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The New York Times, 7 July 1878
Mrs. Sulivan's Cowhide.
Flogging in the Kings County Penitentiary.
How a Female Prisoner was Punished for Giving Boss M'Laughlin's Niece a Black Eye -- Prison Governor Shevlin's Account of the Chastisement.
Among a number or female prisoners who were transferred on the 16th of November last from the Sing Sing Prison to the Kings County Penitentiary was a colored woman named Nellie White. A day or two ago it was reported that Nellie had had some trouble with one of the Matrons of the female prison, and had been roughly handled. The report, as it was heard, was that on June 22 the colored woman had been guilty of some breach of discipline, for which she was reprimanded by the Matron, a Mrs. Sullivan. Nellie, it was said, made insolent replies to Mrs. Sullivan, which so enraged her that she struck Nellie a blow in the face with her hand, and Nellie returned a blow from her fist, which gave Mrs. Sullivan a bad black eye. Mrs. Sullivan, it was said, then lost all self-control, and, procuring a horse whip, gave the prisoner a most unmerciful beating, and caused her to be put in a dark cell, on bread and water. It was further reported that Mr. Shevlin, the Governor of the Penitentiary, knew nothing of the affair at the time of its occurrence, and that he was annoyed when he heard about it, and informed Mrs. Sullivan that, if a like offense occurred again, she might consider herself vacant at once.
Supplied with these allegations, a reporter for THE TIMES went to the Penitentiary on Friday afternoon last for the purpose of investigating them. Mr. Shevlin was not there, and Mr. E.B. Crummly, the Deputy Warden, refused either to deny the story or to admit its truth. There was a prisoner there, he said, by the name of Nellie White. She was a colored woman, and was one of those who were transferred from Sing Sing in November last.
He would neither allow her nor the Matron to be seen, however, saying that he was only the Deputy Warden, and that all authority in such matters must come from Mr. Shevlin, who would, no doubt, be most happy to explain the whole matter. Yesterday morning the reporter went again to the Penitentiary. Mr. Shevlin, the Governor, was present. When asked whether there was anything in the story as told, Mr. Shevlin replied that there was really not much in it, and that the details had been very much exaggerated. It was, he said, only the third case of the kind which had occurred during the seven years he had been connected with the institution -- that is, only the third time during that period that it has been found necessary to flog a female prisoner. In explaining the flogging, Mr. Shevlin said that the offense which led to its infliction was committed at noon on Saturday, June 22, while the convicts were on the way from the shoe shop to the hall to get their dinner. Nellie is employed as an operator on a sewing-machine in the shoe shop. In transferring the prisoners to the hall for dinner, Nellie's clothing became disarranged, and the Matron reprimanded her for the careless manner in which she had dressed herself before leaving the shop. Nellie retorted in an impertinent way, and then Mrs. Sullivan slapped her in the face. This, Mr. Shevlin said, Mrs. Sullivan had no business to do. This made the prisoner angry, and she struck the Matron in the face with her fist, giving her a black eye. The Matron, he said, reported the case to him, and he ordered the woman to be cowhided. She was not stripped, nor tied up, nor anything of that kind, he said, but simply chastised, just as a man would chastise a disobedient child. He was sure, he said, that she did not receive more than five or six blows, and he repeated the assertion that he himself ordered the whipping, remarking at the same time that it was an established rule that no subordinate should take it on himself or herself to punish a convict for a breach of discipline, and that he would not give any one of them who should break this rule more than five minutes in which to get out of the place. He admitted that the woman was put into the dark cell after being whipped, bit that she was only allowed to remain there over Sunday, and was then taken out and on Monday put to work.
