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What Once Was

DC Prisoners on the Hudson: Abraham Lincoln, Amos Pilsbury, and the Albany Penitentiary

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Matthew B. Gilmore*

According to a recent Congressional report, “Notably, D.C. Code felons are unique in that they are routinely housed hundreds of miles away from their homes. In addition to placement in the District of Columbia, nearly 5,700 D.C. Code felons are housed in 33 States in facilities owned or leased by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. While the majority of these individuals reside in facilities located in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and West Virginia, some D.C. Code felons receive placement in States as far away as Florida, Texas, and California.”[1]

In August 1864, Amos Pilsbury, superintendent of the Albany Penitentiary, wrote to President Lincoln about prisoner William N. Chester, asking Lincoln to approve his pardon. Chester had been convicted in Washington DC on December 29, 1862 of grand larceny. Pilsbury wrote, “his conduct here has been unexceptionable, and believing, as I do, that if now pardoned, he will be restored to his friends a reformed man.”

Amos Pilsbury’s letter to President Lincoln seeking pardon for prisoner William N. Chester. image--The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, courtesy National Archive & Library of Congress.

Amos Pilsbury’s letter to President Lincoln seeking pardon for prisoner William N. Chester. image–The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, courtesy National Archive & Library of Congress.

Why was Pilsbury in Albany writing to Lincoln in Washington requesting a pardon for a DC man?

One might think that the placing of DC convicts out of the District into other institutions of the federal penal system began with the reforms instituted under the DC Financial Control Board (pursuant to the National Capital and Self-Government Act of 1997, a/k/a “Revitalization Act”) — but that would be wrong. DC convicts were first sent out of the District in September of 1862 when 131 convicts were transported to the Albany Penitentiary in Albany, New York.[2]

Albany Penitentiary stereo card. photo—www.alloveralbany.com/archive.

Albany Penitentiary stereo card. photo—www.alloveralbany.com/archive.

Albany’s penitentiary opened in 1843 when Albany County sought state approval to replace its jail with a new kind of penitentiary, one designed for moral reformation of prisoners and made self-supporting through convict labor. It was deemed a success under the leadership of Superintendent Amos Pilsbury. Its success was encouraging enough that the New York state legislature passed numerous laws allowing other counties to make use of it. This hospitality was extended to District of Columbia for its prisoners when the Washington penitentiary was taken over by the federal government.

Albany County Penitentiary. photo—from “Albany Illustrated” (1891.

Albany County Penitentiary. photo—from “Albany Illustrated” (1891.

The District of Columbia penitentiary had been established in 1826. President John Quincy Adams in his 1826 annual address to Congress, announced the commencement of its construction, as follows:

“In conformity with the provisions of the act of 1825-05-20, to provide for erecting a penitentiary in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes, 3 commissioners were appointed to select a site for the erection of a penitentiary for the District, and also a site in the county of Alexandria for a county jail, both of which objects have been effected. The building of the penitentiary has been commenced, and is in such a degree of forwardness as to promise that it will be completed before the meeting of the next Congress. This consideration points to the expediency of maturing at the present session a system for the regulation and government of the penitentiary, and of defining a system for the regulation and government of the penitentiary, and of defining the class of offenses which shall be punishable by confinement in this edifice.”[3]

The president was authorized to appoint the warden and a board of five inspectors. The penitentiary building was substantially completed by the end of 1828, reported Adams.[4] He had selected architect of the Capitol Charles Bulfinch to design it; Bulfinch did extensive research, visiting numerous penal institutions, and his report was published by Congress. Once built, further legislation enacted the rules governing who would be committed and how it would be administered. It began receiving prisoners in 1831.

It was located immediately north of the Arsenal buildings on Greenleaf Point, and was frequently referenced as the Washington Arsenal Penitentiary.

Charles Bulfinch’s Plan of the Washington Penitentiary. graphic--from William Crawford’s “Report on the Penitentiaries of the United States” (1835).

Charles Bulfinch’s Plan of the Washington Penitentiary. graphic–from William Crawford’s “Report on the Penitentiaries of the United States” (1835).

