Albany’s City Halls

Hard to imagine that in its long almost 400 year history Albany has had only 4 city hall buildings.

First Stadt Huys

We don’t know the exact date the first city hall was erected, but it was probably during the time when the city was still Beverwyck and part of the Dutch colony before 1664. It was at the corner of Court St. (Broadway and Hudson). It was known as the Stadt Huys (or Haus). It was a substantial, but small building with several large rooms on a first floor and a jail in the basement. (Sadly there are no images.) Technically it wasn’t a city hall until the Royal Governor made Albany the first chartered city in the U.S. in that very building in 1686.

Second Stadt Huys

In 1741 the city fathers thought it was time for new digs and a new building was constructed on the same location, surrounded by greenery and trees. It was much larger 3 story building of brick, but simple and plain. It had a steep roof and a belfrey. It too had a jail. It was on the steps of this building that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the city in July, 1776 and where Ben Franklin first proposed the Albany Plan of Union – a confederation of the British colonies in 1754, 20 years before the Continental Congress was formed.

Eagle St. City Hall

By the early 1800s, after the Revolutionary War, the city was expanding. The old Stadt House had seen better days. It was the home of the Albany Common Council, the local and NYS courts, AND the NYS Legislature after Albany became the capital. It was time for a new city hall (and a state capitol building). These were both constructed around the new public square at State and Eagle Streets. The new city hall was erected in 1829,

Enter renowned architect and Albany government official Philip Hooker. He designed both the new Capitol in the back of the public square and Albany’s City Hall on Eagle St. and Maiden Lane, across the street from the Capitol and the square. It was a large neo-classical building with pillars and a dome. There are no interior photos, but it was probably a simple yet dramatic style, with federal decoration and large elegant rooms (based on those few Hooker buildings that survive today).

The building also doubled as the Federal Courthouse. It was in this building in 1873 that Susan B. Anthony was indicted by a Grand Jury composed solely of men for voting in a federal Congressional election in Rochester in 1872. Alas, the Hooker City Hall was destroyed by fire in 1880.

Current City Hall

The current City Hall open in 1883. It was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, one the most well-known architects of the day. His style is known as “Richardson Romanesque”. His building exteriors are solid and large, and make a statement, although the interiors are surprising open and light. (He also collaborated on the design of the existing NYS Capitol Building). Attached to City Hall by a bridge was the jail on Maiden Lane. (By 1883 the city jail on the corner of Howard and Eagle Streets had become Albany Hospital.) It appears the jail was demolished in the early 1900s.

The carillon was added in 1927 through subscriptions of the citizens of the city. It’s housed in a tiny room, up a set of rickety winding steps.

City Hall and jail from Maiden Lane

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

The Albany Jail’s Most Notorious Resident – “Count” Shinburn – the King of Crooks

14990303775_fbedff53b7_bThe old city jail, on Maiden Lane just behind City Hall, “hosted” one of the most notorious bank robbers of his age, Maximilian Shinburn, in the 1890s.  The July 22, 1895 edition of the “Albany Morning Express” published a story on a then-current denizen of the old Maiden Lane jail.   The headline read,

“Slickest Robber in America, Is Maximilian Shinburn Whom the Jail Harbors. His Methods Are all His Own. He is a Man of Patience and Strategy; Not of Violence.”

 

1876

30064640575_6a99bc7280_b

Master Criminal

Shinburn was notorious. According to “Professional Criminals of America,” (an 1895 tome), he was recognized for 30 years all over the world as the “King of Bank Burglars.” “He is an American product, in the criminal sense, having begun his ‘professional’ work here early in the sixties (1860s) as a leader of that great galaxy of safe breaking stars…” Shinburn was wildly successful –he left America with a half a million dollars of ill-gotten gains.  He returned to the U.S. in the early 1890s, organized a new band of burglars, and went to work. When he was arrested there was “vast amount of evidence is in the hands of authorities indicating that his is the genius which substituted nitro-glycerine for the safe breaking appliances of earlier date.”

“Under a dozen aliases and over a period of thirty years he has stolen millions, evaded countless pursuits, broken out of a dozen prisons, lived in luxury, purchased a foreign title, engineered the greatest robberies of the age, and fairly won the title of the century’s greatest thief.”

In June 1895 he was arrested by the Pinkertons in NYC for robbing the First National Bank at Middleburg in April 1895, “but this is only one of a hundred crimes perpetrated by him during an unparalleled record.” Shinburn was taken to Middleburg under heavy guard, and transferred to Albany for safe keeping (so to speak). In the previous two years, his band of robbers were believed to have robbed banks across the U.S. and Canada.

