In 1884, Judge Henry Gildersleeve declared New York City a cesspool of theft and avarice. He blamed the deterioration of the city’s moral fiber on a “class of criminals”, a social entity consisting of New York’s most undesirable inhabitants.Gildersleeve was an authoritative witness of the newfound criminal element. As Justice of the Court of General Sessions, he sentenced thousands of men and women to prison each year. In carrying out this civic function, he and his colleagues exercised an enormous amount of discretionary power. Not only could each judge sentence a defendant however he saw fit, he could also call for an arrest without issuing a warrant and levy fines based on unfounded personal suspicions. These powers were stated explicitly in contemporary legislation, giving magistrates the legal precedent to selectively apprehend and penalize those individuals they deemed most dangerous to the public. By deciding whom to summon, indict, condemn, and imprison, the nineteenth century New York City judiciary played a decisive role in the construction of the criminal class.
Penal law in New York was intended to serve mainly as a deterrence against future crime. Legislation was intended not to rehabilitate or reform the criminal, but simply to prevent further damage to society. Legal punishment was designed to instill preventative fear in the hearts of potential criminals. The Penal Code that existed by the end of the nineteenth century was the product of a long history of reform aimed at clarifying the sentencing procedure so that criminals would be certain of their punishment. In order to accomplish this certainty, the New York legislature moved away from capital punishment and towards incarceration in the state penitentiary. Leading up to 1880, reform in the New York courts and legislature attempted to prevent future crime through the creation of clear and consistent sentencing and the implementation of lasting punishment.
The existence of the criminal relies on the existence of crime. Whether the criminal merely attempts the act or completes his task, under the law he is tried and punished as a criminal. The actions considered damaging to social order are laid out in the New York Penal Code. It is these codes which first and foremost shape the image of the criminal, by classifying the people capable of committing crimes, laying out the actions punishable as crimes, and prescribing the punishment to be given. The Penal Code of the late nineteenth century separates offenses into felonies and misdemeanors. While a criminal is one who commits a crime, it is clear by looking at the disparity of sentencing for felonies and misdemeanors that the nineteenth century state viewed felons as far more threatening to civic order than lesser criminals. Writer Oliver Barbour writes that a felony within the Revised Statutes of 1882 “shall be construed to mean an offense for which the offender, on conviction, shall be liable by law to be punished by death or imprisonment in a state prison.” Paired with sentencing patterns of the nineteenth century, the classifications of the New York Penal Code labeled the criminal most dangerous to civic order being the criminal against property.
Execution of the criminal was a public spectacle for most of human civilization. Public beheadings, the gallows, the guillotine, and the firing squad were all “executed through ritual and dramatic display” as a demonstration of state authority. The implementation of capital punishment as a public affair simultaneously administered justice and served a political purpose, accomplishing “juridico-political function.” The offender is found guilty, and his or her death is the pinnacle of justice served. Execution also gives the state the opportunity to seek retribution against the criminal who attacked the law and the sovereign state behind the law. Hanging Day in pre-1835 New York was a demonstration of power and warning, where the audience would both witness the strength of the state and simultaneously be deterred from committing crimes. Reform in the nineteenth century by writers such as Bentham, Beccaria, Rush, and Livingston focused on curbing the barbaric and bloodthirsty traditions of public executions.
Did New York City judges have a hand in constructing the criminal class? Answering this question requires a careful examination of who the judges were, which political, social, or personal biases may have influenced their decisions, and who may have borne the brunt of their discrimination. A comparison of sentencing data for Judge Henry Gildersleeve and Recorder Frederick Smyth, both of whom tried thousands of criminal cases in the latter half of the nineteenth century, yields two useful observations: first, the sentences the judges delivered for the same crimes varied considerably on a case-by-case basis, indicating that the defendants’ physical appearance, social class, ethnicity, political affiliation, age, and criminal record may all have affected the punishment they received.  Second, the evidence suggests that Judge Gildersleeve tended to punish thieves and recidivists with particular severity. He repeatedly imprisoned robbers, burglars, and pickpockets for the same non-violent offenses. Their removal from society relegated these men and women to the rank and file of the state’s prison system. In his capacity as judge, Gildersleeve actively shaped the definition of New York City’s criminal class.
The pardon system in nineteenth century New York existed since the colony’s establishment. To pardon a criminal, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, was to erase not only the punishment but also the guilt of the crime. In practice, the pardon was meant to protect the innocent from errors in criminal procedure or allow for the termination of a sentence if new evidence showed innocence. Until 1915, the governor of New York State was given nearly absolute power in the pardoning of criminals. This gave him incredible political power, but also exposed the system to corruption. Pardoning power was not used as it was intended, to pardon the innocent of the sentence. Pardoning power in nineteenth century New York City was used to control the prison populations, to incentivize good behavior in the prisons, and as a scandalous form of corruption to achieve wealth and influence.
The prison physician was responsible for both officiating at capital punishment and monitoring condemned inmates prior to their executions. This responsibility encompassed observing the health of prisoners in the holding cells, treating acute illnesses, and directing the electrician to flip the switch on the electric chair at the correct time. Post-mortem, the physician performed an autopsy to confirm the cause of death and analyze the efficiency of the chair itself. In this way, the physician became the primary employee involved with capital punishment, bearing both psychological and physical responsibilities.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century the New York State Penal System underwent a fundamental change. Bowing to pressure chiefly from unions and heeding the findings of state-run special committees, the New York state legislature enacted a series of laws from 1888 to 1894 that phased out the lucrative prison contract labor system. With that came the end of nearly a century of exploitive, profitable prison labor that the Correctional Association of New York’s 1885 special committee report found to be “slave.” Without contract labor, prison officials scrambled to find ways to ward off the dreaded scourge of inmate idleness; American prison philosophy necessitated inmate industriousness and occupation and now inmates had nothing to do. By the end of the nineteenth century prisoners were filling orders from state institutions under the state-use system in addition to a haphazard collection of makeshift fixes: work slowdowns, road construction, parole, exercise, and internal repairs. Continue reading The End of Contract Labor and its Effects on the New York State Penal System in the Nineteenth Century→
During the nineteenth century labor unions did not oppose prison labor in general, but rather the highly competitive contract labor system which allowed prison labor contractors to undercut the prices of free labor due to prison labor’s lower cost. New York’s prisons functioned as factories until 1894, when a constitutional ban ended the lucrative prison contract labor system. Under the contract system, contractors paid the prison for the use of prison labor and supplied the prisoners with work. Prison contractors bid on the same contracts as free labor, but prison contractors undercut the prices due to the lower cost of prison labor. This put downward pressure on the wages of free laborers in order to remain competitive, and drove certain industries out of the state entirely, as they could not compete. On moral grounds, labor unions opposed aspects of the contract labor system which they saw as exploitive and contrary to reform; prisons sold prison labor at below-market wages, which labor unions opposed as it outcompeted free labor.