A Proper Regard for the Unfortunates:
Origins of the Jail System in Westchester County, N. Y.
(#2 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.

The practice of defining "jail limits" is now antiquated, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to define and mark off the territorial limits of a local jail to allow an imprisoned debtor to go at large under certain conditions.

The first known Court order defining "jail limits" in Westchester County was issued by the Court of Common Pleas on September 27, 1798 and specified "two acres three quarters and twenty rods of land" surrounding the old Court House on South Broadway in White Plains. [End note #4]

Above: Westchester County's oldest jail cell (1787). Situated in the old County Court House at Bedford, it is one of only 3 NY court houses built before 1800 still standing.

Prior to construction of the first Westchester County Jail in 1856 in White Plains, prison- ers were confined in holding cells within each County Court House. At Bedford, two large holding cells were located on the second floor of the Court House, each of which could accommodate several prisoners.

One of the two original jail cells built in 1787 is still preserved. Measuring approximately 105 square feet, the holding cell was built during the same year that the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted.

The 1787 Court House is now a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is maintained by the Bedford Historical Society. To access its web site, click the above image based on a photograph by Chief Czarnecki.

The "jail limits" of Westchester County were among the many changes that would need to be addressed with the proposed construction of the first jail facility.

In 1854, property owned by Charles A. Purdy in White Plains was offered to the County government for its building needs.

The square block (now in downtown White Plains) was bounded by Railroad Avenue (now Main Street), Court Street, Martine Avenue, and Grand Street.

The land was formally transferred to the Westchester County Board of Supervisors "for the use and benefit of the inhabitants of said County" on June 2, 1855 by Mr. Purdy for one dollar at the office of County Court Judge John W. Mills in White Plains. [End note #5]

At the closing session of its 1854 Annual Meeting on December 7th, the Westchester County Board of Supervisors established a building oversight committee to supervise construction of the new County government center in central White Plains, having formally proposed that the County Treasurer seek borrowing authority in an amount not to exceed $40,000 for construction.

The committee consisted of: Abraham Hatfield of the Town of Westchester (now eastern Bronx County), George C. Finch of the Town of North Salem, States Barton of the Town of New Rochelle, Daniel Hunt of the Town of Lewisboro, and William Marshall Jr. of the Town of Somm, who acted as secretary.

The Board had decided by a three-fourths vote (18 to 4) to build a new Court House that would house County government functions and to construct a separate jail facility.

Above: Gravestone of Charles A. Purdy (1801-1858). Westchester County Clerk from 1840 to 1843, his significant donation of land in White Plains made possible the construction of a new County Court House and our first separate jail facility.

According to an historical account by John Rosch: "Mr. Purdy presented to the County the square block, from Grand Street to Court Street, and from Railroad Avenue to Martine Avenue - a generous gift indeed. It was accepted by the County in 1855."[End note #6]

This important land parcel allowed Westchester to keep the County seat of government in White Plains. Mr. Purdy died three years later in 1858 and is buried at the White Plains Rural Cemetery.

His donated property is now the site of the Galleria Mall. According to the Tax Assessor's Office in White Plains, the current land value of this parcel is now $8.8 million dollars.

To access other White Plains Rural Cemetery headstone images, those by Michael S. Bennett for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War web site, click the above image based on the Purdy headstone photograph by Chief Czarnecki.

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Daniel H. Little was authorized to travel to Albany to secure passage of borrowing authority for the County Treasurer from the State Legislature.

He later sought and received reimbursement in the amount of $13 to cover his travel and related expenses for this Albany trip.

In February 1855 - prior to any action by the N.Y. State Legislature - members of the Prison Association of New York visited the jail accommodations in Westchester County and found them to be deficient.

The Association was incorporated in 1846 for "the amelioration of the conditions of prisoners, whether detained for trial, or finally convicted, or as witnesses".[End note #8]

The group was granted extraordinary powers by the N.Y. State Legislature, which determined that: "...it shall be their duty to visit, inspect and examine all the prisons in the State, and annually report to the Legislature their state and condition." [End note #9]

These inspection powers were to be affirmed by a N.Y. State Supreme Court Judge and jurisdiction was extended to all county and city jails.

The tenth annual report of the Prison Association of New York was formally submitted to the State Legislature on March 28, 1855 and cited jail conditions in Westchester County: ]

"The prison is in the town of Whiteplains. The basement of the court house is divided by a hall, on each side of which there are four cells; these apartments constitute the county prison.

