Printer Friendly

Dannemora: the birth and death of a frontier prison.

During the first half of the 19th century, New York City grew by half a million people every 10 years, rapidly becoming the manufacturing center of the nation. Among the city's growth industries were gangs: the Roach Guards, Shirt Tails, Plug Uglies, the Smit's Vly gang (white only), the Dead Rabbits and the Fly Boys gang (black only). In 1821, newspapers publicized the exploits of rogue gangsters like Robert "Bob the Wheeler" Sutton and James "The Pewteter" Holgate. A well-dressed New Yorker who ventured out in the evening was advised to carry a weapon.

Two new prisons had been built - Auburn Prison, with its workshops, and Sing Sing (also called Mt. Pleasant), with its marble quarries. The two prisons were intended to be self-supporting, but, exacerbated by the state's economic depression, violent worker protests erupted when prison-priced goods were offered in the marketplace.

At a Utica convention of workers, this complaint was heard because "articles manufactured in prisons are sold . . . at prices from 40 to 60 percent below what the honest mechanic . . . can afford for them . . . hundreds of mechanics are thrown out of employment."

The Answer: Iron

By the late 1830s, it was obvious that another prison was needed. It would have to produce something that would not compete with American labor. Iron was the answer. Most of it was imported from England. Ransom Cook was appointed by the New York state Legislature in 1842 "to examine the mineral regions of the State and obtain proposals for the sale of mines with a view toward providing employment of convicts which would not seriously interfere with the activities of 'the free mechanics.'"

Cook had a habit of doing well whatever he put his hand to. He was an intense, obsessive man, a type that thrived in 19th century America - a practical optimist with an iron will. He journeyed to the northern Adirondacks to investigate potential sites for the new prison and reported: "I examined the principal mining districts and manufactories of iron in the state. After leaving the neighborhood of Clintonville, I next examined the Sailly and Averill veins and the Skinner vein which are parallel and contiguous to each other. These mines are in Beekmantown, about 17 miles from Plattsburgh and 5 miles northwest from a [dam] on the Saranac, where the ore is worked. The ore is of the magnetic variety, and is very valuable.

"I have no hesitation in saying, that for the manufacture of wrought iron, this is the best locality."

Cook Accepts The Challenge

Cook's experience was iron, not jails. He could have ended his work there. Having found the site for a prison, he could have let someone else build the prison and transfer the prisoners there - a considerable task since the location was deep in the wilderness, miles from the nearest decent-size town. It also would have been more expedient to let someone else become the first warden.

But in 19th century America, lack of experience was not a drawback. Since the country was literally inventing itself, and also inventing a new system of incarceration, the penitentiary - pioneered at Auburn and the vast Philadelphia Prison - lack of experience might benefit a new warden.

The more Cook thought about it, the more excited he became. This was his chance to combine prison reform with running a prison that made a profit. He saw exactly what needed to be done and knew who had to do it: "To construct a prison with economy it would only be necessary to make a commencement with hired labor. . . . As soon as say twenty-five cells were finished, so as to secure the convicts during the night, that number might be brought from a prison and employed upon the building."

Based on Cook's recommendation, in 1844 the New York state Legislature passed an act establishing a state prison "for the purpose of employing . . . convicts in mining, and the manufacture of iron. . . . Such prison shall be . . . called by the name of the county in which it may be located." An appropriation was passed, setting forth $30,000 for the prison, with $17,500 to be paid for a mine.

The new prison was located in Clinton County and officially took that name. But to everyone - guards, prisoners and the public - it took the name of the tiny mining town that grew up around it: Dannemora. The little hamlet boomed with the building of the prison. Twenty new buildings, two hotels and several stores popped up, giving rise to a belief in upstate New York that prisons were a growth industry for the North.

Cook succinctly articulated his philosophy: "Humanity forbids the solitary confinement of the convicts in idleness, while the financial interests of the state require their employment in the most profitable manner."

Cook was a sensitive, perceptive judge of men; he was keenly aware of the type of man needed to guard men: "Much more is requisite in a keeper than a capacity for goading an ox, or beating a horse; although experience teaches us, that men have been too often appointed to these stations who are unqualified to govern even brutes. Many such have seemed to entertain only the idea that convicts were sent to them to be tortured, and he who inflicted it with the greatest severity, most faithfully discharged his duty. . . . Keepers should possess tact, kindness, intelligence, firmness and self-possession. That the power of kindness is the strongest known to human nature, is too sensibly felt and too well understood by all, to be taught as a new discovered truth."

