It’s unfortunate we don’t have any catacombs in New York City – those secret, labyrinthine grave sites for the dead. I can’t think of many things that strike closer towards that secret wellspring of mysticism that I believe all humans share. Maybe the caves at Lascaux; I’m not sure, I’ve never seen them. Any underground burials or tunnels you might find here in the NYC are more likely to be of the industrial variety, like the IRT’s old City Hall subway station, which I’m pretty sure is where the Ghostbusters discovered that giant river of slime. Pretty awesome, although not in the same league as catacombs. What we do have is The Tombs, a name that whiffs of some type of mysterious adventure, or at least the older New York of Williams Burroughs or Jim Carroll. Alas, in truth I don’t think it’s a place that anyone would choose to visit. Its official title is the Manhattan Detention Complex, and it’s the fourth and most recent building in this area to have been called The Tombs as a nickname. This newest addition of the jail doesn’t look like a tomb at all, but the sobriquet seems too appropriate for a place of incarceration, and so it sticks. The two versions of the Complex that came before it didn’t look like tombs either. It was the original building that inspired that name, and passed it on from there to all the others.
The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, as it was officially called, was built in 1838 and took up the entire block bounded by Franklin, Centre, Leonard, and what was Elm Street (now Lafayette). It was built directly on top of the site of the old Collect Pond, a freshwater, spring-fed pond that sometimes overflowed through the Lispenard Marshes west to the Hudson River. The Collect (a bastardization of the Dutch word for pond) was as deep as 60 feet at some points and was a popular ice-skating spot in the winter; a small island in its center was used as a gallows from time to time as well, just to add to the festive atmosphere. By the turn of the 19th century though it had become polluted by industry and was considered an eyesore and a health hazard. It was slowly drained, filled in with land taken from the leveling of a nearby hill, and by 1813 the pond had all but disappeared. Its removal upset the natural drainage of the area though, making the ground around it a sinking and uneven bog. A giant ditch was erected in response, cut down the middle of Canal Street, from whence it got its name. The ditch was supposed to help relieve rain water and carry it to the Hudson, but it ran so slowly that it soon become a disgusting sewer in its own right. The marshy land and offensive odors brought down property values in the area, and soon most of the surrounding neighborhoods were slums. All and all, the perfect sort of place to build a jail.
Its design was based upon an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, foreboding imagery for those about to be convicted. It basically looked like a giant tomb, hence the nickname. When construction first started wide platforms of hemlock logs were laid into the soft earth, to help shore up the foundation. It didn’t work; five months before the jail opened it started sinking into the ground. The movement warped the cells and caused cracks in the walls through which water would often trickle. It created a damp, unpleasant environment that seemed perfectly fitting for the moniker the place already bore. The large rectangular complex was laid out around a courtyard, in the middle of which was the free standing men’s prison. The main building around it housed the women’s prison, boy’s prison, and the courts, as well as “Bummer’s Hall,” for all the bums. Every person arrested in Manhattan passed through the Tombs on their way to trial, about 50,000 of them a year. Most, if convicted, would move on to whichever prison they were serving time in. But those sentenced to death stayed here, albeit for a short time. The “Bridge of Sighs,” less famous than its Venetian counterpart and namesake, was the path the condemned took between the main building and the men’s prison, on their way to the gallows. Around 50 convicted murderers were hung here throughout the years. Once the electric chair was invented in 1890 executions stopped taking place in the city and moved upstate to Sing Sing and Auburn.
It was difficult to prove someone guilty of murder in the days before forensic science. There were only 13 homicide convictions in the city between 1838-1851, about one a year. All the more reason for alarm when 13 convictions were registered in the three years following, from 1852-54. The city was growing, and guns were coming more and more into play. One of the most famous cases of the era was that of the Daybreak Boys, a gang of river-pirates operating out of Slaughter House Point, near where the Brooklyn Bridge stands today. Two of its young members were tried and convicted for the shooting death of a ship’s night watchman. They were hung in the Tombs in 1853, surrounded by a large crowd of Bowyerites who looked on them as heroes. The Tombs was also the home (though not the final resting place) of the world’s first con man, William Thompson. Dressing as a gentleman, in a city growing crowded by strangers more and more each day, he would approach his mark as if they were an old acquaintance, striking up a conversation before eventually asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?” They often did. But the city wasn’t big enough for him to hide from his victims forever. After his arrest in 1849 he was described in the papers as a “confidence man” and the name stuck around forever after.
By the 1880s the Tombs was completely overcrowded, and growing obsolete. Originally built to hold 200 people at a time it was maxed out at around double that amount. In 1902 a new, chateau-like building was completed and the Tombs were torn down. Or were they? The new building, the Manhattan House of Detention, immediately picked up the old nickname. Same purpose, same feeling, different building. When that one was replaced in 1941, with another building on White Street, again the Tombs moniker stuck, and yet again, when the building that we see today went up in 1974. The site of the original Tombs is a parking lot now, and a tiny concrete patch with benches called Collect Pond Park. It looks the opposite of its past, barren and sterile, what you might call urban-arid, as opposed to crowded, damp and noisy. It’s unappealing, just like it must have been back then, only in a completely different fashion. The Tombs were considered a mausoleum for the living, made up of a whole mess of humanity. This space now is nothing but a graveyard of history. I mean a place where history just dies. I won’t call it a catacomb, although it’s secret and disguised, as if its past was not intended to be found. There’s nothing moving here. And where did all those spirits go? Did they sink back into the ground, beneath the asphalt and the hemlock logs? Can something ever truly disappear from off the earth? What else is it that we’re standing on? Except for that one split second, over and over again, everything that ever happens is the past. And deep beneath it all the spring that fed the Collect Pond keeps running.
(Originally posted May 1st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)