A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates:
Origins of the Jail System in Westchester County, N. Y.
(#4 of 9 parts)
By Anthony J. Czarnecki, Chief of Staff (ret.), Westchester County Correction Dept.
The text and images are presented here by permission of the author and the Westchester County Historical Society that published them as the cover article, "A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates," in the Spring 2006 edition of its Westchester Historian. All rights retained and reserved.

In 1866, the Board of Supervisors authorized the expenditure of $100 (a considerable sum of money at the time) "to purchase books for the use of the prisoners in the County Jail". That same year, the first reported suicide took place at the County Jail -- a woman described as a "maniac," who jumped from the top tier, killing herself instantly.

Two years later in 1868 (as was the custom of the time), a grand jury investigated conditions at the County Jail and on August 28' issued the following findings:

Above: Hezekiah D. Robertson (1828 - 1870). A prominent figure, he chaired the special committee on Conditions at the County Jail in 1868.

Cousin of Westchester County Court Judge William H. Robertson (1823 - 1898) of Bedford, Hezekiah planned to study law. But after both his parents' sudden death in 1848, he became a farmer in Pound Ridge.

His interest in civic affairs led to his election as Superintendent of Schools and later Town Supervisor in Pound Ridge. In 1853 Robertson moved to Bedford and became a partner in a retail business with Benjamin Ambler. He then followed the same career path in the Bedford Town, becoming Superintendent of Schools before being elected as Bedford Town Supervisor in 1855, 1858, 1859, 1860 and 1861.

In 1860 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, in Chicago, that nominated Abraham Lincoln for president.

In 1861 Robertson married Sarah C. Butler. During the 1860s he was elected to serve two terms in the State Senate and later was appointed Harbor Master for the Port of New York.

After the Civil War, Robertson in 1865 was again elected as Bedford Town Supervisor and continued to hold that office until his death in 1870.

(Above image courtesy of the Bedford Historical Society. Click it to access the society's web site.)

"We find that there are about 36 cells in the Jail, and that there are now about 90 persons confined therein for almost all grades of crimes.. There are no separate apartments for females or juveniles and that the females are usually confined on the upper tier of cells in the Jail and the juveniles are necessarily confined with the other prisoners.

"There is no hospital department connected with the Jail in any way and no place where a person seriously ill can receive proper attention or treatment. There is no place for the Jailor to reside in connection with or contiguous to the said Jail. There is no place in which any of the prisoners in confinement can be made to labor, as the Jail is at present constricted..." [End note #22]

The Grand Jury filed a presentment and advanced five recommendations:

  • the Jail should be materially enlarged,
  • separate departments should be created for females and juveniles,
  • a hospital department should be established,
  • a residence should be provided for the Jailor, and
  • prisoner labor should be utilized to reduce expenses and
  • make the Jail "self sustaining."

In an historical footnote, one of the 15 grand jurors in 1868 was Seth Bird, the contractor who built the Jail 12 years earlier in 1856. He apparently saw no conflict of interest in serving on this special grand jury and recommending that the County government should issue a new construction contract to expand the original facility.

The Westchester County Board of Supervisors responded to the long-standing concerns of the Physicians to the Jail and the findings of the Grand Jury by creating a Committee on the Conditions at the County Jail. Headed by Hezekiah B. Robertson, the Bedford Town Supervisor, they issued a series of recommendations on December 2, 1868. The consensus opinion of the group was as follows:

"An entire compliance with the suggestions of the Grand Jury will involve the expenditure of a large sum of money - from $50,000 to $75,000 probably - and this sum, added to the already large indebtedness of the County, will bear heavily upon the who pay the taxes. Your Committee are of the opinion that if the object sought by the Presentment - namely a less crowded jail and a separation of the sexes - can be accomplished, even to a moderate extent by other means than by largely increasing the burdens of taxation, such measures should be adapted." [End note #23]

The Committee on the Conditions at the County Jail suggested a three-part plan of action:

  1. extend the platform at the upper tier of cells to separate the sexes and prevent access to the tier, except through an iron door,
  2. secure support from the County's representatives in the State Legislature to pass a law that would require any person arrested for vagrancy to be consigned to the County Poor House instead of the Jail to reduce overcrowding, and
  3. promote more speedy trials by getting the County Judge to "hold court for the trial of offenders more frequently than at present." [End note #24]

The Board of Supervisors adopted the Robertson plan and authorized its Committee on Repairs and Supplies to make the necessary alterations at the County Jail.

