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Crow Hill Castle

Jul 6, 2015 11:15 AM | 0 comments

New York's prisons have been in the news a lot recently: tragic deaths, racial bias, the promise of sweeping prison reform, and the Shawshank Redemption-like escape of two convicts from an upstate prison. It got me thinking about Brooklyn's own prison history - specifically that of the Crow Hill Penitentiary, a long since demolished landmark of Brooklyn's past. 

Thomson, Edgar S. Crow Hill Penitentiary. 1896. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

The Crow Hill Penitentiary, also known (and perhaps better known) as the Kings County Penitentiary, was an ominous fortress-like structure situated in today's Crown Heights. It occupied a square from Nostrand to Rogers and President to Crown and was originally a wing of the county hospital, but was moved into the new structure in 1848, pre-Prospect Park. It was demolished in the Spring of 1907. On the below map the penitentiary is the red box and BPL's Central Branch is the star in the top left corner. 

Google Maps 23 June 2015. 

Crow Hill was the name of the neighborhood in the early to mid-1800s, hence the prison's moniker. A longstanding African-American community, the hill's story is similar to that of Weeksville and Carrsville, both neighboring African-American communities as well. Unlike its neighbors, however, Crow Hill was not named after its founder. An 1873 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on the neighborhood's history inquired as to the name's origin: "How did their settlement get to be named Crow Hill?" A retired (white) policeman answered: "Well, they had to live away from the white people, and they got up there in these woods. The woods were at that time full of crows, and it was called Crow Hill, partly because there were a great many crows there and partly on account of the people nicknaming the darkies 'crows,' too." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 14 Aug 1873). Both are popular theories but the actual answer remains unknown.  

An extensive profile of the facility appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in July 29th, 1872: "The Penitentiary has a front of about four hundred feat, from the centre and the ends of which rise in all eight turrets. A thirty-foot stone wall runs from the ends of the front, in the form of a square, enclosing in all five acres of ground." The main building was divided in two sections; the male section had 168 cells and the female section had 282.

Atlas of the City of Brooklyn. Philadelphia: G.M. Hopkins, C.E., 1880. Print.
*The purple refers to the stone material while the yellow refers to wooden structures. Note the empty lots on all sides. 

Confused about the disparity of cells between men and women? Me too. Perhaps Crow Hill was one of the few penitentiaries that would take women? Though it was one of the few penitentiaries period, so that doesn't explain it. However, considering folks were arrested for vagrancy, drunkenness, solicitation, poverty, and sneezing in the wrong direction, perhaps we shouldn't find extra cells all that surprising. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 29 July 1872. 

The Eagle reporter toured every section of the prison and took copious notes. "The female prison," he noted, "is a model of cleanliness; singularly enough, too, when one reflects upon the degraded character of some of the prisoners." Not only were the female cells clean, but many inmates decorated their cells with "colored ribbons, papers, and woodcuts... were it not for the barred doors," writes the reporter, "they would look quite cheery." 

The cells were relatively attractive, but in the reporter's eyes the female inmates were anything but. "Young women with brazen looks, and hard lines, where tenderness and modesty should grace their features, silver haired old women with idiotic glare, middle aged women with the eyes of wolves and brutal faces stamped all over with the unmistakable brands of vice..."

The reporter took less interest in the male prison, stating that it had "but little about it to interest the curious eye. One sees gangs of hard visaged fellows, clad in striped suits. That's about all." I'd say that's something, but what do I know?

Austin, Daniel Berry. Brooklyn Kings County Penitentiary. 1907. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

Some of the notorious inmates mentioned sound like folks you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley (or on a well-lit street, for that matter): "The Terror of Williamsburg," Owen McMann, member of the famous Battle Row Gang; Ironically named "Nosey" Kate Martin, a noseless woman who "lost this useful member in endeavoring to knock the neck off a gin bottle with her face, the aforesaid bottle being in the hands of an enemy at the time"; and "Mrs. Red Lion," an infamous madame who gathered innocent shop girls "like flies into the spider's web." 

