Prison life in nineteenth-century Massachusetts

History from the inside out: prison life in nineteenth-century Massachusetts

Larry Goldsmith

It cannot be denied, that [penitentiaries] have been Seminaries established and sustained at the public expense, for educating, in the most effectual and thorough manner, hundreds and thousands of villians [sic] to depredate and prey upon the very communities which have thus encouraged and fostered them. This is no fiction, and our astonishment could hardly be greater, had legislators, with the numerous other encouragements afforded, authorized the constituted authorities of these Institutions to confer Diplomas and Doctorates upon those who had most highly distinguished themselves for their improvement in the science and manifold mysteries of iniquity.

– Rev. Jared Curtis, prison chaplain, in a letter to Massachusetts Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr., 18 November 1828

When Governor Levi Lincoln, Jr. delivered his annual message to the Massachusetts legislature in 1826, he happily acknowledged the receipt of more than ten thousand dollars from the state prison at Charlestown, the result of an innovative system of convict labor. “But,” the governor warned, “there is a melancholy reverse to the picture. There is much reason to believe, that, as a Penitentiary, the system is utterly ineffectual to purposes of reform or amendment.” The problem, as Lincoln and the officials at Charlestown had come to realize, arose from fundamental contradictions in the very concept of a penitentiary. Among the most incongruous of these was the desire to reform the Commonwealth’s most serious criminals by locking them together, for years at a time, within the close quarters of a prison.

In 1826 the quarters were close indeed. “So few are the number of cells, that, in many of them, from four to sixteen convicts are locked together by night,” the governor noted. “In, emphatically, these committee rooms of mischief, the vilest schemes of profligacy are devised, and the grossest acts of depravity are perpetrated. Confederacies and combinations are here formed, by the practised veteran, with the novitiate in crime.”(1) In his letter to the governor, two years later, prison chaplain Jared Curtis stretched a similar pedagogical metaphor to describe the problem.(2) His dramatic words were not merely the sort of alarmist oratory designed to prod the legislature into appropriating the funds for a bigger, better prison – although they were also that. Lincoln and Curtis may have highlighted prisoners’ more lurid practices for political and melodramatic effect, but it can hardly have been surprising that prisoners, locked together for the evening, without direct supervision and with little else to occupy themselves, should have passed the time by instructing one another in the techniques of expropriation.

Curiously, however, historical accounts of the American prison have largely neglected this dimension of institutional life. The pathbreaking work of David Rothman introduced the subject of institutions and reform to the practice of social history, but Rothman’s and other historians’ concentration on questions of social control prompted a top-heavy focus on ideology and reform. Subsequent critiques of this “revisionist” historiography called into question its functionalist portrait of a one-dimensional ruling class. In its place, they offered more complex and often more satisfying models of divided elites and multiple loci of power – but still they mostly ignored the prisoners themselves, persisting in a view of the institution “from the top down” rather than “from the bottom up,” or, to adapt the metaphor more precisely, “from the inside out.”(3)

In part, the absence of prisoners from the history of the prison simply reflects the state of the surviving evidence; prisoners did not leave us with the kind of extensive written records we have from reformers, administrators, and politicians. But in the reports and records of the nineteenth-century prison it is nonetheless possible to discern something of prisoners’ actions and motives. In the case of the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, established in 1805, we are fortunate in having an unusually large and detailed body of evidence. These records, which include a complete register of sentences and discharges, the daily logs of the warden, the minutes of the board of directors, as well as correspondence, petitions, and published annual reports, naturally reflect an administrative point of view, but the close focus in much of this evidence on the day-to-day operation of the prison nonetheless helps bring the prisoners back into the picture.(4)

A careful examination of the Charlestown prison, as seen through these records, provides us with a great deal of information about who was singled out for incarceration, and why. The records provide clues about how prisoners and their guards acted within the walls of their prisons, and they remind us that their actions too affected the development of the institution – that institutional dynamics were not entirely congruent with the ideals reformers had in mind. Prisoners may have been captives, but they were hardly passive. They endured stem lectures, pious sermons, hard labor, and the regimentation of their time, but in the moments they reserved for themselves they returned to those very deeds their captors sought to eradicate. Prison officials clearly had the upper hand, but their attempts to administer penitentiary discipline met with prisoners’ continual efforts to thwart or evade their designs. Erving Goffman and Gresham Sykes both described long ago how prisoners, like the inmates of other “total institutions,” develop ways of “making out” in the highly restrictive environments they inhabit, and concepts of paternalism and hegemonic control have helped us to understand the social history of other subaltern groups, most notably the slaves of the American South. The behavior of prisoners and guardians alike may have been at variance with formal rules and regulations, but a limited degree of institutional flexibility, whether from conscious policy or simple negligence, often eased the lives of inmates, staff, and administrators alike.(5)

The prison at Charlestown was by definition an institution of social control, but the prisoners there nonetheless exercised and developed their skills in a “seminary of vice,” sometimes with the participation of their guards, as one of their strategies for making their lives more bearable. They devised such strategies in every area of institutional life: in the mess hall, where they demanded more and better rations; in their leisure time, where they insisted upon newspapers, books, musical instruments, and the right to visitors and correspondence from the outside world; and in the workshops, where they sought a measure of control over their assignments, incentives, and working conditions. These strategies, and the complex alliances they developed with prison officers, are no less important a part of the history of the prison than the actions and ideas of those at the top.

This essay focuses on two aspects of prison life at the Charlestown prison in the early nineteenth century. First, it takes a close look at those actions of the Charlestown prisoners that inspired Chaplain Curtis’s curious allusion to “seminaries” of vice. Prisoners were “misbehaving,” to be sure, but the specific nature of their actions highlights important contradictions in the rehabilitative agenda and provides a new dimension to our understanding of the development of the institution. Second, the essay examines the educational program at Charlestown. Teaching the prisoners to read and write was a key feature of their rehabilitation, and institutional records provide information not only about why literacy was so important to reformers, but also about how prisoners actually made use of it – and how they influenced the development of the educational program. By bringing prisoners back into the picture, and by understanding their actions as a significant force in the development of the prison, this essay suggests a more complex and dynamic history of the prison, one in which politicians, administrators, reformers, officials, and prisoners themselves engaged in a constant process of negotiation over the terms and conditions of confinement.

