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presentation’s title is a play on a phrase made popular by Saturday matinee movie Westerns where the inevitable grizzled old prospector would
proclaim, “Thar’s Gold in Them Thar Hills.”
Thursday matinee show, I’m the grizzled old prospector proclaiming there’s historical gold to be found in old jailhouse (or prison) ledgers.
I seek to back up that claim by sharing a few
of the many “nuggets” found in
three record books from a jail that
opened in 1869 in Essex County among the Adirondack “hills” bordering Lake Champlain.
books came from the Elizabethtown lock-up first erected in 1868 but rebuilt as virtually a new jail
circa 1915. The three-story brick
structure was one of the smallest
county jails in NYS – only a few dozen cells.
prepared to “decommission” the old jail these three books from it were being studied for
1 -- "Cash Book -- Inmate Accounts
(1952 - 1958)"
2 -- "Operating Expenses Audit Book
-- (1904 - 1931)"
3 -- "Record of Inmate Commitments
-- (1879 - 1924)"
virtual tour of the Elizabethtown Jail record-keeping in pre-computer eras began with the Cash Book that tracked inmates’ accounts of personal purchases during 1952 – 1958.
Up front were 30 index pages, with lettered
tabs, for entering an inmate name
according to the last name’s first
letter. Each index name entry would
include a numbered page reference
to find where that inmate’s account
numbered pages for data entries followed the 30 tabbed index pages in the 12x7.5-inch account
In our example, inmate “C. R. S” was the 16th entry on the index page reserved for “R” or “S” names. Note reference to Page 144 for his account.
For the account book part of our presentation,
the full names are not used because
we have no way of ident-ifying
those convicted from those later acquitted. The blotting out of all except initials was done only on
the images digitally, not done on
the actual page.
C. R. S.
may not have had folding money on him when
jailed. His account on Page 144 begins Jan. 21, 1957 with a check cashed for $36. On May 1 a federal
check (Social Security?) was cashed
In 5 months, he spent $58.23 on such items as
on a $9.95 pair of shoes, $1
haircuts, on $2 cigarette cartons,
and on newspapers. He gave his mom $5
and a “Lucille” $1.
On June 11 C.R. S. walked out of jail,
presumably in his new shoes, with
the $77.52 balance.
unused Pages 180 – 270 was a sales slip with the name of “Kenneth Harrington.” Items, amounts and date on it track to inmate “J.T.” on Page 153. Taped to the book inside back cover was a staffing note showing “Ken” was one of the jailors.
So purchases for in-mates were made by jailors
who kept sale slips and made the
‘cash book’ entries.
Cash Book review observations:
--- Cigarettes, banned in many jails today,
were a major purchase items back
--- Phone calls, candy,
toiletries constituted major inmate expenditures
then as now.
were major purchase item then; today they are available free in day rooms.
--- Hand written
records of inmate purchases, a combination
of sales slips and ledger entries, sufficed in the era before bar codes and PCs.
--- Whereas a major city jail would have its own commissary, the tiny rural jail apparently bought
items locally for inmate as
ledger studied was the expenses audit book that an Essex County Board of Supervisors 3-member
Purchasing Committee maintained to
monitor jail operating costs. It covered
Feb.1, 1904 through April 24, 1931.
In reviewing the items, a most intriguing term
appeared in some of the early
entries: “Chinese Jail.”
The phrase was used 10 times among the bill
entries made through 1909 beginning
1904. Example: a $3 bill from the Port
Henry Telephone Company.
entries pointed to the Port Henry jail as a detention center for US illegal immigration case detainees, mostly Chinese. On bottom of Page 1 appears a note:
lease between Berne A. Pyrke and the County of Essex for a certain premises on Elizabeth Street
in the Village of Port Henry
to be used as a common jail for the
detention of United States Prisoners was duly executed.”
A note at the bottom of Page 2 reported:
“Committee, also S.W. Barnard, Sheriff,
visited new building for the
detention of U.S. Prisoners.
“Thought it to answer all requirements for
which it was designed.”
On Page 12:
“Boarding Chinese Prisoners at Port
phrase was used in connection with 8 entries
by Sheriff S. W. Barnard. The items
The import of the entries was that, before
leasing the specially-designed
detention center, the county lodged the
federal prisoners in Port Henry Village facilities.
inquiry made to the Essex County Historical Society resulted in receiving a page copy from ECHS’ own “Compendium
of Local History.”
