The Relationship Between Crime and Poverty in Black
Antebellum Boston

Ryan Morse (BHS class of '04)

In antebellum Boston, crime was a serious issue. With the freedom of blacks and the high crime rates during the antebellum time period, many people believed that most of the crime in Boston at that time was caused by the poor black population, by unchecked intemperance, and sudden moral lapses. In reality the major causes of crime in Boston at that time were not due to poverty as much as intemperance and moral lapses.

Poverty was thought to be the most prominent cause of crime. However, this sentiment influenced many people to form voluntary associations to aid the poor and keep them out of prison. Their reasoning was that the poor need or want what others possess and will resort to crime to achieve these things. On the surface this connection seems solid, but when it is studied more closely, it becomes evident that it may not be the best perspective from which to view the situation.

Of particular interest are the lists of people receiving financial aid payments in 1839, from the city of Boston. Records of the aid distributed revealed that 67% of the African American population living in Boston’s wards 2 through 6 who were receiving aid were women. Also of interest are lists of people receiving outdoor relief in 1842 from the city of Boston. These lists show that a small percentage of the people receiving aid were African Americans and that of this small percentage the majority were women. It may have been theorized that because many African American women were receiving aid, many were poor, and as a result, there must be a high percentage of African American women in prisons. In reality, the average number of women in state prisons in the Northeast was 12.25 (including women of all nationalities). The one exception to this was Sing Sing, an all women’s prison in New York. An argument could be made that women were typically placed in houses of correction rather than state penitentiaries, explaining the low numbers of women in prisons. Even so, the average number of women placed into houses of correction was 24 per state in 1839. The main houses of correction in Massachusetts were located in Middlesex, Essex, and Suffolk Counties. This means that there was a shockingly low population of women in each of the three facilities, an average of eight women per location in Massachusetts. [1] This is a far cry from the hundreds of men placed in prisons per state, per year. As of January 1, 1821, there were roughly 147 black male inmates in the Massachusetts State Prison, while there were 2,140 white male inmates. If poverty did in fact create crime, the majority of prisoners would be black, since they were the majority who received financial aid payments, therefore labeling them as the poor population. As is evident by the figures presented, this is not a true statement.

In such cases it is also essential to view the types of crimes committed. Crimes such as arson, vandalism, and destruction of property, cannot be associated with poverty. This is simply because they are of no relation. There is no reason to believe that a poverty stricken individual is more likely to vandalize property. Crimes such as theft, robbery, assault, and murder should merit some attention in matters of linking poverty and crime. These crimes are potentially fueled by the lack of goods and the need to obtain those goods. Theft and robbery are directly related to poverty for obvious reasons. Assault and murder can only be linked when there is an intention to rob.

A large portion of the battle between poverty and crime is the effect of certain voluntary associations whose goals were to see that these criminals were being treated fairly, to prevent crime by attacking it at its roots, or to help reform free convicts and therefore improve society as a whole. One of these associations was the Prison Discipline Society whose goal it was to ensure that the prisoners were treated fairly and kept in livable conditions.

The Prison Discipline Society of Boston Massachusetts played a huge role in the development of the prison system in the United States from 1825 to 1854. They established their own constitution by which the members were to follow. Through extensive research and visits to prisons, the Prison Discipline Society was able to influence national and international governments to improve their facilities and practices. Many prominent members of society were associated with the Prison Discipline society, including Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustav de Beaumont, both of whom contributed to spreading the program to Europe. The Prison Discipline Society examined prisons in the United States, Canada, England, France, and Australia. They also inspected prisons in countries as remote as Malta, Sardinia, and Egypt. One of the pioneers in these prison visits was Louis Dwight, the founder of the Prison Discipline Society.

The organization was founded on June 30, 1825 with the intentions of promoting the improvement of public prisons. They developed branches in many states as well as some foreign countries. A membership fee was developed in order to provide funding for their efforts. Membership was open to everyone for an annual fee of $2 or a lifetime membership fee of $30. There were twelve members on the Board of Managers, six of which were clergy, who paid $10 annually or a lifetime fee of $100. The only requirement for membership is that each person paid the annual fee. The society did not specify whether race was a deciding factor in acceptance into the organization. [2]

The society addressed many issues which they felt affected the conditions in which the prisoners lived. These issues were plainly stated in a list titled, “Subjects of Inquiry Concerning Prisons.” This list addresses nineteen issues concerning the treatment of prisoners, the facilities in which the prisoners are kept, and the rights of the prisoners. These issues included such important topics as day and night cells, location of prisons, hospitals, food, clothing, exercise, and punishments, as well as many others. Also on this list is the “Admission of Prisoner’s Friends,” concerning who is admitted, at what times, and under what circumstances.