While it may have been an architectural accomplishment, DC’s penitentiary did not see the same success that Albany’s did, even though in 1850 it too started taking convicts from other jurisdictions. In fact, there were efforts to repeal the penitentiary law at the behest of workers, such as shoemakers, who resented the competition of cheap convict labor. In 1862, President Lincoln transferred the penitentiary building to the War Department for munitions storage by the following decree:

“To the Honorable Caleb Smith Washington City, Secretary of the Interior September 19th 1862. It being reported to me by the Secretary of War that the building now occupied as the United States Penitentiary, in the District of Columbia, is absolutely necessary to be used for military purposes as an Arsenal, you are hereby authorized and directed to turn it over, as speedily as possible, to the War Department with its premises and appurtenances.

“The prisoners confined therein, you will cause to be transported securely, with suitable escort, to such place or places within the United States, as you may be able to provide for their maintenance and imprisonment during the period of their sentences, and until discharged by its expiration.”[5]

Its final claim to distinction is as the location of the initial burial of John Wilkes Booth and of the trial of the Lincoln conspirators. The District did still maintain its own jail and workhouse; remand to the penitentiary was only for brief sentences.

1865 view of the Washington Penitentiary as seen from the roof of the Arsenal immediately preceding the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators showing the scaffold crowd of witnesses in the yard. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

1865 view of the Washington Penitentiary as seen from the roof of the Arsenal immediately preceding the execution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators showing the scaffold crowd of witnesses in the yard. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

By 1862, the Albany Penitentiary faced straitened finances. Housing Washington prisoners presented an opportunity, which General Pilsbury did not miss. The agreement for the transfer was made on the September 20th and the prisoners arrived on the 25th. Two months later, it was reported by John Blake, the Inspector of the Penitentiary for Washington, that “the men were more intelligent than those previously received; while this, with the length of their sentences, afforded greater hope of usefulness among them.”

In 1864 the New York Times reported, “The Vice-President submitted a letter from the Secretary of the Interior, from which it appears that the allowances of the Marshal of the District of Columbia, during the year 1863, for the feed of prisoners in the jail amounted to $32,763, and the mileage allowed for transporting convicts to the Albany penitentiary has been $8,900.”[6]

Amos Pilsbury shown as New York City Chief of Police. photo—from “Harper’s Weekly” of March 10, 1860.

Amos Pilsbury shown as New York City Chief of Police. photo—from “Harper’s Weekly” of March 10, 1860.

In 1872, the New York State Assembly reported that “penal self-support is practicable.”[7] This self-supporting system instituted by Superintendent Pilsbury was dubbed (naturally) the “Pilsbury System.” Amos Pilsbury resigned in February 1873 and soon after died, and was succeeded by his son Louis. Louis was a third-generation warden/superintendent — Moses Pilsbury, Amos’ father having been warden of New Hampshire and then Connecticut prisons. The younger Pilsbury’s regime lasted only six years — the “Pilsbury System” of rigid discipline accompanying consolidated labor contracting proved prone to abuse.[8] Newspaper accusations and subsequent legislative investigations documented corruption in the system in 1882.

Corrections philosophy had shifted. In 1884, the National Prison Association (led by political luminaries Rutherford B. Hayes, serving as the organization’s president, and William F.M. Round and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom held the post as secretary), held a conference of prison officials to receive testimony from many prison officials, including William Haight from the U.S. Department of Justice who explained the current situation with housing of prisoners in Albany. Several years earlier the U.S. Attorney General had objected to prisoners’ treatment there and had discontinued the practice of sending them. However, since 1880 Albany officials had worked to remedy the situation and had then satisfied the Attorney General, allowing for again sending District prisoners to Albany.[9]

In 1886, the Commissioners reported 92 new commitments in fiscal year 1885, three of whom were due to be hanged but of the others, most were for one to four years imprisonment.

By 1894, the District of Columbia was paying over $40,000 per year to house its convicts in Albany, with the number climbing dramatically from 308 to 380 in fiscal year 1894.

Copy of letter from District Commissioner John W. Ross to the Department of Justice itemizing convict expenses. image—from Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, ending June 30, 1894.

Copy of letter from District Commissioner John W. Ross to the Department of Justice itemizing convict expenses. image—from Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, ending June 30, 1894.

