Historic Houses of the Month: Charlestown State Prison

In 1800 the Massachusetts State Legislature appointed a committee to select a site to build a state prison. A parcel of land of approximately 5 acres was chosen at Lynde’s Point beside Charles River Bay in Charlestown, currently the site of Bunker Hill Community College. In the early 1800s Charlestown was still a peninsula as there was water all the way to the Charlestown Neck, making Lynde’s Point easily accessible by boat.  Now the infilled Charles River Bay is the site of the commuter rail tracks. Note that there is a tiny vestige of Millers River under I-93.

In 1804-5, the project commenced and a 200 foot long four-story building of hewn stone and a five-story brick building for workshops were built at a total cost of $170,000. The architect was Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844).  There was a warden’s house which has all the hallmarks of a 5 bay three story brick Federal home with a hipped roof and stone coins at the corners. Initially, 34 convicts were brought to the new Charlestown State Prison in December 1805. By 1816 there were 280 prisoners guarded by 15 officers. In 1850 a central octagonal building was erected with four wings in the shape of a cross emanating from the octagonal administrative building. The octagonal building, accessible to all wings and prisoners, housed a kitchen and dining area on the first floor, a supervisor’s room on the second, a chapel above that and a hospital on the top floor. The wings were supervised from the central octagonal building.

Like today the prisoners were assigned tasks. A newspaper article from 1851 noted that the prisoners were engaged in stone cutting, blacksmithing, shoemaking, tin working, tailoring, whip making, carving, cabinet making, varnishing and upholstering.  In the 20th century license plates would be added. The prisoners were contracted to perform these tasks for businesses within the Commonwealth.

When a new prison was authorized at Concord in 1874 the prison was emptied for a time. In 1884 the administrative plan changed again and Charlestown was designated as the facility where prisoners with longer sentences were sent. By the late 1800s the facility housed 550 to 600 prisoners.

Individual cell conditions at the prison were rudimentary. Each prisoner had a bed, a table, a pail for water and a sanitary bucket. The cells were not plumbed. At times there was unrest. An 1890 New York Times article describes a day of rioting instigated by one ‘Chicken’ Walsh which culminated in the lockdown of 78 inmates. The Times stated that “the trouble is the most serious that has taken place at the prison in many years.” 

There were numerous attempts by inmates to escape over the years.  Some succeeded.   One of the most interesting was in 1892 through the prison’s sewer outlet. A group of nine managed to cut the bolts on the sewer cover, enter the 3 foot sewer pipe, and crawl the 800 feet through waste and slime to the water. It was later learned that friends were waiting with clean clothes. The group split up and none were caught.

A few prisoners at Charlestown State Prison attained international notoriety. In 1903, young Charles Ponzi arrived in Boston from Italy on the SS Vancouver with $2.50 in his pocket.  He bounced up and down the East Coast landing back in Boston in 1917 where he held a few jobs, got married and eventually hit upon a scheme that made him rich beyond his dreams. Briefly.  He devised an investment plan with a simple premise: get investors to invest, then use all the subsequent investor’s money to pay profits to the old investors. The Ponzi scheme.  There was no actual investment going on.  Eventually banking and regulatory agencies became aware of the situation.  Ponzi was arrested, pleaded guilty and spent two years in federal prison.  When he was released he was convicted of larceny at the state level and spent the next seven years in the Charlestown State Prison. Following his release he was deported.  Eventually he moved to Brazil in 1939 and in 1949 he died penniless in a charity ward.

On Aug. 23, 1927, one of the most infamous executions by electric chair in history occurred at the prison.  On April 15, 1920, a robbery occurred at a shoe company in South Braintree. The paymaster for the company and his guard were shot and killed. The men, described as two Italian men, escaped with $15,000. Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for the crime although the evidence was shaky and the money never found.  Sacco and Vanzetti were both anarchists and at the time there was an enormous anti-radical sentiment in America.  After a lengthy trial carried out with questionable fairness, the men were found guilty and sentenced to death.  

Both before and after their executions, there were violent protests not only in Massachusetts, but all over the world.  On Aug. 21, 20,000 protesters demonstrated on Boston Common.  As atheists, both men refused to speak to a priest before their execution. Sacco’s last words, after quietly walking to his death were, ‘Farewell, mother.’ Vanzetti on the other hand, shook hands with the guards thanking them for their kindness and read a final statement of innocence.  His last words were, ‘I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.’ At the Langone Funeral Home in the North End where 10,000 mourners viewed the bodies, a wreath over the caskets said, ‘In attesa l’ora della vendetta’ (Awaiting the hour of vengeance).  The bodies were cremated and the ashes sent back to Italy. Subsequently, much of the evidence was discredited, but in both 1961 and 1983, modern forensics did in fact determine that the gun used to kill the two men belonged to Sacco.  No substantive evidence was ever found against Vanzetti.  In 1977 Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that they had been treated unjustly.

The bridge now known as the Gilmore Bridge was built in 1809. At that time the bridge to Cambridge crossed Charles River Bay rather than railroad tracks as it does today. From 1809 until the early 1970s when it was still paved with cobblestones, it was known as the Prison Point Bridge. A simple but meaningful history lesson for generations to come was lost when the bridge was renamed. 

Sources: Old Charlestown by Timothy Sawyer, A Century of Town Life by James F. Hunnewell, Images of America: Charlestown by Anthony Mitchell Samarco, Smithsonian Magazine, New York Times, Boston Herald, Wikipedia, www.digitalcommonwealth.com, www.charlestownhistoricalsociety.org, www.history.com.

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