New Jersey by the numbers

A nineteenth-century view of the State Prison in Trenton.

EMPLOYED variously as clerk, land surveyor, customs collector, banker and financier through a professional life spanning seven decades, William A. Whitehead had an eye almost always to what could be observed, quantified and verified. His mathematical bent was manifest early on. As a boy, coveting a classmate’s “half-used” text of arithmetic (a “Cyphering Book”), he scanned the ground for fallen pins, then a popular medium of exchange among scholars, until he’d accumulated 400, “the requisite number” needed to purchase it. Later, under the tutelage of his banker father, he gained the trust of adults with an attention to specificity and accuracy far beyond his years.1

The fact that, outside the sphere of his working life, Whitehead’s “habits of particularity” shaped also his philanthropy and volunteerism should occasion little surprise. As an advocate for quantitative evidence even in the study of history, he seems to have been not just farsighted but atypically assertive. It was at his prompting that the New Jersey Historical Society, within a year of its founding, boasted a Standing Committee on Statistics, chaired by Whitehead himself.

Recognizing the genesis of statistical knowledge as the responsibility of government, Whitehead ensured that this committee would be empowered “to apply to any public functionaries, or public bodies, for any additional information desired.”2 And although the Historical Society hadn’t the authority to demand compliance of state and local agencies, a substantial part of its membership consisted of past and present officials of the state, guaranteeing that requests from Whitehead and his committee would not be ignored.

The committee first turned its attention to criminal statistics, an area of early interest to Whitehead3 and, with the founding of the pro-reform New York Prison Association the previous year, one where more and better data were much sought after. In his first report as chairman, Whitehead announced that Jacob B. Gaddis, keeper of the State Prison in Trenton, had promised the committee “full statistical details of the institution for as long a period as possible.”4

A portion of Jacob Gaddis’s report on the State Prison, counting offenders by prior occupation.

Gaddis’s report, compiled at the committee’s suggestion and using forms it provided, was printed by order of the state legislature. Copies were provided to all Historical Society members. The publication offered a demographic and criminological snapshot of the inmate population year by year, from the completion of the original State Prison in 1799 to the present time.5

These “first fruits” of Whitehead’s committee are the more worthy of note when one considers that, with records either lacking entirely or in no “available form,” its attempts to gather similar statistics on the county or town level failed miserably. With Whitehead lamenting a widespread “want of co-operation,” the Historical Society lobbied in Trenton for a legislative remedy, urging “the importance of full and accurate tables of the criminal statistics of the State.” But lawmakers of the time lacked the political will or resources to correct these deficiencies.6

Still, Whitehead found cause for hope in the rising movement for prison reform. He represented his home county of Essex at the New Jersey Prison Reform Association’s first meeting in 1850. Its proceedings were published and distributed around the state at his suggestion.7 His response to an address in Newark that year by Nathaniel H. Morgan, a Connecticut jailkeeper and reformer, shows that Whitehead’s interest in criminal statistics was not an end in itself: it underlay what he considered society’s obligations to “the unfortunate class” that made up most of the prison population.8

Whitehead detected in the enactment of a statewide registry of births, marriages and deaths some sign that New Jersey’s government was beginning to grasp the value of accurate statistics, “without which it is hardly possible to legislate wisely.”9 He felt this recognition could be expanded to include the spheres of crime and punishment, leading ultimately to “the establishment of a perfect system of statistical enquiry.”10 Yet because maintaining a statewide registry of even basic vital records was thought too onerous by some, Whitehead was compelled to deplore in the press the many failures to comply with the measure, and to speak out forcefully against recurring legislative attempts to repeal it.11

The quickening pace of change in the state, and the passing of old patterns of thought, helped weaken resistance to the notion of systematic, comprehensive gathering and reporting of data. New Jersey soon would launch a statewide census, the first of seven it was to conduct, complementary to the national enumerations. Meanwhile, of the Historical Society’s Committee on Statistics, once Whitehead stepped down in 1851, little more is heard.12 It could be that his energy and eloquence on behalf of statistical knowledge required a larger arena. In the end his impact may prove, unlike the phenomena he set out to measure, impossible to gauge.