In 1848, shortly after the opening, reports of improper conduct on the part of the guards called for a change in leadership; the head keeper had been tasking prisoners to supervise other prisoners. What could go wrong? By 1865, the Eagle was reporting that the Kings County Penitentiary was "one of the best institutions of its kind in the country... prisoners prefer incarcerations in it, to any other of our prisons" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2 Aug 1865). I highly doubt the inmates had a choice of prison, but that's beside the point. Utilizing an "anti-punishment system," the discipline came in the form of hard work, which is not to say that there wasn't physical punishment. There are reports of lashings and solitary confinement, called "the dark cells," throughout the prison's history. An issue of the Eagle in 1933, looking into the history of the prison, said that there was no evidence that any executions were ever carried out. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 30 July 1870.

Men dug roads and cracked stones, women stitched and sewed, and both groups worked together to make shoes. Allegedly, the prison could turn out twelve to fifteen thousand a day in the 1870s. (The number dropped to roughly 4000 a quarter by the 1890s. Either the shoes became much fancier or the first figure was a bit high.) 

An 1872 inspection reported that the penitentiary was in tip-top shape, both physically and staffing-wise. The prison was also to recieve a upgraded hospital and, oddly, another female wing later that same year. No one had cholera at the time of writing, which was excellent, as 67 prisoners had died during an outbreak in 1867. Because of that tragedy, every inmate was required to bathe weekly. Yet, in spite of the new requirements, the prison saw an outbreak of typhoid in 1886. 

Although the prison was well cared for and well run, calls for the closing of the prison came right around the turn of the twentieth century.

Austin, Daniel Berry. Brooklyn Kings County Penitentiary. 1907. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Advocates for the prison's demolition cited the new county jail as justification for the closure. The new county facility saw many short term inmates, while prisoners serving long terms were taken by the state, leaving many of Kings County's cells empty. What's more, in 1875 the facility had changed its requirements for inmates: they had to be serving more than thirty days and less than ten years. They also said that the institution was a "barrier to further growth" in the neighborhood. After all, "Fine houses are not likely to be erected in the presence of such a forbidding neighbor."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1 Oct 1905

What was originally built far outside the main city in a African-American neighborhood found itself in the middle of an up-and-coming white neighborhood full of mansions and tree-lined streets. The prison was not alone, as there were other social services that were also feeling the push: "Down the hollow, but close at hand, is a group of buildings for the city's waifs and strays - the Kingston Avenue Hospital... the Almshouse and the Epileptic Home." A mental health facility (or a home for "the insane") had already been relocated. "Those who have seen city regions develop say that the tearing down of the penitentiary is but the first step, that one by one this collection of city hospitals and shelters for the poor and miserable must inevitably make way for the town that crowds upon them." 

A bit of a turn of the century "Not In My Backyard" situation. 

In October of 1905, the Eagle reported that the prison was to be no more. A new one was to be constructed on either Hart, Blackwells, or Rikers Island. (We utilized the old prison and workhouse on Blackwells Island until a new facility was built on Rikers Island in the 1930s). "Crow Hill Castle" came down in the Spring of 1907.

Progress does not come without cost. Though a distant second to the displacement of individuals under the city's care, the borough was also to lose a landmark. "It stands at the front of the ancient buildings of Brooklyn of to-day," wrote the reporter. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 21 Feb 1901). 

Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn. New York: E. Belcher Hyde, 1916. Print.
*Note the brownstones surrounding the essentially vacant space left by the penitentiary. 

A parochial school and church were built on the lot, followed by iterations of Boys Prep School, followed by sections of Medgar Evers College and apartment buildings. Walking down any of the streets surrounding the once-massive building, one would never suspect that a prison ever stood there. Although it would be pretty great to still have the structure, much like Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, at least we still have the history. And here's to hoping that our current prison woes become history as well.