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The following is a second excerpt from Edward Abdy's Journal of a Residence and Tour in The United States of North America (London: Murray, 1835).
Much of this excerpt is about Singsing Penitentiary, and the system of making prisoners labor, while at no time allowing them to talk to one another (when not working they were essentially in solitary confinement).
The book is in large part, a reaction to American slavery, so heated that it was never published in the U.S., except in the 1960s by the Negro University Press. It has received too little attention, though one exception is Leonard Richards' Gentlemen of Property and Standing, which draws extensively on it for observations of the racist rioting of the 1830s.
Two things I notice about the author:
May 27. I accompanied the Governor on a visit, which, he had informed me, by a very polite note the day before, he was going to make, to the prison at Singsing, about thirty miles up the river. We left the city at 7 A.M. by a steam boat, and arrived at 11 o'clock. The morning was fine and clear, and the scenery, on both banks, delightful. Some militia men, who were on board with a band, amused themselves with dancing reels; while the gaiety and cheerfulness that prevailed, reminded me of some scene on the Rhine. The latter is, however, narrower than the Hudson, and differs from it as much in the style as in the variety of its beauties. The military left us at Yonker's Hotel, which lay on our right, and gave the Governor a salute as they landed. Five or six miles further, and on the same side, we passed Tarrytown, the spot where Andre was taken. Much has been said and sung about his unhappy fate: but is it not a false principle which makes it a duty to sacrifice private honor to national glory, and encourages in an enemy the infidelity it would condemn in a friend? He was a spy and an accessory to treason.
Great attention was shewn to the Governor by the passengers; and "his Excellency," in return, was not wanting in courtesy to those who sought an introduction to him. An elderly man, who had observed me conversing with him, requested me to perform that ceremony for him. I told him I was a stranger,-more fit to receive the honor than to confer it. He saw that I did not like to put myself forward, and very good humoredly applied to another quarter. Soon after this we landed at our place of destination, and the boat went on to Albany.
The system, on which Singsing prison is conducted, is calculated to
make a strong impression on the mind. I could take, however, but a cursory
view of an institution which, though an imitation of the Maison de Force
at Ghent, as the Philadelphia system is of that at Glasgow, has excited
so much attention in Europe. The unremitted industry of the convicts, the
skilful manner in which they work, the unbroken silence that prevails throughout,
the organized discipline, the complete arrangement among such a variety
of objects, the passive obedience of men habituated to insubordination
and irregularity, and the universal expression of thorough subjection and
helplessness, --produce sensations and feelings that cannot be explained
by any thing that the spectator has witnessed in places usually appropriated
to the reception of prisoners. The whole presents a combination of physical
exertions, unaccompanied by the signs and sounds of rational creatures,
that resembles rather a colony of beavers or a community of ants, than
a collection of human beings. The power of language is seen here in its
absence. It is the want of it which has subjected the many to the few;
and made them the unresisting instruments of an influence from which its
possession would have rescued them. Such is the external aspect of the
place and its inhabitants. We naturally ask, do the ultimate results correspond
with this calm and order, and will he, who is perfect as a physical machine
here, be better as a moral agent when he gets out? Subsequent enquiry and
reflection afforded some reasons for doubting whether the answer would
be quite satisfactory.
The body of the building, which is situated near the bank of the river,
and is oblong, consists of five stories, separated from the walls by an
empty space, the ground floor and the galleries above admitting of a passage
round the successive divisions, in each of which are 100 cells; and, as
each side corresponds with the other, there are thus 1,000; with grated
doors looking to windows placed on the other side of the passage, in the
opposite wall. Each cell contains a blanket and a board to lie on, and
a bible. It is here that the three daily meals are takenone hour
and a quarter after breakfast and dinner being allowed to their solitary
tenants, who are debarred from all communication with their neighbours,
and are confined by means of an apparatus, by which every lock along the
line is fastened and opened simultaneously. Every convict, as he passes
at the prescribed hour, takes up his meal in a wooden bowl, through an
opening connected with the kitchen, and replaces it in the same spot on
his return from his cell. Their dinner was composed of bread made of rye
and Indian corn, potatoes, and a small slice of pork. Every ration was
the same in quantity. This, with water, (varying occasionally the meat,)
is all that is allowed them. Owing to the exercise they take, the good
air they breathe during the day, their simple diet, and the absence of
every thing calculated to produce any strong excitement in mind or body,
it is found that the proportion of deaths is less than among men of the
same class in ordinary life. I was told that habitual drunkards, so far
from being injured by sudden and total abstinence from spirituous liquors,
experienced from it a marked improvement in their health.
The wings of the building run down to the river, and contain the offices
and workshops. The intermediate ground is occupied by the stonecutters.
The quarry from which the latter obtain their materials, is at the back
of the prison, the whole of which is commanded by the hill where the stone
is found. Here are posted eleven guards with fire arms to prevent escapes.
