Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Charlestown State Prison

Early print of Charlestown Prison -  looks like the illustration of a Poe story.

Charlestown, showing the prison and the new Prison Point bridge 1818.  (All maps, Norman B. Leventhal  Map Collection, Boston Public Library)

At the turn of the 19th century, Boston as it existed at the time was already criss-crossed with streets and built out. The Mill Pond had yet to be filled in, and the waters of the Back Bay came up to the edge of the Common. Yet Boston and the state had grown in population, and needed new and larger institutions  to keep up with their growth. Soon after annexing South Boston, a large plot of land was bought to locate Boston's new School of Reformation, House of Industry, House of Correction, and Lunatic Asylum. When the state had need for a new prison around the same time, nearby Charlestown was chosen for the site.

Charlestown State Prison, 1850 from the American Folk Art Museum.

Charlestown Prison, 1838. The land around the Craigie bridge has been filled from Lechmrere Point to the Prison Point bridge. The Lowell Railroad had built a branch line over to Charlestown, from upper right down across the Prison Point bridge.

The site chosen was along the waterfront at Lynde's Point. At the time, as shown in the maps above, a bay extended back between Charlestown and Cambridge.  The first prison was built in 1805-6, and began accepting convicts. I'll interject here that the Prison Point bridge seen on the maps was first planned as a tidal dam around the same time as the prison. After delays due to financial difficulties, the project shifted from being a dam from Lechmere Point to Charlestown, and became a bridge from the Craigie Bridge to Charlestown at the prison.

This 1859 map shows the proliferation of railroad line coming up from depots on Causeway street and past the edge of Charlestown to points north and west.

Additions were built in the 1820s and 1850s, as prisons went through a period of reform. The 'reform' may have been bad for the prisoners, as it involved  a turn to total isolation and silence during the day. No prisoner was allowed to speak to another prisoner, and the elimination of much petty corruption meant that prisoners could no longer bribe guards into allowing small favors. Prisoners were even prevented from sending or receiving letters to or from family. It did prevent violence among prisoners, and allowed them to serve their time in peace, if they could deal with the social isolation.

Charlestown Prison, 1885.

Charlestown prison guards, 1896. Apparently, obesity is not a recent thing.

Twentieth century view of the prison entrance.

Last but not least, the electric chair at Charlestown State Prison, 1909.

And yes, Charlestown State Prison became the home of the states' electric chair.  Luigi Storti was the first to be executed in the Massachusetts electric chair, in December of 1901. Sacco and Vanzetti. The last state executions were of Phillip Bellino and Edward Gertson in May of 1947.

Charlestown and prison, 1928 BPL Leslie Jones collection. (Click link for full size photo).

During the 1850s, the prison was seen as an overcrowed mess, and a new prison was built in Concord. After several years, for reasons that aren't clear to me, the prisoners were moved back to Charlestown. In 1956, a new state prison opened in Walpole, and the prisoners from Charlestown (then the nation's oldest prison) were moved there.  Bunker Hill Community College opened on the site of the Charlestown prison in 1973.


  1. "Charlestown prison guards, 1896. Apparently, obesity is not a recent thing."

    That made me chuckle! Whats even better is that it appears they made all of the larger gentlemen sit down in the front row.

  2. Maybe the big guys needed to rest their feet. ;-)

  3. Notice also in the early maps, the graveyard was right on the water. To this day there is still a sea wall to keep the water out of the graveyard.