Nineteenth-century reformers and prison officials complained continually about the indolence of their charges; indeed, the twin pillars in their theory of reform were the idea that idleness caused crime, and the corollary proposition that only hard labor could bring about its eradication. Ironically, however, Charlestown prisoners labored assiduously at tasks of their own devising, tasks which, though illegitimate, nonetheless required both labor and skill. Such tasks often carried more attractive material incentives than the ones imposed in the prison workshops. They included the practice of purely criminal trades, similar to those for which they had been imprisoned, as well as legitimate trades, in some cases the very same trades they were meant to practice in the workshops, but done clandestinely and for their own private gain.

While some of the behavior bemoaned by the chaplain and the governor may simply have been the disruptive acts of disruptive men, both the substance of their complaints and considerable evidence from the prison records highlight the cooperative, even pedagogical nature of the prisoners’ activity. Prisoners not only practiced but also educated one another in the art and mystery of the criminal trades. Within the walls of the Charlestown prison, according to the Prison Discipline Society, they had engaged in “counterfeiting bills and coin; teaching the art of picking pockets, and actually picking the pockets of strangers; preparing false keys and other instruments for breaking houses and stores.” The Society well recognized the considerable expertise that went into these enterprises. Picking pockets, it reported,

is an art . . . taught in Penitentiaries, which has its appropriate instruments, its technical terms, its successful mode of operation, all easily learned by apt scholars from good teachers. The instruments are forceps, to insert in long and narrow pockets, and an extremely thin, keen knife, to cut through coats and pockets without moving them. . . . The mode of operation is learned by practice in Prison, where the convicts steal from each other, and where they practise the art by way of experiment merely, and where instances have occurred of success in stealing the pocket books of visitors.(6)

Prison records suggest that visitors to the institution presented a particular temptation; prisoners likely resented these intruders, many of whom were institutional tourists, allowed to satisfy their curiosity for a 25-cent admission fee.(7) Henry Williams was committed to solitary “for attempting to rob a gentleman of his pocketbook as he was passing through the cookery,” and David Hill suffered the same fate for “stealing a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket whilst he was visiting the prison.”(8)

Contractors and others transacting business in the workshops were also easy targets, and prisoners cooperated in separating them from their valuables. James Inman was ordered into solitary confinement, on bread and water, “on strong suspicion of his having stolen the Pocket Book of Mr [Holton] out of said [Holton’s] pocket at a time when sd [Holton’s] Coat was hitch’d on a Nail in Blacksmith’s Shop.” Further investigation revealed a conspiracy, and Sylvanus Cahoon, Ephraim Davis, and James Stearns followed Inman into solitary cells. All four confessed and they directed the incautious Holton, contractor for the prison foundry, to his pocket book, which they had “secreted in the Necessary House.” The superintendent released the repentant conspirators upon their promise of future good conduct.(9)

Inman did not honor his word for long, however. A few months later he returned to solitary for embezzling stock from the plating and harness shop in which he worked. After he destroyed his “Crib &Tin Night Pan,” the keeper put him in chains. Several months later the same offense landed him in solitary once again. Inman used the stolen stock to barter with a fellow prisoner, the keeper reported, noting that he was “represented to be inclined to idleness and negligence and is much in the habit of applying the stock to his own use and benefit.” In this habit he was not alone. Prisoners routinely appropriated from the materials and provisions they handled in the course of their labors. Andrew McGee went to solitary for “pilfering Fish, which was entrusted to his care to clean,” as did Robert Curtis for “stealing sundry articles from the commisary’s [sic] Store.” James Williams was punished with a clog and chain “for stealing milk from the men’s allowance.”(10)

Like Inman, prisoners frequently took goods, not just for consumption, but for exchange on an illegitimate market of prison contraband. Those who worked in the shoe shop had access to particularly valuable commodities. Robert Curtis “confessed that he had sold 7 pair shoes which he had secretly received from Michael Bumpo to Fuller the man who brings provision from Boston for the prison.” Bumpo in turn was punished “for stealing shoes from Mr Brooks, and getting Curtis, who attended in the commisary’s [sic] store to convey them out.” George Stevens and John Williams went to solitary for “embezzling shoes,” as did Henry Williams, who was “concerned in a clandistine [sic] trade.” James Thomas did so “with intent to sell them to the boatmen for rum.” Thomas Lynds went to solitary for “stealing shoes and selling to his fellow convict,” David Gordon, who was “punish’d with a clog for trading with Lynds & partaking in the theft.” Persons unknown “stole several pr shoes, boots, &c from the shoe shop” one December night in 1817; a year later thieves made off with a much larger haul: forty pairs of boots and sixty-two blankets from the commissary’s store.(11) The frequency of such transactions suggests the existence of a kind of commercial network; prisoners came together to trade those particular commodities they were able to pilfer through their respective work assignments.(12)

At times this illegitimate commerce branched into manufacturing as well, involving prisoners in the very labors they were supposed to carry out in the workshops, but done in secret and for personal gain. Samuel Hammon went to solitary “for stealing cloth & making cloths therewith privately,” and Joseph Johnson was likewise punished for “stealing leather & making shoes clandestinely.”(13) These were surely the most ironic applications of rehabilitative discipline. The intent of the penitentiary, after all, was to reclaim its prisoners, seduced as they were into lives of crime through the corrosive effects of “idleness.” This it accomplished by inculcating them, to use the prison reformers’ favorite phrase, with “habits of industry.” Yet prisoners who traded and manufactured clothing and shoes were nothing if not industrious, though obviously not in the sense their captors intended.

