The New York Prison that Doubled as a Clubhouse For Alimony Cheats

The Ludlow Street Jail in New York City has an interesting history. In the 19th century, it was a corrupt operation that had a tiered set of condition, depending on how much an inmate could afford to pay for favors. Pony up enough, and you might have a private cell and spend your days smoking cigars and playing billiards. Of course, this system meant less room, food, and protection for those would could not pay. Boss Tweed himself was incarcerated at the Ludlow Street jail, and he easily escaped from his luxury accommodations. Reform campaigns led to changes, but not all for the better.      

In the early 20th century, almost all of the inmates left in the Ludlow Street Jail were men who had defaulted on their alimony payments. At the time, the laws in New York stated that if a man refused to pay alimony, he would be sentenced to six months in jail, after which he would be free of all further payments. Accordingly, divorced men whom the courts had decreed owed payments to their ex-wives began shrugging their shoulders and heading off to jail for an all-expenses paid vacation at what came to be nicknamed The New York Alimony Club.

Gone were the days of corrupt extortion. The days of gleeful misogyny had arrived. As one member of the club described to the New York Times in 1911, “Many of us have preferred to come here as a matter of principle rather than pay money that was demanded of us practically as black-mail from wives, who, while we were hard pressed, were living in luxury.”  

The Alimony Club would host lavish holiday dinners for the inmates, and lived in a convivial little cabal—one that was “utopian,” according to the Times article. The new warden who arrived in 1912 even began playing music for the delinquent ex-husbands.

That’s just one episode in the sordid history of the Ludlow Street Jail, which you can read at Atlas Obscura.

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