Look to your right: WOW.  That is a million dollar view of Midtown Manhattan, likely a multi-million dollar view.  At this exact spot, on a clear day, it's possible to see the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the United Nations Complex, and One World Trade Center all at once.  We're sure we don’t to need to remind you, but this is one amazing photo opportunity.  With a view like this, you may never want to leave...

    However, when the people lived on Blackwell's Island 175 years ago, leaving wasn't an option.  On this site in 1832, just 4 years after the city purchased the island from the residing Blackwell family, Blackwell's Island Penitentiary was opened to house some of New York City's most notorious criminals.  Acting as one of two official state prisons (the other was and still is in Albany), the penitentiary grew to become a complex housing not only criminals, but also workhouses, which were built in 1852 and meant to punish petty violators with intense labor.

        Like many of the stone structures on the island, the penitentiary was built of gneiss both quarried on the island, and erected by the prisoners themselves; although we doubt they were happy about building their own cells.  The main penitentiary building was 600 feet long and 4 stories tall with an additional wing on the north side, resembling a medieval fortress.  It had 800 cells and housed about 1,000 inmates (sorry if you didn't want a roommate, this is New York after all). The workhouses were also built of gneiss by inmates, was 3 stories tall, and had room for 221 inmates. 

        By the end of the century, the prison had become corrupt, and several celebrities, including politician Boss Tweed and actress Mae West.  By the 1930s, corruption was so rampant that the Department of Corrections closed Blackwell's Penitentiary and moved all the inmates to a new facility on Riker's Island.

        It's hard to imagine that something like this existed on such a small island. If you don't believe us, check out photos from the New York Public Library HERE.

South Tour Stop 4: Penitentiary


Penitentiary and Workhouses

Walk straight into Southpoint ParkTour_South_5__City_Hospital.html
Next Stop: City HospitalTour_South_5__City_Hospital.html
List of Stops List_of_Stops.html









Getting AroundGetting_Around.html
Roosevelt Island Historical Tourindex.html

Underwood Photo Archives, Ltd., San Francisco

Underwood Photo Archives, Ltd., San Francisco

Jacob A. Riis; The Jacob A Riis Collection, Museum of the City of NY

Gleason’s Pictorial, May 28, 11853


New York and Its Institutions: 1607-1872