Prisoners showed similar industry in the acquisition of food and drink. They applied themselves with particular alacrity in the appropriation and even manufacture of liquor. Elias Sherburn and William Davis went to solitary “for obstinacy in refusing to tell who made the tin canteens which had been made use of to smuggle rum into the yard.” The canteens were found hidden near a wall. Michael Bumpo, whose trade in shoes has already been described, was apparently not deterred by his punishment for that offense; he was later returned to solitary for “trading with the convicts and suspicion of smuggling rum into the prison.” William Brown, however, found one way to smuggle with impunity: on the afternoon after his discharge, he left seventeen bladders of rum hidden at the prison wharf, where prisoners unloading boats would find them. Brown may have escaped punishment, but his plot was foiled: the warden found them first. One group of four prisoners, perhaps discouraged by these examples of thwarted smuggling, was discovered with charcoal, molasses, and a still.(14)

In the acquisition of liquor more than any other activity, prisoners were aided by alliances with lower-ranking prison staff, and outsiders, particularly delivery-men, whose business brought them into the prison. On one occasion, the keeper discovered that a coal man had been smuggling rum to the prisoners under cover of his charcoal deliveries; the prisoners receiving the shipment were sent to solitary, and the warden, after locking the coal man himself in a cell for two hours, ordered him never to return. More serious, and more numerous, were the cases in which prison officers themselves supplied the prisoners with liquor. In 1819, turnkey Stephen Bennet was caught in the act and immediately dismissed, and the incident appears to have brought to the warden’s attention a problem more extensive than a single corrupt officer. Noting that liquor had been kept in the guard room “for the purpose of trade among the officers,” the warden ordered an end to the practice “in order to discourage the bad habit and evil tendency of a too frequent use of ardent spirits, by having it constantly at hand & in view, as well as to prevent all possible opportunities for the convicts obtaining at any time so dangerous an article.”(15)

That the officers, no less than the prisoners, were guilty of a “too frequent use of ardent spirits” is borne out by numerous entries in the prison records. On one occasion, watchman Thomas Hartwell, “disguised with liquor,” quarrelled with a colleague and threatened to shoot him. Both were fired. Some time after the warden banned liquor from the guard room, the keeper found a jug of rum hidden there. “In what manner bro’t into the prison is not yet known,” wrote the warden in his daily log. Watchmen Cyrus Blanchard and Asa Colwell were suspended for selling the prisoners rum. After a hearing before the directors, Colwell was reinstated for lack of evidence, but Blanchard was dismissed.(16)

After struggling for two decades with the contrary ways of prisoners and watchmen alike, officials joined with reformers and an enthusiastic Governor Lincoln to propose an architectural solution. In 1829, they completed construction of a new building modelled on the famous penitentiary at Auburn, New York. The Auburn system provided for closely-supervised silent labor in the workshops and solitary confinement at night, combining, it was claimed, the reformative features both of hard work and of solitude under a highly-regimented institutional discipline. In its annual report for 1827, the Prison Discipline Society argued that

It is much more difficult to prevent human beings from doing mischief, when they have nothing else to do, than when they are busily and usefully employed. . . . The busy hum of industry, breaking the stillness of the scene, as heard in the Prison at Auburn, is a striking contrast to the oaths and imprecations, the obscenity and pollution, the schemes of villainy, and malignant soliloquies, which may be heard by the side of the solitary cells or gloomy dungeons in many Prisons, where labor has not been introduced.(17)

This assessment of the extent to which a regimented labor system could be used to control the prisoners was, of course, an overly optimistic view. Previously idle or recalcitrant prisoners did not simply accede to the demands of a new, more intensive work discipline; they merely developed new strategies for getting by. And even if prisoners could be isolated from one another, they could hardly be isolated from their guards. Administrators still had to contend with staff, especially at the lower levels of watchmen and turnkeys, who prepared as eagerly as their prisoners for doctorates in iniquity.

Accounts of such activities, belying official descriptions of the prisoners as lazy and idle, must have reached the general public, for the board found it necessary, in its annual report for 1837, to bring the villains down to size:

It is a great mistake to suppose that the persons, confined here, are very shrewd and intelligent. A few of them have shown courage and ingenuity in the commission of crimes. Their evil deeds have obtained for them some notoriety, and have led many to believe that most of the prisoners are also daring, shrewd, and well-informed. But it is not so.

In its attempt to counter the romanticization of criminal capacities and accomplishments, however, the board held the Charlestown prisoners up against a standard of questionable relevance: the extent of their formal education, and in particular their ability to read and write. “A well educated person is seldom seen here,” it noted. “There is not a graduate of any college among the convicts, excepting one from England. . . . It is undoubtedly so in all other prisons, and the fact shows the importance of our public schools as the best defences against the vices and habits which lead so many to crime and the penitentiary.”(18)

In its attacks on prisoners’ ignorance, the board echoed a tenet of educational reform, increasingly influential by mid-century, that shifted the emphasis from idleness to illiteracy as the major cause of crime. A stereotyped view of the ignorance of the poor and the foreign-born lent credibility to the explanation. No doubt most immigrants were poorly educated, but the high standards and blunt categories by which reformers judged them obscured significant degrees of literary ability, and often overlooked the cultivation of skills of greater practical significance; as we have seen, prisoners at Charlestown of developed and shared both artisanal and criminal skills that served them well, even if they had little to do with the written word.(19)

Nevertheless, the Charlestown prison register indicates that a great many prisoners entered the institution with some ability to read and write, and other evidence suggests that those who lacked such skills were eager to learn. Roughly two-thirds of the prisoners admitted in 1830-34 could sign their names, and the proportion rose steadily, peaking at just under three-fourths in 1845-49. Following a decline in the 1850s attributable in large part to an influx of Irish immigrants, the overall literacy of the prisoners returned to its previous level and then continued to increase until the prison closed, temporarily, in 1878. Nearly three-fourths of the prisoners admitted in 1860-64 could sign their names, and by 1875-78 the number exceeded 80 percent. The resumption of this upward trend carried the Irish-born with it; though they lagged behind the native-born, the number of Irish prisoners signing the register rose sharply after the Civil War.(20)

