Bridewell Prison was in what is now City Hall Park. It was designed by Theophilus Hardenbrook in 1775. The jail, poorhouse and another building known as the new Bridewell were used by the British to house American prisoners of war. Construction was interrupted by the Declaration of Independence. The Bridewell, named for a London jail, was the most deadly of the prisons. It had no windows, only bars. The winter winds took the lives of hundreds of ill-fed patriots. There were other prisons in New York. Churches were used along with a sugar warehouse south of what is now Liberty Street. Many thousands died in prison ships in the Harbor. William Cunningham was the provost marshal of the British jails. It was he who hung Nathan Hale. Cunningham is reported to have made a deathbed confession to starving 2,000 prisoners in the city as he sold their allotted rations for personal profit. He confessed to executing outright 275 American prisoners and "other obnoxious persons." Women who visited the jails to speak to their husbands through the windows were beaten with canes and ramrods.
In 1788, the State Legislature enacted a law that NYC name at least 12 Commissioners of the Almshouse and Bridewell. The panel of commissioners was the administrative ancestor of the NYC Dept. of Correction.
During the War of 1812 when the British re-occupied New York, they again used Bridewell for POWs. With the departure of British forces, Bridewell returned to its role as a general city jail. In 1828, the NYC Commissioners of Bridewell purchased Blackwells Island as the site to relocate facilities under their jurisdiction. That included the NYC Penitentiary. In 1840, the tombs prison was built with granite from the old Bridewell Prison in City Hall Park.
After the Duel between Hamilton and Burr, an 1804 newspaper account said that Matthew Davis, Burr’s friend who woke him up that morning, and accompanied him to the boat but was otherwise not involved was sent to Bridewell Prison. so was Mr. Wilson, one of Burr’s oarsmen who would not or could not testify. Mathew Davis would later publish Burr’s memoir letters, but only after saying he burned letters that might have embarrassed Widower Burr’s women friends.
Aaron Burr himself was afraid of being sent to Bridewell Prison for Dueling in 1804. Samuel Knapp in 1835 tells us “In previous cases no notice had been taken of the event by the grand jury, or jury of inquest, or, if the facts came before them, there was no trial of the supposed surviving party; but in this case (of the duel) a jury of inquest was called, which sat several days after the remains of Hamilton had gone to the tomb, and at last were reluctantly dragooned into a return of murder. This was followed up by an indictment by the grand jury; but they did not venture to pursue the object of their resentments.”
Burr did not wait in New York, but fled across this river before finishing his term as vice president in Washington, DC. Fortunately for us, he presided over the Senate to stop president Jefferson from impeaching Judge Samuel Chase, and thus Burr kept the executive and judicial branches separate.
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