Equality in Incarceration: The Push for Women’s Prisons in Massachusetts

By Kittle Evenson, Reader Services

For my inaugural Beehive post I delved into the world of female incarceration, attempting to better understand the creation of women’s prisons in Massachusetts, and the codified societal controls imposed on women in the 19th century.

In 1874, Emory Washburn published “Reasons for a Separate State Prison for Women” and with impassioned rhetoric, called out the systemic inequalities leading to women’s imprisonment, and called for a shift in focus from punishment to reformation.

While I initially read his publication expecting a paternalistic discourse, what I found was a sharp commentary on women’s power for self-determination and democratic participation.

But for what we are bound to suppose wise reasons, the voice of only one sex can be heard at the ballot-box, while the other must content themselves with humbly making known their wishes to the legislature, that something may be done to relieve the Commonwealth from this inequality in the administration of justice in the case of the two sexes. It is not overlooked, that not a few of those who would be the inmates of such a prison as is here advocated, have become so from causes with which those whose votes help to settle questions of this kind have had much to do [emphasis added].

Crime is a form of social action; the criminal justice system a type of social control; and the arc of women’s history is inexorably linked to both. In puritan New England, women were predominantly brought up on charges of fornication and adultery, and even crimes such as murder, were often the result of secretive abortions, or desperate acts of infanticide. Punishment was evocative and public. As concrete expressions of social control, it served dual purposes as both a lesson to the female perpetrators and an establishment of boundaries for the women waiting in the wings.

Within our collections, there is a smattering of “last words” of colonial-era women convicted and punished for felonious crimes. Secondary sources, such as N.E.H. Hull’s Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts deftly explicate the female experience in colonial courts, but women’s first-hand accounts of the 19th century justice system prove maddeningly elusive.

In his call for sex-segregated prisons, Washburn is speaking to a society in which women are jailed in the same institutions as men, yet offered no means with which to train or educate themselves.

Reformers saw the harsh conditions of men’s prisons as hardening and detrimental to women, with the lack of educational and vocational trainings failing to prepare them for a productive life beyond their incarceration. With no prospects independent of crime, recidivism among women was high, and the cycle of crime in the mid-19th century rarely broken. By advocating for separate women’s reformatories, Washburn saw a chance to break women free from this cycle. So long as the women had sufficient time to internalize the reform.

The process of working to reform in such prisons must, at best, be slow, and the attempt to do it in the period of a few months practically hopeless. Such sentences have reference to disposing of bad subjects for the time being, and not to the reforming of them (6).

To better understand the women’s prisons that arose from this movement, I found the 1888 report to the Massachusetts Commissioners of Prisons detailing the first year of the  Reformatory Prison for Women at Sherborn. The report echoes Washburn’s call for longer sentences and the necessity for access to education and vocational training. But it also complicates our understanding of female incarceration – detailing the all-female prison staff tasked with monitoring, controlling, and reforming the women under their care. This staff included a chaplain: Eliza L. Pierce, a physician: Eliza M. Mosher, and superintendent: Eudora C. Atkinson.

In its first year the prison held 794 women. 143 of the inmates were sentenced for acting “idle and disorderly”; 147 for being a “common night-walker”; and the most, 161, for being a “common drunkard” (161). While the women’s financial backgrounds are unclear, it was recorded that the majority, 54%, were foreign born.

Fom this tableau of sources, we see the beginnings of a rich context into which the experiences of women as gatekeepers, educators, protectors and prisoners can be woven. Questions abound as to the concrete changes these women pursued; the dynamics between domestic and foreign-born inmates; and the support these prisoners received after their release, specifically from institutions such as Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners.

These are just a selection of the MHS’s offerings pertaining to women’s incarceration. Researchers interested in engaging further with these sources, or our broader manuscript and print collections, are encouraged to contact the library or stop by for a visit.

Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 39

By Elaine Grublin

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.

Monday, Dec. 19th, 1864

In public affairs, victory after victory crowns our arms, & we trust this terrible war is nearly ended. The battle near Nashville, – the successful march of Sherman from Atlanta to Savannah, & taking of Fort McAllister, – the unexpected released of the “St Albans’ Raiders” in Canada, & the stir thereupon on both sides the line, are the chief recent events. Congress has met, – received a manly message from the President, – and S.P. Chase is appointed Chief Justice, to general satisfaction.