Prisoners’ continual demands for the privileges of pen, ink, paper, and lamps, and their heavy trade in a contraband economy of letters, newspapers, and books, suggests the enthusiasm with which they embraced the written word. That they did not always direct their reading and writing toward legitimate ends put prison reformers once again in an ironic position. At times, of course, pen and paper might serve as instruments for the subversion of discipline, the practice of vice, and the transaction of illegitimate commerce. Thus, the same officials who held up reading and writing as a panacea for crime also expended considerable energy devising and enforcing rules for controlling it.(21)

Access to the written word was tightly restricted in the early years of the prison. The original rules and regulations of 1806 provided that “the superintendant shall procure such books as the chaplain may think necessary and useful for the prisoners, and they shall be permitted to use none other.” In June of that year, the board found it necessary to order the examination of prisoners’ papers upon expiration of their sentences; it insisted further that “no one when discharged shall on any pretence be allowed to carry away any copies of records, or written accounts of the prison, or prisoners, or any other papers relating to the same.”(22)

The board may have been concerned about the autobiography of Andrew McGee, the prisoner who would subsequently be caught pilfering fish. According to the prison register, the Irish-born McGee had been sentenced to three years at hard labor on a charge of theft. A prison official had seized McGee’s manuscript, but a member of the board ordered it returned and indeed supplied the prisoner with paper for another copy.(23) The board member may have found a flattering portrait of the institution in McGee’s account. Had the prisoner written of the beneficence of his captors and the sincerity of his contrition, he would hardly have been the first contributor to a well-established genre of published criminal confessions. Personal narratives of successful rehabilitation could serve as valuable publicity for the new institution, and their authors were also no doubt mindful of the power of executive clemency. Reformers had to exercise care in using confessional narratives for propaganda purposes, however; such accounts always ran the risk of romanticizing vice in the eyes of the public, especially with the rise of a commercial publishing industry that quickly discovered the profits in mass-produced sentimental and sensational literature.(24)

Autobiographies, however, were the least of officials’ worries; prisoners’ private correspondence and the dangers of promiscuous reading posed the more immediate threat to institutional discipline. In 1809, the board specified the terms under which the keeper was to regulate the distribution of writing paper. He was to insure that “every sheet of paper when written upon shall be returned to him, previous to the delivery of a second, and it shall be his duty to present all letters to and from convicts to the Visitor of the week for inspection.” The regulation of letters, as well as the circulation of newspapers and books, proved rather difficult; on several occasions, the board had to remind both prisoners and officials of the regulations and the need for vigilant enforcement.(25)

The board did give its permission for prisoners to receive books and writing materials. It authorized the friends of Ebenezer Evans and Caleb Green, for example, to supply them with paper and books, and at one point it issued a blanket approval for “sundry Books & quills . . . left by the friends of the convicts during the last month.” But it also carried out punishment to enforce the regulation of such items. Robert Curtis was sent to the cells on bread and water for bringing newspapers into the shops and stealing from the commissary’s store. John Barber suffered a similar punishment for writing letters and neglecting his work. So too did G. Forbes and William Ryan, “for breach of rules in attempting clandestinely to convey letters out of the Prison.” And R. A. Young was “committed to the cells for having a light in his room & writing letters without permission.”(26)

Over time, the board eased its strictures over reading and writing. This was a development that coincided with reformers’ growing commitment to a doctrine of rehabilitation through education, but it reflected as well a demand by the prisoners for the advantages and pleasures of literacy. In 1817, a legislative committee, noting the number of young prisoners at Charlestown who were neither literate nor possessed of a trade, asked whether the state might provide the prisoners with “instruction in common school learning, as will supply their own neglect or that of parents or guardians.” Public schooling in the Commonwealth, not yet mandatory, generally served those who were least in need, it noted. “Among the convicts, there are, without doubt, many who have had no opportunity to profit of any public provision for instruction, either literary, moral or religious, until they have become subject to the discipline of the State Prison.” As a result of the committee’s report, prison officials regularized instruction in reading and writing in the curriculum of the prison Sabbath school.(27)

Sabbath schools flourished in New England and throughout the United States during the nineteenth century. Run by volunteer teachers under the guidance of the American Sunday School Union, independent local schools provided a nondenominational Protestant “moral education” and the literacy skills necessary for Bible reading. “Seven years’ good schooling will cost less than the sheriff’s bill for hanging a man,” noted the secretary of the Union in 1853. Others expressing similar ideas claimed that there had never been “a child belonging to a Sunday-school who has been confined by public authority,” and that where children attended Sunday school “the prison doors stand open.”(28) Where the prison doors stood tightly shut, however, a Sabbath school might be better late than never, and the Charlestown prison provided an ideal site. If faulty guidance from their parents had failed to shield prisoners from the temptations of crime, then the prison, its workshops, and its Sabbath school might provide them with a remedial course in the lessons of childhood.

In 1818, prison officials linked the Sabbath school at Charlestown to a new system of prisoner classification, which divided the convicts into three categories based upon their prison behavior. In the beginning, the major consequence of classification was to be sartorial: in the lowest class, prisoners would continue to wear the “parti-colored” uniforms meant both to hinder escape and serve as a visible and humbling symbol of their criminality. Advancement to the middle class through good behavior would earn them a shirt of ordinary hue, and in the highest class they would receive trousers to match.(29)

Although a detailed description of the early classification system has not survived, it also appears that officials offered instruction in the Sabbath School as a reward to prisoners who advanced their classification. In 1818, the chaplain reported that the school “appeared to have a good influence on the conduct of the boys, who are enjoying its privileges.” By 1823, the directors exploited the desirability of reading and writing materials by linking these privileges directly to the classification system. The rules published in that year allowed prisoners in the third class to receive neither visitors, letters, messages, nor paper, “or anything of any kind or description.” Graduation to the second class earned the privilege of visitors and letters every six months, and to the first class every three months.(30)

The directors’ withholding of education and the written word except as a reward for good behavior was not, of course, consistent with the ideology that regarded literacy as a prerequisite to reform. If illiteracy led inevitably to a life of crime, it could hardly make sense to withhold instruction from those who needed it most. Here was yet another irony at the heart of the reform agenda, and in particular in prison reformers’ understanding of the causal link between ignorance and crime, or conversely, between education and obedience to law. Like other such ironies, it grew out of a fundamental ambivalence in the minds of reformers and officials who were never quite able to eliminate the punitive dimension from their idealistic programs for rehabilitation.