He would be not only the agent and the warden of the new prison, but, in effect, the surveyor, mining engineer, mine manager, contractor and prison manager. Moreover, Cook not only was responsible for the construction of the initial prison stockade, but he also had to see that 12 guards were sufficient to transport 94 convicts from Auburn and Sing Sing through the Adirondack wilderness and then "convince" these convicts to build their own jail inside the stockade.

He was practical and truthful about what was needed to do this. In his annual report as the agent of Clinton Prison to the state Legislature on Jan. 1, 1846, he reported on his progress: "That about the first of February last, the stockade of the yard for this prison was commenced and prosecuted through the winter, notwithstanding the snow here was more than five feet deep on an average. The difficulties encountered prevented the finishing of the job until some time in May. On the 21st of April, the erection of temporary buildings, for the accommodation of the officers, guards, workmen and convicts was commenced amid a heavy growth of timber, and with nearly three feet of snow still remaining on the ground.

"These buildings were a kiln for drying lumber, a carpenter's shop, a kitchen, a guard-room, a blacksmith's shop, a clerk's [office] and a prison. A large quantity of lumber was necessarily consumed in these structures, they being in the aggregate about eight hundred feet in length.

"The cold late spring, the want of roads, and other inconveniences incident to the location, combined to retard the completion of these buildings until June."

The stockade was made of logs cut 25 feet long, and not less than 6 inches in diameter at the top. Two sides were hewn so as to come in contact for at least 12 feet above the surface of the ground. The butts were inserted 4 feet in the ground and the tops sharpened. The "pickets," as these logs were called, were then secured together by a rod of iron passing through them. Cook wrote, "The job is under contract at a cost of about two thousand dollars. The work is progressing and is to be finished by the middle of April. The plan contemplates the building of a prison five hundred feet long and fifty-five feet wide, with three tiers, or stories of cells, making in all five hundred and four cells.

"Two buildings, each one hundred and fifty-five feet long and forty-five feet wide, are to be placed, one across each end of the prison, distant from it twenty-five feet, and connected with it by covered halls. The building at the other end is to include the kitchen, dining-room, wash-room, bath-room, chapel, hospital, physician's office, chaplain's office, a department for the insane, & etc."

Prisoners Arrive, Work Begins

Cook knew what type of prisoner he needed: robust, hardy, not given to complaints and not afraid to work. He traveled to Auburn and Sing Sing and personally chose the convicts he would take to build their own jail. The following June, 50 convicts were transferred from Sing Sing to their wild mountain retreat. Soon after more were received from Auburn.

On June 3, 1845, the villagers watched in amazement as the bedraggled convicts in their black-and-white-ringed uniforms marched into town. They had traveled by tow boat to Plattsburgh and then walked to the stockade. The distance was only 17 miles, but it had taken them six hours. The road was almost uninterrupted ascent, through deep sand, broken rocks and water-worn gullies. Each of the convicts was shackled and chained at the ankles.

Cook wasted no time in putting them to work. He reported that "[t]hese [convicts] were employed in clearing the ground and making preparations for building, while from the prison at Auburn, forty-four convicts were also removed, who reached this place on the 24th of June."

Keeping citizens safe from prisoners was paramount: "On leaving the prisons, a shackle, to which about three feet of heavy chain was attached, was put upon each convict. The law requires that they should be ironed while being removed. . . . Although no ball was attached to these chains, they were found a great encumbrance while laboring on rough ground, and added much to the fatigue of a day's work. A light chain was, therefore, soon substituted for the heavy ones; and with beneficial results."

Cook was an optimist. Although he demanded much from the prisoners, if they showed themselves capable of trust, he would reciprocate. He wrote, "Their industry was excellent, so evident to all, so that it was soon thought safe to cut off the shackles and chains from their ankles, leaving them unencumbered through the day, but still securing them to the floor at night, by means of a small chain and padlock.

"As no bad consequences followed and the moral sense of the convicts seemed to be still progressing, it was finally deemed advisable to dispense with the irons altogether, even through the night. This was so done; and thus unchained, one hundred and eighty-nine convicts slept in two rooms on the floor of a broad prison, without locks to its doors and with only four guards on duty at a time."