The first publication of their findings covered January 1st through June 2nd of 1826. Six editions were published in this year, followed by three editions of the second volume, and two editions of the third and fourth volumes. When the fifth and sixth volumes were published, they were all combined in a single volume edition, of which 2000 copies were made. This volume included all 29 reports published by the Prison Discipline Society. The publication entitled “Reports of the Prison Discipline Society of Boston” included reviews of prisons they visited and new techniques to improve prison life and health of the prisoners.

The Society for Aiding Discharged Convicts was involved in reforming former convicts who had served their time and were released. It was formed in April of 1846. Once again, anyone who paid the annual membership fee was considered a member, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. Being a national organization, they had state agents in many of the northeastern states. The agent for Massachusetts was Dr. Augustine Taft who led all involvement of the organization in Massachusetts state prisons.

The purpose of the organization was to give discharged convicts another chance at life. They began by obtaining the names of convicts being discharged each month. They checked the history of each prisoner, including their conduct while in prison, their characteristics, and their trade skills; race or ethnicity was not a factor in the aid distributed. When the convict was released, they were allowed to apply for aid from the society. If they qualify, the society found jobs for the convicts and on many occasions assisted them in other ways. The convicts were required to live in a boarding house where they were allowed no contact with their former life or their former criminal contacts. They also give some convicts clothing, food, and lend them small but substantial amounts of money. Many of the convicts wrote to the society to update them on their progress and to express their sincere gratitude. Many of the convicts began to return the money lent to them promptly and faithfully.

Many citizens were opposed to the acceptance of convicts back into society. They were fearful of relapses and sudden waves of crime. To this, the society argued that the convicts would be under strong moral obligation to make amends, by the society, by the public, and by his conscience. The rate of convicts recommitted to prison was 15%, which was considered a small portion of those released. The society aided 90 convicts from April, 1846 to January 1847. The society believed that the money used to aid the released convicts would more than make up for itself in the lack of damages created by any released, unaided convicts and the manpower which would be used to control them.

Beyond the fair treatment of prisoners were the associations who aimed to abolish capital punishment in Massachusetts. Much of the support for this cause came as a result of convictions of criminals for crimes caused by moral lapses. Many people believed that some of the convicted criminals had experienced moral lapses and were not likely to commit crimes upon their release from jail.

Moral lapses result in all types of crimes, some of which include theft, murder, rape, and vandalism. In most cases the church was essentially responsible for reforming criminals who became victims of moral lapses. Church officials and other interested parties would hold meetings to discuss topics such as moral lapse and prisoner’s rights. There were also numerous voluntary associations who fought for the abolishment of the death penalty because of the possibility that a criminal who had experienced a moral lapse, was an otherwise law abiding citizen.

One of the most influential associations for this purpose was The Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. The organization established a constitution in which it stated its purpose and its goals. The society declared that there would be no restrictions placed upon membership to the society. This left membership open to blacks as well as whites. The society also put no restrictions on those they aimed to help. They believed that they were required to abolish capital punishment in Massachusetts. The abolishment would not be selective. They aimed to free all people of the horrors of capital punishment, regardless of race, religion, or gender.

In addition to the voluntary associations devoted tothe abolition of capital punishment, there was also a newspaper, The Hangman. It advocated for prisoners who had been wrongly accused or were otherwise good citizens. It published advertisements for meetings of voluntary associations who promoted the same cause. It also published advertisements promoting the sales of the paper and encouraging subscription. One of these advertisements outlined the release dates and prices of upcoming issues.

The theory that crime is a direct result of poverty does not seem to have much to back it, but two questions remain: what is the cause of crime? What is the cause of poverty? One argument says that crime creates poverty. At first glance this proposal seems improbable; how can crime create poverty? Instead of viewing crime as a means to fuel substantial need, perhaps it is better viewed as a means to fuel an addiction. Instead of resorting to crime to feed or clothe themselves, people of antebellum Boston committed crimes to feed expensive habits. Stolen goods or money would be used to buy expensive products such as alcohol or tobacco. The peddlers of these substances would make profits on the stolen wealth of others, yet not enough to be considered wealthy. The criminals themselves would spend their earnings on these substances, would be no better off than before, and in most cases would be caught and jailed. The victims of these crimes find no consolation even when the criminals are caught. Their wealth had already been spent and could not be reimbursed. Therefore, the victims slowly become poor, the criminals fed their addictions, and the merchants of these goods made enough money to live comfortably. Overall, crime is simply a redistribution of wealth, from the rich upper and middle classes to the poorer merchant class.

Alcoholism was a major problem in antebellum Boston, resulting in the creation of many voluntary associations and movements to make progress towards temperance. Alcoholism caused many problems including crime. It also contributed greatly to poverty, as previously described. It also caused cases of domestic violence, aggression towards law enforcement officials, and public drunkenness, all of which was cause for imprisonment. Intemperance was identified as a huge contribution to crime, and as a result, many voluntary associations were formed to push for temperance.

