Historically, New York State has long been home to some of the nation’s toughest prisons. More than a century ago, having served 18 years at Sing Sing, 19 at Auburn, or 31 at Clinton marked any man as one tough son-of-a gun. So what could be said about a man who served all three of those sentences? The toughest SOB ever? Not even close. He was a hard case, no doubt, but in time, dedicated recidivism earned him media portrayals as quirky, unusual, and eventually somewhat endearing. It’s doubtful his victims felt that way, but it happens that some criminals gain personas making them far more acceptable than the average crook. Among those was upstate New York’s Hog-Pen Charley.
That colorful moniker belonged to one Richard Henry Thornton (known as Henry), who was born in Hyde Park in the mid-1820s. While records of that time are sparse, it’s possible to determine where Henry spent most of his life thanks to a recurring theme: incarceration. While he wasn’t locked up particularly long for any one time, he was certainly locked up often—often enough to cover all three sentences above, and then some.
By most accounts, it all began when Thornton was 18 or 19 years old, although the record of his adult life suggests a less-than-stellar childhood. His first prison term was at Sing Sing in 1844—three years for assault. Shortly after release, he earned an eight-year sentence at Auburn for grand larceny.
“Shortly after release” was another of several ongoing themes throughout his life. Following his sentence at Auburn, Thornton was arrested at Troy. During a burglary in the city’s Ida Hill section, a police officer was shot with his own gun. A search of Henry’s apartment revealed not only the officer’s missing gun, but a stockpile of goods traceable to a robbery in Coeymans (south of Albany) months earlier.
Among the charges facing him was assault with intent to kill. As jailbirds are wont to do, Henry began to sing, revealing the names of his cohorts and a list of crimes they had committed together. When his partners were arrested, they denied complicity and began pointing the finger at each other.
At trial, both Henry Thornton and Henry Hoffman were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in Auburn Prison. During their final night in jail, the pair sawed through the floor of their cell in a failed jailbreak attempt. The next day, an armed guard accompanied them on a train ride of about 160 miles to the prison, with the two prisoners shackled together and handcuffed.
A dozen miles from Auburn, one of them claimed illness and asked for fresh air, which was allowed. Chained together, they were brought to the platform as the train chugged along at about 30 mph. Within minutes, the ill man said he felt better—and then, without warning, they jumped from the platform. It took a half mile for the train to stop, followed by a frantic search of several hours. Despite the chains and cuffs, they had somehow disappeared. The Albany Evening Journal called Thornton’s escape regrettable, “… for we doubt there can be found in this state a greater villain.”
Governor Horatio Seymour issued a proclamation offering $250 as reward for their capture, and the Rensselaer County Sheriff chipped in $50 (a total equal to $8600 in 2014). The law caught up with them a few days later and delivered them to Auburn.
During his time there, Charley was eventually placed in charge of the insane convicts in a separate ward. Years later, the News-Bulletin Auburnian reported that after Henry’s release, “an effort was made to get him an appointment in the asylum” because the warden was so pleased with his work.
He was released in late 1860, and though there are news items and anecdotal evidence indicating he then did five years for horse theft, the official records are missing. It does fit the timeline, though, for he was hauled into court again in 1867 (which would be “shortly after release”) and sentenced to four years in Clinton Prison. Officially, the crime was grand larceny, but it’s important to note that it was horse theft, for this began a remarkable chain of similar arrests and sentences.
The condensed version follows: the 1867 term of 4 years, 3 years in 1871, 4 years in 1874, 4 years in 1878, 5 years in 1881, and 5 years in 1883. He was released from the last term in January 1885, but stole another horse and was sentenced in November to 5 more years. Each sentence was at Clinton Prison in Dannemora for horse stealing, a crime he committed from the Hudson Valley to southern Quebec. As the sentences piled up, reporters covered the story—a man known as Hog-Pen Charley who had apparently found his calling inside prison walls.
Actually, despite three escape attempts early in his criminal career, Henry became such a trusted prisoner that much of his time was spent outside of prison walls, depending on the institution. Each had their own farm operations for growing food crops and raising stock, requiring lots of space and many buildings. In some cases, those facilities were a mile or two from the prison. While he worked with chickens and other animals, Hog-Pen Charley came by his nickname honestly, spending the vast majority of his time raising hogs. Places like Dannemora, with more than 200 swine to care for, provided plenty of work, and great irony as well—prison was the only place where he ever earned an honest living.
Upon release, Thornton was sometimes arrested on the spot for pending crimes and returned to the system. At other times, he served in county jails while awaiting trial. But for Henry, a man with no skills other than raising pigs, prison represented housing, food, and steady employment. In fact, tending the prison hogs became such a regular job for him that while under arrest in Salem in 1881, Thornton contacted the warden at Dannemora, inquiring if the swine job was available. Said Charley, “It will make a difference whether I plead guilty or stand trial.” A plea was entered, and off he went to Dannemora.
In 1885, Henry’s string of consecutive stints at Clinton Prison was finally broken. Now came a year in Auburn, three years in Sing Sing, 18 months in Trenton (New Jersey), two more years at Clinton, a year in Hartford’s jail (New York), two years and four months at Sing Sing, a year in New York County Penitentiary, and 50 days in a county jail.
There are gaps in the record suggesting other prison time, but an extensive search of institutional records would be required to prove it. Why? Because Henry Thornton used at least eight aliases. They were recorded alongside his name only when prison officials were aware he was one and the same man.
Prison time was so natural to Thornton that he claimed to have twice served time as a paid substitute for other convicts. Not legally, of course, but for Henry it was just another job.
In 1904, when he was about 80 years old, Hog-Pen Charley received his second-longest individual sentence—9 years and 6 months at Sing Sing. It’s possible and even likely that he expired before his final term did. Admission records place him there in May 1904, but he does not appear in the prison listing of the 1905 NYS Census.
All told, a good estimate has Henry being sentenced on 19 occasions, but only twice to a county jail. Of his 17 prison terms, there were 3 at Auburn, 4 at Sing Sing, and 8 at Clinton. As is the norm, many sentences were partially commuted due to good behavior. Because Thornton immediately reoffended so often, his terms sometimes overlapped.
In all, it appears his actual time in jails and prisons was about 55 years, which yields another strange fact: Henry’s total time commuted for good behavior (21 years) is far longer than most prison sentences.
But remember also that prison was the only place where he displayed good behavior, and that’s where the men who knew him considered Henry an outgoing, good-natured, all-round nice guy.
Then again, where Thornton spent most of his time, the bar wasn’t set very high.
Photo: 1885 headline