It confirmed that “Chinese Jail” was the
colloquial name used locally for
the lock-up where the county housed
U.S. immigration case prisoners awaiting federal processing.
Compendium page quoted a 1935 “History
of Port Henry” that “when
a large number of Chinese attempted
unlawful entry into the U.S. by way of Canada, they were brought to Port Henry for detention...
“At first they were quartered in the village hall
jail. [Later] a lot was
secured on Elizabeth St ...The Chinese Jail was erected…When no longer needed, it was converted into a tenement … F. W. Dudley acted as
The Compendium page featured the image above.
quoted references to Chinese Jail in 1901 issues of the weekly newspaper.
The quotes contained useful
historical data, yet also were worded with obvious disdain for the detainees, referring to them as Chinamen and celestials, and making them the butt of rather heavy-handed humor about rice & macaroni.
Such expressions were perhaps consistent with
the general public’s support for
the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
and its subsequent renewals right into the 1940s.
for more Elizabethtown Post stories led to finding the wonderful research resource named above. Using its on-line archives led to putting together an intriguing timeline.
1901 F. W. Dudley becomes regional Immigration Commissioner.
years later he becomes Berne A. Pyrke’s law partner.
after that Essex ends use of the village hall jail and rents Pyrke’s building to hold Immigration case detainees.
letters found tucked together between pages of the ledger linked to a faulty door locking mechanism
that figured in a 1948 jail
breakout that took the life of a
4 of the letters were from the
Cincinnati-based Stewart Iron Works
Company whose letterhead proclaimed
itself “Jail and Prison Builders.”
3 of the were from the foremen of Essex County
Grand Juries reporting on its
inspection of the Elizabethtown
“find” of the 7 letters tucked between Pages 254 & 255 was unexpected. Also unexpected was their very possible link to the subject matter of another
-- but until then -- separate
Elizabethtown jail history project
underway at the time:
That project was the construction of a
memorial web page on our NYCHS site
for Essex Jailor Earl Torrence
killed Nov. 15, 1948 in a breakout by 2 inmates. The planned web page was to tell about the successful efforts by his grand nephew – NY State C.O. Joe Stickney – in getting Earl’s name added a Washington D.C. memorial wall.
faulty jail “bullpen” door locking
mechanism – it could be
jiggled open a piece of bent wire -- was cited in several local newspaper reports in late 1948
after the breakout and repeatedly
again during 1949 as the case of
the captured killer/escapees proceeded through
various court processes.
letters from the “jail builders” company were its responses to an inquiry by Sheriff John P. Crowley
in 1943-44 about changing the key and tumbler
set-ups of the jail’s then existing locks.
WWII restrictions seems to have postponed
changing the jail locks, something
Crowley prudently wanted to explore
early in his tenure.
He served as sheriff from 1942 through
other three letters, all dated in 1949
-- Feb. 15, May 17, and Oct.
6 -- reported to Sheriff Crowley about
inspections of the Elizabeth town jail by the "current grand jury." Each, signed by a different foreman, lauded the jail’s appearance and its operation.
point raised during the jail inspections, but left unsaid in the grand jury letters, maybe triggered research into past records related to lock mechanisms.
With the grand jury letters in hand, the
researcher retrieved the 1943-44
letters and was proceeding through
the 1904-31 ledger looking for any past lock-related outlays when interrupted by more pressing business.
this scenario, the letters were placed in the book to mark where the research had been interrupted. The pages there had no entries relevant to the search.
But the research was never resumed,
the letters were forgotten, the
volume was put away.
theory doesn’t claim that the deadly 1948 break would have been averted had the locks been changed in 1944. The
door device fault might have been missed
helped fill one gap in C. O. Joe Stickney’s research into the breakout and its aftermath. Joe knew his
great aunt had written a letter to
the DA that influenced his decision to accept
Murder 2 pleas from her husband’s killers instead of seeking mandatory death penalty Murder 1
Joe, who does not use computers, had not come across the letter’s text during research at his local
library. Using Northern NY Library
Network’s on-line historical news-papers
archives, NYCHS found and posted the above image of it in our web presentation.
religious and a close friend of the mother of
Wm. Moody, one of the
killers, Kathleen wrote she hoped “these men would be punished” but did “not desire of the death of these men. . . .”
She noted killing them would not bring Earl back and added “I feel sorry for their parents.”
