When Jesse Pomeroy was convicted for first-degree murder on December 10, 1874, the question still remained about what to do with him. While the jury made a recommendation for mercy, newspapers across the country called for his execution instead. Often referred to as the "boy fiend", editorials insisted that he was incapable of being cured and that execution was the only option. Eventually, the judge sentenced Jesse to death and sparked a legal battle that would drag on for months afterward.
The case quickly became a political hot potato in Massachusetts with the governor being besieged by petitions from the pro- and con- sides of the hanging argument. As for Jesse himself, he seemed to enjoy his stay in prison where he was provided with all the educational opportunities he could ever want. While politicians and lawyers wrestled over his fate, he began studying Latin and Greek, among other subjects. As for his murders, he always provided the same stock answer: that he couldn't help himself.
Finally, after months of deliberation, the decision was made to let the execution proceed. Though the prospect of hanging a fifteen-year-old was something nobody really relished, newspaper editors generally expressed their satisfaction at the decision. Then came a new wrinkle in the case. Jesse issued a statement insisting that he had been forced to confess by the police and that he was actually innocent of all the charges. He also insisted that he had only confessed to protect his mother and brother who had been arrested. He even disputed whether the body found in the cellar belonged to Katy Curran at all.
To add to the drama, prison officials at the Charles Street Jail where Jesse was being held reported foiling an escape attempt. Apparently Jesse had somehow obtained a fragment from an iron dish which he had been using to chip away the plaster from some bricks around the window of his cell. His plan involved leaving the cell at midnight while the guard watch was being changed. He would then use cords taken from the window frame to lower himself to the ground where he could make his getaway. The guards even found letters to his family which he had written and was apparently planning to mail once he was free.
Much of what was being reported about Jesse while he was in jail came directly from the prison officials. After his mother smuggled out an autobiography that Jesse had written in his cell (which was then published in a Boston newspaper) she was banned from seeing her son. In the meantime, Jesse's case was essentially deadlocked since the Governor refused to sign his death warrant while the Pardoning Council refused to commute the sentence. His fate even became an election issue with Republican Alexander Rice becoming governor of Massachusetts in 1876 largely on his promised law and order platform (which, among other things, meant finally allowing Jesse Pomeroy to hang).
Ironically, even after taking over as governor, Rice was as reluctant to sign the death certificate as his predecessor. Whether he changed his mind or had never seriously intended to allow him to hang, his supporters continued to press the new governor to approve the execution . Meanwhile, Jesse's mother and her supporters continued to push for commuting his sentence. And it eventually paid off. In an anonymous five to four vote, Governor Rice and the Council voted to imprison Jesse Pomeroy for life and he was duly moved to his new home at the State Prison in Charlestown.
Given Jesse's age, holding him in prison for the rest of his life would mean decades of imprisonment And, given his stigma as a murder of children, that basically meant housing him in solitary confinement. As one newspaper story described his the special cell that the prison had prepared for him:
"It is nine feet long, eight feet wide, and seven feet high lighted by two crevices, each two feet long and six inches wide which are not grated. The door is a close iron one which is fastened by a heavy padlock. In the room, there is a wooden bedstead, proper bed-clothing, and a stool. Pomeroy will be visited three times a day by officers who will bring his food to him, but no conversation will be allowed between him and any person, except, perhaps, he may desire the consolation of the chaplain. He will, it is believed, be allowed to have books from the prison library, and possibly religious papers."
And there Jesse Pomeroy remained aside from the occasional escape attempt. In the years that would follow, he was quietly forgotten except for his name being invoked whenever a new case involving a child murderer cropped up in the news. Virtually every prominent visitor to the penitentiary asked for a chance to see him, including various humanitarian delegations trying to investigate allegations of abuse. Aside from the chaplain, his mother and brother were allowed to visit him once every three months.
By all accounts, he was an model prisoner who read many of the books in the prison library when he wasn't working making shoe brushes. Along with his studying, he wrote his mother regularly though he never discussed his crimes or why he committed them. Even after being moved to a newer prison, the solitary conditions were strictly applied.
As for the rest of his family, the stigma of being related to the notorious murder continued to have a dramatic impact on their lives. His father, already a habitual drunkard, became even worse and his wife eventually divorced him for being abusive. One newspaper, wryly commenting on this development, added that "Jesse is a chip off the old block." Through it all, she continued to visit her son on a regular basis until her death.
Newspapers also published various rumours about how Jesse Pomeroy was behaving in prison. Among these rumours was that he had been given a kitten as pet which he promptly flayed alive with a knife or that his health was deteriorating. How true any of the rumours were seems debatable but newspapers continued to provide details relating to the "boy fiend", often along with a sense of regret that he hadn't been hanged as originally planned.
Then there were the escape attempts, often ingenious, and sometimes downright alarming. In one memorable attempt, Jesse actually managed to produce an explosion by igniting a gas line that passed near his cell (he learned about explosives from some books on chemistry he had been thoughtfully provided). It worked about as well as you might expect. The only real damage was that he managed to blind himself in one eye. In another attempt, he actually managed to escape his cell and might have gotten further if he hadn't alerted a guard by startling a sleeping cat. Eventually however, Jesse settled down and even managed to be placed with regular inmates once the stigma surrounding his name was forgotten. He managed to earn a little extra money by carving crude models of Native American canoes which he signed, "Made by Jesse Pomeroy, the famous lifer."
Jesse also became legendary for self-education while in prison. Along with becoming fluent in numerous languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, he also acquired an impressive amount of knowledge about law and became an expert checkers player. Writing under the name of "Grandpam," he also produced numerous articles and verses that he managed to get published.
During the last few years of Jesse Pomeroy's life, his declining health encouraged prison officials to transfer him to the prison farm in Bridgewater, Massachusetts (now part of the Bridgewater State Hospital complex). Though meant as a humanitarian gesture, Jesse opposed the move arguing that he didn't want to leave the prison where he had spent most of his life. Despite his protests, the move went relatively peacefully and he even managed to enjoy his trip, his first time ever in an automobile. His life at the prison farm didn't last long however and he died of heart failure four years later. He was seventy-three years old and had managed to outlive virtually everyone who had ever known him. In his will, he left all of his assets (about $181) to an altar boy at the Charlestown Prison where he had spent most of his life.
What can anyone say about Jesse Pomeroy? Largely forgotten today, he still ended up serving one of the longest sentences on record, thirty-eight years of which had been in solitary confinement. In many ways, his case helped influence prison reform and led to changes in how juveniles would be treated behind bars. As for why he had committed the terrible crimes for which he had been convicted, he was unable to provide any real insight except that he couldn't help himself. Perhaps his ultimate legacy was in all the unanswered questions he left behind, something that he recognized himself in one of his most memorable verses.
"What is life?
We know not if it's joy or shame.
Quite varied fates our life partakes
Some high in fame with riches blest,
Some cooped in walls as sorrow's guest,
What is life?"