A recently discovered newspaper clipping provides some evidence that the State Street site where Auburn Correctional Facility now stands might have been used as a prison as far back as 1797 — 19 years earlier than the currently accepted date.
The clip from the Aug. 1, 1922 Auburn Citizen-Advertiser recounts how then-warden Edgar Jennings "has been digging through some old records and has brought to light some remarkably interesting facts in regard to the old bastile on State Street."
In particular, Jennings found a record book from the prison's early years, 1797 to 1816. The latter year is when construction began on the prison as it stands now.
The first "prison" supposedly made use of an abandoned Indian settlement — and in particular, its wooden stockade — on the site, called Osca.
According to the 1922 article, the original structure "was only a wooden stockade of hewn logs set on end with wooden barracks within the confines for the detention of both male and female prisoners."
David Connelly, chairman of the Osborne Center for Social Justice, came across the clip at the Syracuse University library archives while researching his biography about Auburn prison reformer Thomas Mott Osborne.
He found it in the archives of William O. Dapping, the Citizen-Advertiser reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the 1929 prison riot. There is no byline on the article, but Connelly believes Dapping was the author.
Hypothesizing a new prison history
Connelly offered this hypothesis: the Cayugas were known for building stockades in their villages. The residents of this particular village fled Auburn in the mid-1790s due to increasing pressure from white settlers, leaving their stockade intact but abandoned.
The state appropriated it as a sort of local detention facility, then got more use out of it during the War of 1812. After that conflict, a new, sturdier structure was planned for the same site.
Connelly said the new information helps explain the otherwise troublesome question of why prisoners of war from the War of 1812 were brought to Auburn.
"If there were a stockade there (already), it would make sense that they would use that instead of building a new one," he said. "The prisoners would have been captured up near Buffalo or Niagara Falls. Why would they take them to Auburn unless there was already a place there?"
There were other makeshift jails in Poplar Ridge and Aurora, Connelly said, but as Auburn emerged as a population center during the beginning of the 19th century, the State Street site grew in prominence and the permanent stone building went up in 1816.
Most of the inmates in that early period had been convicted of burglary, grand larceny and counterfeiting, according to the article.
"Many of the prisoners were slaves and the (chattel) of prominent citizens who are now represented by descendants still walking the streets of Auburn," the reporter wrote.
Those prisoners, some serving life sentences for crimes like burglary and forgery, were enlisted to build the new prison in 1816.
"So rigorous and exasperating was the treatment of the convicts that they revolted and burned the wooden prison within, and the calling of the militia was necessary to quell them," according to the article.
New York's first prison — or not?
If the new, earlier date is accurate, it would mean Auburn had potentially the first state prison. The current candidate for that distinction is Newgate Prison in Greenwich village, Manhattan, also built in 1797.
Another local historian, however, said he's skeptical of the new date.
Joe O'Hearn, author of the monthly historical newsletter O'Hearn's Histories, pointed out that Auburn historians dating back to 1869 make no mention of any kind of stockade before 1812 at the earliest.
"Having read all the histories of Auburn, in 1797 the Indians were still there," he said. "And that area at that time was all woods — it hadn't been cut down yet."
O'Hearn also offered an explanation for how the record book ended up in Auburn. He proposed that when downstate inmates came north to help construct the Auburn prison in 1816, they brought the record book with them.
In that case, the records would have actually referred to the building of Newgate, not Auburn. When Jennings found it in his office in 1922, he would have mistakenly assumed it referred to Auburn.
"It's a fantastic thing if it can be proven," O'Hearn said. "But I've spent years studying Auburn, and it just doesn't seem possible to me."
It is unclear whether the local tie-ins from the 1922 article — for instance, the reference to the village of Osca, or the details of a trek from Auburn to Sing Sing to help construct that prison in 1828 — come from Dapping or the primary source material.
Modern historians may never be able to ascertain the truth for themselves.
The 1922 article said the early record book was in "splendid condition" and was "among the historical treasures kept in the big safe in the warden's office." Unfortunately, that safe and its contents have since been lost, Connelly said, likely in the riots and fire of 1929.