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Auburn Prison Riots Collection

An inventory of the collection at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: MRC
Date: 9 Feb 2021

Biographical History

The correctional facility in Auburn, New York opened in 1817 and is the oldest continually operating prison in the United States. "The Auburn System" was intended as a new (i.e. tougher) approach to prison, and included policies such as flogging, isolation, lockstep marching, striped uniforms, and rigorously enforced silence. Auburn was the first prison to turn a profit by leasing the labor of its convicts to local manufacturers (products that came out of the Auburn prison factory included nails, barrels, clothing, shoes and boots, carpets, buttons, carpenters' tools, steam engines and boilers, combs, harnesses, furniture, brooms, clocks, buckets and pails, saddle trees, wagons and sleighs, threshing equipment, rifles, and -- at one point -- silkworms and silk). Auburn also has the dubious distinction of being the first prison to install and use the electric chair. Flogging at the Auburn facility was outlawed in 1847 and convict contract labor in 1894. In 1913 Thomas Mott Osborne, mayor of Auburn, was appointed to the newly created State Commission for Prison Reform and, after an undercover stint as an inmate, introduced numerous reforms -- including inmate self-government -- that were later adopted at many other correctional facilities. The prison operates today as the "Auburn Correctional Facility."

The facility has experience several riots and other incidents of violence over the years. Two of the most significant took place in 1929. In July, inmates seized weapons from the prison armory; prison shops were set on fire, six buildings were destroyed, and four prisoners escaped. In December of that same year, the warden and six guards were taken hostage by a group of inmates; Principal Keeper George A. Durnford and eight prisoners were killed in the ensuing violence. These incidents were attributed to overcrowding and to intolerable conditions within the prison due to weather extremes of heat and cold respectively. In November of 1970, inmates took control of the prison and held 50 people -- some guards, others civilian construction workers -- hostage for more than eight hours; although there was significant property damage, there were no fatalities. The incident was attribute to increasing racial tensions and to prisoners' rights being violated.

[Portions of this background adapted from the brochure "Both Sides of the Wall," published by the Cayuga Museum.]

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Auburn Prison Riots Collection consists of photographs and clippings related to the 1929 and 1970 riots and to a fire in 1974. The photographs show damage from the incidents, while clippings provide contextual information.

Arrangement of the Collection

Alphabetical by type of material, and within that by date.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings

Corporate Bodies

Auburn Prison.


Prison riots -- New York (State)
Prisons -- New York (State)

Genres and Forms

Clippings (information artifacts)

Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Auburn Prison Riots Collection,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase, 2020.

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