Over time, prisoners might have come to view such a desirable incentive as an entitlement, and officials might not easily have withdrawn the promise of a place in the Sabbath school without provoking a sense of grievance, perhaps even a collective protest, among them. Indeed, that same year, prisoners successfully staged such a protest on behalf of a different demand: larger portions in the mess hall. One morning, they refused to leave the hall after breakfast, claiming “that their provisions were short, and not sufficient to sustain them under the tasks which they were ordered to perform.” The prisoners showed a unanimity and a reasonableness that lent force to their argument. “No acts of violence were offered or threatened but a general wish, and that expressed without temper, that they might be allowed more provisions,” the board noted, “and on [the overseer’s] stating to them that he would represent their case to the Directors they quietly left the Hall and went to their respective work shops.” After hearing the opinion of a workshop overseer that larger portions were necessary to insure productive labor, the board acceded to the prisoners’ demand.(31)

Influenced perhaps by such displays of collective pressure, reformers’ ambivalence tipped toward unconditional provision of education to all interested prisoners, and with the conversion to the Auburn system in 1829, the prison hired a full-time chaplain to oversee both religious and secular education.(32) The Sabbath school thrived. In 1845, a legislative committee found it operating every year from October through May, with a recess during the heat of summer. Applications were taken every fall, and the demand was enormous. That year, approximately 200 of the institution’s 280 prisoners requested a place. All were accommodated: forty classes of four or five prisoners each met simultaneously in the prison’s large chapel, and students at the most basic level were given individualized instruction. A special summer session had even been established the previous year so that “those who seem to have the strongest claims for instruction might not be deprived of it during any portion of the year.” This tremendous and gratifying demand for the services of the school led the committee to consider whether the curriculum might in some way be expanded. Here, however, the desirability of education came up against the necessity of labor, and the latter, which promised not only to reform the criminal but also to pay for his reformation, ultimately prevailed. Unfortunately for the advocates of education, there was no way around the expense of an expanded school, and the committee recommended against it.(33)

What the committee did propose was the enlargement of the prison library, almost as though it might be more economical to provide the books and let the prisoners educate themselves. Indeed, the collection grew substantially in the years that followed. At the same time, prison officials’ enthusiasm for an enlarged Sabbath School faded noticeably, and the board began to lose interest in the intensive control of prisoners’ reading material. Liberalization occurred slowly – so gradually, in fact, that it went unremarked in the records of the prison. But members of the legislative committee visiting the prison in 1845 expressed surprise at the quantity of books available to prisoners. “They have found on inquiry, that there are several hundred volumes of valuable and useful Books constantly in the possession of the prisoners,” they reported, “& that no prisoner need for a day to be without one or more such books at his disposal.” Philanthropists had donated most of these books to the prison, but, the committee noted, more than two hundred volumes circulated throughout the institution “which are the property of the prisoners themselves, furnished from their own funds, or by their friends without the prison, [and] these the owners freely lend for the benefit of their fellow prisoners.”(34)

This direct control by prisoners over their own reading material was certainly a far cry from the original intentions behind the Auburn system, and the variety of subject matter the committee found would have been unimaginable fifteen years earlier. The legislature responded to its committee’s report with a $100 appropriation for the expansion of the library, at the same time requiring the warden “to furnish the convicts such lights as will enable them to read until nine o’clock in the evening.” The board subsequently reported the purchase of 165 new books, bringing the library’s total holdings to 279 volumes. In selecting books for purchase, they had “exercised their own best judgment, and called in that of others.” Some of the original books were “not well chosen at first,” they noted, “and are not much called for by the convicts, especially by those who have been in the prison for considerable length of time.”(35) In expressing this concern, the board clearly took account of the prisoners’ own wants. In two decades’ time, Charlestown officials had gone from a rigorous exclusion of all but the most carefully screened reading material to a deliberate consideration of the prisoners’ own taste in literature.

The new books were in great demand. Even after the purchase, the number of volumes in the library barely exceeded the total number of prisoners, and the board politely suggested that “it is quite important that the present number of books should be considerably enlarged.”(36) It eventually got its wish. A catalog published in 1858, perhaps for the use of its prisoner-borrowers, or possibly as an aid in the solicitation of donations from the public, listed nearly 450 volumes. The range of literature had become quite varied; among the rich selection of inspirational and edifying literature was an abundance of travelogues, supplying the captive with vicarious visits to the Arctic, the American South, Turkey, Greece, Mexico, Egypt, Palestine, Africa, Australia, and every part of Europe. The novels of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Oliver Optic provided adventure, and prisoners in a more studious mood could turn to Davy’s Conversations on Chemistry, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Confessions of St. Augustine, or the works of Plato. There was also no shortage of cautionary and inspirational literature, ranging from religious and temperance tracts to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the writings of Benjamin Franklin.(37)

As the board allowed the prisoners a greater variety of books, it also brought back certain restrictions regarding their use. Officials in charge of the library had complained of the damage prisoners did to the books, some no doubt the result of normal wear and tear from the heavy use they received, but also some of a more deliberate nature. In 1849, the prison clerk, who acted as librarian ex officio, “call[ed] in all the books belonging to the library, that they may be thoroughly repaired and examined, many of them being considerably mutilated and some disfigured by having been written in with lead pencil or ink.” Nine years later, when the prison published its catalog, the chaplain bemoaned the condition of the library. “It greatly needs replenishing,” he emphasized.