Conditions in the Albany penitentiary had much deteriorated from the heyday of Amos Pilsbury. Complaints of mistreatment appeared in the newspapers, backed up by investigative reporters.[10] Chester F. Dearstyne, the new superintendent was accused of harsh treatment of prisoners and maintenance of a kind Potemkin-like cell for public inspections. The contract with the state of New York was terminated and soon prisoners began to be sent to other institutions around the country.

As of January 1, 1897, prisoners were no longer remanded to Albany. In 1898 Justices Edward Bingham and Andrew Bradley of DC’s Criminal Courts One and Two, respectively, took the suggestion of Attorney General John W. Griggs and began sending convicts to the penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio rather than Albany.[11] The Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus was the new “model” prison.

Postcard view of Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. image--courtesy Ohio State University.

Postcard view of Ohio State Penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. image–courtesy Ohio State University.

At the direction of Congress in 1908, President Roosevelt appointed a commission (composed of Wendell Stafford, John Joy Edson, and Robert V. La Dow) to investigate the jail and workhouse in the District –- now more than 20 years after having taken part in that conference of prison officials. Prompted by its findings and directed by its conclusions, the District government began the process to acquire a site and build its own reformatory.[12]

In 1910, after extensive debate, construction began on a new local penitentiary for the District of Columbia. The regime of work and isolation of prisoners far their community and families led the government to choose a site nearby in Virginia at Lorton. The new penitentiary opened in 1916. (The Albany penitentiary closed in 1931.)

“Lorton” deserves a full telling of its own story, but (briefly) the institution morphed from a penitentiary to a notorious prison before being shut down in 2001. Its extensive land is only now being redeveloped. As reported by the Washington Business Journal in December 2015, “A team of developers is readying to launch the conversion of the former Lorton Prison complex into a mixed-use village. And they will call it Liberty Crest at Laurel Hill.”[13]

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Footnotes

[1] Housing D.C. Felons Far Away from Home: Effects on Crime, Recidivism and Reentry; Hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; House of Representatives, One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session, May 5, 2010. [https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg58348/html/CHRG-111hhrg58348.htm]

[2] Carl Johnson. “The Albany Penitentiary” Nov 3, 2010; [http://www.mynonurbanlife.com] History of the Albany Penitentiary, p.111.

[3] John Quincy Adams Second Annual Message to Congress, December 5, 1826. [http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29468&st=penitentiary&st1]

[4] Elliot, Jonathan. Historical sketches of the ten miles square forming the District of Columbia: with a picture of Washington, describing objects of general interest or curiosity at the metropolis of the Union. 1830. P. 202ff. [https://awesometalks.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/the-washington-d-c-arsenal-penitentiary-part-1-of-3]

[5] Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 5. p.430-1; Sullivan, David K. “Behind Prison Walls:the Operation of the District Penitentiary, 1831-1862.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, v.71/2, pp. 243-266.

[6] Proceedings of Congress.; Senate. A Census by States in 1865. New York Times; published: April 21, 1864.

[7] Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, Volume 8. [https://books.google.com/books?id=t4k7AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA18&lpg=PA18&dq=%22district+of+columbia%22+%22albany+penitentiary%22&source=bl&ots=KgOo2os4aB&sig=im1gXcuO4BjgSjKmZAsACaJbhQM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDYQ6AEwCGoVChMIkuqs28bcyAIVyXY-Ch1ncwAz#v=onepage&q=%22district%20of%20columbia%22%20%22albany%20penitentiary%22&f=false]

[8] Rebecca M. McLennan. The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941, p.100.

[9] Report of Proceeding by National Prison Association of the United States 1884, p.164.

[10] Morning Times. (Washington, D.C.), March 03, 1897.

[11] Washington Post, Oct. 8, 1898.

[12] FOR PENAL REFORM: Radical Changes in District System Asked by President. Washington Post, 12 Jan 1909.

[13] Liberty for Lorton! How the former prison will look as a mixed-use village, Dec 3, 2015. [http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/breaking_ground/2015/12/liberty-for-lorton-how-the-former-prison-will-look.html?ana=e_wash_brk&s=newsletter&ed=2015-12-03&u=bScS/FHjbAeOemL5HEeqlQ00a35d9d&t=1449167903&utm_content=buffer6c7d3&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer]

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.