In the course of five years two prisoners have been shot, while attempting
to get off. At the time of our visit, there were 850 convicts. The establishment
consists of an agent, with a salary of 1750 dollars per annum-a clerk,
with 800;-physician and surgeon with, each, a salary not exceeding 500,
the amount to be fixed by the inspectors, of whom there are three, appointed
by the Governor of the State and the Senate;-a chaplain, not above 300,
subject to the same regulation;-a deputy keeper, whose salary is not to
exceed 1000;-and assistant keepers, with salaries not above 550 each.
The whole number of persons employed in the prison during the year which
ended with September, 1832, was, one agent, one clerk, one deputy keeper,
twentythree assistant keepers, and twentynine guards. The latter
receive eighteen dollars per month each, and the sergeant, who commands
them, twentyfive. The inspectors, whose duty it is to visit the prison
at least once every two months, and report annually to the Legislature,
hold office two years, and are reeligible. They receive the same pay,
both for their services and for their travelling expenses as the Members
of the Legislature,-three dollars (if I mistake not) aday, and three
for every twenty miles;-not payable, however, unless they are actually
and necessarily engaged in their official employment.
A prison, without walls, and open to any one who chooses to enter it,
would imply or require a popular government, as disaffection would here
find ready-made instruments to work with. In Europe, high walls are built
round similar establishments to prevent intrusion as well as evasion, and
revolt without is more dreaded than revolt within the enclosure.
No instance has occurred at Singsing of assistance being given to the
prisoners in their attempts to escape.
The profits derived from the convict labor already exceed the expenditure,
and will probably leave a considerable surplus, if the system be not interrupted
by the jealousy it has excited among the mechanics, whose interests are
erroneously supposed to be injured by its continuance. With the increase
of the city of New York will be an augmenting demand for its labor, and
a commensurate addition to the value of its proceeds. In return, it is
too certain, that that great emporium of commerce will supply it with inmates:-crime
and luxury will thus feed each other, and the marble that now lies peaceably
under Mount Pleasant, will be torn from its bosom by the outcasts of that
city it is destined to enrich and embellish.
Having inspected the Penitentiary, the Governor took me with him to
a gentleman's house in the village, where we found a small party assembled,
and passed the remainder of the afternoon. Beds had been provided for us
at the clerk's, about a mile from the prison, the pathway to which commands
a noble view of the river. The next morning we breakfasted with the Agent.
Before our departure one of the convicts was discharged-his term of
years (four) having expired. As he was from the same country as myself,
I spoke in a friendly manner to him, and exhorted him to act honestly on
his return to society. He appeared to be stupid and unfit for any thing
useful or rational,-one of those exotics that are the worse for transplantation,
uniting the bad qualities peculiar to each soil, and losing, or wanting,
the virtues of both.
We returned by 6 P.M. to New York, and I took my leave of the chief
magistrate, to accompany him on a visit he was to make to the City Penitentiary
the following Monday.
As the executive of the State, the Governor has the power of pardoning
and remitting punishment. This is called here, as elsewhere, the prerogative
of mercy, though it is rather that of justice, since its
exercise ought to be regulated not by feeling, but by principle, and is
salutary in those cases only which imply extenuation of guilt or defect
of conclusive evidence. Where there is no crime, compensation would be
more appropriate than pardon. It is hardly, however, to be expected, that
this distinction should be acknowledged by those who are most interested
in not understanding it; or that the relatives of one who has brought ruin
or shame upon them, should see clearly that pity to the individual is too
often cruelty to society. Where an audience is so easily obtained, the
chief magistrate is frequently exposed to solicitations which nothing but
a strong sense of duty could enable him to resist. Those touching appeals
to the passions, which the Roman orators of antiquity were used to practice,
are sometimes made on these occasions; and it must be owned, that a wife
in tears and a group of children on their knees are less out of place before
the executive, than before the judge. These exhibitions are often amusingly
characteristic of simplicity, both in the people and in their institutions.
One anecdote of the kind created a laugh at the breakfast table. A poor
woman, who had come a long distance with a petition duly attested in favor
of her husband, presented herself before "his Excellency," and
throwing the memorial on the table, exclaimed, when asked what she wanted,
"that paper will tell you." The prisoner was a worthless fellow:-her
request was firmly yet mildly refused. "Well then," said the
applicant, "I suppose I must go home again;-but how am I to get back
?-I have not a cent in my pocket."-Pecuniary relief was given her,
and she expressed her gratitude most warmly.- "If I thought my husband
was not reformed," she said, "I would rather he should remain
where he is." -She then left the room, repeating her thanks for the
kindness she had received, when, suddenly returning, she put her head in
at the door, and called out "I say, Governor, when I want him to be
discharged, I'll let you know."
This prerogative was formerly exercised in a very improper manner.-Chief
Justice Spencer, one of the delegates to the New York State Convention,
in 1821, said in debate,- "In the increase of population crimes had
naturally increased, until our State prisons had become thronged. Something,
therefore, must be done, and the judges had found it necessary to recommend
to the governor, from time to time, that the least criminal should be pardoned."
Mr. P. R. Livingston observed very justly, in reply,- "If the governor
had possessed no power to pardon, your prisons would never have been filled."