About 6 years after he wrote his 1868 Westchester County Jail inspection report (quoted in the main text to the right of this caption box), Richard L. Dugdale began to research heredity among criminals. The results became the basis of his Jukes: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity -- and 35 years later Arthur H. Estabrook's The Jukes in 1915.

Dugdale and Estabrook's data, methods, findings and interpretations -- actual and attributed -- on the "Jukes," a family line reputedly crime-prone from generation to generation, touched off controversies that have raged continuously ever since, although the nomenclature has changed down the decades.

The story goes that one day in 1874 while watching a stolen goods possession trial in a Kingston, N.Y., court, Dugdale took note of the defendant's family. It was said the five kin in attendance were two prostitutes, two attempted murderers and a burglar. This ignited the would-be sociologist's interest in whether family tree case studies could track a heredity factor in criminality and social dysfunction.

With Prison Association backing, he visited asylums and poorhouses as well as prisons and jails, sifted through records, and interviewed both staff and inmates. The Prison Association published in 1875 his report on more than 700 "Jukes" kin cases analyzed. The family name was fiction for privacy and libel considerations.

But the cases he and later Estabrook described were those of actual persons represented as related to each other, albeit some rather distantly. With quasi-clinical detail, the reports' spotlight on the criminality and other social problems evidenced in the "Jukes family" history sparked innumerable "nature - versus - nurture" debates among scholars, social reformers, legal authorities, government officials, journalists and opinion - makers as well as the general public.

A chronic heart ailment had precluded Dugdale from undertaking the heavy formal academic training needed to acquire status as social scientist. But he had pursued night studies at Cooper Union and had become active in various social reform and academic organizations: the Society for Political Education, the NY Social Science Society, the NY Association for the Advancement of Science and the Arts, the NY Sociology Club, and the Civil Service Reform Association as well as Prison Association.

His severest critics regard him as an eugenicist whose studies were cited as supporting sterilization programs targeting men and women judged "unfit to bred." More sympathetic commentators contend he was public health reformer advocating water purification, sewage removal, venereal disease prevention, and temperance especially during pregnancy. Most today recognize the flaws in the methodology of his research and analysis and the imprecisions of his terminology open to pro-eugenic interpretations. Most today acknowledge his work was a pioneering try at understanding and relating genetic and social inheritances as factors in criminality.

The image above is composed of elements, much reduced in size, from the cover of Estabrook's book The Jukes in 1915 that was based in significant part on Dugdale's original research papers discovered in 1911.

For the original image and for a wealth of related materials, click on the above composite to access the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement web site maintained by the Dolan DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, American Philosophical Society, & Truman State University reserve & retain all rights under a 1999 Copyright.

The above image and caption did NOT appear in the original Czarnecki report or Westchester Historian article. They were crafted for this presentation by the NYCHS webmaster who inserts them as page design elements and for historical background.

The needed building alterations were reinforced by an independent inspection of the Westchester County Jail that was conducted by the Prison Association of New York in 1868. Their report was authored by Robert L. Dugdale, who served on the Executive Committee of the Association:

"Of the jails visited by the undersigned, this is the best in some respects, although very defective in many others. Its advantages are, that it is built of stone, is secure, located upon a dry and healthy spot which can be easily drained, with abundance of water, which is provided from a well inside the building, and that there are privies in each cell which dispense with the night tubs.

"These points are proved by inspection, and by the facts that there have been no escapes for several years, and that during the past ten months there has been neither sickness nor death in the prison.

"The disadvantages are -

"1st. That the jail is overcrowded, there being only 36 cells for 101 prisoners, the maximum number at one time during the year.