With his customary efficiency, Cook organized the men into gangs of 10. Then he set them to work at different tasks. One gang filled carts with dirt from the quarry, another blasted stone, a third cut and prepared the stone for laying, and so on.

"A stream of one-horse cans passed back and forth through the gate of the palisade, conveying the earth from the quarry and the mine to a ravine on the outside," a reporter noted. "Within the yard all is alive with industry."

A foundation was sunk for the cell block, which was five feet deep, 55 feet wide and 300 feet long. When completed, it would hold 126 cells.

A temporary prison was soon completed, and during the summer of 1845, work on the permanent prison was pursued with great vigor. In January 1846, a number of other buildings had been erected. Cook was meticulous in keeping written records and detailing the cost of the work:

In addition to the temporary building before mentioned, and the work upon the prison, the following buildings have been erected during the summer in a substantial manner.

1st. A two story frame building, thirty-one by forty-six feet, the lower story of which is used as the clerk's and physician's offices, the upper story as a keeper's hall, with bed rooms adjoining. Cost $450.

2d. A storehouse for supplies and provisions, thirty-two by thirty-eight feet, well built of logs with a shingle roof, one and a half stories high. Cost about $250.

3d. A lime house, thirty-three by forty-nine feet, strongly built of logs, with a shingle roof. Cost about $150.

4th. A frame machine and carpenter's shop, thirty by sixty feet, two and a half stories high. The lower story occupied as a machine shop, the second story as a carpenter's shop, and the half story for painting and glazing. Cost, with the erection of the steam engine and machinery there, for about $2,500.

5th. A woodhouse, thirty by sixty feet. Cost about $300.

6th. A frame foundry, forty-six by ninety-six feet, one story high, with side and sky lights. Occupied for casting out window, ventilating and drain grates, cell doors, gallery irons, stoves, machinery & c. Cost, with patterns and flasks, about $2,000.

The reasons for this record keeping were twofold. Cook believed in leaving records and was convinced that orderly records produced orderly results. Moreover, for Cook, the very act of writing something down, with his customary enthusiasm and attention to detail, contributed to getting the thing done.

He also needed to persuade a skeptical state legislature. There was forceful opposition to the prison and to the idea of producing iron there. Critics pointed out that the growing use of anthracite and coke for smelting was driving down the price of charcoal-produced iron and that the remoteness of the Plattsburgh area from major markets bodied ill for the success of the project.

Cook needed to convince them that the money they had allocated for building the prison and opening the mine at Lyon Mountain was spent efficiently. A well-written report, painstaking and factual, was a great persuader. He never slacked off in writing them and produced at the same time a steady stream of letters and entreaties, many of which seemed to find their way into the local papers.

Administering The New Prison

Although most of Cook's inmates were ordinary criminals, some were mentally deranged. There were no separate prisons for the criminally insane, and wardens were obliged to deal with these convicts as best they could. Cook comments on this:

Of the convicts received here by sentence the past season, one was an idiot and two were insane. The latter two were convicted in counties where they were strangers.

One of them at least has been notoriously insane for several years, and his insanity upon all subjects is evident to the most ordinary capacity . . .

One of the insane here is very troublesome and dangerous; the disease of the other is of a milder type, and his propensity to crime only in one direction.

For want of other accommodations, we are occasionally compelled, with pain, to confine the most violent one in a dungeon used for refractory convicts. The best arranged State prisons are not adapted to the cure of this malady.

Prison correspondence in the 19th century was put in damp blotters with tissue and then secured in a press. The impression of the letter on tissue was then bound as a record:

Oct. 10, 1845

Dear Sir,

I have now 170 convicts on hand and expect 30 or 40 more during the ensuing week. All our work is of a nature that wears out clothing rapidly and we have only about a dozen suits left for new convicts. We daily expect winter to set in as it did last year on the 15 Oct.

I beg you to forward some immediately, if no more than 25 suits. To my deep regret no flannels have yet arrived.

R. Cook

[July 19, 1846?]

To the Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General of the State of New York


I respectfully solicit Your authority to remove not less than four, no more than six convicts from this to Sing Sing State Prison.

While the great many of the convicts have behaved remarkably well, we have about a half dozen desperate men, who are continually forming plans and making arrangements for escape. We have succeeded by constant watchfulness in retaining them thus far. Still they cause us great trouble, and we have not the convenience of other prisons for confining and restraining them. Among other plans, they are making efforts to seduce the better disposed to join them in a general insurrection. . . .

