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 original Sing Sing cell block first housed prisoners in 1828. By 1830, a hospital, kitchen, and chapel were added to complete the structure. During the 1830’s through the turn of the twentieth century, most hospital beds were housed on the top floor of the main structure. By 1900, the new hospital building was erected. Within the hospital, physicians, nurses, and inmate volunteers worked to maintain the health of the prison population. Dentistry, patient rooms, a pharmacy wing, and outpatient clinics were also created to allow for the treatment of chronic disease and tooth decay. In the main hospital wing, physicians employed by Sing Sing performed two essential duties: entrance examinations and urgent care. Although the hospital allowed for certain treatments, some conditions were beyond the capabilities of the Sing Sing facilities. According to records from the National Committee on Prisons in 1916, the hospital was equipped to treat most illnesses and perform emergency surgeries such as appendectomies, but specialized procedures such as brain surgery were not performed on site. Should a situation arise when the amenities at Sing Sing’s hospital were not sufficient, prisoners were sent to Matteawan State Hospital nearby and returned to Sing Sing at their recovery .
Late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century prisons were places of unbridled misconduct, overcrowding, illicit activity, and disease. Ironically, within prisons constructed before germ theory, the push for solitary confinement was not affected by the knowledge that human contact spreads disease; rather, the purpose of constructing individual cells was to prevent the spread of moral disease from inmate to inmate. The notion that constant silence and solitude can instill virtue, although it seems draconian, was a driving force behind penal reform that inspired the construction of silent and separate prisons around the world. A prison that was both silent and separate forbade communication between inmates, or speech in general, and housed each inmate in his or her own cell. Comparison of varying silent and separate prison systems gives context to reform taking place specifically within prisons such as Sing Sing.
“Tradition, education, physical surroundings, race, class and professional solidarity, and economic, political, and social influences of all sorts and degrees make up a complex environment in which men endeavor to reach certain results by means of legal machinery. No discussion simply in terms of men or of legal and political machinery, or both, ignoring this complex environment, will serve”. 
-Dean Pound, nineteenth century legal scholar
In order to understand how the members of the New York City judiciary contributed to the definition of the criminal class, it is important to know how they came to occupy their lofty position in the criminal justice system. Each of these men brought with him a wealth of past experience and a host of prejudices, both conscious and subconscious. In an effort to take these factors into account and deepen the analysis of each judge’s particular biases, brief biographies of Judge Gildersleeve and Recorder Smyth are presented below. The biographies foreground the subsequent discussion of the judges’ role in shaping the city’s perception of the criminal type.
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 pseudoscience of phrenology became an integral part of prison healthcare in the mid nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Scientists, criminologists, and psychiatrists began to theorize that the shape of a person’s head directly correlated with their character and behavior. Phrenology asserted that the “brain is the organ of the mind…and without brain there is no manifestation either of feelings, or intellectual functions.” Earlier philosophers such as Hippocrates speculated that the brain controlled psychological properties, and phrenologists sought to understand this belief by providing scientific evidence. Specific portions of the skull were thought to control certain aspects of a person’s behavioral traits. Phrenologists believed the physical shape of the brain corresponded with physical bumps on the skull, and observing the external head could determine the internal mind.
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.