The cells are large, and designated to accommodate two prisoners; the ventilation and light deficient, and the arrangement for heating entirely insufficient for cold and damp weather.

"The sheriff resides in the upper part of the building, and has the charge of the prisoners...from such inquiries and observations as could be made, a favorable opinion is entertained of the care and attention given to the personal wants of the prisoners, and of the diligence in keeping them secure.

Above: The Daniel H. Little family burial plot monument in White Plains Rural Cemetery.

Born in Greenburgh, Daniel H. Little (1820-1892) worked as a school teacher and copyist in the County Clerk's Office before seeking public office as Greenburgh Town Supervisor and Westchester County Sheriff (1856-59). He was the first administrator of the County Jail built in 1856. Sheriff Little married Fanny Crawford in 1856. They had 7 children.

In his later life, he was employed by the Westchester Fire Insurance Company. Little died in 1892 at age 72. His obituary indicated that he was "possessed of a cheerful, kindly disposition that made him a friend whenever he made an acquaintance and among all he bore a reputation for the strictest integrity and most upright character." [End note #7]

The Westchester Sheriff’s Dept. and county Parkway Police merged July 1, 1979 into the Westchester County Department of Public Safety run by an appointed Commissioner - Sheriff. Access more Westchester Sheriff history by clicking the above image based on a photo taken by Chief Czarnecki.

"This service, probably, in the estimation of the sheriff, is the full measure of his duty, not that this remark should imply any special delinquency on his part in other respects as a jail keeper; on the contrary, the general appearance of domestic affairs about the prison compares favorably with any that has fallen under the observations of the undersigned; but here, as in all other jails visited....no provision was found for religious services, no efforts for moral instruction or reformation, no apparent efforts for improvement of prison discipline.

"At the time of the visit there were nine prisoners in the jail, eight white males and one white female, occupying five of the cells, leaving three cells unoccupied.

"The regular practice, as ascertained from a person in attendance, being to allot two prisoners to each cell, without any reference to empty cells, separation being regarded only with reference to the sex.

"From this practice, it is readily inferred that economy of expense and trouble is thought of greater importance than any consideration applicable to proper prison discipline...

"The undersigned unhesitingly expresses the opinion that the prison in Westchester County is totally inadequate for the judicious treatment of prisoners, and wholly deficient in arrangements required for proper prison discipline.

Above: Gov. Myron H. Clark (1806 - 1892).

Native of Naples, N.Y. he served as a Lt. Col. in the state militia before election as Ontario County Sheriff in 1837. He was president of the village of Canandaigua and served in the State Senate (1852-54). In 1854 Clark was elected Governor as the anti-slavery and prohibition candidate of the Whig Party and served one term. Governor Clark signed the State's first prohibition law,later voided by the Courts.

He was also a strong champion of low rail passenger fares. Wed to Zilpha Watkins in 1830, he died in Canandaigua in 1892 at age 86, was survived by 4 daughters and a son, and was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua.

In his honor, descendants donated land creating Clark Reservation State Park in Jamesville. (Image courtesy of Ontario County Historical Society.)

"It is well known that Westchester is one of the most thriving, populous, and wealthy counties in the State, and it certainly appears very inconsistent that its citizens should be thus delinquent in one of their most important public duties." [End note #10]

The report was written by James H. Titus, vice president of the Prison Association of New York, whose inspection visit was authorized by the Hon. R.H. Morris, Justice of the N.Y. State Supreme Court.

These findings undoubtedly provided additional justification for building the first jail facility in Westchester County.

Two days later on March 30, 1855 - as a result of the successful lobbying efforts of Greenburgh Town Supervisor Daniel H. Little - the N.Y. State Legislature passed a law giving borrowing authority to the Treasurer of Westchester County in the amount of $35,000. for "the building and erection of a new court house, jail, county clerk's office and surrogate's office" in White Plains.

The legislation was signed by Governor Myron H. Clark and became Chapter 117 of the Laws of 1855.

The law was entitled "An Act to authorize the Treasurer of the County of Westchester to borrow money for the erection of new county buildings in said county, and for other purposes."

It allowed a 15-year bonding of the project, to be paid in annual installments until 1870.

The State legislation also ratified and confirmed "the acts, resolutions, and proceedings of the board of supervisors" changing the location of the County buildings in White Plains.

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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.