Upcoming West End Museum Lecture Recalls History of Leverett Street Jail

The West End Museum is getting into the Halloween spirit with “Ghosts in the Museum: The Leverett Street Jail,” a talk that explores the history of the 19th-century jail (which stood where the museum now is ), on Wednesday, Oct. 27, at 6:30 p.m. at 150 Staniford St., Suite 7.

The jail, which served as the city and county prison from 1822 until 1851, was reportedly infamous for overcrowding, as well as for mixing inmates, regardless of the severity of their crimes. Seven of 10 women incarcerated there were innocent, arrested purely on the word of others for offenses like speaking out about politics, while some of the jail’s most-notorious one-time inmates include Don Pedro Gilbert, the last pirate executed in Boston; Abner Kneeland, who preached birth control, women’s property rights and interracial marriage, and was the last person in the U.S. convicted of blasphemy; William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist leader, suffragist, and social reformer who was held there temporarily for his own protection against an angry mob; and Dr. John Webster, who was convicted and hanged for the 1849 murder of George Parkman.

Webster’s case was “the equivalent of the OJ trial today,” according to Duane Lucia, the museum president who is giving the upcoming talk. Around 60,000 people, or half the city’s population at the time, attending the 12-day trial, added Lucca.

The Leverett Street Jail was also the site of around 20 hangings, said Lucia, but unlike previous hangings, which were held publicly where SoWa (South of Washington) is today to deter others from committing crimes, executions at the jail took place in a courtyard surrounded by high walls. As a result, people would get on the rooftops of neighboring buildings to view the hangings, said Lucia, while some enterprising individuals even charged admission to access the rooftops for the executions.

“Ghosts in the Museum is the second lecture Lucia has delivered on the history of the Leverett Street Jail, following the first in 2015. But the new program will supplement the research he did back then with his new findings, which include items uncovered in old newspapers and court records. “It’s an ongoing process,” said Lucia.

In the case of Duncan White, who committed suicide in the jail, his death was erroneously reported as a hanging, said Lucca, . but in fact, an accomplice of Winter’s named Sylvester Colson was actually the one who hanged, although there is little record of this.

The lecture will also explore abolitionism as it pertains to capital punishment.

“Everybody knows about the abolition movement against slavery, but not everyone knows the backstory,” said Lucia. “Abolition was much broader – there was the abolition of alcohol, the abolition of capital punishment.”

For nearly 13 years, there wasn’t a public execution at the Leverett Street Jail until the hanging of Washington Good, a young black sailor convicted of first-degree murder, in 1849. “His was gruesome,” said Lucia, who added that Good had tried to committee suicide in the jail and was unconscious and tied to a chair at the time of his hanging.

Moreover, of the roughly 20 people executed at Leverett Street Jail, more than half of them were black and Hispanic who were definitely not tried by their peers, said Lucia.

Admission to the event is $10 for the general public, $5 for museum members, and free for those wearing costumes. Register online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ghosts-in-the-museum-the-leverett-street-jail-tickets-182922735827.

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