Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, NY: A History of Hudson Valley’s Jail Up the River

One of America’s most infamous prisons, Sing Sing has been housing criminals for nearly 200 years


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electric chair

“Old Sparky” was the name given to the electric chair, first used at Sing Sing in 1891

Photograph courtesy of the Ossining Historical Society

Old Sparky

A 19th-century prison was a barbaric place, and Sing Sing was no exception. Prisoners were expected to keep absolute silence. Beatings — and worse — were commonplace. “Bread and water” and “ball and chain” weren’t euphemisms, they were a way of life. According to Mark Gado, the author of Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison, “the bath” was a method of torture used for decades to terrify the population and maintain order. “An inmate was tied to a chair... Water was dropped in a steady stream from a great height and landed on the top of a prisoner’s head. Prison records show that 170 men received this punishment in 1852. That same year, 120 men were placed in solitary confinement and five were “bucked”... causing the man to hang upside down like a roasted pig.”

“There really was torture,” says Cheli, until prison reform took hold in the country, led in large part by Lewis Lawes, Sing Sing’s warden during the ’20s and ’30s. “Lawes believe that prison was punishment enough, and that he would send prisoners back into the world as better people than when they came in,” Cheli says. Lawes educated prisoners, taught them trades, and entertained them with visits from the likes of Babe Ruth, Harry Houdini, Edward G. Robinson, and other stars of the day. “He helped change the way prisons were run,” says Cheli.

Lawes also abhorred the death penalty, which propelled Sing Sing into the spotlight many times during its history. Sing Sing electrocuted its first prisoner in 1891. By 1916, all of New York’s electrocutions took place there. The first woman to be executed by the electric chair also occurred at Sing Sing in 1899. Martha Place had been found guilty of murdering her stepdaughter. The electrocution of Ruth Snyder in 1928 for the murder of her husband was made famous when a photographer for a New York City tabloid smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. But perhaps the most famous execution at the prison was that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of espionage, in 1953. They were two of a total of 614 men and women who were put to death in the electric chair, known as “Old Sparky.” In 1963, the last execution was conducted in New York.

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» Visit Sing Sing Prison Visitor Center in Ossining, NY
» Visit Ossining Historical Society in Ossining, NY

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