Mr. Shevlin also denied that she was or had been suffering from the effects of the beating. The only question, he said, in regard to the matter, was whether he had the legal right to enforce discipline in the prison by the use of the cowhide. The law allowing the whipping of prisoners for breach of discipline had been abolished, so far as State prisoners were concerned, but, as he understood it, that did not apply to county institutions; and, while there might not be any law expressly conferring that power upon the keepers of county penal institutions, there was not, to his knowledge, any law forbidding it. If there was any such law, he would be glad to be made acquainted with it, and he was not only willing, but anxious that the subject should be thoroughly investigated by the proper authorities. If he had done wrong, he was willing to take the consequences. If the people who are making complaints feel aggrieved, said Mr. Shevlin, they have only to go to the Supervisors and ask for an investigation, and he had no doubt one would be ordered. He would like to have a full and open investigation at which all the representatives of the press could have free access, so that all the facts in the case could be published. Mr. Shevlin refused to allow the reporter to talk with the Matron or the prisoner, giving as his excuse for refusing that if he did so by one be would have to by all, and that the result would be that he would be overrun with newspaper men on every rumor of the kind which found its way outside the prison walls.
Rev. J. G. Bass, of No. 57 De Kalb-avenue, Brooklyn, is a missionary of the Brooklyn Home Missionary Society, and is the Chaplain of the Kings County Penitentiary. He not only visits the Penitentiary at intervals during the week, but conducts regular religious services in the prison every Sunday afternoon, and holds prayer-meetings there every Tuesday evening. His relations with the Governor of the Penitentiary, and with all his subordinates, he said to the reporter, were of the most cordial and friendly character, and he did not care to do or say anything which might have a tendency to impair the work which, under God, he felt called upon to undertake among the unfortunate inmates of the Kings County Penitentiary. Without informing Mr. Bass of the story which had been told by Mr. Shevlin, the Chaplain was asked to give his version of the affair. This he proceeded to do, and his account was a full collaboration of the story obtained at the Penitentiary, with the exception that his understanding of the facts was that the flogging was done by Mrs. Sullivan without the knowledge of Mr. Shevlin; that Mr. Shevlin, when he heard the facts in the case, not only ordered the prisoner to be released from the dark cell, but informed Mrs. Sullivan that she had been guilty of a breach of discipline, and that if ever she repeated the offense he should discharge her on the spot. Mr. Bass said he had not seen the prisoner since she was whipped, and did not know how severe her punishment had been; but he looked upon it as the height of absurdity to suppose that, even if the whipping had been done by the order of Mr. Shevlin, the prisoner had got off with only six blows, when the cowhide was placed in the hands of an enraged woman, for the blacking of whose eye the punishment was inflicted. Mr. Bass said he believed that the day for using the cowhide upon prisoners has passed. The practice has long been unpopular outside of prisons and penitentiaries, and it is high time keepers of these institutions were made aware of that fact.
The Kings County Penitentiary is my especial pride, and I am only anxious to see it conducted on just and humane principles. In corroboration of his statement that the whipping was done without the knowledge of Mr. Shevlin, Mr. Bass said he was informed by Mr. Crummly that he was applied to at the time for two men to assist in inflicting the punishment, and that he refused to send the required assistance. Mr. Bass also expressed great surprise when informed that Mr. Shevlin had refused to allow the reporter to see either the Matron or the prisoner.
Mrs. Sullivan, the Matron, has held her place about two years. Her maiden name was McLaughlin, and she a niece of Boss McLaughlin. She is a sister of a former Matron of the Penitentiary, who married one of the Deputy Keepers, named McNeely. When Mrs. McNeely was married, two years ago, she resigned, and Mrs. Sullivan was appointed in her place. Mrs. Sullivan is a widow. Mr. Shevlin, the Governor of the Penitentiary, is a nephew of Boss McLaughlin, by marriage, his wife being the daughter of "Bub" McLaughlin, a brother of the Boss.
Nellie White, the woman who was flogged, is 33 years old and unmarried. This is the second time she has been confined as a prisoner in the Kings County Penitentiary. Her first imprisonment was in the latter part of 1872 and the beginning 1873, at which time she served a sentence of four months for petit larceny under the name of Nellie Nelson. She was last sentenced for grand larceny on Jan. 25, 1877, receiving a sentence in this City for a term of five years' imprisonment at Sing Sing. She then gave her name as Nellie White. She was transferred to the Kings County Penitentiary, with others, Nov. 16, 1877. Mr. Shevlin said yesterday that she had always been more or less impudent, and given to "talking back," since she had been there, but that since the flogging he had heard no more complaints against her, and it was his opinion that the experience had been of considerable benefit to her.
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