top of page
History of Dedham Temporary Home for Women and Children (continued)



The remarkable contribution made by the early Board Managers in the field of constructive penology should be viewed with pride.  In 1864 many facts that now seem self-evident were ignored, and the old traditional belief still held sway that a lawbreaker should be put into prison for four reasons:

1.    For personal punishment.

2.   As a deterrent from repetition of wrongdoing.

3.   As a protection to the community.

4.   To satisfy society’s desire for revenge.

Little thought and less action was given to the problem from the humane point of view.  It was overlooked that a large percentage of inmates, sooner or later are returned to the community and the real object of imprisonment should be rehabilitation.   Chickering House became a pioneer in advancing the cause of personal recovery.


There were many trials, successes, and disappointments in striving to solve one of the most difficult human problems that confront society, but there was complete faith in Divine help and determination to struggle for the moral recovery of those deserted human beings who had erred in the past.  The matrons and visiting board members endeavored to bring back to self-respect and good behavior women who had served a prison term, and to find for them means of self-support after they left the Asylum.  The women were trained in domestic work, particularly laundry work, which was a substantial source of support to the Asylum.   Many were placed as maids in nearby homes and some in factories.


The cases the Board had to deal with— drunkenness always predominating; vagrancy, adultery, and disorderly conduct frequent— were more than enough to discourage those devout and idealistic Managers, and it is quote wonderful that they clung determinedly to their belief in non-compulsion and gentle methods.   Always there was stress on giving the inmates every comfort and convenience practically and financially possible, and to surround them with an atmosphere of kindness. 


A farmer was added to their staff in 1868, making for greater abundance of wholesome food, and in 1870 single rooms were provided for the inmates.  There was an observance of special holidays, special menus for Thanksgiving and Christmas, special treats and entertainment by “the kind Wellesley students.”  These diversions showed an early recognition of the importance of recreation in rehabilitation.


Until 1877 the financial problem was not too serious.   The Board members had been both enterprising and untiring in making their cause known and had attracted as life members and annual subscribers a large and distinguished list of names.   In 1865 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts granted an appropriation of $2,500, provided that the organization raised an equal sum.  This provision was met, and for a number of years the state contributed $2,5oo.   In the early 1870’s, although the Board was raising its share, the State aid decreased.  In 1880 it was no long considered a grant, but was designated as being “for board of women and children.”  The amount gradually decreased until in 1907 it ceased entirely.


The number of contributors to the Asylum first fluctuated around the impressive figure of 500, but gradually fell of to 308 by 1910.  Of great assistance at all time sin supplementing direct financial help were the many gifts of clothing, food and furnishings, books and toys, magazines and the all-inclusive “useful articles”.  Income was received from activities carried on at the Asylum, where farm produce was sold, and sewing and laundry work done (laundry became most important with $2,500 a year frequently coming from this source alone.)


Legacies first appeared in 1869 and continued irregularly to be received until 1910 a total of 29 legacies amounted to $43,642.  The trust fund established under the will of Elisha J. Ashton should have special mention. Mr. Ashton, an Englishman, came to this country well before the Civil War, later returning to England where he died in 1880, leaving no heirs.  “The Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners, at or near Dedham, Massachusetts” was one of the 25 charities named as beneficiaries of a perpetual trust established under Mr. Ashton’s will.   Each organization was to receive equal shares of the annual income from the trust.  Another provision stated, “In case of discontinuance of any of the said Societies, the said income shall be divided among the remaining societies on the said schedule. “ Many changes have taken place in the number and objectives of the various charitable organizations, which have been or remain income beneficiaries of the Ashton Trust.  However, Provided an organization continues to function for charitable purposes not entirely unrelated to its original objectives (regardless of name changes or mergers, etc.), It will remain a beneficiary, sharing equally with other remaining beneficiaries.  It is important, therefore, that the Asylum’s original incorporation of 1864 should never be discontinued, for it would mean the loss of the Ashton Trust income.  In 1909 the annual receipt from the Ashton Trust was $1600; in 1968 it was $7000.  In 1999 it totaled $58,000.


From 1900 to 1910 there was an ever-increasing worry about the future of the Asylum that concerned both financial support and the gradual fading away of the opportunity to rehabilitate ex-prisoners.  During this time, income declined and the outlook was serious.  However, the prominence of the supporters, the record of almost fifty years of service for the cause of penology, the numerous bequests, and most important, the character and devoted service of the Board Managers, all led to the conclusion that in some way financial support for ex-prisoners would have continued had not other factors been present.


