Posts Tagged ‘Newgate Prison’

The gritty history of an 18th century Village lane

October 2, 2017

Prison inmates, slaughterhouse workers, runaway pigs, and unlucky sailors are some of the New Yorkers who tread the paving stones of Charles Lane—a Greenwich Village alley between Perry and Charles Streets that has a colorful history.

The prisoners walked here first. The lane was laid out in 1797, states the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. It formed the northern border of Newgate State Prison (below), built at the foot of the Hudson River that same year.

Newgate was supposed to be a new kind of prison a mile or so from the city downtown; it gave rise to the saying “sent up the river.” The novel idea was to provide moral instruction rather than just harsh corporal punishment.

But it quickly became overcrowded, and inmates frequently rioted.

Prisoners sentenced to death likely had to walk past Charles Lane to get to Washington Square Park, where execution awaited, according to Mike Wallace, coauthor of Gotham, per a New York Times article.

After Newgate was shuttered in 1828, the lane became “Pig Alley,” thanks to “the slaughterhouse which formerly graced the middle of it,” explains a 1913 Evening World article.

“There were always stray pigs about the place then, without sense enough to leave the spot where they were to meet their certain dooms.”

Men who worked the ships met terrible fates here too. “It was a wicked place of nights,” the Evening World continued, rather illustriously.

“Many a poor sailor or longshoremen has been carried out from under its yellow lanterns never to wake again except among the company of harped and winged saints who came by way of the Potter’s Field. . . . “

By 1893, Charles Lane got its current name and was officially mapped, states GVSHP.

When photographer Berenice Abbott shot Charles Lane in 1938 (left), the view looking north toward Washington Street shows us an unkempt alley filled with debris—but oh, those beautiful old blocky stones!

Today the alley is cleaned up, and the West Street end buts up against luxury glass co-ops. I don’t know if those co-op owners ever walk through Charles Lane, but I hope they do. I hope they tread lightly and feel its ghosts.

[All Photos © Ephemeral New York except photo 2, from the NYPL, image 3, from the NYPL, and image 5, from MOMA]

Subway mosaics that supply a little history

May 11, 2010

I’ve always loved the colorful mosaics that decorate certain subway stations. They give you a local history lesson while you’re waiting for your train—when the mosaics aren’t too grimy, that is.

The Borough Hall stop on the 2 and 3 line features this colonial-looking borough hall building (left).

At Christopher Street, the platform is lined with mosaics of Newgate prison (right), which jutted out into the Hudson around Christopher and West Streets until the 1820s.

Images of Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie (left) adorn Union Square, close to where the original Bouwerie was in the early 19th century.

And of course, there are the train mosaics (right) at Grand Central Terminal, a tribute to railway titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, who opened Grand Central Depot in 1871.

The model prison in Greenwich Village

April 17, 2010

If you were convicted of murder or robbery in the City of New York in 1797, you would be ferried up the Hudson to brand-new Newgate Prison on West Street near Christopher Street in the village of Greenwich.

Yep, just a stone’s throw from those luxe Richard Meier glass towers and other tony addresses was once New York State’s first penitentiary.

It was a model prison with a radical concept: that convicts could be rehabilitated through hard work and education. Corporal punishment was banned; inmates who followed the rules were allowed occasional visits from family members.

On a more macabre note, Newgate’s proximity to the infamous hanging elm of Washington Square Park also meant that it was an easy to march prisoners to the park for their appointment with the hangman.

Newgate didn’t last long; by the early 19th century, it was already overcrowded, not just with adult male felons but also juveniles and the insane. In 1828 it closed, and prisoners were transferred to the new Sing Sing prison . . . up the river.

All traces of it are gone, of course, but Newgate is commemorated on the plaques at the Christopher Street/Sheridan Square subway station.