A Guest at the Ludlow
by Bill Nye
We are stopping quietly here, taking our
meals in our rooms mostly, and going out
very little indeed. When I say we, I use
the term editorially.
We notice first of all the great contrast
between this and other hotels, and in several
instances this one is superior. In the first
place, there is a sense of absolute security
when one goes to sleep here that can not
be felt at a popular hotel, where burglars
secrete themselves in the wardrobe during
the day and steal one's pantaloons and contents
at night. This is one of the compensations
of life in prison.
Here the burglars go to bed at the hour
that the rest of us do. We all retire at
the same time, and a murderer can not sit
up any later at night than the smaller or
unknown criminal can.
You can get to Ludlow Street Jail by taking
the Second avenue Elevated train to Grand
street, and then going east two blocks, or
you can fire a shotgun into a Sabbath-school.
You can pay five cents to the Elevated
Railroad and get here, or you can put some
other man's nickel in your own slot and
come here with an attendant.
William Marcy Tweed was the contractor of
Ludlow Street Jail, and here also he died.
He was the son of a poor chair-maker, and
was born April 3, 1823. From the chair
business in 1853 to congress was the first
false step. Exhilarated by the delirium of
official life, and the false joys of franking
his linen home every week, and having cake
and preserves franked back to him at Washington,
he resolved to still further taste the
delights of office, and in 1857 we find him
as a school commissioner.
In 1860 he became Grand Sachem of the Tammany
Society, an association at that time more
purely political than politically pure. As
president of the board of supervisors, head
of the department of public works, state
senator, and Grand Sachem of Tammany, Tweed
had a large and seductive influence over
the city and state. The story of how he
earned a scanty livelihood by stealing
a million of dollars at a pop, and thus,
with the most rigid economy, scraped together
$20,000,000 in a few years by patient industry
and smoking plug tobacco, has been frequently
Tweed was once placed here in Ludlow Street
Jail in default of $3,000,000 bail. How few
there are of us who could slap up that amount
of bail if rudely gobbled on the street by
the hand of the law. While riding out with
the sheriff, in 1875, Tweed asked to see his
wife, and said he would be back in a minute.
He came back by way of Spain, in the fall
of '76, looking much improved. But the
malaria and dissipation of Blackwell's
Island afterward impaired his health, and
having done time there, and having been
arrested afterward and placed in Ludlow
Street Jail, he died here April 12, 1878,
leaving behind him a large, vain world,
and an equally vain judgment for $6,537,117.38,
to which he said he would give his attention
as soon as he could get a paving contract
in the sweet ultimately.
From the exterior Ludlow Street Jail looks
somewhat like a conservatory of music, but
as soon as one enters he readily discovers
his mistake. The structure has 100 feet
frontage, and a court, which is sometimes
called the court of last resort. The guest
can climb out of this court by ascending a
polished brick wall about 100 feet high,
and then letting himself down in a similar
way on the Ludlow street side.
That one thing is doing a great deal toward
keeping quite a number of people here who
would otherwise, I think, go away.
James D. Fish and Ferdinand Ward both
remained here prior to their escape to
Sing Sing. Red Leary, also, made his
escape from this point, but did not
succeed in reaching the penitentiary.
Forty thousand prisoners have been
confined in Ludlow Street Jail, mostly
for civil offenses. A man in New York
runs a very short career if he tries to
be offensively civil.
As you enter Ludlow Street Jail the door
is carefully closed after you, and locked
by means of an iron lock about the size
of a pictorial family Bible. You then
remain on the inside for quite a spell.
You do not hear the prattle of soiled
children any more. All the glad sunlight,
and stench-condensing pavements, and the
dark-haired inhabitants of Rivington
street, are seen no longer, and the heavy
iron storm-door shuts out the wail of
the combat from the alley near by. Ludlow
Street Jail may be surrounded by a very
miserable and dirty quarter of the
city, but when you get inside all is
You register first. There is a good pen
there that you can write with, and the
clerk does not chew tolu and read a
sporting paper while you wait for a room.
He is there to attend to business, and
he attends to it. He does not seem to
care whether you have any baggage or not.
You can stay here for days, even if you
don't have any baggage. All you need is
a kind word and a mittimus from the court.
One enters this sanitarium either as a
boarder or a felon. If you decide to
come in as a boarder, you pay the warden
$15 a week for the privilege of sitting
at his table and eating the luxuries of
the market. You also get a better room
than at many hotels, and you have a good
strong door, with a padlock on it, which
enables you to prevent the sudden and
unlooked-for entrance of the chambermaid.
It is a good-sized room, with a wonderful
amount of seclusion, a plain bed, table,
chairs, carpet and so forth. After a few
weeks at the seaside, at $19 per day, I
think the room in which I am writing is
not unreasonable at $2.
Still, of course, we miss the sea breeze.
