Reforms and Revivals

In the spring of 1817 a New York charitable agency announced, with mingled pride and dismay, that during the previous winter “fifteen thousand, men, women, and children, equal to one-seventh of the whole population of our city, have been supported by public or private bounty and munificence!” Already the alarming size of this dependent population had prompted New Yorkers active in benevolent work to begin reemphasizing the centuries-old distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor—or, as such leading British political economists as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and Jeremy Bentham were now putting it, between poverty and pauperism.

These were held to be very different conditions, meriting very different responses. Poverty was providential. The sick and crippled, the old and orphaned, the widowed and deserted, the victims of epidemics and casualties of war were poor through no fault of their own, and their plight warranted at least a minimalist benevolence. Pauperism, however, stemmed from laziness, fraud, and assorted moral degeneracies, and it called for chastisement and correction, not charity.

Thomas Eddy, one of New York’s most influential reformers and sometime warden of Newgate Prison, agreed. As he explained to De Witt Clinton, he had grown “tired assisting them in their distress, and it appears to me more wise, to fix on every profitable plan to prevent their poverty and misery.” His decades-long correspondence with Patrick Colquhoun had kept him well informed about the work of the London Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and he had decided that the time was ripe for a similar body in New York. In December 1817, together with master organizer John Pintard and the Quaker chemist John Griscom, Eddy called a meeting out of which emerged the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP).

The SPP membership was top-heavy with prominent merchants, lawyers, and cler­gy, representing a cross-section of political and denominational loyalties, Yankees as well as Knickerbockers. These were essentially the same men who for the past two or three decades had led the Humane Society, the Free School Society, New York Hospital, the New-York Historical Society, the Literary and Philosophical Society, and other cultural and benevolent organizations in the city. Many were also deeply involved in promoting the Erie Canal.

They now threw their collective weight behind the view that pauperism stemmed from ignorance, idleness, intemperance, extravagance, imprudent marriages, and deficient childrearing practices—what Griscom called the lack of “correct moral principle.” Willy-nilly benevolence only made it worse. Giving alms to the undeserving poor not only undermined their independence but also drove up taxes and sapped the prosperity of the entire community. For their good as well as everyone else’s, therefore, the SPP recommended that all paupers in the city be cut off from all public assistance forthwith.

Not all the elite subscribed to the new sink-or-swim wisdom. Mayor Cadwallader Golden, for one, expressed doubts that the multiplication of New York’s poor was “justly to be imputed to either her public or private charities.” He blamed it, instead, on a wave of unemployment triggered after 1815 by Britain’s “reduction of great naval and military establishments, the abridgment of her commerce, the curtailment of her manufactures, and the astonishing operations of her labor-saving machines.” Almshouse chaplain Stanford was another holdout, arguing that since the poor had helped “multiply the treasures of the rich” through their labor, the rich were “morally obligated to relieve a necessitous person.” These dissenters made no headway against the massed prestige of the SPP, and both municipal and state governments began to implement its recommendations. The Common Council halted contributions to all charitable enterprises except for the Humane Society and the City Dispensary. Governor De Witt Clinton proclaimed his intention to wipe out pauperism “by rendering it a greater evil to live by charity than by industry.” In 1823 the legislature charged Secretary of State John Van Ness Yates to report on the condition of the poor and the administration of relief throughout the state. Echoing the SPP, Yates’s committee attributed pauperism to “vice of all kind”—especially in New York City, which attracted the “idle and dissolute of every description.” Subsequent legislation ended outdoor relief throughout New York State, except (to the SPP’s annoyance) in New York City, where the dramatic fluctuations of the economy made it as yet impracticable and impolitic to do so.

Private benevolence slacked off as well. The ad hoc ward committees that had helped the victims of hard times during the embargo and war years now vanished, nowhere more abruptly than in Brooklyn. In the terrible winter of 1817, when the thermometer plummeted to twenty-six below zero and Buttermilk Channel iced over so thickly that horse-drawn sleighs crossed to Governors Island, the Brooklyn Humane Society had set up a soup house for the distressed poor. But as the new maxims of British political economy made their way across the East River, the society announced that its benevolence had been misguided. Alms-giving, it now realized, had “a direct tendency to beget, among a large portion of their fellow citizens, habits of imprudence, indolence, dissipation and consequent pauperism.” Accordingly, the Humane Society announced that no food or firewood would be forthcoming the following winter, and to hammer the point home, the group disbanded.

The efficacy of charity likewise fell under suspicion among the genteel women who led the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. As recently as 1815 the ladies had rejected the lazy-poor line and indeed reported that “an attentive observation has thoroughly convinced us that it is an impossibility for a widow, with the labor of her own hands, to support her infant family . . . even if work abound.” Then, however, the men of the SPP denounced the Relief Society’s work on the grounds that giving charity to widows with children incited those without to become pregnant, “which is highly immoral, and ought not be tolerated in a Christian land.” Despite the best of intentions, in other words, the women had been “encouraging population among the poor, and increasing the number of paupers,” a line of reasoning that won converts.

