Edmonds Reversed Course As Sing Sing Prison Inspector in Mid-1840s

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In April, 1843, the governor of New York appointed John W. Edmonds inspector of the Sing Sing State Prison.^ Sing Sing was suffering from large financial deficits and lax prison discipline. Edmonds had no prior experience in prison administration. Drawing perhaps on his legislative and military experience, Edmonds instituted a program of sharp fiscal retrenchment and strict prison discipline. To implement these changes, Edmonds brought back to Sing Sing Elam Lynds, a prison administrator widely known for maintaining absolute order through intimidation and frequent, brutal floggings. Angry citizens burned Edmonds in effigy for his reappointment of Lynds.^

Edmonds subsequently became an vigorous advocate for prison reform. As Edmonds studied penal literature, visited other prisons, and saw the effects of Lynds’ actions, his judgment of good penal practice changed. He sought to limit flogging and joined with the other inspectors to remove Lynds from the prison. Within two years, Edmonds had become President of the Board of Inspectors of Sing Sing and a knowledgeable, active prison reformer.^

John Edmonds Led Founding of Prison Association of New York

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John Worth Edmonds led the founding of the Prison Association of New York State. In a notice to the public, dated November 23, 1844, Edmonds, then President of the Board of Inspectors of Sing Sing, wrote:

The undersigned has been directed by the Board of Inspectors of the State Prison at Sing Sing, to invite the attention of the benevolent to the destitute condition of discharged convicts.^

Edmonds obscured in this statement his agency and his broader concerns. The latter emerged two days later when Edmonds joined with sixty-two others, including prominent New York public figures, to call for the formation of a prison association. Its intended objectives were “the amelioration of the condition of prisoners,” “the improvement of Prison Discipline generally,” and relief for discharged convicts. In response to this call, “a large and highly respectable number of citizens” met in New York City on December 6, 1844.^ The meeting was at the Apollo Rooms, No. 410 Broadway. This prestigious venue was the site of the first concert of the New York Philharmonic on Dec. 7, 1842. The Apollo Rooms held about 600 persons. The formation of the Prison Association of New York evidently was a major, well-organized public event.

At the Apollo meeting, Edmonds formally proposed to form a Prison Association. Edmonds then delivered a long address describing the hardships of discharged convicts, different systems of prison discipline and their effects. He presented statistical comparisons with other states and countries and described the importance of classification and instruction of prisoners. Within eleven days of Edmonds’ formal proposal, the Prison Association of New York had established a Constitution, By-Laws, and Officers. Edmonds was a Vice-President of the Prison Association, Chairman of the Executive Committee, and a member of each of the four committees that were established.^ Manuscript evidence testifies to Edmonds central role in establishing the Prison Association:

The drafts of the circulars calling the first meeting were in his {Edmonds’} handwriting, and so are the programmes for the first and other public meetings of the Society. The draft of the Charter {of the Prison Society} is in his handwriting^

Edmonds apparently was unsatisfied with his potential for public action as the President of the governor-appointed Board of Inspectors for Sing Sing. In less than a month, Edmonds created a new institutional basis from which he could seek to improve the prison system.

Edmonds combined civic leadership of the Prison Association with official offices. Edmonds remained a member of the Board of Inspectors until February, 1845. He was then appointed a judge for the First Circuit of New York.^ Edmonds continued to serve in high judicial offices and as an officer of the Prison Association until 1853.

John Worth Edmonds’ Family

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John Worth Edmonds, who led the founding of the Prison Association of New York, came from a family that had already achieved prominence in public life. Edmonds’ father, Samuel Edmonds, was a soldier who rose from private to assistant commissary during the Revolutionary War. Upon discharge at the end of the war, Samuel Edmonds settled in 1784 in Hudson, New York (then called Claverack Landing). He was one of the first settlers and worked as a merchant. Samuel served as a member of the New York State Assembly in 1803, a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1810, and Paymaster General of the New York State Militia during the War of 1812 and for several years afterwards.^ ^ These are similar offices to those that his son John would later hold.

Edmonds’ mother, née Lydia Worth, was a member of a prominent Quaker family. Her father, Thomas Worth, was also one of the first settlers of Hudson. Her brother Gorham A. Worth took over Samuel Edmonds duties as Paymaster of the New York State Militia and was president of the New York City Bank from at least 1844 to 1851.^ ^ Gorham Worth served as the first Treasurer of the Prison Association of New York.^ Another of Lydia Worth’s brothers, William J. Worth, rose to the rank of general in the U.S. Army by 1842. He became famous for his military leadership in the Mexican-American War.^ ^ Lydia Worth’s nephew Thomas Worth Olcott ran the Mechanics’ and Farmers’ Bank in Albany.^ These prominent family members probably contributed to John Edmonds influence in public life.

Samuel and Lydia’s marriage in 1784 challenged Quaker norms. According to family lore, Edmonds’ mother Lydia:

had been “read out” of the Quaker meeting when she married a soldier, but was readmitted upon her promise never to do it again.^

This story gains sharpness given that Samuel Edmonds first married in 1784 Lydia’s sister Ruth. She died in childbirth. He then in 1786 married Lydia. Marriage to the soldier Samuel Edmonds’ was thus a situation that the Worth family faced twice. The story of Lydia’s marriage shows personal relationships trumping a community norm.

John Edmonds grew up in a large family. His parents Samuel and Lydia probably had eight children. Their son John Worth Edmonds was born in 1799. He carried on the name John from a son who had died earlier. The name Worth was of course his mother’s family name. John was a middle child with surviving older sisters and younger brothers. At least four of John’s siblings were alive in 1851. Lydia and Samuel’s youngest child, Francis William Edmonds, became a well-known banker and painter. After John’s father’s death in Hudson in 1826, his mother lived with John in Hudson until her death on November 20, 1841.

John Edmonds also had a full family in his marital life. About 1820, John, then twenty-one years old, married Sarah, whose family name isn’t known. They had three daughters living in 1851. At that time, two of their daughters were married with children and one was in boarding school. Sarah and John also had one son who died in 1826 at age two. In addition, they had at least one other child who died before 1851. John undoubtedly had extensive experience of ordinary communication with family members in daily home life.

John and his brother Francis exchanged letters from at least 1823 to 1861. John was seven and a half years older than Francis. John achieved considerable public acclaim while Francis was a young man. Francis looked up to John:

Letters written between 1823 and 1829 show the young man {Francis} to have been much inclined toward personal improvement, and to have looked upon his elder brother as a worthy critic and role model. He self-consciously uses their correspondence as a means to improve his writing style and intellectual development, and mentions writing projects he is at work on.

Their letters include instances of personal intimacy, but they “reveal little of marriage or home life.”^ Nineteenth-century obituaries and biographies of John and Francis Edmonds typically include no information about their siblings, wives, and children. That probably reflect a convention of written communication at the time, rather than unimportance of familial relations to those men personally.