Disciplining the Nation: Documenting Imprisonment and Punishment in the Gilded Age

By Timothy J. Gilfoyle

The fear of increasing crime in nineteenth-century American cities generated an unprecedented expansion of penitentiary and carceral systems throughout the United States. The autobiography of George Appo (1856-1930) presents a rare window into this subaltern world of incarcerated men. Appo was arrested more than a dozen times and spent more than a decade incarcerated in at least eight different prisons, jails, and asylums. Within these different institutions, he encountered an astonishing diversity of inmate experiences: a year of juvenile reform on the school-ship Mercury; three sentences in the workshops of Sing Sing and Clinton Prisons; more than a year in the New York Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island; at least six incarcerations in New York’s “Tombs”; several weeks in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Jail, followed by the isolation of Eastern State Penitentiary; and more than two years in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

Appo’s penitentiary and jailhouse experiences revealed the variety of prison punishments. For example, Appo was trained in the techniques of seamanship on the school-ship Mercury where he served his first sentence. The vessel served as a municipal training and nautical school to counteract juvenile delinquency and child abandonment, as well as Roman Catholic criticism of the Children’s Aid Society policy of sending such youths to farms in the West. The municipal program presaged future Progressive Era reforms designed to combat teenage criminality. 

But the school-ship Mercury proved to be a unique experiment (cost and criticism led to the city abandoning the program in 1875). More common was the inconsistent, inadequate, and often corrupted supervision Appo witnessed in county prisons such as New York’s Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary, where those convicted and sentenced to terms of one year or less were sent. There, lax security allowed for frequent and easy escapes, euphemistically called “elopements” by some. Inmates mockingly called the facility “The Old Homestead.”

Large penitentiaries like New York’s Sing Sing and Clinton prisons, however, were not homesteads. Inmates in those institutions were subject to hard labor, frequent physical punishment, and repeated torture by penitentiary officials. Beginning in the 1820s, the State of New York pioneered a new system of contractual penal servitude that was adopted almost everywhere in the United States. Under these public-private partnerships, states allowed private manufacturers to establish factories in prisons to insure inmates engaged in hard labor, while generating income to cover the public costs of incarceration. By the 1870s Sing Sing housed the world’s largest oven-manufacturing business in the world. Private contractors not only converted penitentiaries into profitable workshops, but exerted extensive control over the disciplinary and punishment regimes in New York’s penitentiaries. The combination of legal servitude and privatized contractual labor transformed punishment by prison officials into torture. Such practices were reinforced with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, which outlawed slavery but protected punishment in prison as a form of legal involuntary servitude. Convicts became, in effect, “slaves of the state.”

The common resort to torture in Sing Sing is illustrated in this short excerpt from Appo’s autobiography.

Timothy J. Gilfoyle is professor and former chair of history at Loyola University Chicago where he teaches American urban and social history. He is the former president of the Urban History Association (2015-16). Gilfoyle’s research has focused on the development and evolution of various 19th-century urban underworld subcultures and informal economies, exemplified by A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York (W.W. Norton, 2006); City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 (W.W. Norton, 1992); and most recently The Urban Underworld in Late Nineteenth-Century New York: The Autobiography of George Appo (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2013).

Featured image (at top): Tombs Prison in New York City (1913), George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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