Enter the Tombs, Five Points’ notorious house of detention in the heart of Old New York

PODCAST Many stories of 19th century New York City seem to lead to the Tombs, a stark prison complex with menacing architecture and a fearful reputation.

Some might find it strange that the Manhattan Detention Complex — one of New York City’s municipal jails — should be located next to the bustling neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy. Stranger still is its ominous nickname — The Tombs.

Near this very spot — over 180 years ago — stood another imposing structure, a massive jail in the style of an Egyptian mausoleum, casting its dark shadow over a district that would become known as Five Points, the most notorious 19th century neighborhood in New York City.

From the Foundations of Collect Pond

Both Five Points and the original Tombs (officially New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention) was built upon the spot of old Collect Pond, an old fresh-water pond that was never quite erased from the city’s map when it was drained via a canal — along today’s Canal Street.

But the foreboding reputation of the Tombs comes from more than sinking foundations and cracked walls. For over six decades, thousands of people were kept here — murderers, pickpockets, vagrants and many more who had committed no crimes at all.

And there would be a few unfortunates who would never leave the confines of this place. For the Tombs contained a gallows, where some of the worst criminals in the United States were executed.

Other jails would replace this building in the 20th century, but none would shake off the grim nickname.

Listen Now — The Tombs: Five Points’ House of Detention

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Collect Pond, in an illustration from 1880 — New York Public Library
George Catlin painting of Five Points
The Tombs 1894 — New York Public Library
A Prison Van Discharging At The Tombs 1871 — New York Public Library
The Boy’S Cell In The Tombs 1870 — New York Public Library
The Execution of Nathaniel Gordon in Five Points. For more information, read this article from our website on Gordon’s execution.
The second Tombs, pictured here in 1907 — G. G. Bain Collection/Shorpy

FURTHER READING

The Old World and the New by William Ballantine
A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of 19th Century New York by Timothy J. Gilfoyle
New York by Sunlight and Gaslight: A Work Descriptive of the Great American Metropolis by James Dabney McCabe
The New York Tombs, Inside and Out!: A Story Stranger Than Fiction, with an Historic Account of America’s Most Famous Prison by John Josiah Munro

FURTHER LISTENING
After listening to our show on the history of the Tombs, check out these shows from our back catalog:

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