Although today’s society often appears to be rife with crime, little has
changed since the 1800s when it comes to human nature.
Western New York was no
exception. Crimes of passion, drunkenness, murder, greed, power,
control, indebtedness, bootlegging occurred frequently and made the
headlines of many local newspapers. Sheriffs were elected and court
systems were set up quickly following pioneer settlement to protect
communities and to serve justice with equity. In this exhibit we have
chosen to feature selected stories of crime as well as look at the types
of punishment meted out. Were these alleged criminals justly convicted?
Were the punishments appropriate or inhumane?
Consider these questions as you meet some
Western New York’s criminals and learn about the
consequences of their actions. As always, remember to keep in mind the
social and economic context of the time.
Theft of goods and property began as soon as people came to settle in
Western New York. However, the legal system was established
very quickly to accommodate those who sought to take advantage of
Temperance to Prohibition
The temperance movement began in the early 19th century
spearheaded by physicians, ministers and employers concerned about the
drunkenness of workers and servants.
It eventually became one of several social reform movements led
by the middle class.
Temperance supporters believed that alcohol destroyed the moral
character as well as the physical and mental health of those who drank
it. It maintained that
alcohol was the root cause of unemployment, poverty, slums, insanity,
crime and violence.
The Crime of
In the early 19th century failure to pay one’s debts could
land the debtor in jail.
Shown here is a note to the creditors of George Brown of Canandaigua
giving all of his possessions to creditors to evade debtor's prison, May
12, 1826. What would the
current financial community think of the use of debtor’s prison in the
Like today, 19th
century passion, drunkenness, greed, and the desire for power sometimes
led to the crime of murder.
In the late 1800s, the punishment for murder in the first degree was
death by hanging: two men were hanged in
Ontario County, one in Wayne
County, and several in Monroe
Institutional Committal instead of Jail
During the 19th century, individuals with mental health problems,
physical disabilities, and mental disabilities were often placed in jail
or in institutions as their families were unable or unwilling to care
for them, or they had no means of support.
There was often a blurred line between crime and mental or
physical health issues. In
County, such individuals
were housed in the county jail or the poorhouse until state reforms
By 1825, the population of Ontario County had grown large enough that a
county poorhouse was needed. A one hundred acre farm was bought in Hopewell and a house was
built for the poor to be run by a keeper and his wife.
The “inmates” as they were then called included vagrants, tramps,
the mentally ill, the destitute, orphans, the disabled, and the aged.
Some of these individuals most likely spent time in the county jail
prior to coming to the poor house for minor crimes or for lack of a
better place to put them.
Others came because of family circumstances where no one was willing or
able to support them.
Ontario County Jails
Shortly after Ontario County was founded in 1789, the first
county jail was erected. The
jail was a log structure located on or near the southwest corner of the
public square near where the current
City Hall stands. By 1815,
Ontario County allotted $6000 to construct a
permanent jail. The
substantial fieldstone structure was built on
Jail Street (now Ontario Street). As the county’s
population grew so did the number of prisoners incarcerated.
In 1895, a new Ontario County Jail was constructed next to the
old one for nearly $25,000.
If you would like to learn more about Crime and Punishment in
Western New York, a booklet is available in our book shop.