So how did the SPP propose to prevent pauperism in New York, beyond shutting down the flow of ill-advised charity? The answer was to inculcate the undeserving poor with the values that would make them useful and productive members of society: sobriety, cleanliness, industriousness, frugality, punctuality, good manners, and the like. European precedents suggested a host of tactics, among them savings banks, workhouses, Sunday schools, and a ban on street begging, all of which the SPP advocated. Another possibility, currently underway in Glasgow and Hamburg, was the “moral superintendence of neighborhoods.” The idea was to divide the city into districts, each of which would be assigned to two or three well-bred visitors who could advise the poor on such matters as domestic management, childrearing, and proper conduct. For several years SPP “visitors” fanned out through the city, diligently compiling information on the background and character of every resident. By 1821, though, the project had foundered. Only one district had a visitation system fully in place, and that was a fashionable neighborhood where 90 percent of the householders were found to be of “good” character and there wasn’t a pauper in sight.


Evangelicals in the city had meanwhile discerned a connection between pauperism and religious absenteeism. It was no secret that many poor New Yorkers were still unchurched—according to the SPP itself, some fifteen thousand of the city’s twentyfive thousand families rarely if ever took part in worship services—at least in part because poor neighborhoods had too few churches and their residents weren’t often welcomed by congregations in well-to-do parts of town. Until it became linked with the genteel revolt against charity, however, urban irreligion had aroused only fitful interest among mainstream Christian denominations. The New-York Missionary Society, founded back in 1796, targeted Indians and settlers on the frontier. The Society for Supporting the Gospel Among the Poor of the City of New-York had been formed back in 1812, but its primary concern remained the underwriting of John Stanford’s preaching to hospital, prison, and almshouse inmates.

All this changed after 1815, when a new generation of evangelicals began work “among the destitute of our own city.” In 1818 the Female Missionary Society for the Poor of the City of New-York established a free church in African-American Bancker Street—the very “seat of Satan.” The following year they planted another chapel on Allen Street, near Corlear’s Hook. The ladies retained ministers to garrison these outposts but also took the field themselves, visiting the poor, praying with them in their homes, and coaxing destitute mothers to church. Clerics found such female initiatives alarming, and in 1821 the Rev. William Gray told the women that because they “had engaged in an enterprise beyond your appropriate sphere,” active management had “been wholly transferred from the hands of the Ladies into those of the Gentlemen.” Ministers applauded when the Presbyterian Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York built a church near Corlear’s Hook and staffed it with eager young preachers, and when the Presbyterian New-York Evangelical Missionary Society of Young Men set up mission stations in the Hook and on Bancker Street, where they conducted services, visited families, and held prayer meetings.

Like the SPP, evangelicals believed in “moral superintendence.” The Rev. Ward Stafford, Female Missionary Society preacher-at-large, argued in his New Missionary Field (1817) that “the very sight of the moral and pious is a check to the wicked.” Because New York wasn’t a “well-regulated village,” where the “character, and circumstances of every family are almost necessarily known,” it was imperative for godly men and women to make their presence felt, dispensing not charity but their own righteousness. Stafford also accepted the reigning orthodoxy: “If people believe, that they shall be relieved when in distress,” he asserted, “they will not generally make exertions, will not labour when they are able and have the opportunity.” But “let it be known that death or extreme suffering will be the consequence of idleness, or profligacy, and the number of the idle and the profligate will soon be diminished.”

The urban mission movement expanded steadily in the next few years, with the waterfront and its “vastly wicked” sailors drawing particular attention. Stafford helped organize both the New-York Marine Missionary Society (1817) and the Port of New York Society for Promoting the Gospel Among Seamen (1818). Together they erected the interdenominational Mariner’s Church (1819) on Cherry Street near the East River docks. In 1821, even more aggressively, the New-York Bethel Union began holding nightly prayer meetings aboard wharfed ships and in sailors’ boardinghouses and offering comfort to families whose breadwinners had been lost at sea. In 1822 many of the new missions came together in the United Domestic Missionary Society, which four years later took the lead in founding the nationwide American Home Missionary Society.


In 1816 a group of prominent reformers—Henry Rutgers, David Low Dodge, Divie Bethune, Gardiner Spring, Richard Varick, and Governor De Witt Clinton, among others—founded the American Bible Society (ABS) for the purpose of printing and distributing Bibles throughout the United States. New York was deemed the appropriate headquarters city for such an organization—indeed, the ABS constitution required that twenty-four of its thirty-six managers reside in Manhattan or vicinity—because of the advanced state of its printing industry. In particular, New York printers had been the first in the country to adopt a revolutionary new British technique called stereotyping.

Formerly, a printer set a page by locking movable type into a form that would be disassembled once the required number of impressions for a given press run had been taken. In stereotyping, however, the printer made a mold of the page before disassembling the form, then cast a metal plate that could be inserted in the press over and over again, whenever a new printing was wanted, so the page would never have to be reset. (The plate was the stereotype itself, from the Greek stereo, or solid; thus “stereotype” would come to mean any often-repeated concept or image.) It was an expensive process but made good economic sense with books destined for massive and repeated print runs. Not surprisingly, one of the first objectives of the ABS was to acquire a full set of “well-executed stereotype plates” of the Bible, and within a few years the presses in its sumptuous Nassau Street headquarters, nicknamed Bible House, were producing tens of thousands of Bibles every year. Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 ensured that the reach of Bible House would extend into every corner of the developing West.

