Skip to Main Content

The Town & the City: Lowell before and after The Civil War

Originally created to be a digital archive for Lowell documents from 1826 to 1861, this website has grown to cover many periods and events in Lowell's history.

The first Lowell Jail - 1838

The venerable Lowell Jail on Thorndike Street was the second Middlesex County jail in the city. The first jail, built on Dutton Street, between Willie and Fletcher Streets, was opened in 1838 and was used for two decades until the new jail opened.

Some of the descriptions of the jail refer to the “modern plan” and the modern plan of separate cells”. It seems that these references are to what is now called the Auburn Plan or Auburn System. The descriptions of the jail and stories of the escapes in the articles below give us some insight into life in the jail; however, detailed descriptions have not been found.

According to a Wikipedia article, History of United States prison systems, the Auburn System became the “archetypical model penitentiary” in the 1830s and 1840s, as its use expanded from New York's Auburn Penitentiary into the Northeast and other parts of the country. “The Auburn system's combination of congregate labor in prison workshops and solitary confinement by night became a near-universal ideal in United States prison systems, if not an actual reality.”

It is difficult to see which aspects of the Auburn System were in place in the Lowell Jail, and which ones were not, with the limited information available. For example, one article about an escape from the jail mentions taking inmates out to work in the garden, “which is a common practice, we believe.” Was this common practice and part of a work program? One article and the Senate Report (1852) below mention a large room for women to work or read, but nothing mentioned for the men. The report also states “No employment; no books, except the Bible, and no religious instruction.”

While a notice of an auction the sale of the jail and property was reported in the May 22, 1860 newspaper article below there is no deed showing that this transfer of property ever took place. It is interesting that the buyer at the auction was “one of the commissioners for Middlesex county” and he got a “first-rate bargain”, then the sale did not go through. While this invites speculation, I haven’t found any more details.

It seems like the County maintained ownership of the property until the 1871 sale. Two ads in the 1866 and 1870 City Directories indicate that the lot was used for commercial purposes between the closing of the jail and the 1871 sale.


Timeline and articles -

March 2, 1833, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed “An Act to establish a Police Court in the town of Lowell.”

April 2, 1837, the Proprietors of Locks and Canals conveyed a parcel on the north side of Dutton Street (319 feet west of the intersection with Fletcher) to Middlesex County for use as a county jail.

Lowell Courier - July 4, 1837


Lowell Courier, October 24, 1837 – “what sort of jail we are to have in Lowell”

A county jail, on the modern plan of separate cells”, was built and opened in 1838 at a cost $15,000.

James Fisher was the county jailer & constable. He also lived in a house adjoining the jail.


Detail from the 1841 map of Lowell.
The Old Jail is #28 on Dutton Street between Willie (various spellings over the years) and Fletcher Streets.



Detail of 1845 map of Lowell


In 1845, several other lots were added to this parcel of land.


Daily Courier October 14, 1846


Daily Courier October 15, 1846


In 1847, Samuel Meserve was the jail keeper.


Vox Populi May 14, 1847 – Prisoner escaped


Lowell Advertiser, May 15, 1847


Vox Populi, June 11, 1847 The jail – the jailor – prisoners &c


Lowell Advertiser, December 12, 1847


Lowell Advertiser May 30, 1850


Lowell Advertiser, May 30, 1850


Detail of 1850 Map of Lowell


Lowell Advertiser, February 8, 1851


Lowell Advertiser, August 8, 1851


SENATE....No. 5. REPORT ON PRISONS,  January 10, 1852 (pages 13 & 14) [pdf download]


Barre Patriot, January 1, 1853

Samuel Meserve was constable and deputy jailer. In 1855 John F. Arlin was the turnkey at the jail.

The new jail -

March 20, 1858


Lowell Courier, March 22, 1858 – Removal of Prisoners

Lowell Daily Citizen and News, May 22, 1860

While a notice of an auction the sale was reported in the newspaper there is no deed showing that this transfer of property ever took place. It seems like the County maintained ownership of the property.

Two ads in the 1866 and 1870 City Directories indicate that the lot was used for commercial purposes.



Lowell City Directory 1866


Lowell City Directory 1870

1871, Middlesex County sold the “old jail lot” to Henry Emery and Sylvester Richardson of Lowell and Nathaniel Peabody of Dracut (wood dealers)


Detail from 1879 Lowell Atlas. “Emery, Peabody, & Richardson”


Detail from 1892 Lowell Atlas - Image 28. “WOOD YARD”