Prison to library

Although I work less than fifteen minutes away by foot, I’d never visited the NYPL’s Jefferson Market Branch Library until a few weekends ago, when a friend wanted to pick up some books she’d reserved.

It’s a gorgeous building — the spiral staircase especially — but the history of the place is more riveting than the architecture.

Jefferson Market was built in the 1870s as a courthouse. In the early 1900s, women arrested in the great shirtwaist workers’ strike of 1908-1909 — before the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — were rounded up and taken there to stand trial at night. By the mid-1920s, the courts “were used solely for the trials of women, and in 1929 [an adjacent] market and co-ed prison were torn down and replaced by the Women’s House of Detention, probably the only Art Deco prison in the world.”

Mae West was tried there

soon after on obscenity charges when her Broadway play Sex became a target of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. West received a $500 fine, one day next door in the Women’s House of Detention and nine days at the workhouse on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). The House of Detention was razed in 1973.

LindaAnn Loschiavo of The Villager recently recalled that writer and activist Grace Paley was incarcerated at the prison 1966. A year earlier, Andrea Dworkin, who died this past April, was taken to the House of Detention when she was arrested at a Vietnam War protest. While she was in custody, a pair of sadistic physicians performed a pelvic exam that left her sterile.

Update: A reader named Shelley writes in to note that the library is “an important spot in labor history.”

One of the women [who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory] was the heroic Clara Lemlich, who led the shirtwaist workers out onto the picket lines when she stormed the stage at a union meeting in the Great Hall at Cooper Union and called “strike, strike strike” in Yiddish — the scene is immortalized in, of all things, the play and movie “I’m Not Rappaport.” Luckily, Lemlich was no longer working at the Triangle in March 1911 when 146 women died in the fire, but many of those who died had been in the shirtwaist strike alongside her.

Taking it a little further — hope I’m not boring you — the shirtwaist strike actually went on to be the inspiration for International Women’s Day. At the Second Communist International, Russian revolutionaries Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai proposed that the workers’ movement henceforth mark March 8 as International Women’s Day in part to commemorate the strike.

Which brings you back to the Jefferson Market building — because after years during which International Women’s Day had been forgotten, it was revived on March 8, 1970, at the height of the second wave of the women’s movement.

A mass demonstration of women marched to the prison to demand that all the prisoners, who were mostly Black and Latina in there for crimes of poverty, be released. People stayed outside for hours chanting things like “tear down the walls” and the women on the inside watched out the windows, waved and clapped. I think it wasn’t too long after this protest that the prison was shut down and turned into a library.


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