During the spring of 1825 a handful of prisoners were landed on the shore of the Hudson River at Mt. Pleasant to begin construction of a new penitentiary. For six months they toiled under the wary eyes and ready muskets of their keepers, sleeping in tents and lean-tos. On November 26, the first convicts were safely locked up in the cells of what was to become known as Sing Sing prison.
Until the first prison reforms of the 1870’s, the convicts at the Mt. Pleasant State Penitentiary existed in a state of virtual slavery, living at the mercy of their keepers and guards. Civil rights being what they were in that era, the prisoners did not complain much of their lot, and firsthand accounts of nineteenth-century prison life are rare. Thus, it is particularly arresting to come across a document that tells not only about life on the inside, but does so in verse—the manuscript of John T. Connors.
A petty felon, John Connors lived by the pen. He was, by his own admission in the manuscript, a “scratcher”—a passer of bad checks. He served a ten-year sentence from 1878 to 1888, during which time he penned over a hundred poems, songs, and prison anecdotes.
One of the poems Connors wrote was the delicate review of jailhouse cuisine that appears on page 20. Connors and the other prisoners received three meals a day: just before dawn they ate a breakfast of coffee and the hash Connors describes, at midday they were treated to a dinner either of stew or meat and vegetables, and on returning to their cells in the evening they got bread and coffee. The coffee, called “bootleg” by the prisoners, was a vile decoction brewed from fifteen pounds of coffee and a couple of barrels of burnt bread crumbs for every three hundred gallons of water.
From the completion of the prison complex until well into the twentieth century the prisoners toiled under what was called the “contract system.” Local businessmen would contract with the warden for convict labor; the daily work load was limited only by the hours of daylight. Everyone but the convicts profited handsomely from this arrangement. It was not until 1886 that the prisoners finally received some compensation for their labor; even then the amount was limited to 10 per cent of their earnings, and Connors had much to say about “bloated capitalists.”
Many of Connors’ poems are either paeans to a mother’s devotion or complaints about a lover’s fickleness. He sings praises of Ireland and celebrates the fistic glory of John L. Sullivan. But by far the most interesting verses are those which tell, with harsh humor and fatalistic vigor, of the brutal routines of prison life a century ago.
The “Empire State” Hotel
Hang Your Prison Stockings Up! A Christmas Song
Air: “Bowery Grenadiers” Far from the City’s “mad’ding crowd” At present we reside, In comfortable quarters By the Hudson’s placid tide, The constant strain from overwork Had made us feel unwell And for a change of air we sought The “Empire State” hotel. Chorus: Oh! the situation’s fine on the Hudson River Line, For comforts sweet it can’t be beat—all table d’hote we dine. The “Hash” is strong and free as the breezes from the sea; It makes us sigh for days gone by when “flush” with cash were we But things have changed—they will somehow— As you’ll allow who’re up here now So unto fate let’s bravely bow At the “Empire State” hotel. We are all of us affected with The very same complaint, The touch it varies all the way From heavy down to faint; ’Tis “other people ’s money” That is ailing those who dwell Within the lime-stone palace called The “Empire State” hotel. Oh! had we all been Christian men And kept the “narrow road,” Turned “lobbyist” or statesmen To avoid the “Penal Code,” Not used our wits nor “jimmies” Or our pens and tongues so well, We had not been at present at The “Empire State” hotel. What tho’ all things in life do stand Still, old Time plods on his way; And that’s a consolation to Those who are here to-day; So mend your morals while you may And thus prepare to swell The crowd who should but do not, Fill the Empire State hotel.
