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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  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. 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.


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