Example of Waterboarding 1858 Style?
The fall 2007 U. S. Senate confirmation hearings on the nomination of Judge Michael B. Mukasey to become the Attorney General focused considerable attention on the issue of waterboarding as an interrogation technique against suspected terrorists.
Ensuing public discussions in the media – newsprint, radio, TV, the Internet -- included a few brief allusions to the “shower baths” in vogue at some prisons in this country during the 19th Century.
The use, abuse and eventual banning of the so-called “shower bath” as a disciplinary practice at New York State penitentiaries has been detailed in both images and texts displayed for several years on this New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) web site.
NYCHS has now added to its texts and images about “shower baths” an illustrated 1858 article about the death of an Auburn inmate as a result of undergoing a “shower bath.”
This addition was made possible by Bill Hecht who has contributed a long line of high-density digital scans to our web site. Provided to NYCHS by Bill on Nov. 17, 2007, were his page scans of the Harper’s Weekly Dec. 18, 1858 story featuring an illustration entitled “The Negro convict, More, showered to death.”
That illustration, along with the article's illustrations of the prison seen from a distance, of a prisoner's cell (exterior and interior), and of two of the other Auburn disciplinary devices (the pulleys and the crown) are reproduced on this web page in sepia.
Although the current controversy concerns the use of “waterboarding” as an interrogation technique against suspected terrorists under exigent circumstances (whereas the mid-19th Century controversy addressed the issue of “shower baths” as disciplinary punishment in prisons holding convicted felons), nevertheless extended excerpts of the 1858 article's text are reproduced below in the interest of providing detailed historical perspectives based on the facts as reported at the time:
“We need no longer, it seems, travel to China or Japan for illustrations of torture. A visit to our own penitentiaries and prisons will furnish all the horrors that the most curious appetite can desire.
“A year ago we published an account of the poor-houses of this State. Our account was derived from the Report of a Legislative Committee. It showed, in brief, that, as a general rule, paupers and other inmates of State benevolent institutions were not properly fed; that they were not adequately protected against the cold; that the sexes herded together promiscuously at night; and that, in many instances, poor wretched idiots, half-starved and ill-clad, had actually frozen to death in their cells in State institutions.
“We now present a far more fearful picture of the mismanagement of our public institutions for the confinement and correction of criminals. On 2d inst. a convict named More, imprisoned in the State Prison at Auburn, was showered to death by the prison officials. The circumstances of the case are simply as follows:
“The convict, More, was a negro. He is certified to have been a man of naturally pleasant temper, but violent when crossed.
“On 1st inst. he was said to have been in a bad humor; he was seen, or is said to have been seen, to sharpen a knife, and to mutter threats against someone; on the strength of which he was, on 2d inst., seized by several keepers or deputy-keepers of the State Prison, and by them dragged toward the shower-bath for punishment . . . . he broke away from them and fled — be it remarked — to the shop where he was in the habit of working. At the door of the shop a convict arrested him; a keeper and his assistants swiftly followed; he was dragged by main force, and after many violent struggles, to the shower-bath; all the water that was in the tank — amounting to from three to five barrels, the quantity is un certain — was showered upon him in spite of his piteous cries; a few minutes after his release from the bath he fell prostrate, was carried to his cell, and died in five minutes.
“It is this homicide which we this week illustrate.
“The use of the shower-bath as a means of coercing criminals into submission to the orders of prison authorities began to be general about the year 1845. In that year a convict at the Auburn State Prison was whipped by order of competent authority, and died under the lash.
“The public indignation which was aroused by the event led to the abolition of whipping as a punishment in the prisons of the State of New York. It was preserved in other States, as, for instance, in Connecticut, in which State Prison wardens are authorized to this day to administer stripes — not over ten in number — to refractory prisoners.
“But in New York the cat was disused, and the shower-bath reigned in its stead. This bath varies in the several penal establishments of this State.
“In some the culprit stands, and receives the shower in a standing position. In others, as at Auburn, he sits in a chair which reminds one of the old 'stocks.' His legs and arms are pinioned: his neck fits into a sort of dish, which closes tightly round his throat. As soon as he is fastened therein, a cloth is put into the dish to prevent the water escaping too fast.