How You Get To Be the World’s Greatest Safe Cracker Genius

Shinburn immigrated to America from Germany before he was 17.” He allegedly had “wonderful skill” as a locksmith. He embarked on a criminal career before he reached 18, falling in with a rogue’s gallery of rogues and went on a safecracking spree, beginning with a New Jersey bank. “He progressed rapidly,” the Los Angeles Herald later reported,” and as his ability became known in the ‘crook’ world his services were in constant demand.” He soon started organizing his own heists, always through safe cracking”.

“At that time the only safe in general use in banks and business houses in this country was that made by the Lillie Company (founded in Troy NY). Shinburn figured that a man who could master the Lillie combination lock could loot every Lilly safe in the country.” So, he did what any clever criminal machinist locksmith would do – he went to work for Lillie.

Capture

“It took him over a year to obtain all the knowledge he needed” – about lock tumblers and combinations. (Think of the skill set of the  character played by Charlize Theron in “The Italian Job”.) Using this information “Shinburn and his associates plundered Lilly safes all over the country, finally driving the Lillie out of business.”

Escape Artist

Shinburn was arrested in Saratoga in 1865 for a robbery in New Hampshire, but escaped the first night of his sentence. He wasn’t recaptured until 1868 while making an attempt on a bank in St. Albans, Vt. He served 9 months and escaped. He robbed a coal company in 1867, was arrested and handcuffed to a detective, but escaped while his captor slept. There were more robberies, more arrests, more escapes.

He invested in the stock market, made a killing, and sailed for Belgium, where he lived large in Europe for fifteen years until he was penniless again. In Paris, he met some American crooks, planned a robbery in Belgium, got caught and jailed . . . and escaped. He returned to the U.S. and began the spree that would see him arrested for the Middleburgh robbery.

Shinburn’s Stay in Albany’s Lock Up

14803741057_156ee27c50_bDuring his stay in the Maiden Lane slammer Shinburn impressed the “Albany Morning Express”:

“Even a casual observer at the little window or peek hole, will at once pick Shinburn out from 30 or 40 other prisoners. He dresses neatly, always wear a clean white shirt and goes about in his shirt sleeves. He keeps his hat on and remains most of the time in the rear portion of the corridor.. The officers at the jail, however, know his record pretty well and there is no time at which his movements are not watched.”

14990317515_b2911d8b45_bDespite the supposed security of the Albany jail, Shinburn tried to escape. In December 1895 he slipped out the cell door, but was grabbed by the sheriff’s wife at the outer door. “The sheriff’s wife is quite a large woman and the sheriff quite a good man, but Shinburn dragged them both about 100 feet, where all three fell over an iron fence. Mrs. Loveland’s cries were heard at this time and several men from the hotel ran to the scene. Shinburn, when he saw help coming, immediately gave himself up and was taken back to jail. The sheriff supposed that the cell door was locked, but Shinburn must have sawed off the lock during the afternoon, as the sheriff thought he heard a squeaking in the jail, but imagined it was the bed in the cell.” On a later occasion, being transported to Schoharie, Shinburn got into a fight and kicked Sheriff Loveland in the face.

Love Comes to Max

Newspapers reported Shinburn found love in jail.   He had many female admirers and won the heart of a young woman stenographer, whose desk in the county clerk’s office was directly opposite his cell window. So ardent was the flirtation which Shinburn carried on across the street which separated the two that the girl became infatuated. “There followed a long period of correspondence, notes being exchanged by means of a long cord which the prisoner let fall to his waiting sweetheart in the street below.” Shinburn finally got the girl’s promise to wait for him outside the door leading from the jail yard at 5 o’clock on a certain afternoon. She was to bring with her a loaded revolver and some money.

Shinburn figured out an ingenious way to escape from his cell, and armed himself with a broom. His jailer foiled the plot. He was a quick man with his revolver, and a shot rang out.  “The love-sick maiden was waiting outside as Shinburn had told her but she fled in dismay when she heard the revolver shot and the cries of pain that followed. Her friends prevented her attempting to communicate with the prisoner again.”

Shinburn Pays the Piper

After 11months in Albany Shinburn was sentenced to Dannemora. He served some time, but he was granted a retrial, and returned to the Maiden Lane jail in March 1898.  He was again convicted, sentenced and returned to Dannemora. He served his sentence, but immediately on his release he was rearrested him for his jail break in New Hampshire in 1866. He defense was “they got the wrong guy”, but he ended up in prison in Concord, N.H.  He was freed from Concord in 1908, and according to an article datelined Boston, April 22, “The aged robber enjoyed barely 24 hours of liberty after serving eight years in the New Hampshire state prison before he was arrested on the charge of stealing $200. He protested his innocence.” He was alleged to have taken the money from another man in the lodging house where he was to stay.

