping, December 26,
1896, vol. 161, DAS. By some accounts, Night Court was established, in part, to put the professional
bondsman out of business. See Times, February 14, 1911; June 22, 1911. A good overview of the evolution
of the inferior court judicial apparatus appears in Willrich, City of Courts.
59. David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic
(Boston, 1971); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, 1977);
Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain (New York, 1975); Ignatieff, State, Civil Society and Total Institutions: A Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment, Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of
Research 3 (1981): 153-91; Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, eds., Social Control and the State (New York,
1983); David W. Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848
(Ithaca, NY, 1965); Peter Spierenburg, From Amsterdam to Auburn: An Explanation for the Rise of the
Prison in Seventeenth-Century Holland and Nineteenth-Century America, Journal of Social History 20
(1987): 439-62; Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From
a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience (New York, 1984); Adam J. Hirsch, The Rise of the
Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America (New Haven, CT, 1992); Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835 (Chapel Hill, NC,
1996). On female incarceration, see Estelle B. Freedman, Their SistersKeepers: Womens Prison Reform in
America, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1981). An intelligent revision of this literature is Edward L. Ayers,
Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South (New York, 1984),
which shows the importance of the South in early experiments in penal reform. A succinct summary of the
literature appears in Larry Goldsmith, History from the Inside Out: Prison Life in Nineteenth-Century
Massachusetts, Journal of Social History 31 (1997): 121-2. On the informal methods of policing and law
enforcement, see Wilbur Miller, Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London, 1830-1870
(Chicago, 1973); Miller, Police Authority in London and New York City, Journal of Social History 8 (winter 1975): 81-101.

Timothy J. Gilfoyle is the author of City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the
Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (New York: Norton, 1992) and a coeditor of the
Historical Studies in Urban America series from the University of Chicago Press.
He is currently completing two books, one on the nineteenth-century underworld and
another of the creation of Millennium Park in Chicago. He teaches at Loyola University Chicago.

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