I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Between 1835 and 1838, a massive, granite building rose in what is now Lower Manhattan. It resembled an Egyptian mausoleum, which seems appropriate in that many of the criminals it housed died there. To little wonder, the place acquired the nickname "the Tombs" and has hung onto this moniker even though the original building is gone and is now the Manhattan Detention Center.
The future site of the Tombs was Collect Pond, the main source of New York City’s water. It was a sizable body of water, fed by an underground spring, which stood where Chinatown now does in Lower Manhattan. Over time, the pond was contaminated by effluent from nearby businesses, so the decision was made to fill it in. But, the job was done in a slap-dash manner.
Buried vegetation gave off methane gas as it decomposed, and the ground started to slump. Streets turned to gooey mud that was part soil and part excrement. Mosquitoes bred in profusion, driving out the middle-class people who lived there, but it was deemed good enough for the poor immigrants arriving from Europe. The area turned into a slum called the Five Points and descended into a violent hell hole.
Due to the shoddy landfill, buildings started to wobble because their foundations were not anchored to solid ground. It was decided to site the city’s new jail on this unpromising land.
The First Tombs
Recognizing that the ground was unstable, engineers decided to place the Halls of Justice structure on a platform of massive hemlock logs. It didn’t work. Within a few months of completion, the Tombs started to wobble just as previous buildings in the area had. Walls and floors began to warp and water seeped in through cracks. Carpenters and masons were in almost continuous employment patching the place up.
The building was permanently damp causing sickness among the inmates who were forced to live there. Many of those inside the Tombs were on remand awaiting trial, but there was also a death row where prisoners waited for their execution date to arrive.
In 1842, the British novelist Charles Dickens visited the Tombs and wrote about it in his travelogue American Notes: “Such indecent and disgusting dungeons as these cells, would bring disgrace upon the most despotic empire in the world! . . . Men and women, against whom no crime is proved, lie here all night in perfect darkness, surrounded by the noisome vapours . . . and breathing this filthy and offensive stench!”
The Tombs Angel
The jail was built to house 300 inmates, but it soon became overcrowded and living conditions worsened. Corruption was rife among prison staff so that inmates with money and connections were able to enjoy luxuries and, occasionally, the ability to walk out of the front door when guards were conveniently absent.
For the common herd, there was Rebecca Salome Watson. Building on her religious faith, Mrs. Watson became a one-person crusade to improve the lot of the poor wretches languishing in the Tombs. She took a particular interest in helping young women.
She volunteered her time as an unofficial legal aid helper, counselor, and friend. She even gave money to the destitute families of inmates. She attended court hearings to advocate for people who had no one else to speak for them and pleaded for leniency from judges for those facing charges.
According to the Historical Society of the New York Courts, “Often the court, on her recommendation, suspended sentences and placed the defendants in the care of Mrs. Foster, who provided them with food, clothing, shoes, travel expenses, and a place to live, and frequently obtained employment for them.”
Known as “The Tombs Angel,” Rebecca died in a fire in the “fireproof” Park Avenue Hotel in 1902, the same year that the original jail was replaced by the City Prison.
Prisons Replacing Prisons
The second iteration of the Tombs, on the same site as the original, lasted until 1941. The rapidly rising number of law-breakers demanded a bigger facility, so the 15-storey Manhattan Detention Complex went up across the street.
For those who believe that prisons should be very uncomfortable places, the Manhattan House of Detention, also known colloquially as the Tombs, was worthy of praise. By 1969, an average of 2,000 prisoners was jammed into a building designed to hold 925. Inmates and guards alike complained about the conditions and a riot brought matters to a head in 1970. A civil rights class action lawsuit was filed and a judge ruled the situation was so appalling it amounted to a breach of the Constitution.
So, up goes another jail. The troubled House of Detention was refurbished and a second tower added. The current Tombs must be a great improvement, right? Well, Michelle Young (Untapped New York) sets the record straight by quoting a New York City lawyer.
If you are accidentally caught up in a bar fight one evening the lawyer describes what to expect as you wait for a bail hearing the following day:
“Deep underground, with stale air and bright florescent lights, the cells in the Tombs are dreary, suffocating, and sleepless places. During the approximately 24 hours that the accused are held there, they can expect a gross sandwich, shared bathroom with no stall, and 30 cellmates ranging from the dangerous to the innocent in various states of despair.”
- In November 1842, a mysterious fire broke out in the Tombs just before John Colt of the firearms family was due to be executed. In the confusion, some prisoners escaped; could one of them have been John Colt? A body was found in Colt’s cell with a knife sticking out of its chest. The corpse was not identified officially and was hastily buried after a coroner declared Colt had committed suicide. There were subsequent sightings of an alive John Colt in California and Texas. But, we have to remember there have also been a number of people who have claimed to have seen Elvis Presley alive and well.
- New York City now has a plan to demolish the current Manhattan Detention Complex and replace it with a 45-storey tower. People living in the Tribeca and Chinatown neighbourhoods are not happy about this.
- “A Tale of the Tombs.” Correctionhistory.org, undated.
- “Rebecca Salome Foster ‘The Tombs Angel’ (1848-1902).” Historical Society of the New York Courts, October 16, 2019.
- “13 of NYC’s Active Prisons: Rikers Island, The Tombs, Manhattan Correctional Center.” Michelle Young, Untapped New York, January 4, 2010.
- “Enter the Tombs, Five Points’ Notorious House of Detention in the Heart of Old New York.” The Bowery Boys, May 30, 2019.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
n1996yc on December 31, 2019:
So interesting to hear about the lower east side and it’s history. Thank you.