Copyright © 2021-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830” (typed transcript of unpublished memoir) 10, 16.

[2] Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (hereafter Proceedings) [ser. 1] 1:2 (1845) 68.

[3] A decade earlier, as editor of Key West’s weekly newspaper, Whitehead reprinted  a count of prisoners in New York State, one of many tables circulated to illustrate “the greater prevalence of crime and immorality among mechanics of certain trades over others, … compiled by Philanthropists, in order to obtain the necessary data whereon to base their exertions to lessen the power of vice over those found most subject to its influence.” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 13 June 1835 3:2-3.

[4] Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 98.

[5] Statistics of the New Jersey State Prison, from 1799 to 1845, inclusive, being Statement D, and one of the accompanying documents of the Governor’s message (Trenton 1846). As Whitehead reported to the Historical Society, this compilation “was prepared at the suggestion of the Committee [on Statistics] and forms furnished therefor.” Proceedings [ser.1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 117; cf. 129.

[6] Proceedings [ser. 1] 1:3 (1845-1846) 129; 2:1 (1846) 2, 4; 3:2 (1848) 58. Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 19 January 1847 2:2.

[7] First annual report of the New Jersey Prison Reform Association, together with the proceedings of the first annual meeting, held in the city of Trenton, on the 16th, 17th, and 18th of January, 1850 (Trenton 1850) 44, 45. On the work of the New Jersey Prison Reform Association see Harry Elmer Barnes, A history of the penal, reformatory and correctional institutions of the State of New Jersey. Analytical and documentary (Trenton 1918) 485-488.

[8] G. P., “Prison Reform,” Newark daily advertiser 14 June 1850 2:1.

[9] Writing in the Newark Daily Advertiser, Whitehead dared hope that the enactment of a statewide registry “may be so modified as to secure full and systematic returns from the different State officers in relation to crime, and that eventually the most ample statistics on all subjects of a public nature will be regularly obtained.” G. P., “Statistics of Crime,” Newark daily advertiser 17 February 1848 2:4. Proceedings [ser. 1] 3:2 (1848) 58.

[10] G. P., “Statistics of Crime,” Newark daily advertiser 10 December 1849 2:1. Cf. G. P., “State statistics,” Newark daily advertiser 13 February 1851 2:2.

[11] G. P., “State statistics,” Newark daily advertiser 14 November 1849 2:1; G. P., “Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths,” Newark daily advertiser 9 February 1850 2:2; G. P., “State statistics,” Newark daily advertiser 13 February 1851 2:2. Cf. G. P., “State annals,” Newark daily advertiser 17 February 1851 2:2.

[12] In 1851 Whitehead was named to the Standing Committee on Purchases, and he continued to serve on the Publications Committee alongside his extensive duties as Corresponding Secretary. As he left the Committee on Statistics, however, he gave it a rather weighty assignment, a resolution that it prepare a report on the 1850 federal census, “showing the progress made by the State in population, manufactures, agriculture, education, &c., with comparative tables; and presenting such statements and arguments as may be calculated to exhibit in their true light the resources of New Jersey, and conduce to the formation of just views of her present position and prospects.” Proceedings [ser. 1] 5:3 (1851) 97. Whitehead’s agitation for more and better statistics may have been the germ of another census measure which the Historical Society would, much later, originate through its Committee on Statistics and help turn into law. This legislation directed officers of the 1875 state census to collect data on agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, mining and other activities, in part to make a show of New Jersey’s economic strengths at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. See Proceedings ser. 2, 4:1 (1875) 9; 4:2 (1875) 52-53.

Images: 1) State Prison: Harry Elmer Barnes, A history of the penal, reformatory and correctional institutions of the State of New Jersey. Analytical and documentary (Trenton 1918), Plate II. The Second State Prison of New Jersey, 1836 to 1884 (facing page 90). 2) Report: Statistics of the New Jersey State Prison, from 1799 to 1845, inclusive, being Statement D, and one of the accompanying documents of the Governor’s message (Trenton 1846) 28.

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