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Places and Events: Early American Crime in San Francisco (and I Don’t Mean Alcatraz)

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Anyone with an interest in crime history must visit Alcatraz while in San Francisco (My daughter said after our tour, “Of all the prisons I have visited, this one definitely ranks in the top three!”).

But if you decide to take the boat from Pier 33 at Fisherman’s Wharf out to the island, you should also plan to stroll down to Pier 45 and visit the Musée Mécanique, where you will find spectacles of crime and punishment that may rival anything you find at “the Rock.”

The Musée Mécanique is a working museum of antique coin-operated arcade machines, and many of them involve themes of crime and punishment (see below). But even if these displays are too gruesome for you, there are plenty of other old-fashioned games and amusements that will definitely strike your fancy.








Prisons and Punishments: Dining at Alcatraz

With so much information on the Web about Alcatraz, I feel little need to write about my recent visit to this historical prison. But given my latest articles on prison food, I can not pass up posting some of the pictures I took of the kitchen.

Prisoner meals were governed by “Alcatraz Regulation #33: DINING ROOM RULES”:

Meals are served three times a day in the dining room. Do not exceed the ration. Do not waste food.

Working in the kitchen was one of the best jobs a prisoner could have (although I would certainly be nervous if they had easy access to the knives).



Breakfast menu.

Breakfast menu.



Eat Like an Early Convict: Prison Food Recipes

As a follow-up to my last post on “A Foodie Look at Early Prison Food,” I decided to find out more about food served in early American prisons. During my research, I came across a description of the meals served to convicts in New York’s Newgate Prison in a 1799 Report of the Inspectors of the State-Prison:

The diet served to the convicts is, for breakfast, cocoa shells boiled, and sweetened with molasses, and rye bread; dinner, ox-head soup, and the meat attached to the head, with potatoes and rye bread, some times salt meat and peas; supper, mush and molasses. The cost of the breakfast, dinner and supper, is from 5 to 6 cents per man per day.

From this description of the food served to prisoners, I tracked down recipes for these meals in cookbooks from around the same time period. The recipes may not exactly reflect what was served to the prisoners–my guess is that less care and fewer quality ingredients went into the preparation of their meals–but they should give an idea of what the prisoners regularly ate.

Location of Newgate Prison, New York (NYPL Map Division –

Location of Newgate Prison, New York (NYPL Map Division –

Newgate Prison was one of the earliest penitentiaries in the United States. It was located on what is now 10th St. and Washington St. in New York City, with Charles St. and Christopher St. marking the north and south borders of the prison, respectively. The prison was founded in 1797 and lasted until 1828, when prisoners were transferred to the newly built Sing Sing Prison further up the Hudson River in response to overcrowding and frequent riots at the old state prison.

I do not know if the food served at Newgate Prison figured into any of the unrest, but with these recipes you can recreate for yourself the diet of convicts who served time there and decide for yourself.

The Recipes


  • Cocoa Shells, from Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book:

    Steep one cup of shells in one quart of boiling water three or four hours, adding more hot water as it boils away. Strain, and serve with hot milk, or cream and sugar. [Note that the description from the prison report says that the boiled coca shells are sweetened with molasses.]

  • Rye Bread
Newgate Prison, New York, 1801

Newgate Prison, New York, 1801


  • Ox Cheek Soup [Ox-Head Soup], from The New Art of Cookery:

    Take half an ox head, and cut the cheek clean from the bones, break the bones to pieces, and put them in a large pan of water all night to soak out the blood; in the morning wash them clean out, and put them into a pot with six quarts of water, when the scum rises skim it well; take six onions, six heads of cellery, about four leeks and two turneps, well washed and cut in two, with a bundle of sweet herbs, a spoonful of all-spice, some cloves and mace, and a little salt; put in two palates, and stew them till tender, then take them out and throw them into cold water, and take off the skins; cut them into square pieces, stew the head five hours, try if the head is tender, if not stew it gently till it is; then take it out, and strain the soup into a pan to settle, skim it well, and pour it from the settlings; put a quarter of a pound of butter in a stew-pan and melt it, put two large spoonsful of flour in, and stir it about till it is smooth; by degrees put the soup in, keep stirring for fear it should go into lumps, if it does you must strain it through a sieve, put in half a pint of white wine, and season it with Cayan pepper and common pepper and salt, nearly as hot as mock turtle; in the mean time cut a carrot and two turneps in dice, four heads of cellery and two leeks about half an inch long, toiled in water till tender, strain them in a sieve, and put them to the soup; cut the cheek in square pieces and put it in with the palates, and two spoonsful of browning, stew it gently for half an hour, and skim the fat off clean; put it into a soup-dish or tureen, with crispt bread in a plate.
    N.B. You may put the cheek whole in a large soup-dish, if you like it best, and the soup over it.