The difficulty arouse from the acceptance by the State of a more enlightened point of view toward the treatment of female ex-prisoners and the actually putting into practice of such beliefs.  The pioneer work of the Asylum led the way toward those beneficial changes, and the result of such leadership caused difficulties to develop.  With the opening of the Reformatory at Sherborn there was an inevitable decrease in the number of women needing the service of the Asylum.  In addition the Asylum was affected by the indenture law of 1879, which allowed approved inmates, a chance to live in private homes, and receive the same type of individual care the Asylum had been offering. Then there came the “ticket of leave” system, the forerunner of the State’s present program.  The cumulative effect of these various changes resulted in a definite reduction in the Asylum’s source of supply.


Attempts were made by the Board to solve the problems in several ways:


The nursery department, which made it possible to accept mothers with babies and small children, was expanded and became an important part of the institution.   Frequently one-forth or one-third of the inmates were children.

During the 1880’s, first as and experiment and later as a regular procedure, came the admittance of probationers.  This was a definite broadening of the charter as a probationer is not an ex-prisoner, and the State in its acts of 1886 granted an amendment to the Asylum’s charter to include, in addition to “discharged female prisoners”, “women charged with crime whose cases are disposed of without sentence.”  This venture was not all success by any means.  Some judges would grant probation only on the condition that the guilty one would go to Dedham, but at times when a group of women would be in process of being conducted from court to the Asylum, so-called friends would appear and persuade the women to forsake their good intentions and return to their former environment.  Frequently, when guilty women were offered the short of a short prison term or a longer stay at the Asylum, the prison term would be chosen, as it made possible a speedier return to old haunts and habits.

“Ticket to Leave” or paroled women formed another group of the Asylum’s inmates.  Unlike probationers, these women actually had been confined in prison and tentatively released prior to the expiration of their sentence.  Violation of parole rules meant return to prison.


Despite these efforts the results were not satisfactory, and it had to be recognized that the Asylum’s sphere of usefulness had been restricted by the peal advances in the State.   As mentioned previously, State financial aid ceased in 1907.  In 1908 the report of the Treasurer of the Asylum revealed that two-thirds of the usual donations had been discontinued, and that the year 1908 was entered “much in arrears”.


The Asylum at that time was an unique organization.  There was no possibility of uniting services or resources.  As far as could be determined, the Asylum was the only organization in the whole country whose sole concern was with discharged women prisoners.  The location at Dedham, although ideal for the original purpose, was not practical for the type of prison work that developed in later years.  The Asylum was situated too far from Boston to be readily accessible for visits from ex-prisoners.


In 1909 there was another blow.  Because of advancing years, Miss Susan D. Nickerson resigned as Matron.  Her service with the Asylum began in 1888, and throughout her long term of faithful and dedicated service, she had shown exceptional skill and perseverance in developing the program of work with probationers.


For these reasons— social, financial, practical—the program drawn up in 1864 for aiding discharged female prisoners faced difficulties in 1909 that seemed impossible to surmount. For 36 years the Asylum had operated to fulfill the purposes of its charter.  In this period the home in Dedham had been acquired, annual donations had been received, and there had been bequests from donors whose motive was to give help to discharged female prisoners.  Practical considerations showed clearly that it was not possible for the Asylum to continue as in the past, and the Board made the decision to adopt another form of social service— the convalescent care of women and children.  Investigations had convinced the Board that there was a real need for an all-year-round country rest home for tired and convalescent women and children. The situation and buildings of the Asylum seemed eminently suited for such use.


The new undertaking was formally established in February, 1910, when the Governor signed the Act changing the name of the Temporary Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners to the Dedham Temporary Home for Women and Children, and authorized the said corporation


“to receive and care for women and children under such terms and conditions as it may from time to time determine…”

Thus ended this unique experiment for social progress that made a great contribution in the enlightened, humane treatment of women prisoners.


Chickering House now entered into the field of convalescent care for women and children, its aim being to restore patients in the shortest time to health and usefulness.  IN the pleasant country atmosphere, with kind care and healthful food, the patients made good progress and were returned to their homes able and willing to resume their former activities and duties.  An Act of the Legislature in 1943 amended the charter to authorize the Dedham Temporary Home for Women and Children to “receive and provide convalescent care for men as well as women and children.”


