NYCHS presents excerpts from From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848, by W. David Lewis. Copyright © 1965 by Cornell University; copyright renewed 1993. Used by permission of the author and the publisher, Cornell University Press. All rights reserved. Click on image, based on book jacket front cover, to access Cornell University Press site.
(Excerpted from Pages vii through x.)

. . . . In this study I have traced the development of correctional policies in a key state during a critical era in the history of American reform movements.

Starting with the adoption of its first modern penal code in 1796, New York for a time followed the lead of Pennsylvania in the treatment of offenders but during the 1820s it became a significant innovating force in its own right by devising the Auburn system of penitentiary discipline widely acclaimed and copied throughout the United States and abroad.

The various features of this system reflected to a considerable degree the needs, fears, and attitudes prevailing in New York at the time of its adoption; as conditions changed in later years a number of modifications were made, thus providing an interesting record of interaction between a given mode of institutional operation and the environment in which it was developed.

By the late 1840s, however, the impulse for prison reform had waned, and methods that were increasingly outmoded continued to be imposed upon most adult convicts for the rest of the nineteenth century despite periodic advances in the treatment of special groups of felons such as first offenders and the criminally insane. A distinct phase of correctional change had thus come to an end more than a decade before the Civil War. .


The W. David Lewis image above appeared in a publication announcing the May 4, 1999 lecture by him about WWII hero Eddie Rickenbacker's 1942 disappearance and rescue at sea. The talk at the Virginia Air & Space Center was also sponsored by the NASA Langley Research Center and the Daily Press [Newport News, Virginia] as part of a science and technology series. Events covered in that lecture formed part of the 2005 biography Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century by W. David Lewis. Click image for more on it.

With but few exceptions, professional historians have not been notably active in studying the evolution of law enforcement and correction in America. [Author note: This is particularly true in the period of almost thirty years since the appearance of Blake McKelvey’s pioneering work, American Prisons: A Study in American Social History Prior to 1915 (Chicago, 1936). . . . ]

This is unfortunate, because the way in which a community treats those who deviate from its standards of acceptable behavior often reveals much about its values and preoccupations. There is a need to interpret public responses to crime during various periods of our history in the light of broader trends that were concurrently evident in other fields of human activity.

In this book I have tried particularly to place the formative years of the Auburn system in a meaningful social context, because the relative harshness which characterized penal affairs at this time— contrasting in many ways with the distinctly milder outlook prevailing both in the post-Revolutionary era and again briefly in the 184o’s -- seemed especially to require explanation.

In seeking to account for this comparative stringency, I have emphasized the ways in which conservative reform impulses, prevailing public anxieties, and desires to produce conformity and social control helped to create an atmosphere within which a dominantly repressive penal philosophy could take root and flourish. . . .


Image above, caption below from
Auburn University web site:

W. David Lewis is Distinguished University Professor at Auburn University. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees in history at Pennsylvania State University in 1952 and 1954 and his doctorate in American social and intellectual history at Cornell University in 1961. He has taught at Auburn since his appointment in 1971 as Hudson Professor of History and Engineering. He is the author of numerous books, including Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. His latest publication is Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). Click image to access his Auburn U. History Dept. web page.

I do believe that the history of prison reform in the period before the Civil War is relevant in a broad sense to the penal problems of the present time. Whatever our reactions may be to the methods of those who devised the Auburn system or the rival plan of complete solitary confinement adopted in Pennsylvania, we should remember that these men were trying to deal in a courageous and direct manner with difficulties arising from the very nature of a penitentiary. . . .

The completion of this book would not have been possible without the aid and encouragement of many persons. . . .

My father, Gordon C. Lewis, has worked for many years in the fields of law enforcement and correction, and many of his interests have become mine also. I would like to thank my brother-in-law and former teacher, Professor Ira V. Brown of the Pennsylvania State University, for first pointing out to me that the rise of the Auburn system deserved more study than had previously been given to it. I an under great obligation to Professor David Brion Davis of Cornell University . . .

Among others who deserve thanks in this regard are Carroll C. Arnold of the Pennsylvania State University, Walter LaFeber of Cornell University, and Norman B. Wilkinson of the Eieutherian Mills - Hagley Foundation.

The staffs of various libraries and historical agencies were most cooperative, including those connected with the Cornell University Library, the Library of Congress, the New-York Historical Society, the New York State Library, the New York State Historical Association, the Morris Library of the University of Delaware, and the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library.
Table of Contents
  • [Book jacket blurb, images]
  • Preface
  • The Heritage
  • The First Experiment
  • The Setting for a New Order
  • The Auburn System and Its Champions
  • Portrait of an Institution
  • The House of Fear
  • The Ordeal of the Unredeemables
  • Prisons, Profits, and Protests
  • A New Outlook
  • Radicalism and Reaction
  • Ebb Tide
  • Change and Continuity
  • A Critical Essay on Sources

I also appreciate the kindness of Warden Robert E. Murphy, whose staff provided me with a tour of Auburn prison and allowed me to inspect two buildings that remained from the ante-helium period.

The Social Science Research Center of Cornell University at one point aided my investigations with a travel grant . . . New York History and the New- York Historical Society Quarterly publish[ed] articles based substantially upon two chapters of the doctoral dissertation from which this book has developed.

Finally, my deepest thanks go to my wife, Carolyn, whose encouragement, editorial sense, and typing ability were frequently called upon and never found wanting.


Eleutherian Mills - Hagley Foundation
Wilmington, Delaware
June, 1964

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