Most Respectfully Your Obedient Servant

Ransom Cook Agent of Clinton Prison

That spring, a saw mill had been erected, a mine opened, and during the year the prison was completed. Cook's work did not go unnoticed. The Plattsburgh Republican of 1846 reported: "The compliment paid to the scientific qualifications, integrity, firmness and sound judgment of the agent, Ransom Cook, esq., receives a hearty response from every citizen."

"It is no small task to take two hundred convicts into the centre of the forest, within a stockade guarded by twelve men, and keep them secure while they are erecting their own cells . . . at the same time attended to the purchase of all the supplies for the prison, to the grading of the ground without the stockade, leveling the yard, the superintendance (sic) of a large number of workmen, and the purchase of tools, machinery and materials for the work."

Although this report was somewhat exaggerated (he didn't take 200 convicts but two groups of 50 and 44), what was surprising was what followed in the same report. The Plattsburgh Republican was a small-town newspaper on the edge of the wilderness, serving a farming and lumbering community that had little time or inclination for the niceties of prison reform. Still, some unknown editor took the effort to write this: "Clinton Prison will create a new era in the history of penitentiary reform. . . . The grand object of punishment is the reformation of the convict. The 'eye for an eye' doctrine of retaliation is justly unpopular. Capital punishment will soon be banished from our statute book. Our state prisons, though still 'terrors to evil doers,' will become schools of reform."

"The convict is God-created, not God-forsaken. He is immortal and possesses a heart susceptible to the culture of virtue, and though a wanderer from the path of rectitude and an outcast from society, he may, by proper treatment, be reclaimed."

Cook struggled to make Clinton Prison live up to this promise. He valued books and saw their importance to inmates. Three hundred dollars was allocated to purchase a prison library. He wrote, "As an aid to discipline the library is of great service. Without a book the leisure hours of the convict are the most unhappy of any he spends in prison. He then broods over his miserable condition - irritable and impatient of control, he soon breaks into open violence, and is then led away to punishment.

"But when he arises from the perusal of an interesting book, he comes from his cell with a cheerful countenance, and resumes his labors with alacrity."

Cook Replaced

Cook's reign as agent of Clinton Prison soon came to an end. The office of the head of the prison was considered pan of the political spoils system, and when the Whigs came to power in 1848, Ransom Cook was replaced. The loss of Warden Cook was a blow to the prison, and the loss of his job was a blow to Cook - he died soon after.

On Jan. 31, 1848, George Throop became warden and agent. He was the first to exhibit the outstanding characteristic of the modern warden - a man who leaves no footprint. He passed the prison on, but left no trace of himself, serving until January 1850. He was one of three inspectors appointed under special legislative acts who were responsible for the charge and superintendence of the three state prisons. The other two inspectors, Isaac N. Comstock and John B. Gedney, immediately set about to build a water torture machine at Dannemora. Other incidents followed. From the Plattsburgh Republican:

A convict named Plumb had come to death under circumstances of an unusual nature. He either was or pretended to be deranged; on which account he was severely flogged. When a few citizens asked permission to see the body of Plumb they were pointed to that of another who died about the same time.

This was discovered and awakened a call for a coroner's jury. It was proved by the testimony of the officers of the prison that the prison book of the number of lashes inflicted is a mere farce.

When the record names 30 lashes as having been given, over fifty such lashes were inflicted - and where 12 thus named over 25 were inflicted. Each lash is given with a whip of six strands.

The verdict of the Coroner's jury was that the deceased died of bilious (sic) intermitting fever, aggravated if not superinduced by severe flagellation.

Melacthon W. Cary, the keeper, who is alleged flogged the deceased Plumb has been arrested and held to bail of $2000.

The appearance of the body was enough to chill the blood of any human man. The body was bruised and cut from the neck to the legs. There is not a spot as broad as your finger which has not received the lash - the skin is cut and a considerable portion of the back is raw.

The deceased was 20 years of age.

But the dominant feature of Clinton Prison became not torture - though paddling was frequent - but the rise of the institution with its set of self-generated procedures, the establishment of rules and regulations. The wheel had been invented. Now what was needed was a device to keep it round.

