The Tombs: New York’s notoriously named prison

Can you imagine if the city of today sold postcards of Rikers Island?

At the turn of the last century, however, it apparently was no big deal to put an image of New York’s house of detention on penny postcards and sell them to tourists.


This city jail was built in 1902, taking its nickname from the infamous penitentiary that had occupied the same site since 1838.

That first Tombs had been modeled on an Egyptian mausoleum. The ungainly building, where accused men and women lived while awaiting trial, occupied an entire block on Centre Street. Unfortunately constructed on swampy, stinky land over the polluted Collect Pond, it immediately began to sink into the ground.

“What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama?”, Charles Dickens reportedly wrote in his 1842 book chronicling his trip to the U.S., American Notes.

That’s the Bridge of Sighs connecting the jail to the courts building—named after the original Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

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4 Responses to “The Tombs: New York’s notoriously named prison”

  1. EV Grieve Etc.: Mourning edition | NYC Real Estate News Says:

    […] Greetings from the Tombs (Ephemeral New York) […]

  2. A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] led him to try to ship Adams’ body, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Tombs (right, in […]

  3. A streetcar, a drunk, a fight, and murder in 1871 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] At his trial in May, the jury found him guilty, and Foster was sentenced to hang in the Tombs. […]

  4. A woman found bludgeoned in a Tenderloin hotel sparks the trial of the century | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] agree on a verdict once again. The city declined to try the case a fourth time. Kennedy was released from the Tombs and returned to Staten Island to a hero’s […]

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