In 1946 another blow was sustained.  The Greater Boston Community Federation (now the United Community Services) notified the Board of Managers of Chickering House that unless there was a radical in the operation of the convalescent home, no further funds would be made available.  They proposed that Chickering House be used as a home for elderly people, together with convalescents, and suggested a ration of 20 elderly residents to five convalescent patients.   It was their belief that such a program would keep the House continuously filled and provide needed increase in revenue.  This proposed plan would emphasize the problems of the aged— chronic illness and terminal care—in direct contrast with Chickering House’s established practice.  The Board of Mangers felt this proposal to be at variance with its interpretation of convalescent care as prescribed by the Charter and declined to comply with it.


Income from invested funds plus the relatively small payments made by the patients for their board fell far short of the cost of operating Chickering House, and it became necessary to close the House in September, 1946.  During the previous 36 years, more than 14,500 women had been helped to restored health and an active life.   The buildings and all tangible property were sold in 1948, and the proceeds added to the capital investments.


After a period of re-evaluation and study of possible ways of future usefulness, it became evident that a change in the Charter was needed in order that the Chickering House might continue to be of service to the community, and in January, 1947, an Act was passed by the Massachusetts Legislature amending the Charger of the Dedham Temporary Home for Women and Children, Section 2 by striking out the words:

“to receive and provide convalescent care for men, women and children…”

and inserting in place thereof the words:

“to provide or assist in providing convalescent care for men, women and children and to engage in charitable activities in the field of convalescent care, either directly or by assisting in the work of hospitals and other charitable agencies under such terms and conditions as it may from time to time determine…”

With these new provisions available, investigation was made of the agencies and institutions in need of supplementary funds for convalescent care that were both able and interested in furthering programs that place emphasis upon restoring patients to normal health, activity and employment.  Responsibilities to former patients were weighted carefully.


In accordance with these studies and in view of the changes enacted in the Charter, it was decided that Chickering House funds and income could be used effectively for a program of convalescent aid, providing direct assistance to individuals in exceptional cases, but mainly functioning through, or in corporation with, established charitable agencies and social service departments of hospitals. The initial disbursements under this plan were made in 1948, one of the first two beneficiaries being the Homemaker Service of the Boston Provident Association, now merged with Family Service Association of Boston.  This special Homemaker Service provided a trained and supervised homemaker, capable of taking charge and performing functions of a mother in a home that otherwise would be broken up because of illness or disability of mother.


Having in mind the original purpose of Chickering House—to provide shelter, instruction and employment for discharged female prisoners— annual allocations were maid to the United Prison Association, now know as the Massachusetts Correctional Association, for its work in the mental rehabilitation and social convalescence of discharged women prisoners and offenders from 1948-1963.  No annual grants have been made since the latter year as the Massachusetts Correctional Association found it necessary to discontinue its active work in the rehabilitation of former women prisoners because of inability to secure the services of a female social worker to undertake this phase of work.  On December 31, 1963, the Massachusetts Correctional Association had on hand an unexpended balance of Chickering House funds amounting to $2,116.14.  The Association during the succeeding years continued to aid such individual female cases as came to its attention.  On December 31, 1968, the unexpended balance of Chickering House Funds held by the Massachusetts Correctional Association had been reduced to $348.91.


In 1950 attention was called to a former Chickering House Patient who had suffered severe hardship because of the closing of the house.  Miss T, a middle-aged woman, crippled with polio since childhood and subject to tension because of difficult family living conditions, had missed her two regular vacation periods each summer and winter, at Chickering House.  Direct aid was voted by the Chickering Fund Board and Miss T was provided with funds for a period of rest and convalescence.  In 1954 two such periods were voted.  In 1959 the Board granted funds for three recuperative vacations, resulting in marked improvement in Miss T’s physical and mental health.  This program was continued until 1966, when Miss T’s physical condition made its continuation impossible.  At the time of this writing Miss T was a patient in a nursing home.  A small monthly allowance to cover her necessary personal expenses was being made from the Chickering Fund.

Beginning in 1864—its most precious asset the incomparable enthusiasm, drive and dedication of its founder, Hannah B. Chickering- Chickering Fund through the past 105 years has made, and continues to make, substantial contributions in the field of physical and mental rehabilitation. Chickering Funds- distributed through various social agencies of the community, through hospital social service departments, continue to be used for their primary aim, restoring women and children to health and a normal pattern of life.


©1969 Chickering Fund

bottom of page