  • Potatoes, from The New Art of Cookery:

    Wash them very clean, put them into a sauce-pan, nearly cover them with cold water, put in a little salt, cover them close, and boil them very gently, but look at them often; when the skins begin to break try them with a fork, and if they are done strain the water from them, cover them close to steam for a few minutes, then peel them, and put them in a dish, with melted butter in a boat. Or thus: pare them first, wash them clean, and put them into a sauce-pan with a little cold water, cover them close, boil them very gently, and look at them often, that they do not break to pieces; strain the water off, and put them into a dish, with melted butter in a boat.

  • Rye Bread


  • Pickled Pork [Salt Meat], from The New Art of Cookery:

    As many people have various ways in pickling pork, it is almost impossible to give directions for pickling it; some people love it pickled with plain salt, legs especially; others in this manner: have a tub, and lay a layer of salt at the bottom; then mix one third of salt-petre beaten with two thirds of white salt; cut your pork in pieces, rub it well with the salt, and lay it close in the tub, with a layer of salt between every layer of pork, till the tub is full; then have a cover, just large enough to fit the inside of the tub, put it on, and lay a great weight at the top, and as the salt melts it will keep it close; when you want to use it take a piece out, and mind to put the cover on again, and it will keep good a long time.

  • Green Peas, from The New Art of Cookery:

    Have your peas shelled as near the time you want to dress them as possible: have boiling water in a sance-pan, put in the peas, a little salt, a small knob or two of sugar, and a sprig or two of mint, boil them quick, and when they dent they are done; strain them in a sieve, take out the mint, and put them in a dish; have a little mint boiled by itself chopped fine and put round: or you may put some butter in the dish, and stir them up till it is melted. You may broil some thin slices of ham and lay round if you please.


  • Oatmeal Mush for Children or Invalids, from Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book:

    1 cup granulated oatmeal
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 scant quart boiling water
    Put the meal and salt in the double boiler, pour on the boiling water, and cook two or three hours. Remove the cover just before serving, and stir with a fork to let the steam escape. If the water in the lower boiler be strongly salted, the meal will cook more quickly. Serve with sugar, or salt, and cream. . . . Coarse oatmeal is not suitable for any form of water brash, acidity, or bowel irritation. It often causes eruptions on the skin in warm weather. [Note that the description from the prison report says that the mush is served with molasses, presumably to sweeten it.]


  • Briggs, Richard. The New Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice. Philadelphia: W. Spotswood, R. Cambell, and B. Johnson, 1792. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Emmet, Thomas Addis, “Newgate Prison, Greenwich Village, 1801,” Greenwich Village History, accessed October 1, 2014,
  • Lincoln, D. A. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 1833 [reprint].
  • Report of the Inspectors of the State-Prison. Albany, NY: Loring Andrews, [1799]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.

In the Media: A Foodie Look at Early Prison Food

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Curious about what early prison food was like? This 3:43 minute video from Zagat’s “Bizarre Bites: Prison Food Taste Tests” takes viewers on a brief tour of American prison food from the 1830’s to the present day.

The clip takes place at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and includes some great shots of prison cells and kitchen facilities from this historic prison. It also explains how food can be used as punishment!

If you are having trouble playing the video, or if it does not appear below, try clicking on this link:

Now Available: Early American Criminals

My new book, Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic, has been published and is now available for purchase!

Book cover for website announcement (Paperback and Kindle e-book)

Barnes and Noble (Paperback and Nook e-book)

Smashwords (All e-book formats) (United Kingdom) (Canada) (Australia)

ISBN: 978-0-9836744-2-9
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014948997
378 pages (i-xx + 356, including index)
Retail price: $17.99 paperback; $7.99 e-book

Most books about crime in colonial America focus on blasphemers, adulterers, and witches burning at the stake. Not this book. In Early American Criminals, crime historian, Anthony Vaver, examines early America’s most notorious criminals: burglars, murderers, pirates, counterfeiters, and other offenders who would be recognized as criminals even by today’s standards.

Vaver uncovers the dark, compelling, and even humorous stories from America’s earliest criminal underworld: a New England burglar who walked through the unlocked door of a goldsmith to rob his store a second time; a man who sat all morning on his roof in fear that someone walking by might harm him, but who ended up committing murder by day’s end; a transported convict who charmed her young lover into selling himself into servitude to raise money for her release from prison.

In telling the stories of these and other criminals, Vaver shows how early Americans both thought about and punished criminals differently than we do today. Poor parenting, abusive masters, and the influence of “The Devil” were often cited as motives for criminal behavior. Punishments that included the pillory, whipping, and hanging all took place in public so as to warn others not to follow a criminal path. Nowadays, we look to psychology to explain criminal behavior, and we punish our criminals behind closed doors. But, as Vaver makes clear in his book, even though our treatment of criminals differs from the past, the crimes that early Americans worried about are strikingly familiar to us today.

Anthony Vaver is the author of the Amazon bestseller, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America and writes and publishes the blog He has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.L.S. from Rutgers University.