Bernard Trubowitz (right) is a student at University of Massachusetts Lowell who conducted the research for his Directed Study (under the guidance of Professor Robert Forrant) at the Lawrence History Center in June 2014.
I’d like to thank everyone at the Lawrence History Center, in particular Amita Kiley, Kathleen Flynn, and Susan Grabski for their support and invaluable assistance. They opened every archive to me and proved invaluable sources of direction and information.
Essex County Jail and House of Correction, Receiving Officer's Memorandum
February 9, 1912
Joseph J. Ettor
There is no such thing as “too much information” when studying history. Every document or artifact tells a story or fleshes out a previously studied period, person, or event. Sometimes, however, a set of documents offers up so much information as to overwhelm a researcher. This is the case of the Essex County Jail Record collection, a massive store of documents saved at the jail’s closing. In attempting to learn more about the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike using the records, I answered some questions while coming away from the efforts with even more questions about the strikers and role of the legal system during the strike. Here, I describe the collection, the sorting process I used, and discuss some of the information that can be gleaned from the documents.
Located at what is now the corner of Auburn and Hampshire Streets in Lawrence, the Essex County Jail was built in 1853. The second-oldest jail in the country, with a distinct octagonal design and three three-story wings facing North, East, and West, housed 237 inmates at its peak. Demolished in the late 1980s, the site is now the soccer field for Central Catholic High School. Importantly, from 1853 until its closing, every single file, form, and receipt relating to the functioning of the jail and its prisoners was saved. Despite rumors of incineration, the massive trove of documents was unceremoniously dumped into black garbage bags and given to the Lawrence History Center. The documents were never completely studied. They were boxed up and put into storage, and while over the years a few attempts at sorting the documents by date were made, very little information was drawn from them.
When I began my directed study, I was stunned by the sheer number of documents; there are well over 100,000 prisoner files alone, not counting the repair bills, commissary receipts, pay slips, guard time-clock disks, and hundreds of other forms and files. In addition, there are over 200 record ledgers and books. To even consider studying a specific time period (in this case the 1912 strike), an effort had to be made to sort these documents. The primary type of document is a “Mittimus”, a Latin term for an arrest warrant. Every single prisoner who entered the jail had a mittimus filled out, a tri-fold document roughly 8 x 3 ¼ inches in dimensions when closed. While the attached documents and specific details of the form varied over the decades, they all contained basic information regarding the inmate, crime, and any legal proceedings. By 1912, a standard mittimus included an additional form glued inside, which contained the officer’s writ and a typed form documenting the prisoner’s information. This is called the “Receiving Officer’s Memorandum”.