Female political prisoners held in Massachusetts

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John Hartwell

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As the war progressed, the Federal government found itself with increasing numbers of female “political” prisoners. Ranging from suspected spies and rebel couriers, to northern women who helped Federal deserters to get escape. As the available facilities around Washington filled, the government started to “farm” some prisoners out to serve their sentences in selected localities in the North. One such facility was the Fitchburg House of Correction in Massachusetts.

The House of Correction in the Worcester County city of Fitchburg, was a brand new establishment, which had received its first inmates in 1860. The product of the great penal reform movement, which emphasized the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners, rather than mere incarceration and punishment, the facility was true state-of-the-art. It included office, chapel, work-rooms, kitchen, wash and bathing rooms (a weekly bath was required of all prisoners), and 72 cells, (“6 by 7 feet, steam-heated, well-ventilated, and furnished”). In this seemingly idyllic establishment, beginning in November, 1863, were confined several female Federal prisoners: most of them spies or Confederate sympathizers.

“These women are confined in the first and second tiers of cells, on the South side of the room. In the passage-way off the corridors there are a number of potted plants and caged birds, and this portion of the building affords a very cheerful appearance.”​

On 23rd November, 1863, Mary Murphy became the first female prisoner to arrive. She had been arrested for attempting to burn bridges in West Virginia. Tried by military commission, she was sent immediately to Fitchburg. “She calls herself Jeff Davis’s wife, and seems determined to enjoy herself, notwithstanding her imprisonment.” (Boston Traveler, 27 Dec. 1864)

The following March 24th (1864), 20-year-old Annie E. Jones, and Mary Jane Johnson (22) arrived at the Fitchburg House of Correction. Both were referred to as camp followers, and were suspected of being Confederate spies. Miss Jones boisterously referred to herself as “the Major,” and, after six months was released on her own parole. Three months later she was still in Massachusetts, “stopping at one of our first hotels.”

Mrs Sarah E. Monroe (27) arrived on April 23, 1864. She had been convicted of harboring escaped Confederate prisoners and guerillas. She had lived near the Spottsylvania battlefield, until her house was destroyed by artillery fire. A widow, her husband had been killed in the Union army, and she insisted on her innocence. “She says that she never had a trial, and thinks it perfectly ridiculous that he should be suspected of harboring rebels.”

There had been four charges brought against 40-year-old Mary S. Terry, the first of which was espionage. The government had failed to prove the first three charges, but had secured conviction on the fourth: “that she came within the lines of the Eighth Army Corps in Maryland, contrary to the orders of the Commanding General.” Her sentence was one year. The Baltimore native is described as “well educated, and quite accomplished.”

Mrs Mary E. Sawyer (34), whose husband was in the Confederate Army, was accused of corresponding with the enemy. She admitted writing to her husband, but denied contact with any other rebels. Her stay in Fitchburg would be brief (August 3-15, 1864); she was released by Presidential pardon.

Two 20-year-olds, Rebecca Smith and Maria Kelley, arrived on September 24, to serve out 6 month sentences for aiding and abetting U. S. soldiers to desert, by furnishing them with civilian clothing. “The two girls were connected with a house in Washington that soldiers frequented, and doubtless had assisted a number to escape from the city.”

Elizabeth Buckley (27), of Uniontown (near Washington), served a one-year sentence for the similar offense of “selling civilian clothes to a soldier.” Her husband was serving in the U. S. army before Petersburg.

Jane A. Perkins (28) was an actual Prisoner of War, captured at Cold Harbor in a Confederate “uniform” of sorts. She said she had served three years in a rebel battery, being wounded twice.

“When captured she was getting water from a spring, being dressed at the time in a ‘bloomer’ costume similar to that worn by a few ‘high-minded’ females some years since. She also says that previous to being sent to Fitchburg she was wounded in the arm by a ball from a gun discharged by a guard of the prison in which she was confined, at another woman who was somewhat boisterous in her conduct. The ball passed first through a book that she had in her hands reading, and then into her arm. Whether her story is true or not, we don’t know, but she exhibits a book with a bullet-hole in it to prove what she asserts.”​

Although far better treated than she had previously been at Old Capitol or Point Lookout, Jane Perkins was not a model prisoner. Unlike the others who usually accepted their imprisonment quietly, Jane’s behavior was violent and destructive. She spent much of her time in Fitchburg in one of the four windowless solitary confinement cells in the building’s cellars. For smashing furniture and repeatedly kicking matron Martha Nichols, she was slapped several times by turnkey Edwin Day. She finally settled down. Released in January (warden Alpheus Kimball probably was glad to be rid of her), she eventually found her way back South, and once again into Confederate uniform. [Jane’s story is told in detail in the 2003 book, Lady Rebel by Patty and George Bell.]

On the same day that Jane Perkins had arrived, so had Sarah Mitchell (20). The D.C. Evening Star of September 1st reports:

"Sarah Mitchell, alias Charlie West of the 18th Virginia cavalry, arrested at Harper’s Ferry as a spy, by Capt. A.D. Pratt, while loitering around our camps dressed in a United States uniform. … Sarah makes quite a neat looking soldier, is fond of talk, and says that she served two years in Company A, 18th Virginia cavalry, in Imboden’s command."​

Following trial by Court Martial, Sarah Mitchell had been first committed to the Old Capital gaol, and then, on October 13, transferred to Fitchburg.

30-year-old Sarah Hutchins of Baltimore had arrived on November 28th. She had been arrested for getting up a subscription among the “Ladies of Baltimore” to purchase an elaborate sword for presentation to Confederate raider Maj. Harry Gilmor. The sword (purchased in New York) along a letter identifying Mrs Hutchins as the originator of the gift, had been discovered in the possession of a known rebel courrier trying to get it through the lines. Sarah was sentenced to a full five years in prison, and ordered to pay a $5000 fine. The wife of a socially very prominent Baltimorean, petitions were circulated by local Unionists for remittance of the harsh sentence, while at the same time, the Baltimore Loyal Leagues and Union Clubs petitioned for a still stiffer punishment. In December, President Lincoln characteristically chose leniency, and gave Sarah Hutchins a full pardon. Says the Illinois State Register of Jan 8:

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No new female political prisoners were confined at the Fitchburg House of Correction after November, 1864, and the last was released in March, 1865.
 

mofederal

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John Hartwell

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JPK Huson 1863

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A member here has quite a bit on Sarah Hutchins. There's a thread here on her case, never have been able to make sense of why she was considered ' bad ' enough to incarcerate.

Had no idea there was a prison for women all the way north in Mass. Love to see more on it. Found a few descriptions from when Belle Boyd's house in D.C. was used for the same purpose.

fitchburg smith.JPG

From a PA paper, Kelly and Smith- the women from ' a house frequented by soldiers '. Poor things. May have been one of those houses.

fitchburg 2.JPG

She was big news at the time. Buying a sword intended for a Confederate officer doesn't seem an adequate offense to warrant the attention of the military commission, much less prison. Well, breakfast at the Astor House seems the least someone could do. A whole war on, and we're arresting women for what seem idiotic reasons.
 
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