"2nd. That there is no effectual separation of the sexes, as the men who are unconfined, can easily climb from tier to tier to where the women are locked. Neither is there any classification of prisoners. The jail of this county has been presented by the grand jury in consequence of its overcrowded condition, and measures are promised that will result in the enlarging of the building in such a manner that women and children will be effectually separated from the men.

"3rd. The ventilation of the cells is so arranged that the inmates can stop it if so disposed, and the ventilation of the building is so imperfect that it cannot supply the deficiency caused by this stoppage.

"4th. The sheriff complains that there is no adequate means of washing the whole person, as there is no bath.

"Of the discipline and management, it may be said that there has been no need of punishments sufficiently severe to require mention; that the privies are cleaned every morning and frequently disinfected; that the jail is washed out once a week; that the prisoners receive three meals a day - for breakfast and supper, bread, molasses and mush, and for dinner, meat, potatoes, bread and soup on different days, as the case may be. The prisoners are not provided with work, but have a library which they use considerably, while frequent religious services, conducted by both clergymen and laymen, are held. There were no complaints made by prisoners of either bad treatment or insufficient food." [End note #25]

Apparently the expected changes to the physical plant were not forthcoming, because the Presiding Judge of the County Court of Sessions impaneled another special grand jury the following year to examine the Jail and "ascertain its conditions." Their findings were delivered on August 5, 1869:

"We find

  • that in respect to the number of cells as compared with the average number of persons confined therein,
  • also in respect to the arrangement of the Jail, which is such that the sexes cannot be securely separated and persons charged with all grades of crime and juvenile offenders are promiscuously confined.
  • Also in respect to the fact that there is no hospital department to which persons afflicted with contagious diseases can be removed or persons seriously ill can be properly cared for.
  • That in all these respects, the condition of the Jail is such that increased accommodations are called for and the other evils complained of demand attention.

Above: A sketch of the original NYC correctional facility known as "The Tombs" referenced in the 1871 Prison Association report quoted in the main text below to the left of this image and caption box.

One of New York City's chief incarceration institutions for more than a half century, the original structure was official named "The Halls of Justice." But the term that was commonly used for it was "The Tombs." Even official Department of Correction reports of the period sometimes referred to it by that nickname.

The massive edifice of granite, built between 1835 and 1840, took up a square block bounded by Centre, Elm, Franklin and Leonard streets in Lower Manhattan. Its design had been inspired by an ancient mausoleum in Egypt. The prison/jail was built atop hemlock logs serving as a foundation platform on the site that, prior to draining and landfill, had been part of the Collect Pond in the Five Points area.

Five months after the building opened, its entrance way began to sink below street level. The walls leaked, the cells warped, and a dampness pervaded the place. The term "Tombs" seemed apt, given its mausoleum inspiration and its depressing dankness.

In 1902 a massive, gray building replaced the Tombs but its chateau-like appearance could not displace in common parlance the name of the original structure. Some seven decades later that replacement was itself replaced by the present Manhattan Detention Complex but still "The Tombs" name persists.

For more on the Tombs elsewhere on this web site, click the image above.

The above image and caption did NOT appear in the original Czarnecki report or Westchester Historian article. They were crafted for this presentation by the NYCHS webmaster who inserts them as page design elements and for historical background.

"We do therefore respectfully present that the welfare of the community and the proper care of the persons confined in the Jail imperatively call for immediate action and additional accommodations. We do further present and recommend that the Board of Supervisors be urgently requested to give their early and earnest attention to the consideration of this subject in order that the evils complained of may be removed." [End note #26]

Two years later in 1871, the Prison Association of New York became alarmed about the state of overcrowding at the Westchester County Jail, as noted in its 1871 inspection report:

"The stately stone prison at White Plains is, unquestionably, the most overcrowded, and also the most populous of any jail in the State - excepting, of course, the Tombs in New York."

"As repeated visits of inspection there were 113 prisoners found in this jail, 15 being females. At the last inspection, 72 of the inmates were found lodged in the 64 cells, and the remaining 41 were bunked in the corridors.

"The cells are along a central oblong block three tiers high, and with the corridor open all around. There is no attempt or possibility of separating the male from the female prisoners, except as they are respectively locked in their cells.