Nor did the ABS neglect the widening war on irreligion in the city itself. It too believed that pauperism could be defeated by the Word, and it helped organize an expanding network of local groups—including the New-York Female Auxiliary Bible Society (1816), the Female Juvenile Auxiliary Bible Society (1816), the New-York Union Bible Society (1816), the New-York African Bible Society (1817), and the New York Marine Bible Society (1817)—whose members distributed Bibles in slums, brothels, grogshops, gambling dens, hospitals, and jails. Sometimes they ran into trouble. “A respectable man, not long since, who was distributing Bibles,” the Rev. Stafford reported in 1817, “was attacked, knocked down, and had his clothes literally torn off, and was so beaten as to lose considerable blood.” Sometimes they were laughed at by sailors brandishing books by “Hume, Gibbon, Paine,” and other infidels. Nor did Jews appreciate being the target of conversion drives: printer Solomon H. Jackson’s The Jen (1823-25), the first Jewish periodical published in the United States, consisted mainly of monthly diatribes against Christian missionaries.

Their biggest problem, however, often proved to be the Bible itself—too big, too long, too complex to be a convenient instrument of urban evangelism. Not so the pamphlets and booklets distributed by the New York Religious Tract Society, founded back in 1807 by many of the same men who subsequently created the American Bible Society. Initially, the Tract Society had been content with British imports—such inspirational tales as “The Duties and Encouragements of the Poor,” “Destructive Consequences of Dissipation and Luxury,” “Happy Poverty,” and the like—which it forwarded in bulk to frontier missionaries. After 1815, however, it joined the evangelical crusade against urban pauperism and gave rise to a pair of auxiliaries that dispensed tracts among the city’s poor: the Young Men’s Tract Society (1821) and a special Female Branch (1822) organized by Mrs. Divie Bethune (the former Joanna Graham), which enlisted the support of several hundred prominent women.

In 1825 the New York Tract Society combined forces with the New England Tract Society to form the American Tract Society (ATS). Like their counterparts in the ABS, the directors of the new group readily agreed to set up headquarters in New York, knowing that the Erie Canal would ensure them easy access to western settlements—and because the city was home to wealthy benefactors like textile importer Arthur Tappan, banker Moses Allen, and merchants David Low Dodge, Anson Phelps, and Thomas Stokes. Tappan and Allen paid for the construction of Tract House on Nassau Street, which, like the ABS’s nearby Bible House, held the organization’s offices, foundry, bindery, and stereotype-finishing functions. (The availability of stereotyping in Manhattan, the directors said, had been “a powerful argument in favor of union.”) It was likewise Arthur Tappan’s gift of five thousand dollars that led, in 1826, to the installation of New York’s first steam-powered press on the fourth floor of Tract House. By 1829, four years before Harper Brothers became the first commercial publisher to install one, the Tract Society had sixteen of the machines, all built by Robert Hoe, soon the country’s leading manufacturer of printing presses.

The offspring of this marriage of technology and evangelism was an unprecedented outpouring of printed matter—six million tracts (61 million pages in all) in 1829 alone, plus better than three hundred thousand Bibles. No less impressive was the invention of marketing and distribution techniques, later the norm in American business, by which the evangelicals moved their wares from New York to the rest of the country. Corps of agents in every state, organized into hundreds of local branches, handed out Bibles and tracts door to door, founded circulating libraries, advertised in newspapers, and even made special deliveries to sailors and boatmen aboard whalers, packets, ferries, canal barges, and steamboats. There was even a Tract of the Month program that offered “book dividends” to subscribers.

In New York itself, the American Tract Society considered the systematic distribution of its publications to be “the lever which shall move the foundation of Satan’s empire in this city” (and in Brooklyn too, which got its own auxiliary Tract Society). In 1829 the ATS launched a “General Supply” campaign whose goal was to place in the hands of every resident a copy of a different tract every month. Each ward had a committee and a chairman and was divided into districts encompassing sixty families each. Each district (over five hundred in all) was assigned a team of distributors who received printed instruction cards, forms for reporting back to the central committee, and a supply of the tract of the month. By March 1829 the ATS had visited all 28,771 families in the city. Only 388 declined to take a tract. Evidently, as the secretary of the ATS put it, “The concentration of tract work in New York was what God designed.”


Complementing the labors of missionaries and tractarians came a new burst of interest in the use of schools to combat pauperism and licentiousness: children who acquired good moral training at an early age (it was said) would become productive, law-abiding, self-supporting adults. The difficulty—as Eddy, Pintard, Clinton, and other reformers began to appreciate soon after the turn of the century—was that New York still had no system of public education that could be mobilized to provide such training to the people who needed it the most. Affluent residents sent their sons and daughters to private day schools or boarding schools; artisans and journeymen, if they could afford it, relied on a small number of “pay schools” that taught the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Some merchants and entrepreneurs had begun to experiment with educational institutions targeted at specific elements of the laboring population. In 1820, for example, the Chamber of Commerce established the Mercantile Library Association to impart commercial skills and sober habits to the city’s growing number of clerks—too many of whom, surrounded by “excitements to pleasure,” had “become the votaries of vice and depravity.” The association’s hope was that its mammoth book collection (eventually comprising thirty-seven thousand volumes, second largest in town), supplemented with regular lectures by leading business, professional, and public men, would help the clerks resist “these moral foes.” That same year, prompted by John Pintard and the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen—dominated by wealthy former mechanics like bankers Jacob Lorillard and Stephen Allen—established an Apprentices Library, a lecture series, and a school for the sons of poorer or deceased members. Their goal too was to teach good habits and skills. In 1826 the General Society opened a school for girls as well.