The most important of all were the black temperance societies who worked to reform society in order to reduce crime and poverty. The first organized black temperance societies were the New Haven Temperance Society of the People of Color and the New York Temperance Society, which were established in 1829.

There were other smaller organizations which contributed to the colored temperance movement. One of these groups was the Delevan State’s Temperance Union. This association met in irregular patterns, especially in the north. An advertisement for one of their meetings was published in The Liberator on June 30, 1848. The announcement told of the purpose of the meeting, who would be speaking, and the issues they would be touching upon.

Colored temperance societies were not confined to Massachusetts. The New York temperance Society was a very large, well respected gathering of temperance blacks of the time. This society specifically helped blacks and extended its aid to no other group of people. Agents from this organization traveled to smaller cities and towns with hopes of gaining support and starting new, smaller societies. Many of these meetings were held in small towns where the society would most likely gain support. These meetings were simply ways of spreading their ideas and gaining support, which worked quite well. Origen Bacheler, an agent for the New York Temperance Society, reported his success in a statement written on December 3, 1831. He makes a point to report a spike in support by giving a detailed account of the amount of new support the society had received on different occasions.

There were also many occasions in which the colored temperance societies sponsored dinners or hosted fairs to promote their cause. Announcements were published in local papers such as The Liberator, for dinners like the one held on August 1, 1839. A Temperance fair announcement also appeared in The Liberator on October 27, 1843. Events such as these were common and were often announced in the Liberator and other black-sympathizing newspapers. There was also a movement towards a temperance boarding house. A meeting was held at which the people in attendance could subscribe to live in the boarding house, in an alcohol free environment in order to become sober.

At the Black National Convention in 1833, members concluded that intemperance was hindering the progress of the blacks as a people. They believed that intemperance was threatening the nation’s social, civil, and religious organizations. They believed that strict moral reform would cure the nation of its intemperance problems. It was proposed at the Third National Convention that by enforcing strict temperance principles, blacks would gain the respect of the whites and therefore diminish prejudicial feelings held by whites. They also considered removing the undesirable blacks from the neighborhoods, but quickly eliminated this option because they felt it would give strength to the argument that blacks were not capable of living in freedom. An interesting idea was presented in The Transformation of the Black Temperance Movement, 1827-1854: An Interpretation, by Donald Yacovone and was stated as follows:

“The shift away from modern temperance and to total abstinence in 1836 marked the beginning of black independence from white reform, although whites began to adopt teetotalism during the same period. Acceptance of total abstinence coincided with the adoption of political action as a reform measure and generally of greater militancy among blacks. By rejecting all alcohol, blacks not only sought to establish their personal integrity but they saw themselves as promoting the interests of the larger black community by offering practical and symbolic resistance to the forces of racism and slavery.”[3]

This statement shows that the people of black antebellum society were genuinely interested in making a change. They believed that by initiating a temperance movement, they would gain the respect of the whites and therefore reduce acts of discrimination. The problems of poverty and crime can be most directly linked to problems with intemperance. The black temperance movements were established to diminish discrimination against blacks, but instead had more of an effect on the intemperance of members of the community who were of all ethnic backgrounds. Their efforts to diminish discrimination were not completely successful but their efforts to reform society succeeded, indefinitely.

The voluntary associations involved in determining the causes of crime, preventing crime, or reforming citizens who had committed crimes played a huge role in bettering the black community by helping all of its residents feel safe. Many of these voluntary associations contributed to aiding the suffering black population of Boston. These associations extended their aid to the black population and many allowed membership to black citizens. These groups all aided the process of liberating blacks and helping them to integrate into antebellum society.

1 Reports of the Prison Discipline Society, Seventeenth Report, 1842, pp. 143-147.

2 Annual report of the Board of managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Prison Discipline Society, Boston Mass, 1827-1854, XVIII-XIX.

3 Yacovone, Donald. The Transformation of the Black Temperance Movement, 1827-1854: An Interpretation. p. 286


Annual report of the Board of managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Prison Discipline Society, Boston: 1827-1854, XVIII-XIX.

Yacovone, Donald. The Transformation of the Black Temperance Movement, 1827-1854: An Interpretation.

List of persons receiving payments by ward, 1839. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Massachusetts

List of persons receiving outdoor relief by ward, 1842. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Massachusetts

Annual report of the Board of managers of the Prison Discipline Society, Prison Discipline Society, Boston Mass, June 2, 1826

Constitution and By-laws of the Boston Society for Aiding Discharged Convicts. Boston: White and Potter printers, 1847.

Haynes, Gideon, Pictures from prison life: An historical sketch of the Massachusetts state prison. Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869.

Buried form the world: inside Massachusetts state prison, 1829-1831. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society: Disributed by New England University Press, 2002





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