"The rapid increase of crime and vagrant pauperism in Westchester county would justly alarm its citizens, if they would, at the jail and the almshouse, examine into the sources and nature of the evils.

"There is a record of facts relating to the sources of crime and disorderly life in Westchester county, the gross intermingling of criminals, vicious, and pauper elements of the population, the utter failure of reformatory results in the convicts, whether at White Plains jail or Sing Sing prison, and a record also of the actual cost of crime in this county, which must be carefully studied by thoughtful citizens ...

The references to almshouse, pauperism and vagrancy in the 1871 NY Prison Association's Westchester report, quoted in the main text above and to the right of this image/caption box, reflects the 19th Century's increasing awareness that crime and poverty interconnect.

At the time of the 1871 report, Westchester maintained a county almshouse in Mount Pleasant. Its operation was supervised by three elected "Superintendents of the County Poor House," a title common parlance sometimes shortened to "Superintendents of the Poor."

Each year one superintendent would be elected to serve three years. In 1871, they were

  • Abraham R. Strang, who served from 1862 through 1873,
  • George Cooper, who served from 1867 through 1878 and
  • Edward K. Mott, who served from 1866 through 1871.
In 1824, New York State legislation mandated each county to institute a poorhouse, thereby transferring care for the poor from individual towns to the county. Westchester County’s first almshouse opened its doors at Mount Pleasant in 1828.

The Mt. Pleasant poorhouse was replaced after purchase in 1900 of Grasslands Farm in Eastview where a hospital and a new "county home" were built. The latter operated until after the Depression.

The Westchester County Archives and Records Center has 23 volumes of Almshouse Records, such as the admission slip above for a 35-year-old man handicapped by fire injuries to his face that impaired his ability to speak. Click the image to access the archives' web page about those records.

The above image and caption did NOT appear in the original Czarnecki report or Westchester Historian article. They were crafted for this presentation by the NYCHS webmaster who inserts them as page design elements and for historical background.

"With twice as many prisoners as it has cells, and with crime and vagrancy rapidly increasing in this county, and with an aggregate cost of crime and pauperism that is almost unparalleled, the work of reform and entire change in the methods of cure and of prevention of the social ulcers will need to be skillful and thorough." [End note #27]

That same year, a special grand jury criticized the "herding of prisoners" and made an urgent plea for expansion of the County Jail:

"We find that there are but 34 cells in the Jail and that there are now over 100 persons confined therein for almost all grades of crimes, consisting of males and females of mature age and juvenile offenders and that the sexes are separated only by placing the females in the upper tier of cells and that conversation carried on in one cell or upon either tier of cells can be distinctly heard anywhere within the Jail.

"The present excellent sanitary condition of the Jail is in our judgement entirely due to indefatigable exertions of the Sheriff and the Jailor.

"That the need of a place for the confinement of female prisoners in the Jail separate from and outside the enclosure where males are confined is so glaringly manifest and confessedly imperative that it would seem to be an opportunity on our part at once unnecessary and offensive to call your attention to a matter which for several years past has been presented to the Court and through the Court to the Board of Supervisors of this County by different bodies of Grand Jurors and not only has this improvement been recommended by them but it has been urgently advocated by the Sheriff, County Judge, District Attorney, Prison Physician and others but has failed to receive the attention due so important a subject and the undersigned deem it their duty to again press it upon the attention of the Court and urge that proper measures be adopted to suppress the evils attendant upon this indiscriminate herding of prisoners by building an addition to the present Jail Building that shall afford the necessary increased accommodations. " [End note #28]

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The New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) presents here text and images from A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates: Origins of the Jail System in Westchester County, N. Y. by NYCHS member Anthony J. Czarnecki, Chief of Staff (ret.), Westchester County Correction Dept. We do so with permission from both the author and the Westchester County Historical Society that published the history as the cover article in the Spring 2006 edition of its Westchester Historian. All rights retained and reserved. The NYCHS webmaster added sepia tint to the grayscale images made available for this presentation. NYCHS acknowledges the help of Westchester Correction Sgt. Donald Smith and Sgt. Fred Anderson.