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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present.

No. 12.

Our Country Jail.—The old Edifice at Flatbush—burnt down 80 years ago.—Courts changed to Apprentices Library, Brooklyn.—The Act of 1835.—Hall's Exchange Building.—New Court House Troubles.—The Romance of a Jail building.

THE picture that surmounts these lines gives a very fair idea of the outside of our well-known Kings County Jail and Court House in Raymond street.1 We don't know what school or name of architecture it would come under; but it very well answers, and has answered, the purposes for which it was built—namely, as the place of incarceration for prisoners, and afterwards a place of meeting for the County Courts and Board of Supervisors, and for a residence for the Sheriff, etc.

The old Jail and Court-house for the people of Brooklyn (said people comprising, of course, the main portion of the County of Kings), as is probably known to many of our readers, used to be at Flatbush, and the County Courts were, until a comparatively late period, required by law to be held there—making it incumbent on our Brooklyn and New York lawyers, with all their witnesses, etc., to pack out there, and, after submitting to the "law's delay,"2 sometimes to their great inconvenience, await the slow or rapid progress of their trials, and then come home again, perhaps to return the next day, and again the next.

About the year 1826, we believe, a law was procured to be passed by the Legislature that thenceforward the Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace should be held "alternately at the Court-house at Flatbush, and at the Apprentices Library in the city of Brooklyn." Soon after this, things advanced still farther toward a complete change of locality. In 1829 or '30 a law was passed empowering the Board of Supervisors to raise, by tax, a sum of money, to devote the same to "the purchase of lots of land in the village of Brooklyn, and erecting a suitable building thereon, for the accommodation of the courts of the said county, when the same, or any of them, may be held in the said village of Brooklyn." The carrying out of the requirements of this law, however, was delayed, and finally negatived by the influence of Flatbush property owners, etc.

We think it was about the year 1832 the old Jail and Court-house at Flatbush caught fire, and was burned down (Dec. 1st, 1832). So that the next year another law was passed, to the effect that "a Court-house and Jail in and for the county of Kings shall be erected in the village of Brooklyn"; and under this enactment three commissioners were appointed to purchase an appropriate and central site for the building. When the Court-house should be so far completed as to be prepared for the public convenience, a certificate to that effect should be procured from the first Judge of the county, and thereafter all the terms of the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace were to be held, and all writs and processes were returnable, at the new Court-house in Brooklyn. In the mean time, as the Flatbush edifice was destroyed, the terms of the County Courts that were to have been held at that place were transferred to the Apprentices Library in Brooklyn. Of course our readers are aware that this edifice was formerly on the site of the present City Armory in Henry street.

Soon after the fire at Flatbush, the present jail in Raymond street was authorized and built—as it was imperatively necessary of course that there should be some place for the safe keeping of criminals. Still, however, the project of a specific Court-house hung fire; for we believe that all along, during the period of the years 1835, to '40, '42, etc., the actual Court-house of the county was the Apprentices Library building just alluded to, and that there the judicial proceedings were held, notices posted, etc. There seems to have been a good deal of acrimonious feeling mixed up in the business. The people of Flatbush thought that they had a prescriptive right to the locality there of the county Jail and Court-house, pretty much in the same way that the folks of Philadelphia think that they have a right to the United States Mint, because it has been there a long while. Then there were conflicting opinions, too, about the preference for different sites. We jot these particulars and details, however, more to put the matter on record than because it is of very great importance.

The building whose picture we give above commenced as Court-house in addition to its legitimate purpose as jail about sixteen or seventeen years ago—under authority of an act of the Legislature passed in 1835. As there has been considerable discussion about this act we will give an account of it. By this act, passed in 1835, the Judges and Supervisors of the County of Kings, whenever they should deem "the present Court Room in the Apprentices Library" unsafe or inconvenient for the purpose of holding Courts therein, were authorized, from time to time, to designate such other place in the city of Brooklyn as they should think proper; whereupon a rule of the Court should be made for that purpose, "and such other place shall become from that time for all legal purposes the Court House of the said county until a new Court House shall be completed. But nothing herein contained shall be construed to invalidate notices posted at the Apprentices Library, or any other place in the designated as aforesaid, previous to such rule of the Court for changing the place of holding Courts being made." By the 8th section of this act, the Board of Supervisors was authorized to sell "the lot of land on which the Court House and Jail at Flatbush, lately destroyed by fire, was situated."

In pursuance of this act, the Judges and Supervisors, in March 1845, designated the County Jail in Raymond street as the place of holding the Courts of the County. The resolution adopted on that occasion recites that a room in Hall's Exchange Building had therefore been legally designated as aforesaid, and was then used for holding Courts in the County. This Exchange building was quite a large edifice at the corner of Fulton and Cranberry streets, and the third story was for some time used as a place of meeting for the Common Council.

Things continued in abeyance till 1853, when we find a legislative act that "the Board of Supervisors of the County of Kings are hereby authorized to borrow a sum not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars, and to expend the same in the purchase of a site and erection of a building for the accommodation of such of the county officers of said county as said Board of Supervisors shall determine." By the 2nd and 3d sections the County Treasurer was authorized under the direction of the Board to borrow on the credit of the county the whole or a portion of the sum as the Board might determine, and give his official bond or bonds for the payment of the same with interest; and the Board was directed to levy and collect such sums annually as should be sufficient to pay the interest on the loan, and to reimburse the principal in annual instalments as they should become payable."

Under this enactment, there has since been kept up a succession of turmoils and passages and repeals of resolutions, the history of which is as long as the Trojan war. Half a dozen different sites have been fixed upon. Some of these, we believe, were really purchased; and the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals [were] invoked to settle the conflicting claims of the different parties. The end of all has happily been the selection for a new Court House of the site at the commencement of Fulton Avenue, near the City Hall, where the building is now in progress.

Of course, in connection with the history of the jail, whose picture the engraver presents in this number of the paper, there is a long and varied interior history, full of interest and indeed of romance.

An account of the different Sheriffs' administrations, and of the residences of many of them and their families in the dwelling part of the jail, would alone be full of points of attraction to a large class of citizens of Brooklyn. The administration some years since of Sheriff Daniel Van Voorhies,3 that of Sheriff Lott,4 the late administration of Sheriff Remsen,5 and the rule of the present deservedly popular and judicious Sheriff Campbell,6 might all come in for a share of such an abstract.

A detailed account of the internal and personal scenes and sights of the jail, with cases of marked interest among the prisoners, and [an] idea of the method of securing, feeding and general treatment of the prisoners, we propose to make, before long, through a visit and personal inspection of affairs at the jail.


1. The first independent county jail in Brooklyn was built in 1839. After the burning of the Kings County court house and jail in 1832, the Apprentices' Library became the temporary home of the courts. It is unclear whether the Apprentices' Library also housed prisoners in the intervening period between 1832 and 1839. [back]

2. The phrase is from Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy (Act III, Scene 1). [back]

3. Daniel Van Voorhies served as sheriff of Kings County from November 1846 to November 1849. [back]

4. There are several Sheriff Lotts in Brooklyn history. At the time Whitman's piece was published, the most recent was Englebert Lott, who served from November 1852 to November 1855. [back]

5. George Remsen served as sheriff for only a few months, from April to November 1857. He died in office. [back]

6. Anthony Campbell served as sheriff from November 1860 to November 1863. [back]

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