Posts Tagged ‘The Tombs New York City’

The Tombs: New York’s notoriously named prison

May 2, 2013

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.

The “Bridge of Sighs” over a downtown prison

January 4, 2012

Venice’s “Bridge of Sighs,” built in 1602, connected the city’s prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

The name comes from a Byron poem suggesting that condemned prisoners walking back over the bridge would view Venice and then sigh before being locked up for years—or executed.

New York had its own Bridge of Sighs. It linked the criminal court building and the infamous Tombs prison bounded by Centre, Franklin, Elm (Lafayette), and Leonard Streets.

The inspiration for the name is the same. “The span was called ‘the Bridge of Sighs’ because condemned prisoners passed over it on the way to their deaths,” explains

“The gallows were set up in the courtyard near the Bridge of Sighs and taken down immediately afterwards.

“Before the state began employing the electric chair at Ossining and Auburn prisons, the Tombs gallows had hanged some 50 convicted murderers.”

The postcard above shows the Bridge of Sighs connecting the criminal court building on the left with the new Tombs built in 1902 on the right.

Based on what says about gallows in the prison yard, plus the fact that the last hanging at the Tombs took place in the 19th century, there must have been a previous Bridge of Sighs connecting the first Tombs, constructed in 1838.

Perhaps this is it, in an illustration from the NYPL Digital Collection.