3rd book in the virtual tour of Essex County jail record-keeping is the 1880-1924 in-take ledger.
other 2 books were generic off-the-shelf ledgers. This volume clearly had been custom printed. The spine leather label reads: “Record of Commitments to
Essex County Jail.” So does the
wording across the top of each two
begin on Page 2 and end on Page 258. An entry begins on an even-numbered left page line and continues along the same line onto the facing odd-numbered right page, spreadsheet like. There are 27 entry lines down the “spreadsheet” pages.
scan the first two facing pages required 4 separate scans (two separate scans each page) and then fitting
together the “top half” scanned
images with the “bottom half” scanned images.
of the volume’s fragile nature, the book was not opened flat on the scanner. Rather the scanner was
turned over and placed flat, glass
side down, on the book which was held
only half open. Scanning downward with a turned-over scanner is not a recommend use for a scanner but I preferred risking the scanner (which can be
replaced) than the book (which
can’t be replaced).
the first two pages were scanned. Thereafter all other images of entries were taken using a digital camera
in one hand and holding the book
only half open with the other.
even numbered pages the heading of one column was printed as "County" but that was
repeatedly corrected with an
"r“ insert to read "Country" through 1883.
it continued to be understood as "Country"
even without the penned "r" correction. Entries were mostly "U.S."
March of 1895 (Page 58), the column heading came to be understood as printed -- County -- with "Essex" entries dominating. Did closeness
to Canada factor into that “r”
insert? A wariness of “foreigners”?
column heads are unusual by today's standards, at least their wording is. “Color” instead of race,
“Parents” instead of next-of-kin,
“Social Relations” instead of marital status.
of Life” seemed focused on destructive life style issues, principally alcohol abuse. Most were put
down as “bad” or “intemperate,”
many as “good,” only a few as “fair.”
book had no addresses for inmates or parents. Such contact data must have been in arrest records.
Neither were there inmate ID
numbers. With so few inmates at any one time -- rarely more than 2 dozen, often fewer than a dozen -- ID numbers were not viewed as necessary to keep
track of them.
heads on inmate’s literacy or lack of, are interestingly worded, especially the one “Classically Educated,” which perhaps refers to college
in inmate literacy reflects the emerging reformatory movement that had its origins in efforts by pre-reformatory era chaplains and other reformers to teach inmates reading and writing as part of Bible study programs. That may be why the next column is “Religous Instruction,” not
“Religious Affiliation.” (Ignore
connection between penal correction and inmate education goes back at least to the 18th century. A motto on a wall of San Michele reformatory, founded at Rome in 1704 by Pope Clement:
is of little use to restrain criminals by punishment, unless you reform them by education.
inmate on the book’s 1st entries page was Frank Boardman, committed to the jail Jan. 30, 1880, for petit larceny and sentenced to 30 days.
A mere 13 years old but already his ‘Habits of
Life’ are listed as “bad.” He is
listed as both reading and writing.
13-year-old was committed to the jail by Justice Cutting, a distant 19th Century kin of the current county jail administrator Major Cutting who made the jail ledgers available to NYCHS.
Listed for the teenager under “trade or
occupation” was “farmer.”
“Value of Article Stolen” entry was $1. How
did a 30-day sentence on Jan. 30
for a $1 theft result in an April
15th discharge 75 days later?
13-year-old’s unruliness as an inmate result in his doing more than double his sentence time? Unlikely.
His discharge by “order of
court” suggests he was court monitored. That suggests an alternate theory: He may
have been unruly on the farm,
perhaps the family’s farm. Could the both the family and the court considered an
indeter-minate winter stay behind
bars might make him mend his ways
and still get him out in time for spring planting?
Consider that in 1888, Fred Stone, 14, a Canadian
whose occupation was listed as a
“miner” (not minor), served just 10
days for petit larceny.
The above 1911 Pa. boy miners photo was taken
by National Child Labor Committee
that evolved in 1904 from a NY group
begun in 1902.
13-year-old farmer and the 14-year-old miner were among 45 juveniles –ages from 10 to 15
inclusive – whose entries were
found among the more than 3,500
inmates named in the in-take book.
6 were girls. 1 was a witness in an adultery
case. 1 was a “disorderly
1 was a servant girl, Harriet Stone, 13, who
was tried for murder but acquitted
after 10 minutes of jury deliberation
in 1881. It’s a case worthy of deeper research.
