A "Terrible Place of Torture"
Should we be talking more about the brutal legacy of prison-made planes?
After Levi Burr served as an officer in the War of 1812 his future seemed promising. He became a lawyer and set up office in Auburn, New York. But almost immediately he was sued by a fellow lawyer who wanted him disbarred. A few years later he was suspended because of “conduct unworthy of his profession” and “dishonest practices." In 1830 he was convicted of perjury and sentenced to three years in Sing Sing prison, located about 40 miles up the Hudson River from New York City.1
At the time, Sing Sing used what was known as the Auburn system, taken from the upstate prison of the same name. Inmates were kept in isolation at night and worked in prison shops during the day, making everything from barrels to shoes to planes. They were forced to maintain absolute silence during the day, forbidden from facing each other, and subjected to whippings for even the most minor infractions, including looking away from their work, working too slowly, or asking for food.
Burr saw men being subjected to between 20 and 100 lashes at a time. On one occasion he counted 133 blows: "And while the afflicted subject was begging on his knees, and crying and writhing under the laceration, that tore his skin in pieces from his back, the deputy keeper approached, and gave him a blow across the mouth with his cane, that caused the blood to flow profusely."2
Guards used a "cat," a whip made of six to nine strands of 18-inch-long twisted leather or cord, "almost as hard as a piece of wire," according to Burr.3 James Brice, a lawyer who served four years for perjury in the mid 1830s, called the cat "a cruel instrument of torture," used on an inmate "from neck to his heels, until as raw as a piece of beef.” Brice recalled that wounds from the whippings became so infected that “they smelled of putrification.”4
William Coffey, an Auburn inmate who was released in 1838, called the prison a "terrible place of torture." He witnessed one inmate who died after being whipped. “Was not this man murdered?” he asked. Coffey accused the prison chaplain of complicity in the brutality, rarely visiting the on-site hospital, ignoring the sick and wounded, and neglecting to inform inmates' families when they died. Their bodies were stored in whiskey barrels and wooden boxes.5
I’ve never known what to think about prison-made planes. I own several, but I’ve been ambivalent about their source. Researchers and collectors have long been fascinated by the planemaking operations at Auburn and Sing Sing, as well as similar ventures at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio and the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada (see list below). Tens of thousands of planes were made in those prisons in the span of about 60 years. Research has usually focused on the business relationships between the prisons and outside contractors. Aside from a few exceptions, corporal punishment gets relegated to a couple paragraphs that imply it was mainly used as a threat.
Some official reports corroborate the frequency and severity of the whipping, while others seem to undercount it, for instance calculating that one guard at Auburn gave 33 of the 52 convicts in his charge 174 lashes over a six-month span in 1847.6 There are other reports that well-behaved prisoners were able to avoid the cat.7 Perhaps the best source is Elam Lynds, who served as head of both Auburn and Sing Sing. He estimated more than 1,500 lashes were inflicted a month.8
Lynds was one of the chief architects of the Auburn system. He was, as one prison reformer put it, "seemingly almost continually under public criticism for his severe methods of disciplining convicts."9 Lynds told two visiting Frenchmen in 1831 that "I consider the chastisement by the whip, the most efficient, and, at the same time, the most humane which exists; it never injures health, and obliges the prisoners to lead a life essentially healthy. . . . If you have once completely curbed the prisoner under the yoke of discipline, you may, without danger, employ him in the labour which you think best.” He went on: "The well-disciplined prisoner works more; he works better, and never spoils the materials."10
In 1821 the first planemaker capitalized on those "well-disciplined" prisoners at Auburn. It seemed like a simple business plan. Contractors supplied the materials and tool-making equipment and paid the prison a set fee for the use of each inmate, with as many as 100 inmates working in a shop at a time in later years. Because the fee was much lower than the wages they would pay a normal worker, contractors were able to sell planes between 10 and 50 percent cheaper than private firms.11
But selling the planes was difficult. Other businesses were angry at the unfair advantage inexpensive labor gave the contractors and unsuccessfully pushed New York State to eliminate prison contracts. East Coast hardware dealers wouldn't buy their planes because of the stigma of where they were made. If the contractors weren't making money on sales, they couldn't pay the prison for the labor, hence the turnover of many of the contracts.12 Despite their stigma, prison-made planes were well-made, ranging from standard bench planes and molding planes to high-end plows made of ebony with boxwood washers and ivory tips.13 Contractors eventually found markets on the West Coast and in Texas and Canada. In 1875, Auburn prison alone produced $75,000 worth of tools.14
By the mid-1800s, Auburn no longer used the cat. Conditions were still bad. “Went through the Insane Asylem of the Prison, & saw charactures made by a convict with his own blood,” a visiting planemaker noted in his diary in 1861.15 Instead of whipping, prison officials moved on to other extreme forms of punishment, including using a water chamber to induce near-drowning (or actual drowning in some cases), and what inmate Austin Reed called the "spread eagle," where a prisoner was forced to stand on one leg with his other limbs suspended by ropes.