When the present Chaplain came to his post of duty, he found a library consisting nominally of more than a thousand volumes, but really of scarcely half that number. What with constant wear, and in too many cases with mutilation, at the hands of the wantonly malicious, (a contingency which the most sedulous care cannot always provide against,) it had become sadly wanting in all that goes to make up a competent supply of reading for such an institution.

That the mutilation may have been less than entirely wanton is suggested by a new rule, given prominent display on the first page of the catalog: “All borrowing and lending of Library books [i.e., between prisoners] is strictly forbidden.” Prisoners may have made marginal notations as an aid to study, or they may have idly scrawled their initials, or epithets pertaining to their captors. It seems likely, however, that under the cover of exchanging library books, they also exchanged notes. In the margins of histories, geographies, religious tracts, and inspirational literature, prisoners may have found room for communication of a more practical, though no less literate sort.(38)

In making use of their literacy, as well as in the often ingenious use of their artisanal and criminal skills, prisoners at Charlestown demonstrated their cleverness, education, and intelligence. Their actions should remind us that they – like other institutional inmates, and like the slaves of the American South – were more than merely passive elements in an apparatus of social control. Reformers and prison officials alike sought to dismiss the intelligence and ingenuity of the prisoners, both to justify their ideology of rehabilitation and also to counter a popular propensity to romanticize the outlaw. Time and again, however, prisoners’ actions revealed the narrowness of reformers’ understanding, and the contradictions and ironies of their intentions. The very lengths to which officials went in order to repress the prisoners’ ingenuity implicitly put the lie to their image of the criminal as lazy, idle, and ignorant. Sometimes, they even admitted as much. One Charlestown chaplain, testifying in 1858 before a legislative committee concerning the necessary qualifications for prison officers, revealed a certain respect for the intelligence of his charges. “It should not be forgotten that prisoners, as a class, are shrewd and quick to detect any improprieties of habit in those over them,” he warned. “Besides many of them are above the avarage [sic] of men both in talents and intellect, if not in culture.”(39)

For legitimate reasons or otherwise, prisoners valued the opportunity to read and write. Under the early classification scheme, the board held out education as a reward precisely because the prisoners themselves had made clear the great value many of them placed on reading and writing. To prison officials this value meant that letters, newspapers, books – and even instruction in reading and writing – could be granted or withheld in exchange for good behavior. From the practical standpoint of institutional order, the power of this bargaining chip might easily overwhelm the fundamental if more abstract goal of individual rehabilitation.

Here as in other respects, the evolution of the penitentiary was a process of negotiation, though among parties who were far from equal. But if the chip was safely in the hands of the directors, it derived its value largely from the actions of the prisoners. However unbalanced the distribution of power in this arrangement, it nonetheless insured that prisoners as well as their captors influenced the development of the institution. To the extent that historians of the prison have neglected this element, they have trapped themselves in debates about the nature of elite power – whether construed as state power, class exploitation, or the controlling motives of idealistic reformers with a penchant for order. One of the key contributions of social history, however, has been its emphasis on the agency of the dispossessed, and its recognition of the relational nature of power. Power comes from above, but it is conditioned in significant ways by the actions of those it operates upon. Future research into the history of the prison can make greater use of this insight by paying closer attention to those inside the prison, both prisoners and the officials in closest proximity to them: watchmen, turnkeys, workshop overseers, Sabbath school teachers, and other lower-level staff. The penitentiary did not spring fully formed from the heads of its designers. It was, on the contrary, a provisional work of moral and physical architecture, a malleable form, subject to a variety of often contradictory pressures, both within and without, exerted by politicians, the public, reformers, administrators, and guards – as well as the prisoners themselves.

Department of History Hiram, OH 44234


I am very grateful for the assistance of a Littleton-Griswold Research Grant from the American Historical Association, a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Gerstacker-Gund Faculty Grant from Hiram College. Thanks also to Paula Baker, Brian Flynn, Michael Katz, and Libby Smith for encouragement and helpful criticism.

1. “Extract from Gov. Lincoln’s Message, Jan. 1826,” in Reports of the Prison Discipline Society of Boston (1826-54; reprint ed., Montclair, N.J., 1972), First Annual Report (1826), 43. References to this source are hereafter cited thus: PDSB 1 (1826), 43. Page references are to the numbers at the inner margins of the reprint edition.

2. Curtis to Lincoln, 18 November 1828, in Legislative Papers, Res. 1828, c. 57 (20 February 1829), Massachusetts State Archives, Boston (hereafter “MSA”; emphasis in original).

3. The pathbreaking work on American prisons and other institutions in the nineteenth century is David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston, 1971), which highlights the social control objectives of Jacksonian reformers intent on maintaining order in an increasingly anonymous and unruly society. Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (New York, 1978), examines the English prison as an instrument of capitalist class control, and Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, 1979) focuses on the evolution of penal ideology and the modern penitentiary as more generalized “technologies of power.” An alternative interpretation, one stressing the altruism and good intentions of the reformers of mental institutions, can be found in Gerald N. Grob, Mental Institutions in America: Social Policy to 1875 (New York, 1973). More recently, Adam J. Hirsch has advanced an interpretation of the nineteenth-century penitentiary much in sympathy with Grob. American prisons, Hirsch argues, were less an attempt at social control than simply a rational adaptation of longstanding institutional forms, like the colonial workhouse, to a post-Revolutionary problem of increasing crime. See The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America (New Haven, 1992).