Monday, Dec. 26th 1864

This morning I hear news of the, nearly bloodless, – occupation of Savannah; – for which God be praised!

Civil War Photograph Collections Online

By Peter K. Steinberg, Collection Services

On 2 October 2014, my colleague Nancy Heywood announced on the blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS): “Just Launched! Nine Fully Digitized Civil War Collections.” In addition to these manuscript collections, the MHS holds several photograph collections dating from the Civil War period as well. Six of these have been digitized and are available both on our Civil War commemoration home page, and in our larger list of guides to photograph collections.

The albums contain images of dozens of Massachusetts’ sons –some of whom feature in our digitized manuscripts collections, such as Richard Cary and Norwood Penrose Hallowell– as well as battleground areas and significant and anonymous role players in the Civil War. Seeing them adds another layer of context to the letters, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia of lives long ended. Don’t forget! Back in 2012, the MHS produced an in-house exhibit “Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862” and also made a companion website which featured many documents from the show. Since we deal with a lot of death here at the MHS – and really in most archives – I would be remiss without highlighting the second most emotional letter I have ever read, Wilder Dwight’s last letter to his mother Elizabeth from the battlefield at Antietam where he was mortally wounded.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

There is only one item on the schedule this week as we close-in on our winter break. On Saturday, 20 December, join us for a free tour of the building at 1154 Boylston St. “The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society” is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org

Also, our exhibition galleries remain open so you can view both of our current exhibits: “Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country” and “The Father of His Country Returns to Boston, October 24, 1789.” The galleries are open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10:00AM to 4:00PM.

Please note that the MHS library will be closed beginning on Wednesday, 24 December and will not re-open until Monday, 5 January. During that time, the galleries will be open to the public on 26-27 December, 29-30 December, and 2-3 January. As always, keep an eye on our Calendar of Events to see what is coming up in January!

The Old North Cemetery of Holliston, Mass.

By Susan Martin, Collection Services

The MHS recently acquired a small volume of records of a cemetery in Holliston, Mass. that contains some fascinating information about this 19th-century town. The volume is not the original record book, which has apparently been lost, but a manuscript copy made by local historian John Mason Batchelder between 1894 and 1916. The loss of the original book makes this copy that much more significant, since it may contain records that exist nowhere else.

The North Burying Yard of Holliston, now known as the Old North Cemetery (or the Old Indian Cemetery), was established on an acre of land bought from Henry Lealand in 1801. Subscribers purchased lots for their families, and the appointed clerk, Samuel Bullard, recorded “the death and age of all persons buried in any of the Lots in said yard.” The burials listed in this volume date from 1803 to 1876. The entries are brief, but include some interesting details.

 Many of the townspeople interred here are members of the Bullard, Eames, and Lealand families. Included is Civil War soldier Emerson Eames of the 22nd Mass. Regiment, who died on 22 Oct. 1862. (His remains have since been moved to the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.) The cemetery also contains several veterans of the American Revolution, including Aaron Eames (d. 1827), Reuben Eames (d. 1818), Timothy Lealand (d. 1843), Ephraim Bigelow (d. 1834), and Aaron Pike (d. 1848). In recognition of their military service, some or all of these men received new headstones from the U.S. government in 1916, as noted by Batchelder. Pike’s story is especially poignant: he was buried as a town pauper at the age of 82 and apparently had no grave marker at all before 1916.

 Also buried in the pauper section is the “child of an Irish family,” who died in 1838 at 16 months. Elsewhere we find 14-year-old Isaac Allard, a victim of typhoid fever in 1860; the unnamed baby daughter of a “single woman”; and poor James Bigelow, who “came to his death by his neckhandkerchief being caught in the turning lathe.”

 Sadly but not unexpectedly, most family lots hold the remains of a husband and wife and any of their children that died young. For example, Eleazer Bullard and his wife Patty are buried with their children: Luke (10 mos.), John (3 days), Peter Parker (3 years), and Martha (4 weeks). Grown children of Eleazer and Patty were presumably buried elsewhere.

 The Old North Cemetery also contains the graves of a few black residents of the town, including Jane Muguet, a state pauper and “colored girl” who died in 1846 at 16. Reuben Titus was another pauper who “lived with Wm Lovering until aged and infirm” and died at about 90 in 1855. The earliest recorded death of a black resident is that of Rose, “negrowoman of Isaac Cozzens,” in 1812.