The Failure of the Mining Scheme

Except for newspaper accounts, most of those who took over the prison after Cook left short, cryptic accounts of life at Dannemora. Where Cook's vision had been broad and visionary in scope, theirs became quotidian - day-to-day survival. Where Cook had bristled with ideas and was eager to put them into practice, they took what they had and made the best, or the worst, of it.

But what about Cook's schemes for mining ore and producing iron? After all, the location of the prison had been determined by a nearby "iron mountain." Were these schemes farsighted and visionary? Or just grandiose and impractical? If the former, how was he going to get the iron to market? Gov. William Bouck visited the prison in 1845 and had to walk from Cadyville to the wooden stockade site some five miles away. He had taken a buggy ride from Keeseville to Cadyville after his train ride from Albany, and it was said that "he must have been in good shape to climb the hill and pass over the treacherous road." Situated 17 miles from Plattsburgh by a new plank road, four miles of which were maintained by the state, Dannemora was truly a "wilderness prison."

Cook had written wonderfully detailed reports on how profits from the iron business would come rolling in soon. He had invented a new electromagnetic ore separator, which everyone agreed was a marvelous device. To his critics, he said, "Although the project of employing convicts in the manufacture of iron has, from its first suggestions, been assailed by various and repeated predictions of failure; every step in its progress thus far has been attended with entire success; and many of the ill omened predictions have already proved to be utterly without foundation."

"From a financial view, if it be admitted that convicts can be made to manufacture iron, the profit of such employment is at the same time conceded," he said. "We also have the gratifying reflection that they will be drawing from the bowels of the earth its dormant treasures, to be distributed through the country for the benefit of all, and to the injury of none."

But where was the iron? Cook's critics could not understand that by 1846, no iron ore had been brought out yet. And when it did, first in a trickle, and then more, its sale produced little or no surplus and frequently a deficit, despite Cook's early heroic efforts. The first annual report of the three state inspectors who took charge on Jan. 1, 1848, said, "The most favorable result at which the agent had been able to arrive, previous to this time, indicated that by the use of this process, separated ore, worth in the market of $4.50 per ton, could be produced by the State at an expense of $12.50 per ton."

Money realized from the sale of ore during the fiscal years 1848, 1849, 1850 and 1851 amounted to approximately $337, $8,616, $21,000 and $16,700, while the expense of the prison for the same years was $40,000, $50,000, $38,000 and $38,000.

Prisons were expected to earn their keep, after the splendid example of Auburn Prison, which in the beginning at least, returned a profit to the state. New York was not reticent about making money off prisoners.

Cook's glowing optimism that nails and other iron products could be made efficiently were not realized. Moreover, escapes were frequent because of the difficulty in guarding large areas of Lyon Mountain, where the mines were located. These were "exciting times," said the prison doctor, commenting about the escapees who had to be tracked through mountains and woods.

The Prisoners

Captured prisoners could expect shackles on their legs, shaved heads, confinement in a dark cell and loss of "good time," at the very least. They also could expect to be tied up by the wrists so that their toes barely touched the floor. Leather paddles made of two thicknesses of sole leather, three to four inches wide on the blade, and about 28 inches long were used on prisoners - escapees or otherwise.

From an account of an escape in April 1868: "About half past eleven AM on the 22nd, twelve convicts laboring in the 'Thorn and Weston Mine' made a combined attack on the keeper. Secured his revolver and threatened his life unless he remained perfectly quiet. Taking a ladder they proceeded to the mouth of the mine where the knowing guard would not allow them to pass without an officer."

"They placed one of their number in a blanket and representing him terribly injured, several carried him to the top of the bank near the guard. Laying the 'injured man' on the ground, they asked for some water for him. As the guard reached down to give him some water, they seized him from all sides and took his arms, excepting a pocket revolver, holding him by the throat."

"The remainder of their number brought forward the ladder. They all went tumbling and scrambling over the pickets but under fire from the other guards. One received a wound from the guard they held, who mounted his post as soon as liberated."

By 1868, the prison enclosed 37 acres and had about 17,500 acres of woodlands in a radius of about 10 miles of the prison. The wood was used for charcoal in the production of iron. The convict miners trudged over the mountains wearing leg irons to mine the ore. They worked from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The average number of convicts for the year was 518.

