Old New York In Photos #127 – Bridge Of Sighs To The Tombs Prison

Bridge Of Sighs Connects The Tombs and Criminal Courthouse- c. 1905

Bridge of sighs over Tombs Prison photo Detroit PublishingWe are looking west from Centre Street to Franklin Street. Spanning Franklin Street is the Bridge of Sighs connecting the Manhattan Criminal Courts Building to the City Prison also known as The Tombs.

The name Bridge of Sighs comes from a bridge built in 1600 in Venice, Italy connecting the Doge’s Palace and the New Prison. The dubious story is that prisoners being transported from interrogation at the Doge’s Palace to prison would sigh when crossing the bridge upon seeing beautiful Venice.

The origin of the name “The Tombs” is tainted in apocrypha. Old prison guards at the original tombs building claimed that when the building first opened so many inmates committed suicide while in confinement that the prison was nicknamed The Tombs.

Original Tombs prison in 1895, Criminal Courts Building in background

By The Book

The truth is much simpler. In 1834 when the city officials were looking for a design for the new prison, they came across a book by John L. Stevens called Steven’s Travels. Within the pagesĀ  was a striking picture of an imposing Egyptian tomb. They were so impressed with the look of the tomb the officials ordered the builders to construct a building as close to the illustration as possible. The resulting prison opening in 1838 resembled the Egyptian Tomb.

The Criminal Courts Building was completed in 1893 directly across from The Tombs. Prior to the courthouse opening, a Bridge of Sighs made of sheet iron connecting court to prison was built. Originally a tunnel was planned to serve as the conduit between buildings.

When a new prison replaced the original tombs in 1902, the old Bridge of Sighs was remodeled and rebuilt. The new prison however, retained the name The Tombs though the old and new prisons looked nothing alike.

The new Tombs building looking east c 1903

Manhattan Criminal Courts Building c. 1893









But, the buildings did not age well. Built on the site of the Collect Pond, the city’s drinking water source from the days of the Dutch, both buildings continually groaned and shifted with unsteady pilings and timbers from the marshy land. Continually large cracks would develop in the ceilings and floors. Doors would not open or close properly. The stench of dead rats trapped behind the walls of the court house was overwhelming. The city tried auctioning off The Tombs and Criminal Courthouse in 1938. There were no takers for the assessed value of $3.7 million. Meanwhile, a new prison and courthouse opened June 30, 1941 across the street at 100 Centre Street. Both the old courthouse and tombs were finally abandoned in November 1941 as being unsafe.

On July 23, 1942 the Bridge of Sighs was razed and used for scrap metal for the war effort. In July 1948 both “The Tombs” and Criminal Courthouse were finally demolished.

Looking Across Franklin Street

Getting back to our lead photograph taken by the Detroit Publishing Co., there is one thing that is striking – the sheer number of people along both sides of Franklin Street apparently doing nothing!

On the south side of Franklin Street it conceivable everyone’s waiting for court to be in session or it is luchtime.

And on the north side corner in a bit of twenty-first century profiling, these guys look like they’re up to no good! Maybe its the way the cigarette is dangling out of his mouth. It’s almost as if there’s about to be a remark said to the passing boy looking at them. “whatchalookin’ at kid?”


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