Max died in 1915 under his preferred alias” Henry Moebus”: in Boston in a home for reformed criminals.

(The jail was demolished in 1904 and all prisoners transferred to the Penitentiary (on Delaware Ave./Myrtle Ave) across from what is now Lincoln Park.)

Excerpted from the Carl Johnson’s blog,  http://hoxsie.org

The Albany Penitentiary

2

1With the old downtown Albany jail becoming inadequate to house what were characterized as “the vilest dregs of society, the rakings of the gutter and the brothel, the profligate, and even the diseased,” Albany County resolved in 1843 to create a new style of penitentiary aimed at “moral reformation of the convict,” but one where “labor performed in the prison shall produce a sufficient income for its maintenance.” With a state law authorizing construction in 1844, the new institution was sited just a few blocks south of what would become Washington Park, bounded by South Knox Street, Myrtle Avenue, Lark Street and Leonard Place, in lovely country environs.

14219548818_e3d9bbba42_b

For some it truly became a prison of their own making, as county prisoners from the old jail were put to work building the new one. They moved themselves in by 1846, and continued to build, including a women’s wing. When completed, the penitentiary covered 3 acres and enclosed by a 14-foot crenelated brick wall. It was so impressive it was referred to for generations as “the Castle on the Hill”. Surrounding the building were 12 acres of “well laid out grounds, ornamented with trees, shrubs and flowers with a meandering brooklet and wandering driveways and paths of approach.” For a fee of 25 cents visitors could stroll the gardens and enjoy the view from “Penitentiary Hill”.

The goal of the institution was to show not only that prisoners could earn their own keep, but that by making them busy they would not return to their criminal ways The Albany Penitentiary’s success as a model reformatory (whipping and the crucifix: no; cold shower punishment: yes) was quickly rewarded. The State Legislature passed a succession of laws permitting other counties to use the facility. The growing roster of inmates was put to work caning chairs and making inexpensive shoes. Female inmates worked doing laundry.

7

The Civil War threatened this model of penal self-sufficiency. Petty criminals were forgiven their sentences if they enlisted in the Union Army. The number of inmates fell and the southern market that supported the penitentiary’s shoe making factory disappeared. But penitentiary officials were alert to opportunities. When they learned that the District of Columbia’s penitentiary was being taken over by the United States Arsenal, they arranged for Albany to be the penitentiary for the District. This began in September 1862 with the transfer of 131 convicts, and continued for decades after the war ended; over time felons convicted in other federal courts were sent to Albany. . Confederate prisoners of war (including Samuel “One-Armed” Berry, one of Quantrill’s Raiders), Ku Klux Klan members, D.C. swindlers, Tom Ballard – the most famous counterfeiter of the 19th century, and petty criminals serving six months or less and guilty of such offenses as assault, horse theft, and indecent exposure, all ended up in the same institution.

3

The most famous convicts ever sentenced to time in Albany never arrived. Four of the convicted conspirators in the Lincoln assassination — Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edman Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen — were sentenced to Albany. They boarded a ship in the Potomac expecting a long trip north but were surprised to find themselves sailing to a military prison in the Dry Tortugas, islands at the end of the Florida Keys. Despite his cries of injustice at the sentencing, Dr. Mudd, convicted of conspiracy for setting John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the assassination, apparently found the extremely southern prison more to his liking. A friend wrote to Mudd’s daughter that, “He is doing a great deal better than he would have done at Albany.”

mudd

For decades the penitentiary made a tidy profit. But by the early 1900s, counties across the state were building their own penitentiaries and there was a growing Federal prison system – the penitentiary went into the red. The rapid explosion of residential development in the Delaware Ave. area and the conversion of the mostly wild and over grown Beaver Park to the community Lincoln Park in the early 1900s dictated a new location for the prison.

By 1920, plans were being made for a new penitentiary. But this is Albany, so things take time. Overcrowding in Albany city schools forced the issue. In 1927 William S. Hackett Jr. High School was built on the penitentiary grounds on Delaware Ave. The old Albany Penitentiary was finally closed after a new one opened in 1931, well out of the city, on Albany Shaker Road. The penitentiary was razed in 1933; the demolition crew found the remnants of underground dungeons with chains and manacles attached to the thick foundation walls. (So much for a model of modern prison reform.)

The City briefly considered building a new high school on the site, but decided to renovate existing School 14 in the South End to become Philip Schuyler High School. In 1941, the land was dedicated as the Hoogkamp (after the Mayor at the time) Girl Scout playground and camping area. That lasted for a nano until the outbreak of World War II, when area was given over to Victory Gardens. It was sold to the federal government in 1946 for the current V.A. Hospital, which opened in 1951.

13
Interior Albany Penitentiary

Untitled

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor