There was a time where the prison in Dannemora was all the rage in Plattsburgh. People went to visit it and the ore beds all the time. When I first read about this in Betsey Delord’s letters I thought it was hilarious. I thought that only in the North Country would people find entertainment from visiting a high security prison. However, I did a little research and it was not just a North Country phenomenon. In fact, many prisons were hotspots for tourism because of the new penal system called the Auburn System, also referred to as the New York System that started in the 1820s.
The Auburn System refers to a prison in Auburn, New York that was the first prison to use labor as a form of rehabilitation. This prison system completely changed the game for the United States penitentiary system. Before, prisons were mainly used as confinement for prisoners before trials and sentencing. Most of the time, punishments were executions or penance of some kind. It was not common to have prisons filled with people with long sentences because it was only a matter of waiting for your sentence to get the punishment.
However, Quakers were not supportive of this type of violence. Instead, they believed that incarcerating prisoners to solitary confinement and constant silence was a better alternative than the violence found in executions and public penance. The Auburn System tweaks the Quaker idea slightly. The Auburn System also utilized solitary confinement and constant silence to punish the convicted, but also started a labor program as a way for prisons to make money to sustain them and as a way to rehabilitate prisoners.
The Auburn System marks when the penitentiary system in the United States transitioned from punishment to rehabilitation. The idea behind having prisoners work was to provide them skills to utilize after they were done serving their sentence, and as a way for the state to cut costs. The Quaker system was more about reforming what was deemed bad behavior which is evident by the Bible that were given to prisoners under this system. The system taught prisoners the importance of hard labor, but many viewed the system as a way to exploit free labor.
The stereotypical view of prisoners is an image of men dressed in black and white striped uniforms, chain-linked together while performing some sort of activity having to do with dirt. At least, that is what I see in my mind based off old movies. While today it is hardly common to see black and white striped uniforms, it was during the Auburn System that these uniforms began. It was also common during this time for visitors to prisons to pay for admission to watch the spectacle of the black and white uniformed men working. Having visitors walking through the prisons was another form of punishment: humiliation. What prisoner would want to be seen working in such a demeaning way? That was the point. However, my personal question is why anyone would want to visit a prison to watch them labor.
This is where the Delords come in. It was common for people of the Whig Party (this was a political party that preceded the Republican Party) to support the Auburn System. The Delords, well actually it was the Swetlands at this point because Betsey had remarried after Henry’s death, were prominent Whigs in the community and supported the prison system. Betsey writes in a letter to her granddaughter Fannie on March 6, 1847,
“It is quite the rage here to ride out to the new State Prison and ore beds at Dannemora.”
What Betsey is referring to is how the new state prison in Dannemora was using the prisoners to mine the ore beds.
Another letter to her granddaughter indicates that Betsey had to entertain the Governor of New York Washington Hunt while he was in the area to visit the prison at Dannemora. Her letter, dated August 30, 1851 reads,
“Just as I was about getting into bed Mr. Swetland [her husband] came home and said Gov. [Washington] Hunt & lady arrived in the evening boat, that some gentleman called, and they were to accompany them the next day to the state prison [at Dannemora]. Quite the party of ladies were to go and we must invite them to tea. I felt as if I could not undertake it on so short a notice. It lay between Mr. Myers and us, the only prominent Whigs. I found I must do it…we sent out invitations and we had quite a large number and every one seemed to enjoy themselves very much. Gov. Hunt and lady were very pleasant…Both the gov. And lady seemed pleased. They had a delightful excursion to Dannemora.”
This innovative way to run prisons was so popular it brought the Governor of New York to the area to witness it. For them, visiting the prison was even delightful! That is definitely not the word I would use to describe it. In fact, I try to avoid being near that prison. What baffles me was the party of ladies who came on the trip to visit the prison. It is hard for me to understand the appeal, but that just indicates that we live in different world.
So, the next time you are bored in town because there is nothing to do in Plattsburgh (this moment happened to me too often during my adolescence, especially since we do not even have mini-golf anymore) be thankful it is still not all the rage to visit the Dannemora Prison.