FW: US - History haunts Tombs jail... [Yahoo - Court TV]
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From: Brenda Lana Smith R.af D.
Yahoo! News - History haunts Tombs jail
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Crimes and Trials - Court TV
History haunts Tombs jail
By Matt Bean, Court TV
NEW YORK (Court TV <http://www.courttv.com/>) It doesn't matter if you are
P. Diddy or a transvestite prostitute, a Wall Street banker or a subway fare
beater, if you get arrested anywhere in Manhattan by the New York Police
Department, you'll end up in the Tombs.
For more than 160 years, the massive jail on Centre Street in lower
Manhattan has housed those awaiting arraignment or trial. Known officially
as the Bernard B. Kerik Complex and initially as MDC for Manhattan
Detention Complex, it is called simply the Tombs by everyone from the mayor
to the 20,000 handcuffed men shuffled through its doors every year.
The jail is the largest receiving area in the country. More than 500
corrections officers supervise some 850 inmates. Its long history makes it
one of the most storied prisons in the country.
The city fathers ordered The Tombs built in 1835 on swampy land that had
once been a lake known as the Collect. The architect, recently returned from
a trip to Egypt modeled the jail after a mausoleum he had seen there, giving
the granite structure a striking edifice and eventually the nickname, the
"It promises to be one of the handsomest of our public buildings," one
newspaper predicted at its opening.
The jail was divided into sections based on the crimes charged. Men arrested
for more severe crimes like murder and arson were kept on one floor while
burglars and robbers were held on another.
A few months after the Tombs opened to prisoners, the building began to sink
into the swampland, making it even more inhospitable to inmates. Then in
1842, fire struck the jail. A wealthy professional man, John Colt, the
brother of revolver inventor Samuel Colt, was convicted of the hatchet
murder of another businessman and sentenced to die in the Tombs by hanging.
Shortly before his execution, he stabbed himself death in his cell.
According to the Museum of the City of New York, a candle or lamp was
knocked over in the resulting confusion, igniting a blaze that destroyed
sections of the jail.
Colt's execution would have been among about 50 that took place in the
Tombs. Prisoners were marched from their cells, across a bridge within the
jail nicknamed "The Bridge of Sighs" and then hung in a gallows set up in
one of the prison yards.
The Tombs' conditions were so notorious that Herman Melville had the title
character of his 1853 classic short story "Bartelby the Scrivener" die alone
in a dank yard of the Tombs.
During the Civil War, Confederate POWs were jailed in the Tombs alongside
New York's accused thieves and murderers. After the war, Boss Tweed, the
leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, was arrested and sent to the
Tombs. On his way there, he reportedly ordered his dinner sent over to the
jail from the tony restaurant Delmonico's.
In 1902, the jail was entirely rebuilt in the style of a French chateau, but
people continued to call it the Tombs.
The jail and the rest of the city's prison department made headlines in 1914
when a woman, Katharine Bement Davis, was named the first female corrections
commissioner and in fact, the first woman to ever lead a major municipal
agency. Davis took charge of the Tombs and the department's $2 million
budget before women had the right to vote.
Conditions at the jail continued to be crowded and unsanitary. In August
1970, a riot broke out and inmates took five corrections officers hostage
and began setting fires. They demanded to meet with Mayor John Lindsay about
conditions at the Tombs, but he declined. Instead the inmates bargained
press coverage about the substandard state of the jail for the release of
As a result of the riot, the jail was torn and a modern facility built in
its place. Women were recruited for the staff and now close to 50 percent of
the corrections officers are female.
* More trial and crime news from Court TV
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