New York finished an 800-cell prison that opened in 1826. They erected it by a quarry on Mt. Pleasant, near the Hudson River town of
Sing Sing, named after the Sint Sinck (means “stone on stone”) Native Americans.
The initial construction included a cell block 476 feet long, 44 feet wide, and four tiers high, with a capacity of 800 cells, all built of Sing
Sing marble. Each cell was seven feet deep, three feet, three inches wide and six feet, seven inches high. On November 26, 1828 the
convicts were locked into their cells for the first time. A bible was furnished to each of them the next morning.
Two additional buildings were added by 1830, one containing a hospital and a kitchen; the other a chapel for 900 men. A recreation
yard was added in 1831.
In 1837 a new wing was built at Sing Sing for female prisoners, who had previously been “farmed out.” Elizabeth Farnham was
appointed as matron a few years later. She made strong efforts to introduce progressive educational programs and ended the rule of
silence until she was attacked for the innovations by the warden. After 1877 the women’s wing was abandoned and the former
method of “farming out” females to local jails was re-instated.
The “Electric Chair”, invented by Thomas Edison, will always be associated with Sing Sing. It was first used in the 1890s when Harris
A. Smiler was the first to be electrocuted. In 1901, the town changed its name to Ossining so it would not be confused with the prison.
By 1916, all of New York’s executions took place at Sing Sing. By 1963 613 more men and women died in the prison’s chair. The
Rosenbergs were electrocuted in 1953 after an international story of espionage.
For many years the Yankee baseball team visited the jail to play a game with the inmates. It is reported that Babe Ruth made his
longest home-run hit on the prison field, a reported 620 feet.
In 1983 a riot at Sing Sing began with over 600 inmates taking 17 Correction Officers hostage, and ended two days later after intense
Sing Sing became a popular movie backdrop during the 1930s and 40s, especially by James Cagney, and was used for a remake of
“Kiss of Death” and “Bullet” in 1995. Phrases like “the big house” and “up the river” originated in reference to Sing Sing.
Sing Sing no longer resembles the prison constructed by Captain Elam Lynds and the Auburn inmates in 1825. Though the original
structure still stands, it does not and never will house prisoners again. Plans are presently underway to convert the huge structure
into a museum, an idea which may soon become a reality. An economic study prepared in 2002 indicated a prison museum would
bring between 100,000 to 210,000 visitors to the area and generate $20 million annually to Westchester County. There is still a
tremendous interest in the facility as an historical centerpiece and Sing Sing’s place in American culture is certainly affirmed. Legal
electrocutions are a thing of the past and, as they fade further into history, they are sure to become symbolic of a unique era that will
likely never return.