3 of the
six girls were held as “incorrigibles” or as “vagrants,” era legalese that allowed courts to address reputed waywardness, sometimes sentencing the girls to Houses of Refuge (reformatories).
Of 39 boys in the book, 1 charged with Murder
1: John Hanson, 15, who pled to
Murder 2, and whom Judge Berne A.
Pyrke (the former Chinese Jail landlord)
sentenced to return to the Protectory and remain there until 21. The Catholic Protectory was an pioneer reformatory whose land many decades later became Parkchester houses. Both teen murder cases involved poisoned persons in their hired care: a
baby in the girl’s case, an old man
on the boy’s case.
from a legal notice in an Adirondack newspaper,
is some text from the 1910 version of a law allowing courts to send females under 16 to a state training school for girls if found, among
other described behavior
patterns, “willfully disobedient to parent or guardian,” “in danger of becoming morally depraved” or “is a vagrant.” The latter could be
read as being a “runaway.”
I had intended to devote the next four slides
to listing 32 of the 39 boys
jailed. Due to time constrains I will show
only one slide. The compressed version lists data for 10 of the 39 boys.
persons to whom entries refer take on a kind of in-your-face communicated reality to the researcher beyond
the detached objective intellectual
awareness that the data denotes
actual people albeit long dead and forgotten.
The researcher begins to “see” them in his or
her “mind’s eye.” I don’t mean
hallucinations, visions or actual apparitions.
I mean an empathetic connection bridging distances of time and geography.
When the researcher encounters an Ernest
Stanton, jailed briefly at age 10,
being jailed again at age 13, the first for whom “school” is entered as his “occupation,” the boy is no longer just an entry in a book.
of the 2nd murderer executed was entered in the in-take ledger after his 1882 arrest for killing his wife, a stout widow whose farm he wanted deeded over to him.
A house painter who styled himself during
jailhouse interviews as soldier of
fortune, Henry Debosnys, 46, was a
native of Portugal. He was defended by A. K. Dudley, the father of ‘Chinese Jail’ Commissioner F.
names of the 3rd & 4th murderers executed and two “accomplices/witnesses” were entered in the in-take ledger after their arrests within a few hours
of the attempted robbery killing of
a mine foreman in Mineville in
1916. That is, variations of their names were entered.
Depending on where and when names of the “foreigners” were used, their name spellings
changed. That make tracking them in
the Northern NY Historical
Newspapers on-line archives quite challenging.
21, 1916, both Steve Mischuk (later Lischuk), 22, a miner, & John Kuschnuk (later
Kuschnieruk), a pantryman, were
entered in the jail ledger for Murder
1, their Russian background noted. The last data entered for them records their 1917 electrocutions.
Extensive details on the case are available on
the web presentation page entitled
“Entries of 3 Inmates Convicted of
Murder & Executed.” Likewise on that web page are details regarding
the 3 other murderers mentioned.
the extensive web presentation – 23 pages, 150+ images – includes vastly more details and source citations
that can be provided in these
slides and their printed notes, even it can only raise or show avenues for yet deeper and wider study. But that is precisely the point of this slide show: to promote “panning” or
“mining” old jail and prison
records for a wealth of material opening up new or connecting to on-going historical inquiries.
are just a few that occur to my correction-focused mind: What monitoring was done on jailors’ purchases for
inmates? What role did local
politics play in administration of the Chinese Exclusion Act? Did local attitudes toward the illegal immigrants go
beyond snide newspaper remarks? Did
adding “r” to “county” in the ledger column
head reflect suspicion of “foreigners?” Were the Frechettes and Le Goia whom Harriet Stone accused in denying
murdering the Frechette child
“foreigners? Did that figure in her quick acquittal? Did local judges manipulate the system to get the
kind of juvenile monitoring results
that later child offender laws codified? Why ‘only’ 4 murder executions in more than 150 years? Was this
rural county’s seeming reluctance
to execute typical or atypical in NY’s North Country?
Essex County Jail Ledgers Look-back web presentation, including links to sources cited as used, can be accessed from the NYCHS home page – www.correctionhistory.org -- by clicking its icon (shown above).
NYCHS is a nonprofit Regents chartered
historical society dedicated to the
pursuit, preservation and promotion
of the interconnected and overlapping histories
of correctional agencies, governmental and non-governmental, in the state, cities and counties of New York.