Reed served several sentences at Auburn between 1840 and 1859. In his memoir, he recounts whippings he endured with a wire-tipped cat — which he called "little kittens — when he was first incarcerated. He invented names for his guards: Mr. Cruel Heart, Mr. Demon, Mr. Fiend, Mr. Love Torture, Mr. Tyrant. For Reed, it was the water chamber, and its ability to bring its victim to the edge of drowning, that held the most horror — to the point that he attempted to kill a guard who was about to force him into the chamber. "The very prayers which my mother printed on my lips have all been washed away beneath the waters of a showering bath," he wrote.16
The Ohio State Penitentiary used the Auburn system. But the prison's use of the cat and water chamber vacillated dramatically depending on who was head of the prison. The warden from 1843-1846 limited the use of the cat but installed the prison's first water chamber. The warden from 1846-1850 encouraged guards to show "mutual respect and kindliness" to prisoners.17 The warden from 1852-1854 (who shot an inmate through the bars of his cell after he argued with a guard) advocated for rigid discipline and reported the prison used the cat and water chamber half as much as Auburn and Sing Sing.18 The cat and water chamber were banned in 1856. Between the 1850s and the 1870s punishments included holding handcuffed inmates underwater in a “ducking tub;” after the 1870s electric shocks were used.19 The Ohio Tool Company, which took over planemaking contracts in 1851, would go on to become one of the largest plane producers of the 19th century. The firm stopped using prison labor in 1893.
Prisoners in Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada, which also used the Auburn system, faced brutal treatment leading up to 1850. An estimated 1,300 lashings were inflicted a month, including on women and children as young as 12-years-old.20 The Penitentiary Act of 1851, which limited the number of lashes an inmate could receive to 75, was implemented the year after planemaking first began at the prison.21 (Plow planes made by J.P. Millener and Co. at Kinston are identical to plows produced by the tool maker D.R. Barton in Rochester, New York, implying some kind of connection existed between Barton and the prison.22)
I don't know if Burr, Brice, Coffey, Reed or any of the other prisoners in New York, Ohio and Kingston who left behind accounts of their experiences were planemakers. Prisons did not keep records of which inmates worked in which workshop. It could be that making planes was one of the better jobs at Ohio. When the penitentiary’s planemaking workshop was refurbished in 1853, the warden described it as "the best, most convenient and comfortable shop in the Prison."23 Perhaps planemakers were afforded special treatment, but I find that hard to believe. The Auburn system was uncompromising, as were the wardens who demanded extreme forms of corporal punishment.
As I was researching this newsletter, I took all the Ohio Tool, Auburn Tool, and A. Howland & Co. planes that I own and lined them up on the floor: three jack planes handful of dado and molding planes, three plows. Were they made by prisoners who bore the psychological and physical scars, as Reed put it, "where the tyrant has printed it with cats"?24 And if they were, how do I feel about owning planes made by someone who was tortured? It makes me deeply uncomfortable, but I don’t know if that means I should get rid of the planes. I don’t have an easy answer to that. Austin Reed's account of his life in prison made Chris Bender, president of the Long Island Antique Tool Collectors Association, reconsider the prison-made planes in his collection.
