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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 – http://nyplmaps.tumblr.com)

Location of Newgate Prison, New York (NYPL Map Division – http://nyplmaps.tumblr.com)

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

Breakfast

  • 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

Dinner

  • 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

Or,

  • 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.

Supper

  • 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.]

Sources

  • 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, http://jonreeve.com/dev/gvh2/items/show/559.
  • 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exuAHANeGds.

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

Amazon.com (Paperback and Kindle e-book)

Barnes and Noble (Paperback and Nook e-book)

Smashwords (All e-book formats)

Amazon.co.uk (United Kingdom)

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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 EarlyAmericanCrime.com. He has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.L.S. from Rutgers University.

Special Announcement: Forthcoming Book, Early American Criminals

Early American Criminals

It has been a long time since I have posted on this website, but that is because I have been hard at work writing my next book. Now, I am thrilled to announce the forthcoming publication of Early American Criminals: An American Newgate Calendar, Chronicling the Lives of the Most Notorious Criminal Offenders from Colonial America and the New Republic from Pickpocket Publishing. The book should be available within the next couple weeks, if not sooner.

Here is the book’s description:

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 EarlyAmericanCrime.com. He has a Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and an M.L.S. from Rutgers University.

Early American Criminals: Francis Burdett Personel and the Liberty Pole

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Constable Mr. Van Gelder was just about to abandon his search. He had recently been sent to New Haven, CT to find Francis Personel by New York City mayor Whitehead Hicks, who had learned that Personel was possibly hiding out in that city. But what Van Gelder did not know was that at the same time he was dispatched to New Haven, Personel was on his way back to New York City to test the safety of his return home and, if necessary, retrieve some of his possessions.

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor (Wikimedia Commons)

Whitehead Hicks, New York City Mayor

Six weeks earlier on May 16, 1773, Personel had clubbed Robert White, Esq. in the head with a bar from a door near St. Paul’s Church (which is still standing at 209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets in Lower Manhattan). The blow fractured White’s head in several places, leaving him speechless and senseless. Several days later, White died from the wound, and Personel was charged with murder.

While Van Gelder fruitlessly searched for the accused murderer in New Haven, Personel determined that it was not yet safe for him to remain in New York City, so he hopped on a ship and headed back to Connecticut. The trip turned out to be remarkably quick, which must have lifted Personel’s spirits at the time. Except that the short journey helped deliver Personel right into the arms of Van Gelder, just as he was preparing to return to New York empty-handed.

On June 25, 1773, Personel was back on a ship–albeit this time in irons–and two days later he arrived again in New York City. Reports of Van Gelder’s capture of Personel appeared in many newspapers, but the salacious details and true motivation behind the murder only came out later, when Personel wrote An Authentic and Particular Account of his life.

A Strained Relationship

Francis Burdett Personel was originally from Ireland and was an only child to “careful and industrious parents.” He attended school for eight years but did not learn as much as his parents felt he should have within that time, so they bound him as an apprentice. Once he became master of his trade, he moved to England, but after his father died, he returned to Ireland to be with his mother.

The relationship turned out to be strained: “my mother being a passionate woman, could never be content with me; do what I could, I might have done it better.” One night, a friend who knew of the situation took Personel on a “frolic.” They met a young woman, went out for drinks, and ended up staying out late. Personel confessed, “She was the first lewd woman I was ever in company with” and from that point on he “was guilty of pleasing the sinful appetites of the flesh many times.”

Eager to get out of the reach of his mother, Personel traveled to America, where he stayed for eighteen months before returning to Ireland in a “poor and miserable condition.” After his return, his mother proposed that it was time for him to settle down and find a wife, and when Personel agreed and said that he would begin a search as soon as possible, she responded that she had already found one for him.

Personel was not the least attracted to his mother’s pick, and even though he resisted the match, his mother implored him day after day to marry her. Their disagreement eventually came to an end when the woman decided to marry another, but the episode was enough to drive Personel away from his mother permanently. He bound himself as an indentured servant and ended up in Baltimore County in Maryland.

Maryland

Personel’s new situation in Maryland turned out to be miserable, because his master mistreated him by depriving him of adequate clothing, a not uncommon situation for indentured servants. After serving eighteen months out of his four contracted years, Personel decided to run away. He grabbed an ax, headed into the woods, and traveled to within a mile of Baltimore. By then he was cold, wet, and hungry. He thought about returning, but he remembered his master saying once that he would treat a runaway servant who returned of his own volition worse than one who tried his best to get away, so he continued onward.

At mid-day, Personel ventured into town worried that someone would question him and ask for a pass from his master, which legally would have allowed him to travel alone as a servant. But no one seemed to notice him. Unable to procure a meal in Baltimore, he continued down a road that led to Annapolis when he was stopped and interrogated by two men. Personel told them that he belonged to Charles Carroll, who owned several plantations in the area and so everyone knew that his servants regularly traveled from one property to another. The men accepted Personel’s answer and did not question him any further.

