Sugar house prisons in New York City

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The Livingston sugar house (left) on Liberty Street in Manhattan once detained 400 to 500 American prisoners of the Revolutionary War.

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.[1] 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.[2]


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.[3][4] Three of these large structures were known for being used by the British Army to house prisoners of war during their occupation of New York City in the midst of the American Revolution.[1][4]


Livingston's sugar house[edit]

Sugar house prisons in New York City is located in New York City
Van Cortlandt
Van Cortlandt
Van Cortlandt Park (Sugar house window)
Van Cortlandt Park (Sugar house window)
Sugar house locations in New York City.

The sugar house on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan was a six-story stone building which had been built in 1754 by the Livingston family as a refinery with very low floors.[3][5] According to Revolutionary War veteran Levi Hanford, who was captured in March 1777, 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 sea water 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."[5] 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.[5] The structure was later demolished in 1846.[4] The site is now occupied by buildings numbered 34 and 36.[1]

Rhinelander's sugar house[edit]

Rhinelander's Sugar House & Residence, between William & Rose Streets. The last of the Sugar House Prisons of the Revolution

The sugar house on the corner of Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street in Lower Manhattan was a five-story brick warehouse. Built in 1763 by William Rhinelander, the structure originally stored molasses and sugar next to his own residence.[1][6] During the Revolutionary War it is believed to have been used by the British army as a prison.[7] When the building fell into disrepair during the early 19th century, locals believed it to be haunted by ghosts of prisoners from the war. However, Brooklyn history professor Edwin G. Burrows believes this sugar house was not used as a prison and that the legend may have originated from local historian Charles I. Bushnell. 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 wall with another window was moved to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.[6]

Van Cortlandt's sugar house[edit]

Van Cortlandt's sugar house (NYPL Hades-255900-430920)

The sugar house on the northwest corner of the yard of Trinity Church in Manhattan was built by John Van Cortlandt and partner George Petterson around 1755; Van Cortlandt took sole proprietorship after their partnership was dissolved two years later.[8] Used as a prison during the Revolutionary War, the building was later torn down in 1852.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Gillett, Jonathan (1911). "The Prisons Of New York". American Prisoners Of The Revolution. Access Genealogy. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  2. ^ Reese, Jimmie (September 17, 2009). "The Sugar House As A Prison During The Revolutionary War". Knickerbocker Village. Retrieved February 12, 2011.
  3. ^ a b Wilson, James Grant (1892). "The Memorial History of the City of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892". 2. New York History Company. p. 454. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Wilson, James Grant (1893). "The Memorial History of the City of New-York: From Its First Settlement to the Year 1892". 1. New York History Company. p. 301. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c Hanford, William H. (January 15, 1852). "Incidents of the Revolution: Recollections of the Old Sugar House Prison" (PDF). The New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  6. ^ a b Lidian (March 19, 2010). "The Rhinelander Sugar House". Adventures in Old New York. The Virtual Dime Museum. Retrieved February 11, 2011.
  7. ^ Black, Mary (24 July 2013). Old New York in Early Photographs. Dover Publications. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-486-31743-4.
  8. ^ De Forest, Louis Effingham (1930). "The Van Cortlandt family". The Historical Pub. Society. Retrieved February 11, 2011.

Further reading[edit]

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