Prisoner hygiene was not a priority. The chief medical officer complained about it in his 1869 report: "I most earnestly call your attention, to the important want of the facilities for general bathing . . . the free ablution is perhaps, more needed here than in other penal establishments, because of the labor our inmates are engaged in . . . the particles of dirt with which the atmosphere is charged and permeated . . . It is inconceivable what a varnish of . . . filth is observable on their whole body, not only disgusting to the sight and demonstrably obstructive to exhalation from the skin, but highly dangerous to health . . . inducing the most favorable condition for the development of disease."

It was not until 1890 that a new bath house was completed, having one large room with six shower baths, four tubs and 42 sprayers. In groups of 50, prisoners were allowed to go to the bath house and bathe for 50 minutes once every two weeks.

On "Soup Day," 552 soup dishes were piled on a long table and made ready for convicts who marched by and picked them up and then trooped back to their cells. The convicts moved in lockstep, hands on the upper arms of the man in front and feet synchronized with his. With their striped uniforms and pot hats, the line of men looked like some diabolical machine perfected for the industrial revolution.

And how was the prisoners' health? "Convicts were robust, due to the arduous task of erecting a prison in the forest, amid the rigors of a northern winter. No laboring men were ever supplied more wholesome or nutritious food. The labor is all calculated to invigorate," said an optimistic physician in an early report.

But in 1855, another physician said, "Those convicts employed in the mines have been subject to catarrh and rheumatism to a much greater extent than those employed elsewhere."

The prison population included quite a number of consumptives according to an 1862 report. Frequent cases of diarrhea were blamed in large part on the molasses in the dally diet. A prison doctor commented, "I have found that there is no one thing that gives such universal satisfaction to the convicts as a cup of milk, buttermilk, or even sour milk."

Another doctor complained about prison clothes, saying, "Of all the paraphernalia of prison life . . . the compulsion of wearing the shirt of another still reeking with the fowl (sic) acid exhalations to the naked skin surpasses them all."

Through a Visitor's Eyes

The photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard visited Dannemora in the 1870s. He saw a prison on the side of a mountain, facing south, the mountain rising higher behind the prison in bleak, rocky rolling ledges.

Enclosing the prison, perhaps a mile in circumference, was a wooden fence 20 feet high, braced on the east not as one would expect, from the inside, but from the outside. At various intervals along the fence were nine little houses on stilts above the fence, with balconies. They were reached by stairways through trap doors in the floor. Men with repeating rifles persuaded convicts away from the fence.

Near the center of the fence, facing south, was the gate. The fence lined the north side of the main street in the tiny village. The nonprison population was about 200: families of the prison keepers, guards and teamsters who conveyed the coal and iron to and from the forge, and a few others.

Fifty men kept order: the warden (General Moffit, a veteran of the late war, who earned his position by "gallant services"), the principal keeper, the sergeant of the guard, his 28 guardsmen and 19 regular keepers, along with a clerk, physician, chaplain, yard keeper, kitchen keeper, two teachers and foremen of various departments.

Inside the stockade was the prison dormitory, a long, white building with 544 cells. Close to its west end, but at right angles to it, was a three-story building with grated windows and doors. On the ground floor was the kitchen, dining hall and store room. The chapel, guard house and armory were on the second floor, while the hospital was on the third floor.

The forge, and its brace of smokestacks, was located in the southeast corner of the stockade. In the center was the nail factory and behind that to the west was the rolling mill where the iron was worked, and the ore separator was located. Extending from the separator was a short rail line for the small dump cars that ran to the Thomas and Watson iron mine, the mouth of which was enclosed by an extension of the fence.

"I was surprised to see the freedom enjoyed by the convicts," Stoddard said. "They were going in all directions and engaged in various employments. Small gangs were unattended by a keeper. Others, apparently on the sick list were lolling in the sunshine with all the apparent freedom and enjoyment of first class loafers in a city barroom. Wagons and carts were continually passing out and in through the gate."

An average day at Dannemora during that time began at 5:30 a.m. The "hall waiter" went through the long corridors in the prison dormitory clanging a bell. The convicts got up, washed and dressed. It wasn't an elaborate operation. At 6 a.m. they were ready to leave their cells.

The post guards took their stations. The keepers entered the hall, and at a given signal the cell doors were thrown open and the convicts filed out, going first to the bucket ground. Each man took care of his own room. Then breakfast, and out to their respective work squads.

If they were working in the Thomas and Watson mine they stayed within the stockade. But if they were working the Hall mine, the walls dripping with water, or if they headed toward the cool kilns and woodlands, they left the stockade through a gate and plodded toward the mountain, which backed up the prison.