Personel’s experience in Annapolis was similar to that in Baltimore: no one took any notice of him, but he could not find any food either. He left town feeble and hungry and was eventually stopped and questioned by another man. Personel said that he was recently set free from his master, who refused to pay him his freedom dues, so he traveled to Annapolis to find a friend, who had unfortunately left town before he arrived. The man told him that his brother was in need of laborers, so Personel took advantage of the opportunity and signed up to work for four months under the name “James Alkins.”

Personel worked through the harvest, but fearful that his new master might turn him in to his old one now that his services were no longer needed, he forged a pass under the name “Patt Percy” and left. He managed to find a job as a schoolmaster, but eventually two men began to suspect that he was a runaway, so he left the area. He later met a widow in Virginia and became engaged to her, but one day he took a mare, bridle, and saddle from her on the pretense of going to town and never came back. After traveling 100 miles, he sold the horse and headed to New York. [The editor of Personel’s Account notes that at this point, Personel may have been tried along with another man for horse theft in Lancaster, PA, but that the incident could not be verified.]

New York

After arriving in New York, Personel finally took a wife whom he loved, even though he “knew she had followed a loose way of life.” The morning after they had been “married and bedded,” Personel allowed her to pursue “her old habitation” until she could pay off some debts that now fell to him. But he soon could not bear the thought of this arrangement, and he vowed to work hard to satisfy all her needs. Not long afterward, he fell ill and could not work. Personel and his wife made a fateful decision: “we concluded unanimously, that we must either perish, or she take to her old course; accordingly, she prostituted her body as usual.”

On her first night out after making this decision, Personel’s wife returned home in a cheerful mood and reported that she had run into a young woman who lent her some money and thereby was able to avoid any interaction with men that night. The next night she returned home again, with money and a similar story. Personel eventually recovered from his illness, but his wife continued to go out at night any chance she got–with his encouragement. To keep up a show of respectability in front of the neighbors, some nights he would accompany his wife partway, visit a friend until nine or ten o’clock, and then meet up with her at an appointed place to return home.

On May 16, Personel visited his wife’s father and expected to stay the night, but instead he decided to return home. Thinking that her husband was sleeping over at her father’s, his wife stayed out much later than usual, so when it came time for Personel to go to bed and she had not returned, he decided to go out and search for her.

Personel went to the public house where he believed she was, but was told that she was not there, even though he heard his wife’s laugh in another room. He went around to the window where he had heard her and listened in as she conversed with two men. One of the men, a Mr. Gl—-r, left the room for fifteen minutes, and when he returned, the three of them headed outside. Personel believed that his wife would now take leave of the two men, and she could then return home with him. Instead, she continued down the street with one man on each of her arms.

St. Paul's Church, New York City, close to where Robert White's murder took place.

St. Paul’s Church, New York City, close to where Robert White’s murder took place.

Furious with jealousy, Personel went into the house where he had seen them, grabbed the nearest weapon he could find, which happened to be the wooden bar of the door, and pursued the threesome. When he caught up to them, he brought the bar down on the head of Robert White, who fell to the ground. As Personel’s wife ran off, he tackled Gl—-r, who begged for his life.

Gl—-r asked Personel why he had struck White, and Personel replied, “For being in company with my wife, in a bad house at an unseasonable hour.”

“Upon my honor,” responded Gl—-r, “I had no connection with her, nor have I reason to believe that Mr. White had.”

Personel said that if indeed the two were innocent, then he was sorry that he had struck them. Personel then noticed that White had not moved since falling to the ground. Seeing that some people were now approaching the scene, he ran off. Personel arrived home before his wife, spent the night, and then fled to New Haven.

Next to the Liberty Pole

After Personel was captured by Van Gelder and brought back from New Haven, the New York Supreme Court found Personel guilty of murder and sentenced him to be executed on September 10.

The editor of Personel’s Account notes that towards the end of his life Personel “appeared very cheerful and resigned to the will of God.” At the gallows–next to the Liberty Pole on the Common (where City Hall now stands, along with a replica of the Liberty Pole)–Personel addressed the crowd “with much composure, and resigned himself to the King of Terrors.”

Liberty Pole Marker - City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Liberty Pole Marker – City Hall Park, New York City (City of New York Parks and Recreation)

Sources

  • “Extract of Another Letter from the Same Place.” Pennsylvania Packet, August 9, 1773, vol. II, issue 94, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New–Haven, June 25.” Connecticut Journal, June 25, 1773, issue 297, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, June 28, 1773, issue 1131, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, July 1.” New-York Journal, July 1, 1773, issue 1591, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, June 24.” Pennsylvania Chronicle, June 28, 1773, vol. VII, issue 23, p. 304. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “New-York, September 13.” New-York Gazette, September 13, 1773, issue 1142, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Personel, Francis Burdett. An Authentic and Particular Account of the Life of Francis Burdett Personel, Written by Himself. New York, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.