And even so late as 1832, the governor of Ohio (M'Arthur) said, in his
message to the legislature, "Many of the convicts have been pardoned
more frequently for the purpose of making room for the reception of others,
and to save expense to the State, than for any just claim they may have
had on executive clemency." This is carrying economy to an excess
that must necessarily end in augmenting the expenditure of the State, if
direct encouragement to crime have any tendency that way. It is hardly
worth while to apply to the chief magistrate for a friend's pardon, when
you can serve him as well by putting your hand into your neighbour's pocket.
By borrowing the governor's best horse, an associate may draw down his
clemency upon a convict, while drawing down his vengeance upon himself.
The kindness will be repaid in due time.
The schoolcommissioners not having completed their halfyearly
visit, I again accompanied them to the schools and renewed my former gratification.
The beauty of the penmanship in the specimens exhibited; the justness of
the pronunciation and spelling; and the order observable throughout the
different establishments we saw, again struck my attention. At one of the
"African" schools was an Albiness. She had the features and crisped
hair peculiar to the negro race; but her skin and eyes were of a light
color; and her hair had the appearance of wool both in whiteness and consistency.
Her sight was very weak, and I was told her intellect was defective.
During our rounds, I was introduced to a very gentlemanly man, whose
son I had met on my excursion to Singsing. We conversed together a good
deal about the schools, the interests of which he had exerted himself to
promote both by his purse and his influence. His politeness led him a few
days afterwards to call upon me; and I was indebted to him for an agreeable
acquaintance with some of his friends and for some very pleasant days which
I afterwards passed at his country residence.
The last place we visited on this occasion was the Catholic Orphan Asylum,
which contains about 100 children, and is under the superintendence of
the Soeurs de la Charite, who are sent hither from their establishment
at Emmetsburg in Maryland. Though sectarian, this seminary receives part
of the schoolfund, a deviation from the general principles of the
constitution that is said not to be universally approved of. The Friends
support their own schools.
There were thirteen public schools (there are probably more now) in
New York; and in addition, is one belonging to the Mechanics' Association,
which receives an allowance for twenty scholars from the public fund; two
orphan asylums; and about six "African " schools.
The superintendent of the common schools reported in January, 1833,
that there were, by the last estimate, 508,878 children in the State between
the ages of five and sixteen; and that of these 494,959 were receiving
instruction in the district schools. The annual revenue derived from the
school fund was 93,755 dollars, the capital, which was progressively increasing,
amounting, at the date of the report, to 1,735,175 dollars. With the addition
of a state tax and local funds, the whole sum available for the purposes
of education, was 305,582 dollars. This, added to 358,320-raised voluntarily
by the inhabitants of 761 towns or townships,-swells the aggregate to 663,902;
the whole having been applied exclusively to the payment of the teachers,
deducting about 60,000 for the city of New York. Thus, it appears, the
State pays somewhat less than onesixth of this part of the expenditure-comprehending
not more than onehalf of the annual cost of public instruction, which
including schoolhouses, books, fuel, &c., was estimated at about
1,126,482 dollars; less shall oneeleventh of which was paid by the
public treasury, its share having become less than it had ever previously
been. These beneficial results, contrasted with what had been experienced
in Connecticut, where the voluntary principle has been rendered inoperative
by a large permanent school fund, afford matter for serious reflection
on this important subject, and lead to a conclusion, the correctness of
which is supported by a striking fact mentioned in the Report. In seven
counties of the State, where the local funds amounted to about 12,795 dollars,
the average contribution of each inhabitant was thirtyfour cents sixtenths;
while in seven counties, where there were no funds at all, the same average
was thirtyseven cents onetenth. The superintendent recommended
that the teachers should receive better instruction and higher salaries.
The former suggestion has since received the attention it deserves; it
is to be hoped that the latter will not be neglected, and that the services
of those who are as usefully and as honorably employed as any in public
or private life, may be adequately remunerated. By the superintendent's
report in 1834, there were 512,475 children, between the ages of five and
sixteen, receiving instruction in the public schools, while the whole number
of that age in the State amounted to 522,618. The teachers had received
for the last year 677,429 dollars, in addition to 100,000 from the public
fund. The annual expenditure for education, private as well as public,
was supposed to be about one million of dollars. The principle alluded
to in the former report, is still further confirmed as the system is developed
in its details. "Experience in other States has proved," says
the superintendent, "what has been abundantly confirmed by our own:-that
too large a sum of public money, distributed among the common schools,
has no salutary effect. Beyond a certain point, the voluntary contributions
of the inhabitants decline in amount, with almost uniform regularity, as
the contributions from a public fund increase. In almost every case in
which a town possesses a local fund, the amount paid for teachers' wages,
above the public money, is about as much less, compared with (that of)
other towns having no local fund, as the amount received from that source.
"The State advances nineteen cents three fourths for each pupil per
annum, while the remaining part of the cost (more than a dollar) is paid
by the parents or friends. In Connecticut, a dollar has been drawn for
the same purposes, from the school fund, for each scholar;-and the result
has been great remissness on the part of the teachers and superintendents,
and the refusal from many districts to support, by the attendance of their
children, a system so defective.
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