That whipping inmates seems such a fixture in the public image of the New York penitentiary system's early era is more than a bit ironic. For when the state's penitentiary movement began in the late 18th Century, reformer Thomas Eddy and its other leading proponents proposed institutional incarceration of offenders as the better, more effective and humane alternative to hanging, maiming, flogging and other physical punishments common at the time.

Indeed, corporal punishment was banned at New York's first state penitentiary, headed by Eddy and situated in Greenwich Village. Solitary confinement on reduced rations was most severe form of discipline authorized at Newgate, as it was commonly called.

But after the War of 1812, Newgate and Auburn prison authorities complained that non-corporal punishments were insufficient to control their increasing inmate populations. In response to a particularly violent riot at Newgate in June 1818, the legislature authorized in April 1819 the state prisons to inflict as inmate punishment up to 39 lashes on any one occasion, but only by the principal keeper under supervision of two inspectors.

As worded, the law seemed to stress restraint but its effect over time was to unleash in some prison keepers an impulse to flog inmates with little or no provocation. Deaths attributed to flogging excesses began to mount, stirring public criticism and protest.

Interestingly, a major leader in the movement to curtail use of the whip on inmates was Sing Sing's chief inspector, Judge John Worth Edmonds. In the mid-1840s Edmonds helped initiate a policy in which whip use was permitted only as the last resort. As flogging deceased so did the number of rule violations that previously resulted in floggings. In December 1844 he became the chief founder of the reform-minded Prison Association of New York, today known as the Correctional Association of New York.

The whip most associated with prison discipline of the 19th Century was the cat-o'-nine-tails -- nine knotted cords braided into a handle -- but its origin appears nautical. It was favored as a tool to control crewmen aboard military and merchant ships, especial seamen who had been "pressed into service."

Note that, while Congress outlawed naval flogging in 1850, the New York State Legislature had banned prison flogging three years earlier. A factor favoring passage of the flogging ban in 1847 was Sing Sing's successful virtual elimination of whip use without experiencing any increase in disciplinary problems; in fact, it experienced fewer.

The Whip image from promo card for Ron Arons' lecture The Jews of Sing Sing at Temple

NYCHS webmaster notes beneath image.

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NYCHS board member Judy Berdy, who is administrator at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El, suggested NYCHS website readers might be interested in the subject matter of Ron Arons' April 25 lecture sponsored by the Bernard Museum of Judaica & Stettenheim Library at Temple Emanu-El.

Judy also is president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

This presentation is a follow-up on her suggestion.

Elizabeth F. Stabler, Temple Emanu-El librarian, provided the photo postcard announcing the lecture.

Ron Arons, who designed the postcard, took the photos of the guard tower and Cell Block A. He credits the "illustrations of the various tortures" and the electric chair photo to "the Ossining Community Center."

The format for this web presentation was designed by the NYCHS webmaster whose own research notes appear on the left below the image.