For the vast majority of children, however, so-called charity schools remained the only chance for an education. By 1825 city churches sponsored fourteen such schools, with a combined enrollment of nearly thirty-four hundred pupils, virtually all from poor families. The African Free School, founded by the Manumission Society in 1786, drew nearly nine hundred pupils in 1823—more than half the African-American youths of school age in the city. Another eleven charity schools were operated by the nondenominational Free School Society (FSS), which Eddy, Clinton, and other gentlemen had founded back in 1805 to educate poor children “who do not belong to or are not provided for by any religious society.” After 1815, against the background of mounting concern over pauperism and lawlessness, the FSS strenuously promoted its Lancasterian approach to education—a combination of Bible study, rote memorization, and rigorous discipline—as “the main instrument by which extreme poverty & grovelling vice, & high-handed crime are to be banished from society.” In 1825 John Griscom boasted that over the years some twenty thousand children, “taken from the most indigent classes,” had passed through FSS schools.


First Infant School in Green Street New York, by Archibald Robertson, 0.1827. Located in the basement of the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Canal and Green streets, the school was run by the newly founded Infant School Society. Like many “charity schools,” it used the monitorial system devised by the English reformer Joseph Lancaster. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Edward W.C. Arnold, 1964. The Edward W.C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures)

More successful still were the scores of Sunday schools that sprang up in the city during the twenties. The Sunday school movement, launched just after the turn of the century, really took off in 1816, when merchants Divie Bethune and Eleazer Lord founded the New York Sunday School Union. The purpose of Sunday schools, said the union, was “to arrest the progress of vice and to promote the moral and religious instruction of the depraved and uneducated part of the community.” Thousands of students were quickly recruited by handbills offering an “education free of expense” and promising that those who attended regularly, read their Bibles, and behaved well would be recommended for admission to an FSS school. The two hundred-odd volun­teers who signed up as teachers (many, like Melissa Phelps, from genteel families) were pointedly charged to help their pupils become honest and useful citizens: “While you instill in their young minds the duty of contentment in the stations allotted to them by Providence, you will of course embrace the occasion to point out to them the self-degradation which attend idleness and vice; and the certain rewards which await industry and a virtuous life.”

By 1823 better than seven thousand male and female students were attending seventy-four Sunday schools in New York. Roughly a quarter of the pupils were African Americans—half of them adults, women as well as men. The Episcopal Church refused to join the Sunday School Union but started its own program, which over the next decade grew to some two dozen schools with a combined enrollment of six thousand. The movement spread quickly to communities on the Long Island side of the East River, and in 1829 the Kings County Sabbath School Society was formed to coordinate Sunday school work in Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend, New Lots, Brooklyn, and Bushwick. Memorization remained the technique of choice, and its results were toted up meticulously. (Some students were paid for each verse memorized—with coupons redeemable in Bibles).

All of this convinced evangelicals that they were at last beginning to make some inroads on pauperism and related social evils. Even “Bancker-Street Sabbath-breakers of the vilest class [i.e., blacks],” exulted Eleazer Lord, had become “decent in their dress, orderly in their behavior, industrious in their calling, and punctual at school and church!” In 1829, to celebrate the “mighty machinery of Sunday schools,” twelve thousand scholars were paraded down Broadway in orderly rows to Battery Park, where they sang songs and heard congratulatory speeches.

But the apparent success of the Sunday School Union was clouded by an acrimonious fight over public support among the city’s charity schools. Since 1812 the state government had provided financial assistance to the charity schools (funneled through the Common Council after 1824) in proportion to their enrollments. As the number and size of church-run schools increased, however, the Free School Society’s share of the pie dwindled alarmingly, and it began to attack all aid to “sectarian” schools as a violation of the separation of church and state. In 1825 the FSS called for the creation of a single public school system, under its management, that would be open to all city children, “not as a charity, but as a matter of common right.” New York, it declared, needed classrooms where “the rich and the poor may meet together; where the wall of partition, which now seems to be raised between them, may be removed; where kindlier feelings between the children of these respective classes may be begotten; where the indigent may be excited to emulate the cleanliness, decorum and mental improvement of those in better circumstances.” The Common Council agreed and, despite bitter opposition, cut off aid to denominational schools. In 1826 the Free School Society renamed itself the Public School Society, though it remained in fact a privately run institution.

