A Guest At The Ludlow by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Literature

We are stopping quietly here, taking our meals in our rooms mostly, and going out very little indeed. When I say we, I use the term editorially.

We notice first of all the great contrast between this and other hotels, and in several instances this one is superior. In the first place, there is a sense of absolute security when one goes to sleep here that can not be felt at a popular hotel, where burglars secrete themselves in the wardrobe during the day and steal one’s pantaloons and contents at night. This is one of the compensations of life in prison.

Here the burglars go to bed at the hour that the rest of us do. We all retire at the same time, and a murderer can not sit up any later at night than the smaller or unknown criminal can.

You can get to Ludlow Street Jail by taking the Second avenue Elevated train to Grand street, and then going east two blocks, or you can fire a shotgun into a Sabbath-school.

You can pay five cents to the Elevated Railroad and get here, or you can put some other man’s nickel in your own slot and come here with an attendant.

William Marcy Tweed was the contractor of Ludlow Street Jail, and here also he died. He was the son of a poor chair-maker, and was born April 3, 1823. From the chair business in 1853 to congress was the first false step. Exhilarated by the delirium of official life, and the false joys of franking his linen home every week, and having cake and preserves franked back to him at Washington, he resolved to still further taste the delights of office, and in 1857 we find him as a school commissioner.

In 1860 he became Grand Sachem of the Tammany Society, an association at that time more purely political than politically pure. As president of the board of supervisors, head of the department of public works, state senator, and Grand Sachem of Tammany, Tweed had a large and seductive influence over the city and state. The story of how he earned a scanty livelihood by stealing a million of dollars at a pop, and thus, with the most rigid economy, scraped together $20,000,000 in a few years by patient industry and smoking plug tobacco, has been frequently told.

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Tweed was once placed here in Ludlow Street Jail in default of $3,000,000 bail. How few there are of us who could slap up that amount of bail if rudely gobbled on the street by the hand of the law. While riding out with the sheriff, in 1875, Tweed asked to see his wife, and said he would be back in a minute.

He came back by way of Spain, in the fall of ’76, looking much improved. But the malaria and dissipation of Blackwell’s Island afterwards impaired his health, and having done time there, and having been arrested afterwards and placed in Ludlow Street Jail, he died here April 12, 1878, leaving behind him a large, vain world, and an equally vain judgment for $6,537,117.38, to which he said he would give his attention as soon as he could get a paving contract in the sweet ultimately.

From the exterior Ludlow Street Jail looks somewhat like a conservatory of music, but as soon as one enters he readily discovers his mistake. The structure has 100 feet frontage, and a court, which is sometimes called the court of last resort. The guest can climb out of this court by ascending a polished brick wall about 100 feet high, and then letting himself down in a similar way on the Ludlow street side.

That one thing is doing a great deal towards keeping quite a number of people here who would otherwise, I think, go away.

James D. Fish and Ferdinand Ward both remained here prior to their escape to Sing Sing. Red Leary, also, made his escape from this point, but did not succeed in reaching the penitentiary. Forty thousand prisoners have been confined in Ludlow Street Jail, mostly for civil offenses. A man in New York runs a very short career if he tries to be offensively civil.

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As you enter Ludlow Street Jail the door is carefully closed after you, and locked by means of an iron lock about the size of a pictorial family Bible. You then remain on the inside for quite a spell. You do not hear the prattle of soiled children any more. All the glad sunlight, and stench-condensing pavements, and the dark-haired inhabitants of Rivington street, are seen no longer, and the heavy iron storm-door shuts out the wail of the combat from the alley near by. Ludlow Street Jail may be surrounded by a very miserable and dirty quarter of the city, but when you get inside all is changed.

You register first. There is a good pen there that you can write with, and the clerk does not chew tolu and read a sporting paper while you wait for a room. He is there to attend to business, and he attends to it. He does not seem to care whether you have any baggage or not. You can stay here for days, even if you don’t have any baggage. All you need is a kind word and a mittimus from the court.

One enters this sanitarium either as a boarder or a felon. If you decide to come in as a boarder, you pay the warden $15 a week for the privilege of sitting at his table and eating the luxuries of the market. You also get a better room than at many hotels, and you have a good strong door, with a padlock on it, which enables you to prevent the sudden and unlooked-for entrance of the chambermaid. It is a good-sized room, with a wonderful amount of seclusion, a plain bed, table, chairs, carpet and so forth. After a few weeks at the seaside, at $19 per day, I think the room in which I am writing is not unreasonable at $2.

Still, of course, we miss the sea breeze.

