By Myles Zhang
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850
When citizens convened in 1836 to incorporate Newark as a city, one of their first orders of business was to discuss the construction of a new jail. Four years earlier, they had set aside land for the new cemetery. The previous year, the old county courthouse and jail had burned down in one of the fires that periodically swept through early American towns of wood-frame homes. All traces of this old courthouse are now gone, except for the building’s basement dungeon where convicts were kept awaiting trial. Remnants of this dungeon are still visible in the dark crawlspace beneath the sanctuary of Grace Church on Broad Street.
This quiet village was already approaching 170 years old. Newark’s population numbered only 10,542 free white Americans, 6,000 Irish, 1,000 English and Scotch, 300 Germans and 358 free colored people in 1835. Within the span of a few months, in 1836, the town’s first two railroads linked Newark to points west and south; oil streetlights illuminated the town center; the first school system for poor children opened; and another fire swept through downtown. In the next few decades, the population would grow almost ten percent every year. Newark was fast becoming a city.
However, Newark remained in many ways a farming hamlet with Puritan roots. Since 1666, the annual town meetings had been held in the courthouse, the “Court Room at Moses Roff’s Taven,” or inside one of the lecture rooms of Old First Presbyterian Church near the corner of Broad and Market Streets. The sexton of Old First was, in fact, paid three dollars per year by the Town Committee “for cleaning the Lecture room of said Church.” The names of attending officials read like a list of street names from a modern Newark address book: Treat, Baldwin, Bruen, Pennington, Doremus, Halsey, Harrison, Frelinghuysen, etc. The lands they farmed and passed down through generations span much of present-day Essex County.
In the expanding town, it was no longer possible “to Farm let” the city’s debtors and poor to the lowest bidder, who in the years before the American Revolution paid £159 for the privilege. Nor was it possible to use fines as punishment for the most common public nuisances, which included escaped hogs and cattle roaming Newark’s dirt streets due to poorly maintained fences. The town records had noted few serious crimes like rape or murder in more than a century. Nonetheless, with waves of “rowdy” German and Irish immigrants soon to come, Newark needed a jail.
The city leaders looked around and settled on English-born architect John Haviland. Since immigrating to Philadelphia in 1815, Haviland designed many of the civic institutions for that city: the Franklin Institute for science, Old City Hall, churches, townhouses, and even parts of Independence Hall, where the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed. His most famous building, however, was Eastern State Penitentiary completed in 1829. At a cost of about $450,000, Eastern State was the largest and more expensive public works project yet built in America. Over half of Eastern State’s budget was spent on the decorative fortress appearance and perimeter wall, even though visitor Alexis de Tocqueville noted that this frightening appearance served no other purpose than to frighten passersby. Newarkers thought that Haviland – later known as the “jailor to the world” – was best equipped for their project.
Haviland’s Newark commission consisted of two parts. At the top of Market Street, where Gutzon Borglum’s Seated Lincoln statue now stands, he built a symmetrical courthouse out of local brownstone. Heavy columns modeled after Egyptian papyrus leaves buttressed either side of the entrance. Carved on the cornices were the stylized motifs of eagles with outstretched arms, a reference to Horus, the Egyptian god of pharaohs. The walls tapered inward as they went up, a subtle reference to the architecture of Egyptian tombs and temples. The irony of using architecture associated with polytheism and monarchy for a courthouse was probably lost on Newark’s Christian elected leaders.
The second part of Haviland’s commission was for the Essex County Jail at what is now 271-85 New Street. Located at the city edge, along the path of the newly built Morris Canal, the jail was soon wedged between farmland on one side and leather tanning industries on the other. Also built of locally quarried stone, the jail was surrounded by an eight-foot perimeter wall. The main façade facing the city displayed an image of comfortable gardens and domestic life. The two-story Warden’s House with a wood cupola above offered hilltop views of Newark and the distant meadowlands. Generations of jail wardens lived here with their wives and children. Passing through the garden, one entered the front parlor of the Warden’s House. The stairs up led to the family bedrooms. The back door led via a short hallway to the rows of brick cell blocks and dungeons.