Over the next several years, although the society’s schools did manage to attract somewhat more students from what it called “the middle walks of life,” the effectiveness of free common education as a cure for pauperism and immorality remained largely hypothetical. New public schools were opened only in neighborhoods of “a quiet and orderly cast”—there were none in the Five Points throughout the 1820s—and they tended to expel pupils who didn’t readily conform to their values. By 1829, of the roughly forty-three thousand children in New York between the ages of five and fifteen, as many as twenty thousand—overwhelmingly from the city’s most indigent households—still attended no school whatever. Of the remainder, about fourteen thousand went to private schools, as against the five thousand in public schools and the four thousand or so served by church-run charity schools (which coped with the loss of public support by scaling back enrollments). Many working-class youths withdrew once they were old enough to help support their families; few stayed past fourteen, the traditional age for beginning an apprenticeship. What was more, the manifestly genteel and Protestant leadership of the new system proved unattractive to Roman Catholics, who now began to construct their own network of parochial schools.

Sunday schools reacted to the new climate by cutting back on the three R’s and giving more emphasis to formal religious instruction, the effect of which was to discourage enrollment outside their own congregations—most notably by African-American adults. Although the Manumission Society expanded the number of African Free Schools from two to seven, the Public School Society absorbed them all in 1834. Renamed Colored Free Schools, they experienced a precipitous decline in quality that soon drove away many students.


With only half of the city’s children in school and the old apprenticeship system in disarray, it was almost inevitable that thousands of ragamuffins would become a fixture of the city scene—lolling along the wharves, begging on the streets, thronging the shipyards, hanging about Brooklyn ropewalks on the Sabbath, playing cards and spouting profanity. Some edged into criminality. Groups of girls stole sugar, coffee, or tea from the docks and sold them to market women. Boys pilfered brass rods, rope, or sheets of copper and sold them to junk dealers. Marauding bands robbed grocery stores and vandalized houses. Boys became accomplished pickpockets. Girls as young as twelve drifted in and out of prostitution.

The conventional response to errant or merely “vagrant” children was to put them in jail, but chaplain John Stanford began to argue as early as 1815 that incarcerating youthful offenders with adult criminals merely trained a new generation of professional outlaws. Stanford thought that these children should be placed in an “Asylum for Vagrant Youth” where they could be instructed in moral and religious principles and apprenticed to a trade. Stanford’s idea languished until the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism fastened on the notion that wayward youths formed the true “core of pauperism.” In the fall of 1819, just back from one of his visits with British reformers, John Griscom spoke to a packed City Hotel meeting about the work with delinquent children currently underway in London. Over the next several years the SPP became so enthusiastic about the youth-oriented solution to poverty that in 1823 it reconstituted itself as the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. Convinced that they could smother pauperism in its cradle, the society’s spokesmen lobbied city and state officials to incorporate and fund the country’s first juvenile reformatory.

The New York House of Refuge opened on January 1, 1825, in an abandoned federal arsenal on the Bloomingdale Road between 22nd and 23rd streets, amid farms and orchards on the outskirts of town. The Refuge’s charges were children under sixteen, committed by the courts for indefinite terms (not to exceed the age of twenty-one for boys or eighteen for girls). Their “indolent and worthless” parents, in the Rev. Stan­ford’s phrase, had allowed them to roam the streets, frequenting theaters and taverns until ensnared by alcohol, immorality, and crime. Stanford didn’t believe that they were beyond redemption, on the other hand, for as the directors of the Refuge put it, it was necessary only to put them through “a vigorous course of moral and corporal discipline” to make them “able and obedient.”

Upon entering the Refuge, accordingly, the children were stripped and washed and given uniforms, their hair was cut to a standard length, and they were placed in windowless five-by-eight-foot cells. Day after day they followed the same lockstep routine, parsed by bells. Bells rang at sunrise and fifteen minutes later, when guards unlocked their cells. Bells herded them to the washroom, to the chapel, to school, and to breakfast by 7:00 A.M. They worked from 7:30 till noon (boys making brass nails or cane seats; girls washing, cooking, or mending clothes), when bells called them again to the dining room for dinner. Back-to-work bells sounded at 1:00 P.M., wash-and-eat bells at 5:00, work bells again at 5:30, school bells at 8:00. Bells summoned everyone to evening prayers, then for the march back to the cells, where absolute silence was enforced all night.

But Joseph Curtis, the Refuge’s first manager—chosen for his experience in superintending workers at James Allaire’s ironworks—soon discovered that the young reprobates had minds of their own. They used “improper language,” talked during silent periods, played during work sessions, and ran away. When reprimands proved useless, Curtis resolved to be “as harsh as any other father.” The infractions and punishments recorded in his daily journal for 1825-26 included:

E. D. paddled, with his feet tied to one side of a barrel, his hands to the other.

J. M. . . . neglects her work for play in the yard, leg iron and confined to House.

Joseph R.: Disregarded order to stop speaking, given a bit of the cat [i.e., the whip].

John B.: A few strokes of the cat to help him remember that he must not speak when confined to a prison cell.

Ann M.: Refractory, does not bend to punishment, put in solitary.

William C.: Questioned guard’s authority, whipped.

Amid some uneasiness at his methods on the part of the overseers, Curtis was replaced by a new manager, Nathaniel C. Hart. Hart proved an even more thoroughgoing disciplinarian, and he ringed the Refuge with a two-foot-thick wall to prevent escapes. Nevertheless, the institution was pronounced a great success. In its first ten years 1,120 boys and girls were admitted, and those “reformed” to the satisfaction of the authorities were released to parents, friends, or masters for apprenticeship; the more refractory were bound over to captains of whaling ships or sent into service as domestics.


