Sugar House Prison Window


Originally built to store molasses, Sugar Houses in New York City were used as prisons by occupying British forces during the American Revolutionary War. Out of 2,600 prisoners of war captured during the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776, 1,900 would die in the following months at makeshift prisons throughout the city. At least 17,500 are estimated to have perished under substandard conditions of such sugar houses and British prison ships over the course of the war, more than double the number of killed from battle.During the 18th century, a large part of commerce in New York City was trade with the British West Indies. Destined for refineries, sugar and molasses imported from Jamaica and Sint Eustatius were stored in warehouses built by merchant families, such as the Bayards, Cuylers, Livingstons, Rhinelanders, Roosevelts, and the Van Cortlands.In 1852 Benson J. Lossing wrote: Van Cortlandt's sugar house, which stood at the northwest corner of Trinity Churchyard, corner of Thames and Lumber [now Trinity Place] Streets; Rhinelander's, on the corner of William and Duane Streets, now (1852) Lightbody's Printing-ink Manufactory; and the more eminently historical one on Liberty Street (numbers 34 and 36), a few feet eastward of the Middle Dutch Church, now the Post-office, were the most spacious buildings in the city and answered the purposes of prisons very well. Rhinelander's is the only one remaining, the one on Liberty Street having been demolished in June, 1840, and Van Cortlandt's during the summer of 1852. But Brooklyn history professor Edwin G. Burrows disagrees, writing in 2008: "Demolition of the Rhinelander Sugar House in 1892 gave rise to stories—completely unsubstantiated—that it had served as a prison during the Revolution." When the building fell into disrepair during the early 19th century, locals believed it to be haunted by ghosts of prisoners from the war. The old warehouse was replaced by the Rhinelander Building, which retained part of the original wall from 1892 to 1968, and continued to receive reports of ghostly sightings in a window. The site is now occupied by the headquarters of the New York City Police Department, near which one of the original barred windows was retained. A section of the wall with another window was moved to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.The cramped conditions initially housed about 40 to 50 prisoners. The population soon swelled to between 400 and 500, though attrition was constant due to those succumbing to illness. Rations consisted of pork and sea biscuits, which were often moldy from seawater and infested with worms. Nevertheless, the starving prisoners seldom refused the food, which was made consumable by placing it in a kettle of water and skimming off the parasites. Supplies for sick prisoners were provided by the fledgling American government, as Hanford stated that "the British furnished nothing." Deceased prisoners were sewn up into their blankets and placed in a corner of the yard for pickup by a dead cart in the morning; as many as fifteen bodies once accumulated in the period of one day. Prisoner exchanges were organized with the oldest prisoners having priority.

Constructed, 1763
Resited, 1892
Saved, 1968

Related Sites
Trinity Building- Earlier, the Van Cortlandt sugar house stood on the west end of the plot – a notorious British prison where American soldiers were held during the Revolutionary War, it was demolished in 1852
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