“The string is then pulled, and the stream falls. If the convict does not keep his head well erect, with his mouth as high above water as his position will allow, he will suffocate. Indeed his attitude and the machine are such that he feels perpetually in imminent danger of suffocation.
“The consequence is that his sole thought while he is under the shower is to keep his mouth and nose above water; and the agony of this effort is aggravated by the fact that his neck, feet, and arms are tightly pinioned. Our illustration will enable the reader to judge of the feelings of the culprit who is adjudged to endure this penalty.
“Of course, the severity of the shower-bath as a penal method is proportioned to the character of the victim and the season of the year . . .
“The negro More, it seems, was subjected to an incessant stream of water at 32 Fahrenheit for half an hour. It is no matter of wonder that he died of it. It is clear that some coercive methods must be employed in prisons to reduce culprits to subordination; though, of course, nothing can justify their being murdered by angry keepers.
“We give illustrations of the various methods which are at present employed in the Auburn and other State prisons for the subjugation of refractory convicts.
One is the pulley. This instrument of torture consists of a system of pulleys connected with rings, which are attached to the wrists of the culprit and to one of his ankles, so that so long as he is under the process his whole weight rests on one leg; the sensation of having his arms raised above his head becomes after a time excruciatingly painful; and, if the punishment be prolonged, it becomes almost intolerable. . . . . . . .
Another penalty used at the Auburn State Prison is the crown.
This is a simple helmet of metal, which is worn over the head.
It is unattended by pain, and is rather a badge of disgrace than a method of torture.
It maybe compared to the fool’s cap which is in use in most of our schools. . . .
“[T]he shower-bath has continued to be commonly employed in our prisons, as well at Sing Sing as at Auburn. At the former prison a hose is occasionally substituted for the shower and it has at times been applied so closely to the face of the patient that, simultaneously with the flow of water upon the face, blood has gushed from the nose, ears, and mouths.
“At Auburn it is believed the hose has not been used. At the same time it is quite clear that, under certain circumstances, the flow of ice-cold water through tile pores of a shower-bath may prove even more fatal than a flood from a hose. When tile shower is let loose upon a man in a perspiration, as was the case with the negro More, who had just fought might and main with his keepers, the shower of ice-cold water could not but be highly dangerous.
“Mr. Pilsbury, the experienced warden of Ward’s Island, who has been upward of thirty years engaged in the administration of prisons in this section of country, has been heard to declare that he has never found it necessary to administer any corporeal punishment whatever to his convicts.
“It is believed that he regards the cat, under proper guidance, as the wholesomest instrument of coercion, but he has never needed even that ally and it must be admitted that he has had more experience than any of our prison managers.
“The chief error in the management of our State prisons arises from the liberty which subordinates enjoy in the matter of punishments. Subordinate prison officials are appointed on political grounds by Prison Inspectors, themselves creatures of party political conventions. They are seldom men of character, experience, or education. Not infrequently they are jail birds, who have acquired their claim to their appointments by shoulder-hitting.
“A judicious warden would have subdued him without difficulty.
“All that remains now to be done is the duty of the District Attorney. An inquest has been held on the body of the negro. Eight men composed the jury, six of whom are said to have been prison contractors. They refused to allow the prison physician to deliver his evidence, as he wished; and found the absurd verdict that the man’s death had been 'hastened' by the use of the shower-bath. It is clear that if any notice is to be taken of this poor convict’s death the District Attorney must move in the matter.
“It remains to be seen whether he will do so; or whether the civilization of the State of New York is to be disgraced by the torture and homicide, by State officials, of a poor convict in a State prison.”
In its Dec. 8, 1858, issue, the New York Times quoted the Auburn Advertiser to the effect that Prison Keeper John T. Baker testified at the Coroner's Inquest into the death of inmate Samuel Moore that the convict had been kept in the shower bath about a half hour to three-quarters of an hour.
A "Dr. Charles A. Van Anden," identified as the prison physician, testified he thought Moore's death was produced by the shower although the doctor had been of the opinion that the inmate could stand three barrels of water properly administered.
Contending that "the convict had been showered to death," the Advertiser commented "There was no means of ascertaining the precise quantity" of water used because (a) water from the barrel was being loosed upon the inmate as quickly as the pump could move the water into the barrel and, (b) after the pump broke, pails of near-freezing water from the nearby reservoir were being poured into the barrel and this water then loosed upon the prisoner.