You can pay $50 to $100 per week here if you wish, and get your money’s worth, too. For the latter sum one may live in the bridal chamber, so to speak, and eat the very best food all the time.

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Heavy iron bars keep the mosquitoes out, and at night the house is brilliantly lighted by incandescent lights of one-candle power each. Neat snuffers, consisting of the thumb and forefinger polished on the hair, are to be found in each occupied room.

Bread is served to the Freshmen and Juniors in rectangular wads. It is such bread as convicts’ tears have moistened many thousand years. In that way it gets quite moist.

The most painful feature about life in Ludlow Street Jail is the confinement. One can not avoid a feeling of being constantly hampered and hemmed in.

One more disagreeable thing is the great social distinction here. The poor man who sleeps in a stone niche near the roof, and who is constantly elbowed and hustled out of his bed by earnest and restless vermin with a tendency toward insomnia, is harassed by meeting in the court-yard and corridors the paying boarders who wear good clothes, live well, have their cigars, brandy and Kentucky Sec all the time.

The McAllister crowd here is just as exclusive as it is on the outside.

But, great Scott! what a comfort it is to a man like me, who has been nearly killed by a cyclone, to feel the firm, secure walls and solid time lock when he goes to bed at night! Even if I can not belong to the 400, I am almost happy.

We retire at 7:30 o’clock at night and arise at 6:30 in the morning, so as to get an early start. A man who has five or ten years to stay in a place like this naturally likes to get at it as soon as possible each day, and so he gets up at 6:30.

We dress by the gaudy light of the candle, and while we do so, we remember far away at home our wife and the little boy asleep in her arms. They do not get up at 6:30. It is at this hour we remember the fragrant drawer in the dresser at home where our clean shirts, and collars and cuffs, and socks and handkerchiefs, are put every week by our wife. We also recall as we go about our stone den, with its odor of former corned beef, and the ghost of some bloody-handed predecessor’s snore still moaning in the walls, the picture of green grass by our own doorway, and the apples that were just ripening, when the bench warrant came.

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The time from 6:30 to breakfast is occupied by the average, or non-paying inmate, in doing the chamberwork and tidying up his state-room. I do not know how others feel about it, but I dislike chamberwork most heartily, especially when I am in jail. Nothing has done more to keep me out of jail, I guess, than the fact that while there I have to make up my bed and dust the piano.

Breakfast is generally table d’hote and consists of bread. A tin-cup of coffee takes the taste of the bread out of your mouth, and then if you have some Limburger cheese in your pocket you can with that remove the taste of the coffee.

Dinner is served at 12 o’clock, and consists of more bread with soup. This soup has everything in it except nourishment. The bead on this soup is noticeable for quite a distance. It is disagreeable. Several days ago I heard that the Mayor was in the soup, but I didn’t realize it before. I thought it was a newspaper yarn. There is everything in this soup, from shop-worn rice up to neat’s-foot oil. Once I thought I detected cuisine in it.

The dinner menu is changed on Fridays, Sundays and Thursdays, on which days you get the soup first and the bread afterwards. In this way the bread is saved.

Three days in a week each man gets at dinner a potato containing a thousand-legged worm. At 6 o’clock comes supper with toast and responses. Bread is served at supper time, together with a cup of tea. To those who dislike bread and never eat soup, or do not drink tea or coffee, life at Ludlow Street Jail is indeed irksome.

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I asked for kumiss and a pony of Benedictine, as my stone boudoir made me feel rocky, but it has not yet been sent up.

Somehow, while here, I can not forget poor old man Dorrit, the Master of the Marshalsea, and how the Debtors’ Prison preyed upon his mind till he didn’t enjoy anything except to stand off and admire himself. Ludlow Street Jail is a good deal like it in many ways, and I can see how in time the canker of unrest and the bitter memories of those who did us wrong but who are basking in the bright and bracing air, while we, to meet their obligations, sacrifice our money, our health and at last our minds, would kill hope and ambition.

In a few weeks I believe I should also get a preying on my mind. That is about the last thing I would think of preying on, but a man must eat something.

Before closing this brief and incomplete account as a guest at Ludlow Street Jail I ought, in justice to my family, to say, perhaps, that I came down this morning to see a friend of mine who is here because he refuses to pay alimony to his recreant and morbidly sociable wife. He says he is quite content to stay here, so long as his wife is on the outside. He is writing a small ready-reference book on his side of the great problem, “Is Marriage a Failure?”

With this I shake him by the hand and in a moment the big iron storm-door clangs behind me, the big lock clicks in its hoarse, black throat and I welcome even the air of Ludlow street so long as the blue sky is above it.

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