Ellen Cheney Johnson

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Ellen Cheney Johnson (December 20, 1829 - June 28, 1899), American prison reformer, founded the New England Women's Auxiliary Association to the United States Sanitary Commission, worked with homeless and vagrant women after the Civil War through the Dedham Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners, and served as superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women at Framingham.[1]

Early life[edit]

Ellen Cheney was born on Dec 20, 1829 in Athol, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Nathan Cheney (a mill agent) and Hoda Holbrook. Ellen attended the Academy at Francestown, New Hampshire. She later became a teacher at Weare, New Hampshire, where she was also an alumna.

When she was eighteen she joined a temperance organization. Two years later, she met and married Jesse Johnson from Unity, New Hampshire, and moved to Boston.[2]

Early Influences[edit]

Her home near the State House in Boston became a meeting place for welfare workers. Ellen founded the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association which in turn led her to an important position in the U.S. Sanitary Commission.[3] She was involved with the executive and finance committees of the New England branch of the commission.

During this time Ellen would visit numerous correctional facilities and helped poor women around Boston so they could better fend for themselves. Throughout all this, Johnson witnessed the abuse which female prisoners had to endure.[4] At this time, female prisoners were not separated from their male counterparts. Neither were the children they brought in with them, or the ones that were born in jail.

Ellen began a crusade for the reform of female treatment in correctional facilities. She and other women gathered at her home and began writing letters to newspapers requesting a separate facility for females. Their letters brought the subject to legislature. They gathered over 7000 signatures which helped pass the bill for an all-female prison in 1874.[5]

In the meantime, Ellen became the leading advocate for the Temporary Asylum of Discharged Female Prisoners in Dedham, MA. The Reformatory Prison for women was finally opened in 1877 in Sherborn, near Framingham, MA. Ellen, being one of the five commissioners for the prison, became the superintendent of the prison.


Ellen Cheney Johnson, while running the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women at the turn of the nineteenth century, tried to bridge the approaches of rehabilitation and punishment. As she put it in her own writings, "No lesson is more important than that which teaches respect for the law and dread of its wrath. At the same time, it is a fundamental point in our theory that every criminal can be won by gentleness and patience."[6]

Ellen created programs inside the prison and outside as well to help the women achieve their goals. Johnson developed a system of indenture for house service in houses outside the prison walls. This was all done under sympathetic supervision.

End of an Era[edit]

Ellen ran the prison for fifteen years and was awarded a bronze medal and diploma for her achievements in the prison system by the World’s Columbian Exposition:

for evidence of a model management in every detail.

Ellen’s reformatory system has been studied thoroughly and received the highest praise from prison experts.

She died suddenly while in London, England after addressing the International Congress of Women on June 28, 1899. Ellen Johnson left money to the city of Boston to build the Johnson Memorial Fountain (later renamed Westland Gate) in memory of her husband, Jesse Johnson.[7]


  1. ^ Freedman, Estelle (1974). "Their Sisters' Keepers: An Historical Perspective on Female Correctional Institutions in the United States: 1870-1900". Feminist Studies 2 (1): 77–91. 
  2. ^ "Ellen Cheney Johnson." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web. 28 Oct. 2011
  3. ^ http://www.wwhp.org/files/notable-women/NIE_11.jpg
  4. ^ Joann Morton, "The 'agency of women'--Women and ACA" Corrections Today 57. 5 (Aug 1995): 74.
  5. ^ http://www.wwhp.org/files/notable-women/NIE_11.jpg
  6. ^ Cristina Rathbone, A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars (New York: Random House, 2005), 132.
  7. ^ "Johnson Memorial Fountain and Gate, (sculpture)". Save Outdoor Sculpture, Massachusetts survey. 1997. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 

Additional Resources[edit]

A Prison for Women

Cyndi Banks, Women in Prison: A Reference Handbook

"Ellen Johnson and the Sherborn Prison." The Friend; a Religious and Literary Journal (1827–1906) Oct 13 1900: 100.

"Gift to the City of Boston." Boston Daily Globe (1872–1922): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Boston Globe (1872–1927). Jul 18 1899.