The First Gaol (1652 – 1684)
The Boston Gaol served as the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s only prison for eighteen years. The General Court ordered that a new one be erected in Ipswich in 1652 across from the Meeting House. The dimensions of the “prison house,” were twenty feet long and sixteen feet wide, with “3 floors of Joyce thick set and well boarded, with partitions above and below, the sides and ends studs and stud space, and to clapboard the house round, and to shingle it, and to daub it whole wall and all but the gable ends, and to underpin the house, and make dores and stayers, and hang the dores, and sett in locks.”
Theophilus Wilson was the first keeper. The Court paid the keeper 5 shillings per prisoner and ordered that each prisoner should additionally pay the keeper before they be released for “their food and attendance.” Those who were unable to pay for their food were allowed only bread and water. The selectmen were required by law to supply the house of correction with flax and hemp for work.
First Jail Break in the Country
On the morning of the 30th of March 1662, the jailer discovered that a prisoner had pulled up the flooring in his cell and escaped, which according to Thomas Franklin Waters was the first offence of this nature committed in the country. Upon being recaptured he complained that he was cold. As there is no mention of a chimney in the contract for the jail’s construction, confinement in cold weather must have been particularly cheerless.
Puritan punishments were harsh. For breaking prison, Ipswich Henry Spenser was sentenced to be severely whipped and branded in the forehead with a letter “B” and pay a fine of 5 shillings. For persisting in their course & opinion, Quakers were imprisoned, whipped, fed on bread and water and compelled to work on hemp and flax, and no one was allowed to speak to them. Murderers were imprisoned there until they were hung at Pingrey’s Plain.
The 1684 jail
Joseph Felt wrote in the History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton that in 1684, the year that the colony charter was revoked by King Charles II, the towns which sent juries to the courts in Ipswich and Salem were ordered to help build a new house of correction in the two towns. Salem built its first jail, a timber-frame building measuring “thirteen feet stud (interior height), and twenty feet square, accommodated with a yard.” When Salem replaced the jail in 1813, their old jail was moved and converted into a residence.
The Witchcraft Trials
During the Salem witchcraft trials, The Ipswich jail was filled with the accused. The prison keeper, Thomas Fossie and Elizabeth, his wife, testified that they “saw no evil carriage or deportment” in Mary Easty while she was confined in the Ipswich jail. When she was taken away to be hung with several other prisoners, her demeanor was “serious, religious, distinct and affectionate as could well be expressed, drawing tears from the eyes of almost all present.”
Construction of a new jail in Ipswich is found in the chronological history of Ipswich in the Genealogy of the Willcomb Family, The old jail was said to have been moved to High Street where it became the Isaac Lord house.
The Gambrel Roof Jail (1771 – 1806)
In 1750 the Ipswich jail was reputed to be in such ruinous condition and utterly insufficient that the Court ordered it should be used no longer. The town of Ipswich, not willing to pay for a new one, decided to extensively repair it.
1760: The General Court again ordered that a house of correction built here, and “to permit the dissolute poor of the town to be put in the jail until the new house of correction shall be erected.”
In 1769 the sheriff reported that the building was still very defective, and plans for a new jail commenced. The old jail was taken down and the new jail was completed in 1771, a two-story gambrel roof building in which the lower floor served as the jail and the rooms under the roof were used for the “House of Correction,” apparently two separate functions. A “house of correction” was traditionally used for holding people before their trials or to house the locally indigent, but was often synonymous with a “gaol” or jail where prisoners were kept for longer periods of time. It is unclear if Ipswich distinguished between the two.
The Stone jail (1806 – 1828)
The County found the small attic rooms of the gambrel-roof jail insufficient. In 1806 a new jail of stone was completed at “Norton’s Bridge” near what is now County Street at a cost of $27,000. The old jail near the Congregational Church was removed, and the site of the jail was sold to Rev. David Tenney Kimball, who built his parsonage there.
The new stone jail built in 1806 was a notoriously cruel and controversial place. Sixteen British prisoners were kept hostage there during the War of 1812 and treated so cruelly that in 1814 they were removed by the District marshal under orders of the Federalist-controlled state legislature in direct opposition to the mandate by President Madison that they be so imprisoned.
The Green Street Jail
A new. large jail/insane asylum was built on the Green Street location in 1828 and served its purpose for almost a century. It was torn down in 1930 to make room for a new high school. Construction of the school was completed in 1937, and the building now serves as the Ipswich Town Hall. The prison workhouse still stands and was remodeled into a modern senior residence center known as Whipple Riverview Place. The 1934 Town Report shows an expenditure of $603.00 for “Demolition of Jail property.”
- Felt, Joseph: History of Ipswich, Essex and Hamilton
- Waters, Thomas Franklin: Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vol. 1
- 1930 Ipswich Town Report
- 1934 Ipswich Town Report
- 1910 Ipswich map
- Genealogy of the Willcomb Family