The Jan. 12, 1859, issue of the New York Times published text from the report of State Prison Inspectors William A. Russell of Salem, Washington County; abolitionist newspaper publisher Wesley Bailey of Utica, Oneida County, and William C. Rhodes of Elmira, Chemung County. It read, in part:
"From all the evidence in the case, we are convinced that Samuel Moore, who was a convict in the Auburn Prison and who died in said Prison on the 2nd day of Decameter 1858, was punished that day for an attempt upon the life of George A. Beady, a foreman in the same shop in the said Prison, and that by reason of said punishment he came to his death; but we find nothing in the evidence to lead us to believe that those who were engaged in the infliction of this punishment intended to commit any act either of recklessness or brutality; and that in any event it was but an error of judgment in the infliction of a punishment which has been sanctioned by the proper authorities for years, but which the results in this case shows may be dangerous in any case as it has been fatal in this. . . .
"Believing as we do that the use of the 'shower bath' as a method of punishment in the prisons of this State is attended in many cases with great danger, even in the hands of men who will exercise the utmost prudence, it is
In a last paragraph of their report, the State Prison Inspectors directed the Auburn Prison clerk to send "certified copies of the foregoing resolution" to the clerks of New York's other state prisons "to enter the same in the book of minutes of the Inspectors at their respective prisons, and from henceforth the officers of the several prisons will act in accordance with the foregoing resolution."
That language seems to suggest that the State Prison Inspectors were of a mind that their resolution applied not just to Auburn Prison but to New York's other state prisons as well, whereas the evidence is that shower baths continued for some time thereafter. At Sing Sing in 1860 there were 161 such water punishments were recorded. At Clinton State Prison in 1869, "the cruel torture of showering" accounted for about 30 of the 201 record punishments, according to a report in the Essex County Republican of Aug. 7, 1873.
However by the late 1880s the practice is said to have ceased in the state prison system.
Lest the historical record appear all one-sided against the shower bath, some mention needs be made of the point raised by W. David Lewis in his landmark From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York. 1796 - 1848: that prison reformers were, at least initially, divided over use of the "shower bath" as a disciplinary tool.
"Such contrary views stemmed partly from the fact that the shower could be applied in a variety of ways, some of which were more severe than others," Lewis wrote (Page 270). Minus such later aggravating elements as adding ice to the cold water, encircling the inmate's neck with a slow-draining bowl, lengthening the time under the shower, and increasing the force of the water flow, the practice seemed to some prison reform advocates far more humane than the lash for which it was substituted.
"The period in which it was introduced saw the spread of a popular health fad known as the 'water cure,' and some exponents of showering actually believed it had a therapeutic effect upon the inmates who were subjected to it.
"There was thus no reason for humanitarians to condemn the technique out of hand, especially as it offered a substitute for the whip, and some reformers did not hesitate to endorse it."
Among those not objecting to the device he listed Dorothea Dix, Eliza W. Farnham, John Bigelow and Judge John W. Edmonds, founder of the New York Prison Association which eventually became the Correctional Association of New York.
Although not named by Lewis as voicing belief in the potential of cold shower punishment, properly administered, imparting physical benefits to those undergoing it, Clinton Prison Warden George Troop is quoted to that effect in an 1849 issue of Charles Spear's "The Prisoners' Friend: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Criminal Reform . . . ."
But not many years after the technique's introduction into the New York prison system April 1842 at Auburn, as a milder alternative to the whip, prison administrators -- banned in 1847 from resorting to the whip at all -- looked to make the "shower bath" a much harsher punishment than what it had been at its NY prison debut.
"There was obviously great danger in applying the shower with such severity, as citizens learned in December 1858, when an inmate named Samuel Moore died at Auburn from the effects of the device."
A legislative committee report, extensively quoted by the New York Times March 1, 1852, included testimony spelling out, in no uncertain terms, the risks involved in allowing keepers a free hand when, how and on whom the water punishment was to be applied.
Auburn Prison physician Dr. Blancard Fosgate declared the shower bath an instrument of torture, "a modification of the water punishments of the Spanish Inquisition, and will as certainly extort truth or falsehood from the sufferer, either to gratify the wishes or confirm the suspicions of a keeper of Auburn prison. . . " He said such showerings had driven some inmates into madness.