In a later review essay, Ignatieff calls the social control interpretations, including his own, sharply into question. There is, he claims, a set of “basic misconceptions” common to such analyses: “that the state enjoys a monopoly over punitive regulation of behaviour in society, that its moral authority and practical power are the binding sources of social order, and that all social relations can be described in the language of subordination.” In short, Ignatieff claims that such an analysis ignores the extent to which the prison, and the criminal justice system as a whole, lend expression to authentic moral sentiments of the poor and working classes; see his “State, Civil Society and Total Institutions: A Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment,” in Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, eds., Social Control and the State (New York, 1983), 77. Allen Steinberg’s study of criminal justice in nineteenth-century Philadelphia provides an eloquent example of this point; through the system of private prosecutions, poor and working-class people turned to their own ends an apparatus of state power which in its broader context was a tool of class control; see The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia, 1800-1880 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989).

Ignatieff himself is among the few authors whose analysis of social control is tempered with an account of prisoners, staff, and institutional dynamics; indeed, prison culture plays an important role in his story, and for this reason his self-criticism seems overly harsh. A few other works have devoted attention to prisoners and the insides of their institutions; see Estelle B. Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor, 1981); Patricia O’Brien, The Promise of Punishment: Prisons in Nineteenth-Century France (Princeton, 1982); Nicole Hahn Rafter, Partial Justice: Women, Prisons, and Social Control, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1990); and Pieter Spierenburg, The Prison Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and Their Inmates in Early Modern Europe (New Brunswick, N.J., 1991).

4. I have focused my attention in the present study on the Charlestown prison in the period 1805-1878. In the latter year, the state transferred the entire population to a new prison at Concord, intending to close the institution forever. The Concord prison soon became crowded, however, and in 1884, the legislature ordered its conversion from a state prison to a reformatory; it sent those prisoners considered less reformable back to the Charlestown prison, which then remained in operation until 1955. See St. 1878, c. 62 (14 March 1878); St. 1884, c. 255 (21 May 1884); St. 1955, c. 770 (12 September 1955); and St. 1956, c. 731 (5 October 1956).

Nearly all the records of the Charlestown prison are at the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston. The records include an assortment of Commitment Registers, totalling twenty-five bound volumes, and covering the period 1805-1960 (carrying over to the state prison at Walpole, where prisoners were sent in 1955); five bound volumes of Daily Reports, 1805-1829, kept first by the keeper and later by the warden; five bound volumes of minutes of the Board of Visitors (later called the Board of Directors and then the Board of Inspectors), 1805-1879; six bound volumes of Punishment Books, 1854-1955, with brief details of individual punishments inflicted; a volume of Warden’s Memoranda of Prisoners, 1858-1902; and miscellaneous unbound reports and papers covering the period 1809-1851.

A more detailed description of these records, and a more comprehensive look at the prison, can be found in my “Penal Reform, Convict Labor, and Prison Culture in Massachusetts” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1994). The bulk of the records were not rediscovered until 1981, and to my knowledge the only other study to have used them is Hirsch’s Rise of the Penitentiary, which does so only minimally. For brief institutional histories of the prison, see Michael Stephen Hindus, Prison and Plantation: Crime, Justice, and Authority in Massachusetts and South Carolina, 1767-1878 (Chapel Hill, 1980), 162-181; and Anne Bauer, “The Charlestown State Prison,” Historical Journal of Western Massachusetts 2 (Fall 1973): 22-29.

5. Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (New York, 1961); Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, 1958). See also Glen A. Gildemeister, Prison Labor and Convict Competition With Free Workers in Industrializing America, 1840-1890 (New York, 1987), 70-126. The seminal work on paternalism and slave culture is Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974). On paternalism and the use of hegemony as a concept in historical analysis, see T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 567-593.

6. PDSB 2 (1827), 62, 16.

7. Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Massachusetts State Prison (Boston, 1823), 61. Public curiosity about the institution was apparently great; the annual report for 1829 records Fees of Admittance” amounting to $413.50, which, at 25 cents per ticket, amounts to 1,654 paying visitors that year, Report of the Warden of the State Prison (Senate No. 2, 1829), 17. By 1854, the legislature’s Joint Committee on, Prisons reported a “great influx of visitors, now amount[ing] to about 6,000 annually,’ and it reported its opinion that “the present system of promiscuous visiting is highly injurious in its tendency, both in its moral effect and as it regards the discipline of the prison.” Report of the Joint Committee on Prisons, 31 March 1854, in Legislative Papers, St. 1854, c. 302 (13 April 1854), MSA.

8. Daily Reports, 11 April 1817, 7 May 1822.

9. Daily Reports, 15 June 1807 (Holton’s name is misspelled as “Holson” in this entry, but subsequently corrected), 27 June 1807, 29 June 1807, 30 June 1807, 6 July 1807.

10. Daily Reports, 25 November 1807, 20 May 1808, 25 April 1808, 16 April 1814, 10 July 1815.

11. Daily Reports, 19 April 1814, 22 April 1814, 23 September 1818, 16 October 1819, 22 November 1819, 3 November 1818, 14 December 1817, 27 November 1818.

12. Useful discussions of such networks in contemporary prisons can be found in David B. Kalinich, The Inmate Economy (Lexington, Mass., 1980); and David B. Kalinich and Stan Stojkovic, “Contraband: The Basis for Legitimate Power in a Prison Social System,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 12 (December 1985): 435-451.

13. Daily Reports, 25 March 1820, 4 October 1820.

14. Daily Reports, 11 March 1817, 3 March 1818, 12 November 1823, 20 March 1828.

15. Daily Reports, 14 August 1817, 27 August 1819; Board Minutes, 1 September 1819.

16. Daily Reports, 18 October 1816, 25 February 1822, 25 July 1822, 31 July 1822; Board Minutes, 31 July 1822.

17. PDSB 2 (1827), 34-8 (quotation, 36). See also the extract of the annual message of Governor Levi Lincoln, January 1826, reprinted in PDSB 1 (1826), 43-44. On the Auburn system and its competitor, the Pennsylvania system of round-the-clock solitary confinement, see W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (Ithaca, 1965); and Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum, 79-88.