Old Essex County Jail Warden’s House 1967 and 2018. Photos by National Parks Service (left) and Myles Zhang (right)
In an agrarian republic, cities and urban life were seen as somehow dirty, alienating, and morally corrupt. Andrew Jackson, U.S. President when the Essex County Jail was being built, emphasized the frontier yeoman farmer and his family as the bedrock of American values and democracy. Newark’s older generation of Puritan founders and farmers observed the Sabbath, closed down businesses on this holy day, and chastised those found working. But in a city with immigrant groups who drank on the Sabbath and businesses that needed to remain open, Newark emphasized the need for the new civic institutions of schools, libraries, courthouses, public works projects, and jails to maintain tradition and social order. Indeed, in the Essex County Jail’s earliest decades, drunkenness and wife beating were among the two most common reasons men were held there. The State Temperance Society reported in 1836 that, of 517 people sent to jail, a little over twenty percent were charged with “beating and abusing their wives and children.” As part of their re-education, the better behaved of these inmates were invited to tend the warden’s garden and assist with food preparation in his kitchen. As the Newark Call reported as late as 1930: “The Essex County Jail reportedly has ‘one of the prettiest flower gardens in Newark,’ a hobby for Mr. and Mrs. Steadman, the warden and matron. A few ‘trusties’ among prisoners are rewarded for good behavior to work in the garden as recreation. Large flower beds and an extensive lawn form a bright spot outside the Warden’s House.” Warden Charles A. Steadman had the following to say to Essex County Jail inmates in a passage that reveals as much about him as it does about older attitudes toward crime and punishment:
My Friends: You and I are living under the same roof for a while.
You did not intend to come here. I did not invite you.
All of us make mistakes and at times do wrong. Perhaps you have. I know I have.
While we are together let us play fair with each other.
During your stay, your treatment will depend on your behavior. This must be remembered.
Let us both while together to live each other’s life. I’ll try to understand your position. You try to understand mine.
If we do this, we won’t have any misunderstanding.
My hope is that I will be a better man for having known you and that you will be none the worse for knowing me.
Few written records survive in the city archives or Newark Public Library from the jail’s early days. However, from what we do know, attitudes toward crime were evolving over the course of the nineteenth century. Some of America’s earliest colonial settlers were convicts deported from Britain. And in the tight-knit religious communities that dotted New England, lifetime banishment was a punishment for more severe crimes. But as America’s western frontier gradually filled out, nineteenth-century political leaders realized that if the guilty could not be banished, society would need to find means to re-educate and prepare them for eventual return to society. Prisons were built; courts were opened; inmates were set to labor in prison factories; and laws were updated to increase the number of crimes punishable with prison time. The Essex County Jail was no warehouse for the urban poor or ethnic minorities. The average length of confinement was only between 11 and 22 days during the entire 135 years the jail was in operation. This is in contrast to the backlog of cases in modern courts that can cause jail sentences to last months, even years. It was not until 1867 that troubled children were sent to the Jamesburg reformatory instead of the Essex County Jail, and it was not until 1873 that inmates with longer-term sentences were shipped to the purpose-built Essex County Penitentiary in Caldwell. Nonetheless, inmates ages eight to fifteen were locked up in the Essex County Jail until 1910 at the latest. Dozens of hangings also took place in the backyard of the Warden’s House until 1902 when executions were moved to Trenton State Prison, also built by Haviland. The practices of confinement in the Essex County Jail were changing alongside the larger city.
Two big changes came to the American prison system. The first was Prohibition. The second was the War on Drugs. The Essex County Jail’s operations responded to both. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founder of the women’s rights movement, announced at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention: “The tide of vice is swelling, and threatens the destruction of everything, and the battlements of righteousness are weak against the raging elements of sin and death.” For much of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, suffragists demanded the right to vote and the prohibition of alcohol. The two demands were intertwined in a perception that “demon rum” corrupted men, destabilized their families, and threatened the safety of their wives. Thus, in almost the same stroke of the legal pen in 1919, the federal government gave women the right to vote while barring men the right to drink. In the Prohibition age, the Essex County Jail’s average daily population shot up above 200 for the first time in history. The US might have ended Prohibition in 1933 with political lobbying from Newark brewers like Ballantine and Krueger. But the legal and institutional apparatuses to enforce prohibition remained in place. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Federal Bureau of Prisons were both founded in 1930, and their mission expanded in years after. At the same time, African-Americans, subject to lynching and white supremacy in the south, migrated north to cities like Newark. While the Essex County Jail detained 432 “colored” people per year in 1920, ten years later the number of “colored” people confined here annually was 3,258. In the century after Prohibition, the numbers of African-Americans confined in Newark never returned to pre-1920 levels.
