Where Did The Saying “Up The River” Come From?

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.

Lines like:

“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.

8 thoughts on “Where Did The Saying “Up The River” Come From?

  1. Pingback: Where Your Soul Goes – A Poem | I Do Run

  2. Tobias E. Zimmerman

    It originally referred to a prison hulk that was anchored at around where 14th street is today. It kept moving further up the west side as the colony (then town, later city) grew, until they built Sing Sing in Ossining. Even then, prisoners were transported by prison barge from the courts in lower Manhattan “up the river” to their new “home”. There is a display at Sing Sing if you can get in and ask the right people.

  3. James McHugh

    I also remember learning that the expression pre dated Sing Sing prison and that “up the river” referred to a prison in Manhattan in the 1700’s. I cannot remember where I learned that, but probably on a cable documentary.

  4. Carl Osteen

    How do you explain the fact that criminals were sent “up the river” in the 1790’s, but Sing Sing wasn’t built until 1826?

    1. B.P. Post author

      “Vincent” / “Carl” – Your IP address is the same for both of the first two comments – If I am incorrect, then please name your source by referring me to a book or news account that uses the terminology before Sing Sing was built. Thank you.

    2. estella davis

      generally speaking, ”up the river” can mean a simple, seperation from society, a society you will, hopefully, return to at the earliest possible date. that happens more often than you might think. nothing like water to seperate us since we are not fish and we can’t hang suspended in mid air like birds, a la alcatraz. so an island, it is. but, many prisons located around the country are almost identical to college campuses, since we are all being ‘institutionalized’ against our willingness. in america, a prison land or nation, uncle sam has you from birth to death and with documentation. this is one reason it is so important to distinguish those born in other parts of the world to be so documented as well. there is a very real danger in supporting a system that ignores a person’s physical birthplace as one’s birthrights are associated with one’s birthplace. if our government would ignore the importance of documentation of a persons beginning, at some point documentation would not be nescessary and such a system could easily overtake the original system of documentation of all americans, including those who are born in this country. at that point, you are, indeed, throwing the baby away with the bath water which is non-sense or senseless. for those with a clerical head or are naturally clerical, this would be the most debased thing that could happen to a people, to actually lose touch with reality to the point that we are nobody or no one. this would be a godless country devoid of anything worthwhile in the opinion of the people. this would become a jungle, GEORGE. i am sorry, very sorry to say that many americans are headed in that very direction of ungodliness. there is an article in my email at this very moment which captions, ”talking to children about homelessness”. how, on earth, can anybody talk to children about ”homelessness”? the word, homelessness, is totally ‘ungodly’. the word is against any idea of god. no other word could be more satanic than the ungodly word, ”homelessness” which was invented by the devil. homelessness is a satanic word meant to do pretty much the same thing as the satanic term ”identity theft”. these two words or terms are designed to destroy, not only a country, but, a country and its people.

  5. Vincent D'Orazio

    Not true. The expression “up the river” was in use more than 30 years before Sing Sing was established. It referred to the main New York City prison that moved from lower Manhattan uptown to mid-Manhattan.


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