A Page from North Quabbin History: Ellen Cheney Johnson reformed women’s prisons

  • JOHNSON

  • Carla Charter pf Phillpston. Paul Franz

Published: 9/24/2021 2:17:10 PM
Modified: 9/24/2021 2:17:15 PM

Ellen Cheney Johnson, an Athol native, was one of a number of early reformers, mostly women, who were involved in improving conditions for women prisoners after the Civil War.

Prior to these women’s efforts, women and men were housed together along with any children the women brought with them or had while imprisoned. Due to these women who through parlor meetings, article writing and petition signing, brought forth their concerns, in 1874, the Legislature passed a law requiring women to be housed in separate facilities. This was only the beginning of Johnson’s work.

The first prison set aside specifically for women was the Greenfield Jail; however, that was abandoned after the prison was needed to also house men and boys. In 1872, the Board of Prison Commissioners presented a plan for a prison closer to Boston. First the governor suggested the workhouse at Bridgewater but when that did not pass the Legislature this plan was abandoned, according to an article titled “Ellen Johnson and the Sherborn Prison,” by Isabel C. Barrows published in The New England magazine in January 1900.

In 1874, the same commission authorized the purchase of a former Sherborn farm where the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women was opened. That completed prison housed 300 female prisoners, according to the article. Also included were workrooms, a chapel and a nursery.

Cells at the prison were awarded based on different levels of behavior. Prisoners began by staying in a probation cell and working themselves up through different divisions based on appropriate behaviors. Rewards in the divisions included privileges such as writing letters and becoming members of clubs and tea on Sundays.

The divisions, according to the article, were marked by the number of stripes in a woman’s gingham dresses. According to the article, the highest level were women wearing a red badge denoted as trust women, a standing they received by not losing any marks in their divisions. Those who were illiterate were required to learn to read and all women had a pocket in their dress which a book was required to be slipped into for reading at spare moments.

The prison had a big farm area where they grew much of their own foods and made hanks of silk thread that was sold at the World’s Fair. The prisoners made shirts at the prison and at the highest levels were sent out of the prison to do domestic work in the community.

“They really were trying to reform these women,” said Betsy Johnson (no relation), Sherborn curator of the Sherborn Historical Society.

The Sherborn Prison had several commissioners including Clara Barton. When Barton left the post in 1881, Johnson was chosen to fill the post. Johnson had been involved in reform work for many years by this time and had served on the Board of Commissioners for the prison as well.

According to the article, Johnson at the time had closed and packed up her house as she had been planning a trip to Europe when she was called to be commissioner; so Johnson was quoted in the article as saying, “and so I came out to the prison with my bandbox and my little dog,” according to the article.

The Sherborn Prison eventually became the present MCI Framingham. Johnson explained that the prison did not move; instead, the land it was on in Sherborn eventually became part of Framingham.

Sherborn town records, according to Johnson, at that time, list deaths at the prison separately from town deaths. Residents from Mass reformatory Prison for Women are buried at burial grounds in Sherborn. Johnson ran the prison for 15 years and received a bronze medal for her efforts in prison reforms at the Columbian Exposition.

Carla Charter is a freelance writer from Phillipston. Her writing focuses on history with a particular interest in the history of the North Quabbin area. Contact her at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net.


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