Clinton (Dannemora) Prison Inspector Dr. Darius Clark opined that, "Some [inmate] constitutions and temperaments will not admit of this treatment with impunity," and that keepers, as a general rule, were "very bad judges of a subject for a shower bath."
Sing Sing's Dr. William N. Belcher said he believed the shower bath "to be more dangerous than any other mode [of inmate punishment] now in use."
Unfortunately, the events of Dec. 2nd, 1858, at Auburn Prison would prove how dead right the doctors' 1852 assessments of the show bath's dangerousness were.
-- NYCHS webmaster.
On-line newspaper archival research indicates that the Coroner's Inquest witness identified as the Auburn prison physician, "Dr. Charles A. Van Anden," apparently spelled his name with "E" as his middle initial, not "A." Dr. Charles E. Van Anden resigned his post as Auburn Prison physician (which he had held several years) to accept appointment as Assistant Superintendent of the N.Y. Asylum for Insane Convicts, eventually succeeding Dr. Edward Hall as Superintendent. The Asylum stood within the walls for Auburn prison.
By virtue of the state constitution of 1846, the post of state prison inspector was a statewide elective office. There were three for the state, each serving three years, one elected each year. For example, William C. Rhodes, a "Hard Shell" Democrat, was nominated in 1857 for the post of state prison inspector, elected, and nominated again in 1860. He eventually became agent and warden of Clinton State Prison at Dannemora.
The District Attorney upon whom Harper's Weekly called for action in the death of inmate Samuel Moore was Solomon Giles of Weedsport, one of the anti-slavery founders of the Republican Party in Cayuga County. He later organize a company from the county for the 19th Regiment, NY Volunteer Infantry.
The Cayuga County Coroner in that era was Matthew Sittser of Sennett.
The "Mr. Pilsbury," identified as "the experienced warden of Ward's Island," was Louis Dwight Pilsbury, son and grandson of high-profile prison administrators in New York and Connecticut. He would later become NY's first statewide superintendent of prisons and still later the warden of NYC's Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. For more biographical background, visit the Louis D. Pilsbury web page on our site.
Sing Sing's Dr. William N. Belcher and his father, Dr. Elisha Belcher, were prominent members of the Westchester County Medical Society during the 19th Century.
The excerpts from the 1858 Harper's Weekly article were extracted applying PaperPort’s Optical Character Recognition (OCR) program to Bill Hecht’s 400-dpi scanned images of the publication’s original pages. The uncapitalized spelling of Negro as “negro” and the capitalized spelling of “State” even when not preceded by "New York" are here as they appeared in the 1858 original.
These excerpts omit some but not all of the other NYS prison disciplinary devices discussed and illustrated in the 1858 Harper's Weekly article, its rather gratuitous assertions presuming “white men” relatively better able to withstand the chill of ice cold water than “a negro accustomed to tropical heat,” and its extensive quotations from an 1851 French medical treatise entitled “On the Employment of Water in Surgery” by Alphonse Auguste Amussat of Paris.
The Harper's Weekly article declared the "shower bath" increased in use as a prison punishment after an Auburn inmate "died under the lash" in 1845. However, contrary to the Harper's Weekly dating the year of his death as 1845, the Auburn inmate named Charles Plumb died actually some time after being whipped in January 1846. The convicted felon reportedly had engaged in bizarre behavior both before and after the flogging, destroying various prison articles. These included items in the workshop (pre-flogging) and in his cell (post-flogging). His subsequent death, although officially attributed to "bilious intermitting fever," stirred controversy and fueled the then on-going campaign to ban prison use of the whip entirely. In 1847, the NYS Legislature abolished flogging as a permissible punishment in the state's prisons, authorizing use of the whip only in "defense" against inmate assaults or riot. The 1847 law promoted instead the use of solitary confinement and reduced rations to replace flogging as a disciplinary option.
For design effect and consistency purposes, sepia tint has been added to many of the images on this page. The access icon on the home page is derived from a detail section of the 1858 shower bath illustration on this page. The icon detail was further modified to fit the home page format's space constraints.
For more of Bill Hecht's history scans, visit our Treasury of Auburn Images.