At noon, a bell called them to dinner. From shop and field and dripping mine they came, swaying from side to side in the clumsy rolling gait of the lockstep.

"Ringed and striped, like a huge worm startled by sunshine, they squirm and twist down the hillside, across the sandy road, along the graveled walk, and around the comer of the stone building," said Stoddard. "This mass crawls slowly into the dark hole they call a door and at last pulls its uncanny tail in out of the light of day."

"In the mess room the tables are laid for dinner," he continued. "The ceiling is low, the floor paved with large slabs of stone, wet from a recent scrubbing. On either side of the narrow aisle and running to the side walls are the tables - stationary plank, like old-fashioned desks at school, with boards nailed along one edge and jutting above the top to prevent articles falling off. All sit on stools facing in one: direction."

At evening, with the "fall in" order, the line converged and flowed into the long hall, each man receiving his supper, which he carried to his cell.

When they were locked in and counted through barred doors, the "all right" bell rang. The keepers left, and the guards came down from their boxes. The night guards began their rounds.

The End of a Frontier Prison

Dannemora was still an iron-making prison when Stoddard was there. He wrote, "We could see the flashing lights and the glow of fires on the chimney tops. We could hear the hiss of steam, the labored breathing of the huge blowers, and the sound of the great trip-hammer descending first on the soft mass of glowing fire that sheds tears of blood and gradually shrinks and hardens until we hear the clear ring of the metals battling with each other."

But just 10 years earlier in 1864 the Inspectors Report had said, "It is quite apparent that the location of the prison forbids expectation that it will ever earn its expenses." By 1876, the prison inspectors reported, "The manufacture of iron and nails at Clinton Prison has proved a disastrous failure as a financial undertaking."

Inspectors recommended the sale of 15,000 acres of the land contiguous to the prison ground and also the sale of forges, rolling mills, nail machines and so forth. State work would be limited to mining, raising and separating ore for sale and the manufacture of furniture and other wood products mainly by hand or in such a way as to have convict labor the largest factor in the value of the manufactured article.

The following year, 1877, New York state reluctantly gave up the manufacture of iron and nails at Dannemora. Cook's iron dreams had melted. The prison was enlarged, and 656 new cells were added in 1878 and 1879, making Dannemora one of the largest and most complete prisons in the country. Although the planked road had long gone, a railroad was completed from Plattsburgh to Dannemora.

Escapes had been a constant challenge. Desperate convicts scrambling over the wooden stockade did not please the villagers or the state Legislature, so in 1884, $20,000 was appropriated for construction of a stone wall around the prison to replace the wooden pickets or stockade. By the next year, the new stone wall extended to the south and the east. It brought all the active departments under the eye of the front office.

The death of the frontier prison took place on Aug. 2, 1895, the day of Clinton Prison's first electrocution. Joseph Wood, better known as "Cal," was strapped firmly into a new wooden chair, the electrodes were adjusted, and at 11:49 a.m. the current was turned on. This marked the end of the prison of iron and wood, tin utensils, striped uniforms, kerosene lamps and execution by hanging - and the beginning of the modern prison, a prison of stone and steel, porcelain dishes, gray uniforms and electricity.

Thomas Glynn, author of Temporary Sanity, The Building and Watching the Body Burn is working on a novel about Dannemora Prison during the 19th century. He wishes to thank Terrance B. Gilroy of Dannemora for his valuable research. Other sources include original prison records kept in the New York State Archives in Albany; the SUNY Library at Plattsburgh for microfiche records of the Plattsburgh Republican and other newspapers; American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions, by Blank McKelvey (Patterson Smith, 1977); Clinton Prison at Dannemora, published by the Clinton County Historical Museum at Plattsburgh; Nightstick by Lewis J. Valentine (Dial Press, 1947); the 1879 edition of the History of Clinton and Franklin Counties, New York; Report by Seneca Ray Stoddard, 1873-1876; and Annual Reports of the Inspectors of State Prisons Transmitted to the Legislature.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Dannemora Prison
Author:Glynn, Thomas
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1995
Previous Article:The legacy of juvenile corrections.
Next Article:Supremely qualified - Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Related Articles
New York program succeeding in today's competitive climate.
TURKEY - Aug. 14 - Former Prisoner Starves To Death.
From "guard" school to training school: New York's evolution.
HIV in prisons.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters