24 March 2009

Gershom Powers

Member of Congress

Gershom Powers was a teacher, attorney, prison official, judge and Congressman. A native of Croydon, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, he was born on 11 July 1789, the son of John Powers. His parents were too poor to provide for him an early education, and he was largely self-educated.

From 1801 to 1803, Gershom's cousin Cyrus Powers taught in a school in the town of Sempronius, Cayuga County, New York, in the village now called Moravia. At the time, the school consisted of a double-log house that served also as a church. Cyrus was succeeded in that rude classroom by his brother David Powers, and, later, by his cousin Gershom Powers, who studied law while also preparing lessons. By 1814, the school was in the charge of Abigail Powers, sister of Cyrus and David, and cousin of Gershom. Abigail would become the wife of Millard Fillmore, who was to serve as the nation's thirteenth president.

In 1810, Gershom was admitted to the bar and began practicing law at Auburn. He was appointed superintendent of the Auburn State Prison in 1820. In that capacity, Powers endeavored to make the institution less costly to the state. Toward that end, in 1828 he introduced the contract labor system under which the prison leased prisoners to local businesses. The prison received the prisoners' daily wages, which averaged twenty-seven cents per day. While the system was an economic success, the mistreatment by prisoners under the system became a source of much controversy in the community and throughout the state. The "Auburn System" of prison discipline, which was developed under his supervision, became well-known in the United States and Europe. He was the author of A Brief Account of the Construction, Management and Discipline... of the New York State Prison at Auburn (Auburn: U.F. Doubleday, 1826).

Powers became the first judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Cayuga County (1823-28). He was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat to the Twenty-first Congress (1829-31), during the first administration of Andrew Jackson and at a time when both houses of Congress were dominated by Jacksonians. During ghis single term in Congress, Powers served as chairman of the Committe on the District of Columbia. Having declined to seek renomination for the congressional seat, he was appointed inspector of the prison at Auburn on 2 April 1830, in which capacity he served until his death at Auburn on 25 June 1831. Powers was buried in North Street Cemetery.