"From now on," he wrote in 2016, "any time I hold one I will wonder if it was made by someone who could abide by the rules and endure day after day in silence, or by someone more like Reed who just could not live up to the rules of Auburn Prison and bore the brunt of incredible punishment."25
Auburn State Prison, New York26
Dunham & McMaster 1821-1825
T.J. McMaster & Co. 1825-1839
Young & McMaster 1839-1846
Z.J. McMaster & Co. 1846-1847
Casey, Kitchell & Co. 1847-1858
Casey, Clark & Co. 1858-1864
Auburn Tool Co. 1864-1867
J.M. Easterly & Co. 1867-1868
A. Howland & Co. 1869-1874
Auburn Tool Co. 1874-1877
Sing Sing Prison, New York27
T.J. McMaster & Co. 1833-1839
Z.J. McMaster & Co. 1839-1843
Ohio State Penitentiary28
Hall & Jenkins c. 1841
Hall Stone & Co. 1845
P. Hayden & Co. 1842-1852
Hall, Case & Co. 1847-1852
Ohio Tool Co. 1852-1893
Kingston Penitentiary, Ontario, Canada29
J. Stevenson & E. P. Ross 1850-1855
J.P. Millener and Co. 1855-1860
Jennifer Graber. “Engaging The Trope Of Redemptive Suffering: Inmate Voices In The Antebellum Prison Debates.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 79, no. 2 2012.
Ted Connover. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Vintage Books, 2000.
Graber, 2012. This account was published anonymously as "A Peep Into the State Prison at Auburn," but has since been attributed to William Coffey, convicted forger and former secretary of the Hamilton Society in New York City. See "William Coffey, Early 19th-Century Prisoner-Author" at https://www.acrosswalls.org/william-coffey-prisoner-author.
Myra C. Glenn. Campaigns Against Corporal Punishment: Prisoners, Sailors, Women, And Children In Antebellum America. State University of New York Press, Albany. 1984.
Orlando Faulkland Lewis. The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845: With Special Reference to Early Institutions in the State of New York. Prison Association of New York, 1922.
Gustave de Beaumont, Alexis de Tocqueville. On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And Its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and Also, Statistical Notes. Translated by Francis Lieber. Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833.
Kenneth D. Roberts and Jane W. Roberts. Planemakers and Other Edge Tool Enterprises in New York State in the Nineteenth Century. Ken Roberts Pub. Co., 1989.
Andy Delans. "Produced in Silence, Prison Planes Now Speak Volumes," The Gristmill, no. 83, June 1996.
Frank Kosmerl. "William S. Loughborough, Rochester, N.Y. Plane Inventor," The Gristmill, no. 157, Dec. 2014.
Austin Reed. The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict. Edited by Caleb Smith. Random House, 2016.
John Phillips Resch. "Ohio Adult Penal System, 1850-1900: A Study in the Failure of Institutional Reform," Ohio History Journal, vol. 81, no 4, Autumn, 1972.
Dona Reaser. Profit and Penitence: An Administrative History of the Ohio Penitentiary from 1815 to 1885. 1998. Ohio State University. PhD dissertation.
Jessie Britton. The Failure Of Prison Reform: A History Of The Ohio Penitentiary, 1834-1885. 2008. Miami University. Masters thesis.
Peter Oliver. 'Terror to Evil-doers': Prisons and Punishment in Nineteenth-century Ontario. Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 1998.
Ted McCoy. Hard Time: Reforming The Penitentiary In Nineteenth-Century Canada. au Press, Athabasca University. 2012.
Frank Kosmerl. "Rochester, N.Y. A 19th-Century Edge Tool City Part V: David R. Barton," The Chronicle, vol. 53. no. 1, 2000.
Larry L. Nelson. "Cabinetmaking Tools At The Ohio Historical Center," The Chronicle, vol. 33, no. 2, June 1980.
Chris Bender. "The Life of a Convict at Auburn Prison," The Chronicle, vol. 69 no. 2, 2016.
“Inventory of Major Canadian Tool and Die Manufacturers from 1820-1914,” complied by The Tool Group of Canada.