852 RARE: MASS(achusetts) Incarceration During the Nineteenth Century

852 RARE: MASS(achusetts) Incarceration During the Nineteenth Century

Recently, an intriguing folder containing six broadsides came to light in Historical & Special Collections. These are very different from our largest collection of broadsides, which are English trial and execution broadsides (sometimes referred to as “dying speeches”) printed for popular consumption.

1827 & 1828

These are single sheet Annual report[s] of the convicts in the Massachusetts State Prison their employment, &c., with a correct view of the expenses and income of the Institution … for the years 1823-1828 and it turns out they’re very rare. According to WorldCat only the American Antiquarian Society and the Massachusetts Historical Society have some of the issues. For those whose libraries subscribe to Readex’s “America’s Historical Imprints”, five of the reports are available digitally as part of “American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series 1”.

The state prison, located in the Charlestown section of Boston was built in 1805. With the completion of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, in 1878, the prison population of the Charlestown prison declined. Among its later and better known inmates were Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, executed there in August 1927.

1825 close up

Detail of the 1825 report

The reports, signed by wardens Gamaliel Bradford (1823) and Thomas Harris (1824-1828), are statistical in nature and models of succinctness. While at first glance they may seem a bit dry, one can glean a great deal of information from them, including all of the prison’s expenses and income; the crimes for which inmates were imprisoned, ages, and lengths of sentences; and their prison employment. During this many period prisoners were engaged in cutting and transporting stone, working in the prison hospital, and picking oakum. Others were let out to contractors as cabinet and brush makers, as well as other skilled labor. The north wing built in 1828, was probably the “new prison” referred to in the reports starting in 1826 when 26 of the 313 current prisoners were working on its construction.

1827 close up

Detail of the 1827 report

Penciled notes on the Library’s copies of these broadsides provide some evidence of their provenance, and the piecemeal fashion in which they were acquired. The 1823 issue was a gift to the Harvard College Library from “Arthur G. Sedgwick of Cambridge” in November 1875–most likely the lawyer and writer who graduated Harvard College in 1864 and earned his LL.B. at the Law School in 1866. Sedgwick moved to New York City in 1875 to continue practicing law after several years in Boston. Perhaps his donation to the College was the result of office-cleaning in preparation for his move?

The back of the 1824 issue bears the signature of “Hon. Levi Thaxter.”

This may be lawyer Levi Lincoln Thaxter (Harvard College 1843, Harvard Law School 1845) who was married to poet and writer Celia Thaxter. “Gratis” is penciled on the front, so it was evidently a gift, but it is unclear from whom.

52256954 Sanborn

Harvard University – Harvard University Archives / Class Album. Class of 1855. HUD 255.704.1, Harvard University Archives

The 1825 and 1826 annual reports were also gifts, in 1865, of Frank B. Sanborn, Harvard College 1855. Here he is pictured in his Class album (HOLLIS 7505074).

The source of the 1827 and 1828 issues remains a mystery. A penciled note reads simply “no date of reception.” All six were transferred from the College Library to the Law School Library in June 1924, possibly in a batch described in the Law Library’s accession book as merely “Miscellaneous material”. These broadsides and their miscellaneous collection of facts and figures offer an intriguing glimpse into the state of Massachusetts prisons in the early nineteenth century. We are thankful to the Harvard College alumni who thought to give these interesting documents to their alma mater and to the library professionals who over the years have sought to preserve them. And given recent interest and concern about prisons and mass incarceration, both nationally and locally, these nearly 200 year old reports are an especially timely find.

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