A merry, merry Christmas! I wish you, every one, And a greasy, big fat Turkey for every Mother’s son— May each one have a big box filled up with things from home, Hang your prison stockings up—Santa Claus has come. Chorus: Hang your prison stockings up Stockings up, stockings up— Hang your prison stockings up For Santa Claus has come. A merry, merry Christmas! to each old Con up here, I trust that you’ll be far away when Christmas comes next year. And may a happy pardon arrive down here for some— Hang your prison stockings up—Santa Claus has come. Hang your prison stockings up, Yes, hang them on the wall, Who knows but down your ventilator Santa Claus might crawl And bring perhaps glad tidings from those you love at home— Then hang your prison stockings up—Santa Claus has come. Ah! Comrade, think a moment of your mother dear today, As doubtless she is weeping for her son so far away. And as she hangs the stocking up sad thoughts do mar her joy, She prays to God that Santa Claus might bring her home her boy. A merry, merry Christmas! to all who’re tired of hash! I trust, against next season, youll want none of this trash— When you regain your freedom May you again ne’er roam Then hang your old slate stockings up For Santa Claus has come.
I’ll sing an interesting theme of hash so good and old Oh! ’tis the stuff to make you dream if bolted down when cold. Chorus: Our hash is ever cold, our hash is ever cold, Oh! how I hate to take a plate of hash when it is cold. Now if this food we analyze and take it all apart— I’m sure you ’ll open wide your eyes and at the “mistery” start. Old pants, old stockings and old shirts and various other suits— Bad beef and “taters” and hoopskirts also old shoes and boots. Some very pretty things I’ve found in a royal plate of hash— All things above and underground, excepting good “hard cash.” But still I like to take a plate of hash when good and warm— ’Tis relished by the Small and Great; in it there is no harm.
The Convict Dead
As polite as a Frenchman, As cute as a fox Is “Ye Scratcher,” and yet He gets in a tight box. Then murmurs: “It’s tough, Yes, it’s regular fits;” But it’s just what befalls those Who live by their wits. Of late I’ve been running This thing very clever, And thought that they’d collar me Never oh! never— But alas! for the future It’s little I’ll reck, For I’ll surely catch tandem For raising that check. Then the Judge “My dear boy, I decidedly think That you have been slinging Of late too much ink. And for your illegitimate Use of the pen, Up the beautiful Hudson I’ll send you for Ten.”
Down to the placid Hudson’s tide Where slopes a cheerless hill, Wherein are buried, side by side, Hearts that are cold and still— Their earthly pilgrimage is o’er, Their lease of life has sped They sleep, alas! to wake no more, The unmourned convict dead.… Then mourn the dead, the convict dead By Hudson’s placid tide— To Mother Earth again they’re wed, In peace let them abide— Nor lightly talk, nor censure them, There’s One who reigns o’erhead To justly praise or to condemn The unmourned convict dead The toiling engines passing by With whistles loud and shrill Shriek mournful blasts unto the Sky For those upon the Hill. Then, careless mortal, pass not by But breathe a prayer instead, The transient tribute of a sigh For Sing Sing’s Convict Dead.
At present I’m acquainted with society’s unsainted, Being just a little tainted (that is morally) myself; Which for a slight transgression in the burglaring profession— That I hate to give expression—I am lying on the shelf. Since my incarceration in this penal habitation It’s been my determination to improve my mind and time; But while I’ve been pursuing lore, it has been my undoing; For the Muse I went a-wooing, And subsided into rhyme. I’ve talked me with the highest, the dumbest and the “fly-est” The wittiest and dry est of the Crooks I met by chance, I’ve had conversazione with the learned “lags”and tony, And also with the “Boney”—Yes, the “Boney” of Finance. I know the “Con-man” stately, who has left rich pastures lately, Where he grazed with success greatly to his credit and his pride; But, falling from his station, he has now an occupation In this penal reservation by the Hudson’s flowing tide. I have known great “koniackers,” and greater still “Crib Crackers” Border gangs and whyo whackers who have marched here in a line, And the clever genteel mobby whose great and only hobby Was dipping in your fobby—were acquaintances of mine. And I’ve a recollection when all of my affection Was wasted in connection with Crooks of high degree, And the height of my ambition was to have a top position Mongst Crooks of high condition—But I am just what you see! Well, now my stay is ending, my morals I am mending, I’ve no idea of spending time as I have done of yore, So with this idea before me, I want you to ignore me Throw Oblivion’s mantle o’er me. For I’ll know you all NO More.