A Movie Cliche’s New York Origins
If you ever watch any gangster films from the 1930′s or 40′s, one of the lines of dialogue that always pops up is: “up the river.”
Somebody would utter it: a criminal; prosecutor; police officer; or a fellow gangster. Listen and it will be said in most of these early crime movies.
“Didn’t you hear, Rocky’s going up the river.”
“If you don’t talk Ike, I can guarantee you’re going to spend a long stretch up the river.”
“I’m not takin’ the fall to go up the river for a heist you did, Spats.”
The term “up the river” as most people know refers to going to prison.
So where did the saying come from?
In the 1800′s, when you were charged with a crime and sent to prison in New York City, the accused would first be taken to the prison on Centre Street in lower Manhattan which was known as “the Tombs” built in 1838.
The Tombs were so named because the original structure had large granite columns on the outside of the building which resembled Egyptian burial architecture, a.k.a. tombs. The Tombs though, were merely a holding prison for the accused criminals awaiting trial.
After sentencing, convicts were sent to a prison on Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island) in the middle of the East River.
However if you were a habitual offender or committed a very serious offense, you would be sent thirty miles north, up the Hudson River to Sing Sing prison. This is the origin of the phrase being sent, “up the river.” Sing Sing separated the hardened criminals from the run of the mill pickpockets, burglars and ordinary thieves.
Even though, the term “up the river” originally referred to Sing Sing, it was eventually applied to anyone being sent to any prison.