Almost due east of the House of Refuge, on a twenty-six-acre site overlooking the East River, stood a complex of buildings, likewise enclosed by a wall, known as the Bellevue Institution. Dedicated in 1816, by the mid-twenties Bellevue comprised—in addition to the pesthouse opened during the yellow fever epidemic of 1794—the city’s new almshouse, Bellevue Hospital, and a penitentiary, plus a school, a morgue, a bakehouse, a washhouse, a soap factory, a greenhouse, an icehouse, and a shop for carpenters and blacksmiths. It was here that New York reformers faced, even more directly than at the House of Refuge, the task of holding the line they had drawn between the deserving and undeserving poor.

The three-story, blue stone almshouse paralleled the water; 325 feet long, with wings at either end, it was the largest structure in the city. Nevertheless, within a decade of its opening, it was overflowing with people too old, too young, or too sick to heed the summons to greater self-reliance. During the year ending September 30, 1825, when the annual cost of running the almshouse had climbed to $81,500—better than 10 percent of the total city budget of $780,400—the number of its inmates fluctuated from a high of 1,867 to a low of 1437 (with deaths totaling 495). Ninety-five percent of the inmates were white and were more or less equally divided between men and women (with genders, like races, segregated in their own quarters). The number of those whom guidebook writer James Hardie referred to as “wretched emigrants from Europe” had multiplied, but they were still outnumbered, three to two, by “needy adventurers from most parts of our own country.”

Jews were conspicuously absent from the almshouse rolls as, ever since New Amsterdam had made Jewish settlement contingent on their poor not becoming a burden to the Dutch West India Company, the tiny community had been taking care of its own. Suddenly faced with large numbers of poor immigrants in the 1820s, but determined that no Jew would beg on the streets, Shearith Israel (spurred by its president Harmon Hendricks) dispensed aid to the needy. In 1822 Ashkenazic members formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which affiliated with B’nai Jeshurun after it seceded.

Catholics too formed their own institutions. In 1817 the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum was founded by the Sisters of Charity, an out-of-town order organized by ex-New Yorker Elizabeth Ann Seton (who in 1797 had cofounded the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows). In 1805, two years after her husband died, Seton had converted to Catholicism and been baptized at St. Peter’s. Ostracized by her Episcopalian family and friends, she had moved with her five children to Baltimore in 1808, taken vows before the bishop, and formed the American Sisters of Charity in 1809 in Emmitsburg, Maryland; it was the first Catholic religious order in the United States. Seton never returned to New York, but four years before she died in 1821, she dispatched three sisters to open the city’s first Catholic orphanage, a small wooden structure on Prince Street near the new cathedral. The ranks of its charges grew steadily, swollen by the hard lives and piety of immigrants like Bridget McGlone, who in 1820 left her infant daughter on the steps of Bishop Connolly’s house, with a note saying she hadn’t taken it to the almshouse as she didn’t want it exposed to Protestant teachings. In 1826 the diocese erected a three-story brick building for the sisters’ now 150 orphans; a second followed in 1830 for half orphans (children with one surviving parent).

Like the almshouse, the new Bellevue Hospital was soon overcrowded, thanks both to the epidemics that swept the city in the early 1820s and to an influx of patients turned away from the New York Hospital downtown. That old charitable establishment, though it still served the respectable poor, had begun to exclude dangerous or morally reprehensible cases. It now sent the contagiously ill up to Bellevue’s pesthouse, the chronically ill to Bellevue’s hospitals and infirmaries, and the wicked ill—sailors with syphilis—to Bellevue’s almshouse, where they could be “made to work.” This policy at once lowered the downtown institution’s patient load and diminished its mortality rate by whisking away terminally ill patients before they could blemish the hospital’s good name.

The pressure on Bellevue Hospital and the almshouse was somewhat alleviated by the appearance of specialized institutions for indigent New Yorkers of good character, among them the New York Eye Infirmary (1820), the New York Infirmary for the Treatment of Diseases of the Lungs (1823), a Deaf and Dumb Asylum (1817), and the New York Asylum for Lying-in Women (1823). Similarly, in 1821 “maniacs” and “lunatics” were shifted from city hospitals to the new Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, located on a rustic seventy-seven-acre plot several miles north of town (now occupied by Columbia University). Besides removing a source of constant disruption in the hospitals, its construction was a victory for Eddy, who had been urging for years that New York adopt Europe’s humane new system of “moral management” for mental illness, which all but eliminated chains and straitjackets.

