July 9, 1819: Rose Butler
Potter's Field, New York, New York
      To be sent in a cart to State Prison, to climb the stairs
      to the attic, where the women are kept, and left
      there, left in that close heat with strangers, their
      children, their filthy bodies.  Charged with theft,
      say. Rats.  Fleas.  Cholera, buckets of shit, and years
      spent fighting, trapped there, forgotten till you died.

The preacher visits her holding cell and swears
she’s sure to go to hell.  The Sheriff’s kind:
gives her an orange, a ride in a coach, at last,
to the gallows.  She’d dreaded a cart.  They tie black bows
at her feet and neck, tie her white shroud, and ask
Would you rather go to the State Prison, Rose?

Just curious.  She stood like a lamb, still, dumb.
She thought of the cart. No. I had rather be hung.

Notes:

Butler, a slave, burned down her mistress's house; she was the last person publicly hanged and buried on the potter’s field that became Washington Square. The account of her execution includes a conversation she had with her jailors, in which she said she'd rather be hanged than go to the state prison. Shortly after her execution a separate prison was built in New York for women prisoners, but in 1819 women were still incarcerated in the attic of the men's prison in Auburn.

Janvier, Thomas. In Old New York. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000

Powers, Gershom. A brief account of the construction, management, and discipline &c. &c. the New York State Prison at Auburn : together with a compendium on criminal law. Also a report of the trial of an officer of said prison for whipping a convict / by G. Powers, agent and keeper. Auburn, N.Y. : Printed by U.F. Doubleday, 1826

Quotations:

Ripley, Dorothy. An account of Rose Butler,: aged nineteen years, whose execution I attended in the potter’s field ... for setting fire to her mistress’ dwelling house / by Dorothy Ripley. New-York:  Printed by John C. Totten, 1819

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