Originally built for a city of less than 20,000, the Essex County Jail once employed the latest technology. The jail benefitted from radiator heating, electricity, internal plumbing, and even its own hospital and substation powered by Newark-built steam engines – all in an era before most Newark homes were equipped with these conveniences. As the growing bureaucracy of government found new and more efficient ways to keep people in cages, the jail remained a source of civic pride. Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary, in fact, became an attraction for thousands of annual tourists. The Essex County Jail never achieved this level of notoriety, but was part of the same era when prisons were often a source of civic pride. However, by 1926, Newark’s population and inmate numbers were beginning to outstrip what the old jail could handle. Once countryside, the site was now hemmed in on all sides by factories and tenements. From a simple plan for a Warden’s House and a single cellblock, the jail had expanded to at least fifteen buildings of various size, material, function, and design.
When Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, the old Essex County Jail – originally designed for fewer than 100 inmates – held 432 on an average day. In a prophetic twist, as if foreshadowing future events, the jail closed the same year that the War on Drugs began. In almost every year after Nixon, the U.S. prison population has expanded. In some ways, Prohibition did not start in 1919, and nor did it end in 1933. The War on Drugs very much springs from the same place of moral righteousness that drove the War on Alcohol and before that, the various wars on vice that nineteenth-century puritanical Americans waged against socialists, anarchists, and immigrants.
Like Newark’s Puritan founding fathers, we are still a country that prefers rural and suburban living to urban life, chooses to decentralize power to the state and local level, and therefore requires a robust system of “law and order” to maintain power over increasingly diverse and immigrant urban areas. We are also a country that frames political issues like abortion and welfare with the coded language of “family values.” For conservative America and Fox News, the problem with our cities comes from a decline in Christianity, an increase in divorce, and welfare dependence that erodes work ethic. While Newark founders responded to fears of urban disorder through the old Essex County Jail, political leaders today have responded with the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue. This new facility’s razor wire perimeter fences and searchlight towers project an image of fear on the surrounding environment of sewer treatments plants, recycling centers, and heavy industry. It is now uncommon for prison administrators to live in the same place as their inmates.
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying. It has briefly been used as a holding facility for drug offenders, as a stage set for a film about Malcolm X, and as the occasional home for people who prefer the jail’s secluded privacy to the invasive rules of local homeless shelters. Occasional fire and structural decay threaten the buildings that remain. Old inmate records scatter the floor. The decaying architecture is not picturesque or romantic in the way that Alcatraz surveys the bay of San Francisco. And the caved-in roof of the Warden’s House today offers more an image of horror than of comfortable domestic life and pretty gardens. The cells confined few famous people we know of; this was a place for untold stories of immigrants and the urban poor. Walking through these abandoned cellblocks raises questions about who lived here, and the stories these walls would tell if they could speak.
The ability to erect monuments reflects a larger ability to create a historical consensus about the meaning of the place, person, or event that is being remembered. Yet we as a country have not recognized the full human impact of generations of incarceration on minority and immigrant communities. There is no consensus on how best to make amends or reparations for past injustices. In the meantime, the decaying hulk of the old Essex County Jail has waited fifty years in a state of limbo for the day when Newark and this country are ready to confront the legacies of oppression. As a public health, governance, economic, and policing crisis whip this country into turmoil, and as the neighboring New Jersey Institute of Technology continues demolishing dozens of old buildings nearby, time for this old jail is running out.
Explore exhibit online: www.oldessexcountyjail.org/
Or visit: www.myleszhang.org/
Featured photo “Exterior Entrance West Wing” by Myles Zhang