Sugar house prisons in New York City

Sugar houses in New York City were used as prisons by occupying British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Out of 2,600 prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776, 1,900 would die in the following months at makeshift prisons throughout the city.[1] At least 17,500 are estimated to have perished under substandard conditions of such sugar houses and British prison ships over the course of the war, more than double the number of killed from battle.[2]

The Livingston sugar house (left) on Liberty Street in Manhattan once detained 400 to 500 American prisoners of the Revolutionary War.

Background Edit

During the 18th century, a large part of commerce in New York City was trade with the British West Indies. Destined for refineries, sugar and molasses imported from Jamaica and Sint Eustatius were stored in warehouses built by merchant families, such as the Bayards, Cuylers, Livingstons, Rhinelanders, Roosevelts, and the Van Cortlands.[3][4] Three of these large structures were known for being used by the British Army to house prisoners of war during their occupation of New York City in the midst of the American Revolution.[1][4]

Prisons Edit

Livingston's sugar house Edit

Van Cortlandt
Van Cortlandt Park (Sugar house window)
Sugar house locations in New York City.

The sugar house on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan was a six-story stone building which had been built in 1754 by the Livingston family as a refinery with very low floors.[3][5] According to Revolutionary War veteran Levi Hanford, who was captured in March 1777, the cramped conditions initially housed about 40 to 50 prisoners. The population soon swelled to between 400 and 500, though attrition was constant due to those succumbing to illness. Rations consisted of pork and sea biscuits, which were often moldy from sea water and infested with worms. Nevertheless, the starving prisoners seldom refused the food, which was made consumable by placing it in a kettle of water and skimming off the parasites. Supplies for sick prisoners were provided by the fledgling American government, as Hanford stated that "the British furnished nothing."[5] Deceased prisoners were sewn up into their blankets and placed in a corner of the yard for pickup by a dead cart in the morning; as many as fifteen bodies once accumulated in the period of one day. Prisoner exchanges were organized with the prisoners held longest having priority.[5] The structure was later demolished in 1846.[4]

In the northeast corner of Trinity Churchyard in Lower Manhattan stands the Soldiers' Monument, with an inscription reading: "At a meeting of Citizens held at the City Hall of the City of New York June 8, 1852: It was resolved That the Erection of a becoming Monument with appropriate inscriptions by Trinity Church to the Memory of those great and good Men who died whilst in Captivity in the old [Livingston] Sugar House and were interred in Trinity Church Yard in this City will be an act gratifying not only to the attendants of this Meeting but to Every American Citizen."[6] The claim those prisoners are buried in Trinity Churchyard is disputed by Charles I. Bushnell, who argued in 1863 that Trinity Church would not have accepted the burials because it was a Church of England parish, the state church headed by the British monarch they rebelled against.[7] Historian Edwin G. Burrows explains how the controversy related to a proposal to build a public street through the churchyard.[8]: 228–30 

Rhinelander's sugar house Edit

Rhinelander's sugar house & residence, between William & Rose Streets. The last of the sugar house prisons of the Revolution

The sugar house on the corner of Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street in Lower Manhattan was a five-story brick warehouse. Built in 1763 by William Rhinelander, the structure originally stored molasses and sugar next to his own residence.[9] During the Revolutionary War it is believed to have been used by the British army as a prison.[10] In 1852 Benson J. Lossing wrote:

Van Cortlandt's sugar house, which stood at the northwest corner of Trinity Churchyard, corner of Thames and Lumber [now Trinity Place] Streets; Rhinelander's, on the corner of William and Duane Streets, now (1852) Lightbody's Printing-ink Manufactory; and the more emininently historical one on Liberty Street (numbers 34 and 36), a few feet eastward of the Middle Dutch Church, now the Post-office, were the most spacious buildings in the city and answered the purposes of prisons very well. Rhinelander's is the only one remaining, the one on Liberty Street having been demolished in June, 1840, and Van Cortlandt's during the summer of 1852.[11]

But Brooklyn history professor Edwin G. Burrows disagrees, writing in 2008: "Demolition of the Rhinelander Sugar House in 1892 gave rise to stories—completely unsubstantiated—that it had served as a prison during the Revolution."[8]: 323#42  When the building fell into disrepair during the early 19th century, locals believed it to be haunted by ghosts of prisoners from the war. The old warehouse was replaced by the Rhinelander Building, which retained part of the original wall from 1892 to 1968, and continued to receive reports of ghostly sightings in a window. The site is now occupied by the headquarters of the New York City Police Department, near which one of the original barred windows was retained. A section of wall with another window was moved to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.[9]

Van Cortlandt's sugar house Edit

Van Cortlandt's sugar house

The sugar house on the northwest corner of the yard of Trinity Church in Manhattan was built by John Van Cortlandt and partner George Petterson around 1755; Van Cortlandt took sole proprietorship after their partnership was dissolved two years later.[12] Used as a prison during the Revolutionary War, the building was torn down in 1852.[4]

See also Edit

References Edit

  1. ^ a b Dandridge, Danske (1911). "The Prisons of New York—Jonathan Gillett". American Prisoners of the Revolution. Charlottesville, VA: The Michie Company, Printers. p. 25f.
  2. ^ Reese, Jimmie (September 17, 2009). "The Sugar House As A Prison During The Revolutionary War". Knickerbocker Village. Retrieved February 12, 2011.
  3. ^ a b Wilson, James Grant (1892). "The Memorial History of the City of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892". Vol. 2. New York History Company. p. 454. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Wilson, James Grant (1893). "The Memorial History of the City of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892". Vol. 3. New York History Company. p. 301. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Hanford, William H. (January 15, 1852). "Incidents of the Revolution: Recollections of the Old Sugar House Prison" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  6. ^ Chi, Sheena (December 15, 2008). "Trinity Church—Soldiers' Monument—Memorial for Unknown Revolutionary War Heroes". Archived from the original on December 16, 2019. Retrieved December 16, 2019. This inscription is on the south side. An inscription on the north side is more general: "Sacred to the memory of those brave and good Men who died whilst imprisoned in this City for their devotion to the cause of American independence." (Burrows, cited elsewhere, p. 230 (caption); photos at "Revolutionary War Soldiers Monument". Find A Grave. Retrieved January 12, 2020.)
  7. ^ Bushnell, Charles I. (1863). A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Levi Hanford, a Soldier of the Revolution. New York: [privately printed]. pp. 66–70 (note 27). This note was also published separately as a pamphlet with its own title: Bushnell, Charles Ira (1863). The Claim of Trinity Church to Having Furnished Burial Places For Some of the American Prisoners, Who Died in the Old Sugar House Prison, in Liberty Street, During the Revolution, Examined and Refuted. New York: [privately published].
  8. ^ a b Burrows, Edwin G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00835-3. OCLC 191926052.
  9. ^ a b Lidian (March 19, 2010). "The Rhinelander Sugar House". The Virtual Dime Museum: Adventures in Old New York. Archived from the original on July 5, 2012. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
  10. ^ Black, Mary (24 July 2013). Old New York in Early Photographs. Dover Publications. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-486-31743-4.
  11. ^ Lossing, Benson J. (1852). The Pictorial Field-book of the Revolution. Vol. II. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 865.
  12. ^ De Forest, Louis Effingham (1930). "The New Jersey Branch". The Van Cortlandt family. The Historical Pub. Society. Retrieved February 11, 2011.

Further reading Edit

External links Edit