May 13, 2014–January 8, 2017

Charlestown, Boston, Massachusetts

c. 1851

Watercolor, pencil, and ink on paper

15 1/2 x 20 1/2" (sight)

Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York

Gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.12

Photo © John Bigelow Taylor, New York

Artist unidentified

Charlestown Prison

This rendering presents a picture of restricted and orderly conduct in the life of the state prison in the Charlestown section of Boston. Opened in 1805, the prison was designed by Charles Bulfinch and occupied five acres of land. The cruciform plan included a central building surmounted by a cupola with an alarm bell and two four-story wing extensions that held ninety cells. Between 1850 and 1851 the prison was expanded to include the octagonal granite structure seen in this drawing, and the capacity was increased to 750 prisoners.

For the first sixty years in the life of the prison, inmates wore uniforms that were half blue and half red, with painted caps. A yellow stripe was added for repeat offenders, and convicts were tattooed before being released back into the community. The main activity of the inmate workforce was cutting stone shipped from nearby Quincy, though there were also shops for a variety of other productions, including cabinetmaking and tinsmithing.

The original cells were barely large enough to hold a cot and had neither a window nor plumbing. Reforms were instituted in 1829, when the Auburn system, which advocated complete silence and the separation of prisoners at night, was introduced. Modifications were soon adopted and included programs such as the establishment of a Sabbath school to teach the Bible and basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, and separate garden plots for prisoners’ use.

Stacy C. Hollander, “Charlestown Prison,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.