You can pay $50 to $100 per week here if
you wish, and get your money's worth, too.
For the latter sum one may live in the
bridal chamber, so to speak, and eat the
very best food all the time.
Heavy iron bars keep the mosquitoes out,
and at night the house is brilliantly
lighted by incandescent lights of one-candle
power each. Neat snuffers, consisting of
the thumb and forefinger polished on the
hair, are to be found in each occupied
Bread is served to the Freshmen and Juniors
in rectangular wads. It is such bread as
convicts' tears have moistened many thousand
years. In that way it gets quite moist.
The most painful feature about life in
Ludlow Street Jail is the confinement.
One can not avoid a feeling of being
constantly hampered and hemmed in.
One more disagreeable thing is the great
social distinction here. The poor man who
sleeps in a stone niche near the roof, and
who is constantly elbowed and hustled out
of his bed by earnest and restless vermin
with a tendency toward insomnia, is harassed
by meeting in the court-yard and corridors
the paying boarders who wear good clothes,
live well, have their cigars, brandy and
Kentucky Sec all the time.
The McAllister crowd here is just as
exclusive as it is on the outside.
But, great Scott! what a comfort it is
to a man like me, who has been nearly
killed by a cyclone, to feel the firm,
secure walls and solid time lock when
he goes to bed at night! Even if I can
not belong to the 400, I am almost happy.
We retire at 7:30 o'clock at night and
arise at 6:30 in the morning, so as to
get an early start. A man who has five
or ten years to stay in a place like this
naturally likes to get at it as soon as
possible each day, and so he gets up at
We dress by the gaudy light of the candle,
and while we do so, we remember far away
at home our wife and the little boy asleep
in her arms. They do not get up at 6:30.
It is at this hour we remember the fragrant
drawer in the dresser at home where our
clean shirts, and collars and cuffs, and
socks and handkerchiefs, are put every
week by our wife. We also recall as we
go about our stone den, with its odor of
former corned beef, and the ghost of some
bloody-handed predecessor's snore still
moaning in the walls, the picture of green
grass by our own doorway, and the apples
that were just ripening, when the bench
The time from 6:30 to breakfast is occupied
by the average, or non-paying inmate, in
doing the chamberwork and tidying up his
state-room. I do not know how others feel
about it, but I dislike chamberwork most
heartily, especially when I am in jail.
Nothing has done more to keep me out of
jail, I guess, than the fact that while
there I have to make up my bed and dust
Breakfast is generally table d'hote and
consists of bread. A tin-cup of coffee
takes the taste of the bread out of your
mouth, and then if you have some Limburger
cheese in your pocket you can with that
remove the taste of the coffee.
Dinner is served at 12 o'clock, and consists
of more bread with soup. This soup has
everything in it except nourishment. The
bead on this soup is noticeable for quite
a distance. It is disagreeable. Several
days ago I heard that the Mayor was in
the soup, but I didn't realize it before.
I thought it was a newspaper yarn. There
is everything in this soup, from shop-worn
rice up to neat's-foot oil. Once I thought
I detected cuisine in it.
The dinner menu is changed on Fridays,
Sundays and Thursdays, on which days you
get the soup first and the bread afterward.
In this way the bread is saved.
Three days in a week each man gets at
dinner a potato containing a thousand-legged
worm. At 6 o'clock comes supper with toast
and responses. Bread is served at supper
time, together with a cup of tea. To those
who dislike bread and never eat soup, or
do not drink tea or coffee, life at Ludlow
Street Jail is indeed irksome.
I asked for kumiss and a pony of Benedictine,
as my stone boudoir made me feel rocky,
but it has not yet been sent up.
Somehow, while here, I can not forget poor
old man Dorrit, the Master of the Marshalsea,
and how the Debtors' Prison preyed upon his
mind till he didn't enjoy anything except
to stand off and admire himself. Ludlow
Street Jail is a good deal like it in many
ways, and I can see how in time the canker
of unrest and the bitter memories of those
who did us wrong but who are basking in the
bright and bracing air, while we, to meet
their obligations, sacrifice our money, our
health and at last our minds, would kill
hope and ambition.
In a few weeks I believe I should also get
a preying on my mind. That is about the last
thing I would think of preying on, but a man
must eat something.
Before closing this brief and incomplete
account as a guest at Ludlow Street Jail
I ought, in justice to my family, to say,
perhaps, that I came down this morning to
see a friend of mine who is here because he
refuses to pay alimony to his recreant and
morbidly sociable wife. He says he is quite
content to stay here, so long as his wife
is on the outside. He is writing a small
ready-reference book on his side of the
great problem, "Is Marriage a Failure?"
With this I shake him by the hand and in
a moment the big iron storm-door clangs
behind me, the big lock clicks in its
hoarse, black throat and I welcome even
the air of Ludlow street so long as the
blue sky is above it.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~