That both the almshouse and Bellevue Hospital ran out of room so quickly suggests the extent to which genteel reformers had underestimated the population of deserving poor in the city. It was in the penitentiary, moreover, where the consequences of their drawing such a thin line between pauperism and criminality became increasingly apparent. The penitentiary, a three-story stone structure situated just to the rear of the new almshouse, housed criminals and poor alike. It took those convicted at the Court of Sessions of relatively minor offenses—petty larceny (theft of goods valued under twenty-five dollars), fraud, misdemeanors, disorderly conduct, assault—and set them to hard labor for terms up to three years. It also received those convicted of vagrancy—the offense of being unemployed, poor, and on the streets during one of the occasional sweeps by city marshals. These roundups came at the behest of merchants and shopkeepers determined to improve New York’s business climate by scouring away peddlers, scavengers, beggars, and potential criminals. In 1826 the 210 vagrants (fiftynine white men, ninety-three white women, sixteen black men, forty-two black women) substantially outnumbered the eighty-four criminals (fifty-two white men, two white women, twenty-seven black men, three black women), in part because prostitutes were charged as vagrants.

Vagrants too were set to hard labor, for up to six months, which took various forms. Some prisoners worked alongside almshouse inmates, making shoes or mending clothes, further blurring the line between poverty and criminality. Others were set to opening and improving city streets. Still others were assigned to the treadmill, or “stepping wheel,” another English import beloved by reformers, which was installed at Bellevue in 1822 at the urging of Mayor Stephen Allen. Housed in a two-story stone building erected for the purpose, the wheel was a cylinder, twenty feet long and six feet in diameter, attached to a grain-grinding millstone. Sixteen prisoners would mount the wheel and start it turning, trudge for eight minutes, then give way to another set of sixteen, their alternations paced by the inevitable bell. Mayor Allen—who preferred the term “discipline mill”—applauded it as a device for terrorizing “sturdy beggars,” those outside the walls as well as in.

New York City’s more serious offenders—those convicted of highway robbery, burglary, forgery, counterfeiting, or rape—were subject to terms ranging from three to twenty-one years (arson and murder were capital crimes). Such miscreants, overwhelmingly male, were sent not to Bellevue but to the state-run Newgate Prison, hulking on the Hudson’s edge at Greenwich. By the 1820s, however, Newgate’s viability was in serious question. Even dedicated supporters like Eddy conceded that the old prison had been an almost total failure. The place was appallingly overcrowded, stuffed to twice its capacity. After prisoners rioted in 1818, nearly destroying the jail, the legislature responded in 1819 by legalizing flogging—up to thirty-nine lashes per occasion—as well as reviving stocks and irons. In prereform days, a thief would have been whipped and then set free; now he could be held for years and flogged repeatedly if he didn’t conform to prison discipline.


The Stepping Mill, 1828. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Lengthy internments were the exception, however, as the state issued pardons to alleviate the crush. At the end of 1821 Newgate held 817 inmates, but it would have held over two thousand had it not been for repeated mass releases, sometimes of fifty convicts a day, which petrified the now burgeoning community of Greenwich Village. By 1826 the inmate population was down to 448—more than half of whom, sniffed James Hardie in his Description of the City of New York (1827), were miscreants from foreign countries or other states, many of them no doubt “attracted by the hopes of getting more abundant plunder in this metropolis than they could expect in any other place.”

Critics also condemned Newgate’s design because it allowed convicts almost unlimited interaction, letting them pool their experiences. As one Society for the Prevention of Pauperism lawyer pointed out, the place operated “with alarming efficacy to increase, diffuse, and extend the love of vice, and a knowledge of the arts and practices of criminality.” Some thought it might be worth trying to immure prisoners in silent isolation, as did Philadelphia’s celebrated Eastern State Penitentiary. Others thought that as stretches in solitary had been shown to drive many to madness and suicide, the system used upstate at Auburn might be preferable: isolating prisoners at night but setting them to (profitable) gang labor by day, under the rule of absolute silence, enforced by summary flogging. In the end, however, Newgate was deemed hopelessly beyond repair, and the legislature authorized a brand-new prison, on the Auburn model, at Ossining, near the large marble deposits discovered in Westchester County.

In 1828 the state closed Newgate and transferred its prisoners to Sing Sing, which almost instantly won an awesome reputation, potent enough to draw Tocqueville and Beaumont across the Atlantic to investigate its workings three years later. They were astonished to find nine hundred completely unfettered prisoners, overseen by only thirty guards (who meted out merciless floggings with cat-o’-nine-tails for the tiniest infractions), laboring assiduously in open-air quarries, digging up marble to grace the Greek Revival homes, banks, and churches of New York City.

In 1835 the Bellevue Institution took on one last function, that of serving as Manhattan’s execution ground. This represented a major change for New York’s criminal justice system, which had relied for centuries on highly public hangings, staged, in recent years, at sites around the city. In 1816 Ishmael Frazer, a colored man, and Diana Silleck, a white woman, were hanged at Bleecker and Mercer, for arson and murder respectively. In 1820 Rose Butler, a black servant convicted of arson, was dispatched in the potter’s field at what would become Washington Square.

Until the 1820s these public executions had remained sober communal rituals, in which the condemned, the crowd, and the civic authorities all played their respective roles: the first contrite, the second awed, the third magisterial. One of the last executions to follow the traditional script came in 1825, with the hanging of James Reynolds, a twenty-two-year-old seaman convicted of murdering his ship’s captain with an ax. A vast crowd had already assembled at the old prison near City Hall when, at ten A.M., the high constable and the sheriff, the marshals and ministers, and a battalion of infantry and company of dragoons took their places. At 10:30 the prisoner, wearing white trousers, a white frock, and a white cap trimmed with black, was led out from his cell and seated on a small stage. The Rev. John Stanford (as the Commercial Advertiser recounted) gave a “very solemn and affecting” sermon, which “caused the tear to flow from many an eye.”

