New York Prisons in 1776-77 - from Harper's
JAIL IN CITY HALL PARK.—[From Miss Mary L. Booth's
"History of the City of New York."]
Those who tread the floor of what was recently the Post-office, once the
great Middle Dutch Church, and now a Brokers' Exchange, at the corner of
Nassau Street and Cedar, can scarcely believe that it was once a
military prison, that its walls re-echoed the groans and cries of sick
and dying patriots, that a large part of Washington's army was once
confined on the very spot where now the broker is calling his stocks and
the photographer fitting his lenses. The fine church in 1776 was
converted at once into a royal prison. Its pews were torn out, its
interior defaced, but the walls are the same that shut in the
unfortunate Americans, and their only shelter was the lofty roof that
still rises among the haunts of trade. The ancient building is one of
the most touching of the historical remains of the early city. The
number of persons shut up at once within its precincts is variously
estimated; one account gives 800, another 3000, as the probable limit.
It is certain that they were crowded in with no care for comfort, no
regard for health or ease; that one aim of the royal captors was to
"break their spirit" by ill usage, and win them back to their loyalty by
no gentle means.
As the motley train of prisoners came down to the city after the capture
of Fort Washington, they were met by the royal officers with every mark
of contempt and hate. They were stripped of their arms and uniforms,
robbed of their money, insulted with rude taunts and even blows. War had
not yet been robbed of some of its brutality by the slow rise of
knowledge, and the British officers had not yet learned the politeness
of freemen. A savage Hessian made his way up to Graydon, the young
American officer, and threatened to kill him. "Young man," said to him a
Scotch officer of more humanity, "you should never rebel against your
king." The prisoners were taken before the British provost-marshal to be
examined. "What is your rank?" said the officer to a sturdy little
fellow from Connecticut, ragged and dirty, who seemed scarcely twenty.
"I am a keppen," said he, in a resolute tone; and the British
officers, clad in scarlet and gold, broke into shouts of laughter. It
was not long before they were flying before the "keppens" of New Jersey
and New York, glad to escape from the rabble they despised.
When they had been examined, plundered, ridiculed, the unlucky prisoners
were divided into companies, and marched away to the different prisons
of New York, that were for so many weary months to be their homes or
their graves. Those who were confined in the Middle Dutch Church were
probably the most fortunate of all; they had air and light; but two of
the prisons are covered with some of the saddest memories of the war for
freedom. One of them was a common jail in the Park, now the Hall of
Records, and the other was the old Sugar-House in Liberty Street, next
to the Middle Dutch Church. The jail was so crowded with the captured
Americans that they had scarcely room to lie on the bare floor. The air
was stifling, the rooms pestilential, full of filth and fever.
OLD SUGAR-HOUSE IN LIBERTY STREET.—[From Miss Mary L.
Booth's "History of the City of New York."]
But the most painful circumstance of their lot was the character of the
keeper. His name was Cunningham; he seems to have been a monster. Many
years afterward he was executed in England for some hideous crime, and
boasted that he had put arsenic in the flour he served to the prisoners.
It was under this man—one of those horrible natures war often brings
into use—that the young men of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey
were to pass their miserable captivity. Soon even the English officials
were forced to take notice of the horrors of the jail in the Park. The
neighbors complained that they could get no sleep for the outcries and
groans of the prisoners. Cunningham ruled over them with lash and sword.
They were starved, reviled, beaten, "to win them," he said, "to their
duty." The chill winter and the hot summer found them crowded in their
pestilential prisons. The old Sugar-House in Liberty Street was also
under Cunningham's care. It was a tall building, several stories high,
with small windows, low ceilings, and bare walls. Every story was filled
thickly with the captured Americans. They starved, pined away, died by
hundreds. Cunningham withheld their food, and cheated even the miserable
sick and dying. They froze to death in the chill winter of 1776-77.
Sometimes the famished prisoners would come to the narrow windows of the
old Sugar-House, crying for charity to those who passed, but the
sentries drove them back. They pined away in the dark corners of the
crowded rooms, dreaming of the old homestead in Connecticut,
Thanksgiving cheer, and smiling friends. When they were brought out for
exchange, Washington wrote indignantly to Sir Henry Clinton, "You give
us only the sick and dying for our healthy, well-fed prisoners." Such
were the sorrows our ancestors bore for us. They were the authors of our
freedom. And he who treads the floors of the old Dutch Church, or seeks
out the spot where stood the Sugar-House in Liberty Street, may well
pause to think how much we owe to those who once pined within their
walls. Such, too, is war. Modern intelligence has shorn it of some of
its horrors. It may be hoped that education will at last banish it
altogether, and the people of Europe and America join to force upon
their governments a policy of peace.