The Amsterdam House of Correction

Photo of author


Amsterdam’s city started to develop all sorts of social services; in 1596, it opened up a “house of correction” in one of the outbuildings of a monastery. The idea was that if you treated youngsters who had committed a crime with some compassion and did not sentence them as adults but tried to re-educate them, they may turn from their criminal ways and become proper citizens in the end. And that’s something that’s still a popular philosophy today. Services for the elderly, orphans, the poor and the sick were also started up.
Rasp house gate
The house of correction 1596
It all started when a well-bred sixteen-year-old boy, Evert Jansz, was arrested for theft. The judges and city fathers thought it a bit severe to treat him as an adult and chop his fingers or have him whipped. Common punishments in those days were death, lashes, chopping off a limb. Being marked by hot iron and banishment.
Truly hardened criminals were considered incorrigible and therefore banished from town.

A monastery on the Heilige weg (holy road) had a suitable outhouse; it was soon turned into a house of correction for boys. Here boys would be taught to work and be turned into honest and decent citizens. In reality, the boys ended up rasping or grating tropical wood to obtain various pigments, which would then be mixed with paint to give it its desired colour. The house soon became known as the Rasphouse.

Later the place became an indoor swimming pool; nowadays, the location has become a colossal shopping centre called the Kalvertoren like we really needed that.

The Spin house
Girls got their own place as well; about a year later, the Spin house was opened up in what was known as the Ursala convent. Now all these new facilities cost money and to gather a little extra income the people of Amsterdam could take their children there on Sunday and see what could happen to children who did not listen to their parents. And all this for a small entrance fee. The city came up with another form of labour; you’ve probably guessed already, spinning. It was also where convicted beggars and prostitutes ended up; it was located in the middle of the red light district in the Spinhuissteeg (spin house alley). The gate is all that remains; see the picture below.

In 1613 the city government instituted a collage of 6 chaplains that would care for orphans, foundlings, beggars, and the poor in general. They distributed food and money, supported the sick, cared for women in labour, and organized funerals for the poor. Orphans were cared for in the Burger weeshuis (citizen’s orphanage); the sick could go to the Saint Peters quest house, the older men to the old mens house, the older women to the older women’s house and the insane to the mental hospital. (no joke). In 1662 another orphanage opened up, the chaplain’s orphanage; 20 years later, it housed 1300 children.Spin house gate

Foreign dignitaries who visited the city were always duly impressed by the wonderful way Amsterdam treated its inhabitants. The city was praised for its Christian policies (socialism had not yet been invented then). As for a reference to Christianity, it was not so much the city who paid for all this; it was the churches; if a person was sick, his church was expected to pay for his treatment. Anyway, The city became known as the town with little crime; it expelled useless strangers, put lazy people to work, and cared for its needy.

This, of course, paints a little too rosy of a picture.
In 1570 Philip II, King of Spain, send out a decree that stated that crime should be seen as an offence against the State. It was the duty of the said State to inflict punishment. These punishments included death, mutilation, humiliation, banishment, branding, corporal punishment, fines or community service. Another point of notice is that a judge did not need to limit himself to only one punishment.

Humiliation meant you were put in the pillory; I just learned a new word. You were tied to a pole in a public place for a certain amount of time (think days), and your crime was usually mentioned. Pelting the criminal with rotten vegetables was another favourite way to pass the time for those being so inclined. A thief was often bereaved of one of his hands as well.
Confessions were often forced out of people, they had to be repeated in court, but that wasn’t usually a problem for law enforcers in those days.

Clerical courts
We must not forget that in the past, the church played an important role in society. There were clerical courts in existence that had the power to inflict severe punishments.
When church and state were divorced (1795) and the state became the sole judiciary, things were supposed to change, but they didn’t. Not really. Within the religious communities, old laws were upheld, practised and kept. Transgressions often resulted in severe punishments.

One has to admit, the house of correction was not an entire failure
At the end of the sixteenth century, the old practice of corporal punishment had become ineffective. There were too many people running around town with visual evidence of having been convicted of a crime. It wasn’t very comfortable. Poverty was rampant, so people were frequently tempted to get something to eat without paying for it.
A man called Coornhert in 1587 had the gall to criticize the laws of Phillip II. He suggested it would be far better if the convicted men are put to work. Therefore if he had finished his sentence, he would still appear intact, not mutilated or branded and be able to return to employment without stigma. His work in mind was that of a slave on a ship or community service for the state or church if the offence was minor. Of course, the British had the ultimate solution of sending them off to Australia.

What about Evert Jansz?
The boy got away with his crime and avoided any serious punishment, he was sentenced to forced labour, but his sentence was never executed.

The house of correction is window number 9 in the Canon of Amsterdam.