Then the procession rumbled off, led by the sheriff on horseback, with Reynolds in an open carriage preceded by a wagon carrying his coffin, the entire convoy surrounded by the military and trailed by the crowd. At the scaffold, two miles out of town, the sheriff read the death warrant, and Reynolds addressed the assembled. He had led a moral life, he explained, until corrupted by drink and the brothels of Corlear’s Hook, and he exhorted youthful onlookers “to take warning by the awful spectacle, and shun the paths of vice.” Finally Reynolds sang a psalm with the minister, the cap was drawn over his eyes, and he was hanged at 12:45 while “earnestly praying to God for pardon.”

Prompted in part by a new delicacy of feeling, however, elites were beginning to turn against such spectacles. Essayists, editors, ministers, and legislators began to denounce them as “disgusting exhibitions,” finding them revolting rather than uplifting. It was not executions that troubled them—few of the critics sought an end to capital punishment—but rather their public character. Hangings summoned up mammoth crowds at a time when crowds (like the Callithumpians) were falling out of favor with the gentry. At a minimum, they clogged public space, wasted time, and were bad for business. Worse, these affairs—increasingly festivals of disorder plagued by drunks and pickpockets—seemed to excite base and brutal passions among the populace, to blunt rather than cultivate moral sensibilities. Formerly awe-inspiring drama was turning into counterproductive farce, more blood sport than solemn ceremony.

Lingering republican convictions that private executions smacked of star-chamber despotism led authorities to seek a compromise by keeping them public but limiting popular access. For the 1829 double execution of convicted murderers Richard Johnson (white) and Catharine Cashier (black), the authorities selected Blackwell’s Island as venue. At eight A.M. the two were whisked from the Bridewell, in separate carriages, “with such rapidity [said the Post] as to prevent the rabble from keeping pace with the cavalcade.” But when the entourage reached Penitentiary Wharf, where a steamboat waited, it was accompanied by several thousand men, women, and boys “eager to witness the dying struggles of two of their fellow beings.” Worse, when the boat carrying the condemned left the dock, the assembled thousands piled into hundreds of small vessels, which tagged along, then ringed Blackwell’s shore. In addition, four or five steamboats cruised back and forth, crammed with passengers “animated by the strange, savage, and fierce desire to see the disgusting spectacle.” In the aquatic jostling, one boat was upset, and several spectators drowned.

Finally a New York legislative committee recommended that public executions, being “of a positively injurious and demoralizing tendency,” should henceforth be conducted in private, where they could not excite “animal feelings.” The legislature concurred in May 1835 and, to forestall objections to “private assassinations,” required that executions be witnessed by at least “twelve reputable citizens.” In 1835 the first such execution was held behind the walls of Bellevue: the hanging of Manuel Fernandez, a Portuguese seaman, went off with satisfying solemnity.


The New York gentry were proud of the array of institutions they had created. On the day before Tocqueville and Beaumont sailed back to France, the mayor and aldermen, some thirty notables in all, conducted them, as Tocqueville recalled, “with great ceremony to all the prisons or houses of charity of the city.” A cortege of five carriages departed City Hall at ten A.M., headed up to the House of Refuge, where they inspected the premises (at the northwest corner of today’s Madison Square), carried on to the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane (on today’s Columbia University campus); swung over to the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on Fifth Avenue, and then, after an aquatic excursion to Blackwell’s Island, they repaired to Bellevue’s almshouse for a banquet. Tocqueville was appalled by the dinner, which “represented the infancy of art: the vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert. In a word,” he sniffed, “complete barbarism.” But on the whole he found the postprandial toasts, given with great solemnity by speakers enveloped in clouds of cigar smoke, accurate enough in their self-congratulatory assessments.

The present, moreover, was clearly mere prologue. So pleased were the city fathers with their various walled compounds that they had decided to expand their initiative. Three years earlier, in July 1828, the Common Council had purchased from James Blackwell the island around which the visiting Frenchmen had just “made two or three charming promenades.” Here the magistrates planned to erect a city of asylums. Many of the recently constructed institutions, for all their worthiness, were already crammed full; Manhattan was surging north toward once bucolic Bellevue; and the success of colossal projects like Sing Sing had led Manhattan officialdom into thinking big. Surveyors had already selected a southerly site for a new penitentiary, to be modeled on Ossining’s pride. Plans were afoot to shift the almshouse to bigger quarters on the island, perhaps in company with a workhouse. A new smallpox hospital was in the offing. And a mammoth lunatic asylum, an intricately designed complex of centers, octagons, and wings, was being discussed. The city’s disordered and disorderly of tomorrow would be transported to Blackwell’s and be aided if worthy, punished if found wanting.

Captivated by this vision of the unruly, ruled, the city’s elite were ill prepared for the emergence of some sharply different diagnoses of New York’s social ills—and some startlingly different proposals for how to cure them.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!