Bernard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: Mother Ann at Great Barrington lockup

Our Berkshires


GREAT BARRINGTON — Mother Ann Lee (1736-84) with her husband Abraham Stanley and other Shakers congregated at Watervliet, near Albany, N.Y., beginning in 1776. From there she made several trips abroad, that is, into New England, to spread her faith.

She drew the ire of many distrustful of the sect. She was accused of blasphemy and witchcraft and briefly imprisoned. During her 1781 travels she stayed with Benjamin Osborn in Mount Washington and was well received by his family and neighbors. Lee's group was threatened by a mob in Enfield, Conn. The odyssey lasted two years.

But the Shakeress was back in 1783 for a visit to the lockup in Great Barrington. She wasn't a prisoner, though she and elders had stirred non-believers in Richmond and West Stockbridge to the extent they had been taken to court and fined $25. She was in Great Barrington to offer comfort and encouragement to adherents who were behind bars there.


Samuel and Dyer Fitch and Elizur Goodrich of Hancock had been brought before a magistrate at the Berkshire County court, which at the time was in Great Barrington.

"But, these Brethren insisted that they had a right to worship God in their own houses without molestation, therefore, they could not consent to give bonds, as they might by charged, by their adversaries, with breaking the peace, whenever they attempted to worship God in their own habitations. They were, therefore, committed to Barrington jail, to be tried by the County Court," according to "Testimonies of the Life, Character, Revelations and Doctrines of Mother Ann Lee and the Elders With Her," published in Albany in 1888.

Lee and other Believers were concerned about the men. The chronicler said, "Mother, whose care and tender feelings extended to all her children, and especially to those who were under afflictions and sufferings, had been careful to send messengers from time to time, to look after their situation, and minister their necessities."

She decided to visit in person.

"When they came to the prison, Mother said, `We have come to see Christ, in prison.' After tarrying with them a day or two, and comforting them under their afflictions, Mother and her company returned, by the way of West Stockbridge ," according to the book.

The prisoners? Though "abused by the jailer," they were comforted by their many visitors. The Judges allowed they were imprisoned "to satisfy the people."

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After six or sevens weeks, they were brought to trial. Theodore Sedgwick, acting as the district attorney, did not pursue the charge of blasphemy, knowing individuals were entitled to pursue whatever faith they wished. But Valentine Rathbun brought forward a new charge of assault and battery. This was ultimately proven false.

The judges finally decreed to a dollar fine and court costs, about 20 pounds total. They were penniless. The sheriff released them on their promise to pay.


Great Barrington's lockup at that time was a structure built, thanks to a $250 loan from John Ashley, on an acre of the old Episcopal parsonage and a barn, purchased from a different Lee, Dr. Samuel, in 1765. This was on South Main Street, across from Wards' Garden Center. The church had moved to Main Street and closer to Town Hall.

"On this [old location] the jail was soon after built and the parsonage house became the residence of the jailer. The [county jail] committee erected the jail, and had completed the building, with the exception of some inside finishing, by the following month of April," according to historian Charles Taylor. William Bement, Gamaliel Whiting and Ebenezer Bement were prison keepers from 1766 to 1790.

"The jail was constructed of square hewn timbers, laid one upon another and doweled together. It was two stories in height, and stood fronting the street with its gables north and south, a short distance south of the jail house and a little further back from the street than the front line of that house. It extended south on to ground now covered by the Episcopal church, and was, by a passage way at its north end, connected with the kitchen of the jail house. Of its internal arrangement but little is known, but it was not, apparently, divided into cells, as are the prisons of the present day."

Due to lax security, there were frequent escapes. Thus "a tight plank fence [was] put up around the jail, ten feet in height and twelve feet distant from the building, its top armed with iron spikes five inches in length and four inches apart," Taylor wrote. The fence extended over the jailhouse kitchen. "The jail thus hedged in, however insecure it might appear to modern criminals, presented a formidable aspect to the evil doers of that time."

Including a few Tories during the American Revolution, numerous debtors, wayward Shakers as we've seen and, in 1787, rebellious Shaysites.

The jail was dismantled in 1791 or 1792 when the county seat and jail were transferred to Lenox. Moses Hopkins used some of the timbers to build a barn down the street.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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