18. Annual Report (1837), 5-6.

19. On literacy and education reform in the nineteenth century, see Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City (New York, 1979), esp. 235-267; and Michael B. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1968).

20. Prisoners indicated an affirmative answer by signing their own names in the space provided; if the answer was negative, or qualified, the official keeping the register wrote in “Cannot,” “Read Only,” or “Cannot Write.” Occasionally the space was simply left blank. The ability to sign one’s name was not, of course, the same as the ability to write, let alone read; the crudeness of many prisoners’ signatures suggests that their writing abilities may not have extended very far beyond that act. But we should not dismiss too hastily the reading and writing abilities of prisoners who failed to meet this crude standard, especially given the amassed evidence of their literary activity, both legitimate and otherwise. And of course, as with occupational data, we should keep in mind that prisoners may have had their own reasons for dishonesty, in either direction. The register, noted one chaplain in 1853, “is frequently incorrect, from the fact that prisoners when first committed to the institution, are unwilling from feelings of delicacy, or less worthy motives, to state their actual attainments.” Chaplain’s Report (1853), 41n.

21. A fascinating account of similar struggles over the written word in twentieth-century California prisons can be found in Eric Cummins, The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement (Stanford, 1994).

22. An Account of the Massachusetts State Prison. Containing A Description and Plan of the Edifice; the Law, Regulations, Rules and Orders; with a View of the Present State of the Institution (Charlestown, 1806), 25; Board Minutes, 9 June 1806.

23. Commitment Register, entry for Andrew McGee, admitted 27 February 1806; Daily Reports, 6 March 1807, 2 April 1807.

24. McGee’s account apparently never found a publisher, although two such personal narratives from Charlestown prisoners did. See James Allen, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman. Being His Death-Bed Confession, to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison (Boston, 1837); and John Southack, The Life of John Southack (n.p., 1809). The unpublished diary of an anonymous Charlestown prisoner, dated 1864, is at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

On the confessional genre and the history of prisoners’ writings, see Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 (New York, 1993); H. Bruce Franklin, The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison (New York, 1978); Idem, American Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners: Their Writings: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Works, 1798-1981 (Westport, Conn., 1982); and Cynthia Owen Philip, ed., Imprisoned in America: Prison Communications, 1776 to Attica (New York, 1973).

25. Board Minutes, 10 April 1809, 16 January 1813, 13 March 1821; Daily Reports, 18 December 1806, 5 March 1807, 14 March 1807.

26. Board Minutes, 4 April 1821, 2 May 1821; Daily Reports, 16 April 1814, 4 August 1818, 4 January 1821, 19 May 1819.

27. Report of the Committee on the State Prison (1817), 8-9. On an earlier, less formal attempt to set up prison schools, see Daily Reports, 28 March 1814, and 17 January 1816.

28. Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution (New Haven, 1988), 37. See also Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge, Mass., 1978), 34-53.

29. Report of the Committee on the State Prison (1817), 28. In addition to the distinctions in uniform, only prisoners in the highest class were eligible to receive recommendations for pardon from the Directors.

Formal legislative recognition of the Sabbath school would not occur until 1838; see St. 1838, c. 152 (18 April 1838). The Prison Discipline Society of Boston, in its annual report for 1832, dated the beginnings of the school to 1815, although the accuracy of this latter date is not apparent from the prison’s own records. See PDSB 7 (1832), 537.

30. Chaplain’s Report (1818), in Massachusetts State Prison, Reports and Correspondence, MSA; Rules and Regulations (1823), 57.

31. Board Minutes, 12 April 1823.

32. Commissioners’ Report (Senate No. 6, 1826); the manuscript report, dated 12 January 1827, is in the Unpassed Legislation File, Senate No. 8383. The position was established as full-time, with the recommended salary, by St. 1827, c. 118 (11 March 1828). On the views of the Prison Discipline Society regarding the need for a full-time chaplain, and an account of the early career of the Rev. Jared Curtis at the New York State Prison at Auburn, see PDSB 2 (1826), 91-95.

33. Report of Joint Standing Committee on Prisons, n.d., in Legislative Papers, Res. 1844, c. 98 (15 March 1844), MSA.

34. Ibid. Additional testimony as to the extent of the prisoners’ own book collections was given by Francis C. Gray, a member of the Charlestown Board of Inspectors from 1828 to 1833, in his book extolling the virtues of the Auburn system. Gray wrote that a chaplain from the Illinois State Prison, visiting Charlestown around 1846, admired the size of the library and lamented that prisoners in his own institution had no books at all. A Charlestown prisoner stepped forward to say that he and his shopmates had books to spare for the Illinois prisoners. The visiting chaplain returned to Charlestown the next day, “and took with him a large silk handkerchief to carry off the books. What was his astonishment to find in the room adjoining the chapel more than four hundred bound volumes, besides tracts and pamphlets! The silk handkerchief would not do; and the prisoners requested permission to make boxes to pack the books in.” Francis C. Gray, Prison Discipline in America (1847; Montclair, N.J., 1973), 53-54. Gray himself was sufficiently impressed with the prison library that he personally donated $50 for the purchase of books in 1847; see Warden’s Report (1847), 15; Warden’s Report (1848), 14-15, lists the books purchased with Gray’s gift.

35. Res. 1845, c. 88 (18 March 1845); Annual Report (1845), 6-7. See also Warden’s Report (1845), 22.

36. Annual Report (1845), 7.

37. Catalogue of the Library, of the Mass. State Prison (Charlestown, 1858). For a list of books in the prison library at a later date, see the invoices in Legislative Papers, Res. 1871, c. 35 (28 April 1871), MSA.

38. Board Minutes, 1 November 1849; Chaplain’s Report (1858), 42-3; Catalogue of the Library (1858).

39. Report of the [Senate] Committee on Prisons, 19 March 1858, in Legislative Papers, St. 1858, c. 162 (27 March 1858), MSA.

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