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Original Tombs building, 1896.
"The Tombs" is the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Complex, a jail in lower Manhattan at 125 White Street, as well as the popular name of a series of downtown jails. The nickname has been used for several structures dating from the early-mid 19th Century.

A Mausoleum for the living

The first complex to bear the nickname was built in 1838, and was designed by John Haviland. The design was based on an engraving of an ancient Egyptian mausoleum. The building initially accommodated about 300 prisoners. It occupied a full block in Lower Manhattanmarker, surrounded by Centre, Franklin, Elm (today's Lafayette), and Leonard Streets.

The block on which the building stood had been created in 1811 by the filling-in of the Collect Pondmarker, a small lake that had once been an important fresh water source for colonial New York City. Industrialization and population density by the late 1700s resulted in the severe pollution of the Collect and it was condemned, drained and filled in. The landfill job was not a very thorough one (and perhaps could not have been, as the Collect was fed by very deep aquifers and surrounded by bogs). Swampy, foul-smelling conditions had already led to the formation of a poor, hardscrabble neighborhoodmarker by the time construction of the prison started in 1838. The enormous, heavy masonry of Haviland's building was built atop caisson of gigantic lashed hemlock tree trunks in a bid for stability, but the entire structure began to sink soon after it was opened. This watery foundation and the lightless solidity of the building were primarily responsible for its reputation as an egregious, unsanitary hellhole in the decades to come.

First Tombs building, 1870
Second Tombs building, November 1907
Bridge of Sighs
As it also housed the city's courts, police, and detention facilities, The Tombs' more formal title was The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. Some regarded it as a notable example of Egyptian Revival architecture in the U.S., but opinion varied greatly on its actual merit. "What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter's palace in a melodrama?", asked Charles Dickens in his American Notes of 1842.

The prison was well known for its corruption and went through numerous scandals and successful prison escapes throughout its early history and, by 1850, many were calling for its destruction.

By the early 1900s, reforms began to be made as the first prison school for younger inmates in an American adult correction facility was established by the Public Schools Association in 1900.

The original building was replaced in 1902 with a new one connected by a "Bridge of Sighsmarker" to the Criminal Courts Building on the Franklin Street side. That building was replaced in 1941 by one at 125 White Street, officially named the Manhattan House of Detention, though still popularly referred to as "The Tombs".

Part of "the Tombs" was eventually closed in 1974 for security and health reasons. Shortly thereafter, the structure was pulled down and replaced with another building. The current jail comprises two buildings connected by a pedestrian bridge—a 381 bed tower that is the remaining part of the 1941 building at 100 Centre Street (completely remodeled in 1983), and a 500-bed tower north of it, opened in 1990.

The current Tombs prison was named The Bernard B. Kerik Complex in December 2001 at the direction of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; Kerik had been a well-regarded corrections commissioner from 1998-2000 before becoming police commissioner. After Kerik's 2006 plea bargain admitting to two misdemeanor ethics violations dating from his tenure as a city employee, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered his name removed.

In summary:

  • Tombs I, 1838-1902, New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention, building by John Haviland
  • Tombs II, 1902-1941, Manhattan House of Detention
  • Tombs III, 1941-1974, Manhattan House of Detention
  • Tombs IV, 1974-present, Manhattan Detention Complex (Bernard B. Kerik Complex 2001-2006)

In popular culture

  • The Tombs is the setting for the endings of two works by Herman Melville: Pierre: or, The Ambiguities and Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby, apparently through willful starvation, dies on the grassy ground of an open yard in the prison, prompting his former employer to famously exclaim, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!".
  • The Tombs also provides the setting in the 1937 pulp fiction story "Dictator of the Damned". The Spider stages a daring raid to help clear an innocent man.
  • Jim Carroll mentions in his song "People Who Died" that his friend Bobby committed suicide by hanging in the Tombs.
  • TV drama Law & Order regularly makes references to The Tombs.
  • Harlan Ellison penned an autobiographical novel — Memos from Purgatory — concerning his brief incarceration in The Tombs for his arrest stemming from the possession of a firearm that he had used as a prop while lecturing.
  • In November 2000, sixteen people associated with the Opie and Anthony Radio Show were arrested and held in The Tombs overnight during a promotion for "The Voyeur Bus", a mostly glass bus carting topless women through Manhattanmarker with a police escort. The stunt was harshly condemned by Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
  • Richard Price incarcerates Eric Cash, the main character of his novel Lush Life, in the Tombs.
  • Towards the end of the film American Gangster, Denzel Washington's character, Frank Lucas, is seen leaving prison after a 15-year sentence. This scene is shot at the Tombs, although in real life prisoners are held there for relatively short stays (arraignments, trials, etc.).
  • At least one reference is made to the tombs in the 2000 movie Shaft, featuring Samuel L. Jackson.

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