Ghosts in the Museum: The Leverett Street Jail

By Marianne Salza

The eclectic West End was uniquely known for its Urban Renewal, influential residents, and abolitionists. The culturally diverse neighborhood was home to African, Irish, Eastern European, Italian, Greek, Asian, and Albanian immigrants. It was also infamous for its executions (predominantly of pirates of African or Hispanic decent) at the Leverett Street Jail. The “hempen jig,” as hangings were referred to by spectators, could be viewed from a dozen homes on Lowell Street.  

“Wealthy people could get into the yard. People who lived in close proximity to the jail would rent rooms so they could watch from the windows or roof of the building,” explained Duane Lucia, The West End Museum’s (WEM) President and Curator. “People wanted to see the sensation.”

Lucia presented Ghosts in the Museum: The Leverett Street Jail, on October 27, to revisit the history of the over 20 executions that took place in the residential neighborhood. Relatively located where the museum is today, the Leverett Street Jail served as the center of law enforcement in the City of Boston during the mid-19th century.

Designed by architect, Alexander Parris, the Leverett Street Jail was erected in 1822, when Boston became a city. The four-story building replaced the Boston Gaol, which served as the town and county jail from 1635-1822, and was located off of Court Street between Washington and Tremont Streets. Those detained included murderers, pirates, Quakers, rebels, newspaper editors, and women accused of witchcraft.

The active Leverett Street Jail was interconnected with the North Jail, Suffolk County Jail, City Court House, House of Correction, Suffolk County House of Correction, Police Court House, and gallows.

Convicted murderer, John Halloran, was the first person hung at the Leverett Street Jail on March 3, 1826. Thousands of observers attended.

At midnight in 1836, Simon Crockett and Stephen Russell set fire to a wooden boarding house in the leather district (the area between South Station and Chinatown) with 19 Irish families inside. The two were found guilty and were executed on March 16, 1836.

“One of the interesting points to this trial was arson at night was punishable by death,” noted Lucia. “Because they acknowledged that they were drunk, they couldn’t plead insanity.”

The Leverett Street Jail was notorious for its overcrowding; and even writer, Charles Dickens, commented on its atrocities. Inmates — incarcerated for murder, rape, and political outspokenness – were intermingled regardless of the severity of their crimes.

An 1851 newspaper article documented 2,344 criminals committed to the jail that year: 11 for adultery, 13 for smoking in the street, five for throwing snowballs, 11 for selling newspapers in the street, 19 common fiddlers, 320 debtors, and a multitude of pirates held for mutiny, commandeering of ships, and bloodshed. One thousand minors were detained with the criminals. 

“Piracy was a crime punishable by death; a crime against the sovereignty of the United States, like terrorism is today. A U.S. Marshal oversaw the execution,” explained Lucia, who also revealed that pirates could be hung anywhere in the city – not just the gallows.

When the Leverett Street Jail closed in 1851, it was opened for a couple weeks as a dime museum, where visitors could walk through the gallows and dungeons for ten cents of admission. The Leverett Street Jail was replaced by the Charles Street Jail (1851-1990), which is now integrated into the Liberty Hotel.

“Our museum was founded on the coattails of Urban Renewal. The original founders focused on our permanent exhibit, which is The Last Tenement,” said Lucia, who has lived on Beacon Hill’s North Slope for the past 30 years. Prior to 1960, the area was considered part of the West End. “Over the years I’ve broadened the focus of the museum to urban history, from colonial times to the 1900s. You have everything from burlesque to industries. Interesting people lived in the neighborhood, like Charles Bulfinch, who designed most of what we know as proper Boston.”

Visit the West End Museum, located at 150 Staniford Street, Suite 7, Boston, on Tuesdays and Fridays, 12-5pm, and Saturdays 11am-4pm. Support WEM or learn more about upcoming exhibits and lectures at www.TheWestEndMuseum.org.

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