Massachusetts State Prison, Charlestown

Learn about the Charlestown Prison (1805 – 1955) on Tuesday, April 16th at 7pm in the Auditorium at the Battle of Bunker Hill Museum. Exactly where was the prison? Why was Charlestown selected as the site? What was the prison like in 1805, 1880, 1920? Who were the famous occupants of the prison? After the prison was closed in 1878, why was it reopened in 1884? Who stayed in prison for 60 years? How could prisoners make shoes, chains, buggy whips, cabinets, molding, hats, clothing, and license plates? How did people escape? When was the electric chair used? This and much more from the Charlestown Historical Society.

Charlestown Prison

The State Prison in Charlestown was built in 1805 on Lynde’s Point, which is close to the current site of the Bunker Hill Community College. This site was chosen because of the convenience to the waterway that existed and therefore allowed easy transportation of stone, which the prisoners cut and shaped in the workshop. Charlestown was also considered a secure place at the time as it was an island with only one bridge going to Cambridge. The prison included a central building of 5 stories and wings of four stories which included ninety cells. The cells were 9 feet by 8 feet with two openings 24″ high by 4″ wide.

The first contract for prison labor was made in 1807 with William Little, who hire 20 convicts to make harnesses for horses. For 50 years, granite from Quincy, produce from farms and stone from Chelmsford were brought into a basin in the prison yard, which was 30 feet square and 7 feet deep.

The prison was expanded in 1829, when the north wing of 304 cells, each 7 feet by 3 and ½ feet were added. The South wing was added in 1850 with 150 more cells. In May 1878 the Charlestown Prison was emptied and all prisoners were move to the new prison at Concord.

The State legislature decided in 1884 that Concord should become a reformatory for younger prisoners that could be rehabilitated. The legislature instructed that the old Charlestown prison would again become a State Prison, where the prisoners with longer sentences would be housed. The preparations for a return of prisoners to Charlestown included a renovation. The renovation was limited to removing all the trash and junk that was stored in the prison yard and in the workshops. After all the debris was removed the entire prison was whitewashed or painted. The renovation was done by 30 trustworthy prisoners. About 100 of the 450 prisoners being moved from Concord to Charlestown had previously served in Charlestown. The accommodations had not changed much in the 6 years that Charlestown was closed. Each prisoner had a water pail, a sanitary bucket, a bed and a table. Prisoners especially missed the water closet which was in each cell at Concord. The Charlestown prisoners would be assigned to one of 6 companies with prisoner work contracts. They would make shoes, chains, wood molding, quilted molding, harnesses, or hats.

Over the years there have been many escape attempts, some successful while others ended in death or a much longer stay in state accommodations. One of the most unusual attempts was through the prison sewer, in 1892. Each day the prisoners would dump their sanitary bucket in the sewer outlet. The outlet cover was secured with 4 bolts. The prisoners were able to cut the bolts without being noticed and then nine men entered the 3 foot sewer pipe and crawled for 800 feet to the outlet into the river. When seen by some railroad men the prisoners were said to be covered from head to foot with mud and slime. The prisoners split up and went in different directions. It was later learned that friends were waiting with clean coveralls. The escape was only noticed later when a woman came to visit one of the convicts. A reward of $100 was offered for any information leading to their capture.

prison 2

The Charlestown prison was the sight of many riots. The last riot which many residents of Charlestown still remember was the Cherry Hill riots. Cherry Hill was the name given to the area of the prison where the most unruly criminals were held. In January 1955, 4 armed prisoners held 5 guards and 18 fellow prisoners’ hostage for 82 hours against the combined forces of the National Guard, Police, and Prison guards. In the early stage of the Cherry Hill Riots the prisoners removed the floor from a cell and attempted to dig under the outside wall. Unfortunately they faced a problem many homeowners still have today. Dig 2-3 feet deep in many parts of town and you find water. On the third day of the siege, the prisoners agreed to negotiate with a 7 person citizen’s committee. They discussed the conditions of the prison, the rigid penal code in Massachusetts, and the bleak future they faced. After 1 ½ days of negotiating the committee agreed to help the prisoners, although no deal was made. The prisoners faced up to 20 years for their attempted escape; however after a grand jury investigation no charges were filed. Later the same year, all of the Charlestown Prisoners were moved to the newly opened prison in Walpole. At the ground breaking for the Walpole Prison, Gov. Paul Denver described the Charlestown prison, believed to be the oldest in the country, as “a bastille that eclipses in infamy any current prison in the United States.” He declared it was a “disgrace to our Commonwealth.”