After copying the records, Batchelder compared his book against the headstones in the cemetery, checking off the names he found there. About half of the names are not checked off, indicating burials recorded by the cemetery clerk but graves unmarked at the time of Batchelder’s visit. (These names are also missing from the Old North Cemetery name index compiled by the Holliston Historical Society in July 2011.) There are several possible explanations for this discrepancy: an error in the original record book or the transcription, a grave that was moved, or one that was never marked in the first place, such as those of the paupers. If the original volume really is lost, this copy may be the only record of the final resting places of Isaac, James, the four Bullard children, Jane, Reuben, Rose, and many others of Holliston.

New Web Presentation of Documents & Engravings about the Boston Massacre

By Nancy Heywood, Collection Services

What do you remember learning about the Boston Massacre?  Did you learn the event took place outside the Old State House (at that time called the Town House) in Boston?  Was it presented to you as a key event leading up to the American Revolution?  Do you remember learning that five people (including Crispus Attucks) lost their lives?  If you think of a visual image, do you think of the engraving by Paul Revere depicting townspeople being fired upon by an orderly row of British soldiers?  Are you curious to explore how various primary sources describe the chaotic confrontation that took place on 5 March 1770?

It is interesting to read the words of people who were either at the scene or were able to comment on the overall atmosphere of the town after the event. Thanks to funding from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, the MHS has created a new web presentation, Perspectives on the Boston Massacre, featuring letters, pamphlets, diary entries, legal notes, and engravings relating to the Boston Massacre. 

Some examples of the manuscripts that are available for browsing and reading include diary entries written by merchant John Rowe who observed, “the Inhabitants are greatly enraged and not without Reason” and a letter dated 6 March 1770 by Loyalist Andrew Oliver, Jr. who wrote, “Terrible as well as strange things have happen’d in this Town.”  The website also includes printed materials;  some convey the Patriot perspective of the event (A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston and On the Trial of the Inhuman Murderers) and some the Loyalist view (A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston).

One section of the new web presentation focuses on visual representations of the Boston Massacre.  Seven prints of the event, as well as one painting showing the same location in Boston in 1801, are available for close examination.  Website visitors can use a comparison tool to view any two of the featured images side by side. 


The website also features some selected documents relating to the two legal cases (the trial of Captain Thomas Preston and trial of the eight soldiers).  John Adams served as one of the defense attorneys and the website includes page images of some of John Adams’s handwritten legal notes as well as links to the digital edition of  The Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 3, edited by L. Kinvin Wroth and Hiller B. Zobel, part of the Adams Papers Editorial Project.

The Boston Massacre was recognized as a pivotal event and supporters of the Revolutionary cause organized anniversary commemorations.  The website includes published versions of orations given between 1771 and 1775 by noted figures including James Warren and John Hancock as well as a manuscript copy of an oration given by someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum who ridiculed many Patriot leaders.  

Please visit www.masshist.org/features/massacre.


This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

This is the final week of the year with events here at the Society. Here is what is on tap. 

On Monday, 8 December, there is a special public program presented by students from Boston University. “Making History: King Philip’s War in Documents & Artifacts” is the culmination of a semester-long project on the bloody conflict between English colonists and Native Americans, using letters and diaries, sermons, early printed books, and objects from the war. The event begins at 6:00PM and is free and open to the public. Please RSVP

Then, on Tuesday, 9 December, come by at 5:15PM for the next installment of the Environmental History seminar series. “Water Rights in the American Southwest” is presented by Steven Rudnick of UMass – Boston with author Megan Kate Nelson (Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War) providing comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

And on Thursday, 11 December, there is a special author talk starting at 6:00PM. Writer-explorer Sheldon Bart presents “Race to the Top of the World: Richarc Byrd & the First Flight to the North Pole,” and will discuss his recent book of the same name. This talk is open to the public, registration required. There is a $10 fee (no charge for Fellows and Members). Please call 617- 646-0560 or click here to register. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM.

Last but not least, on Saturday, 13 December, come by for a free tour beginning at 10:00AM. The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.orgWhile you’re here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition, “Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in World War I.”

We hope to see you one last time before the new year!