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1969 SPECIAL REPORT: "NYC ALIMONY JAIL"

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Above All That Drama

Public shaming of cheaters was around long before the Ashley Madison scandal. In fact, in the 19th century, men who divorced their wives and didn’t pay alimony were sent straight to jail.

Atlas Obscura uncovered the fascinating history of the Ludlow Street Jail, New York City’s federal prison on Ludlow and Broome Streets. Built in 1862, the jail mostly held debtors, but it also was where men who cheated on their alimony payments ended up, thus turning the “prison” into a glorified clubhouse for divorced men known as the New York Alimony Club. In addition to cigar smoking and unsavory jokes, the Ludlow Street Jail became known for back-door deals, rampant corruption, and the baffling semi-imprisonment of Boss Tweed.

William “Boss” Tweed, the notorious boss of Tammany Hall, helped found the jail, and he and a Board of Alderman oversaw the institution. The red brick building didn’t look much like a jail, with its large arched windows, stately cornice, and open courtyard. Inside, ten-foot square cells could hold 87 men. Only ten percent of the inmates committed federal crimes; the majority were there for owing money to creditors who convinced a judge they were a flight risk (formal debtors’ prison had been outlawed in 1833). And of course, there were the infamous divorcees.

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