Maine State Prison is depicted in a postcard about 1900. Private collection

By August 1874, just a few months after James M. “Jim “ Lowell arrived on Death Row in Thomaston, The Boston Globe noted that “the Lewiston wife murderer is employed in the paint shop of the State Prison, and is quiet and well disposed.”

Most of the prisoners worked in carriage and harness manufacturing, producing goods with enough style and quality to sell on the open market to help bring in revenue to balance the cost of operations.

The warden, Gustavus S. Bean, reported that the quality of the food at the prison was good and that “every prisoner has all he desires.”

Interior of the Maine State Prison in Thomaston. Maine Memory Network

“We believe that the law contemplates that confinement and hard labor within the precincts of the prison pays the debt which the prisoner owes to justice, and that good food and kind treatment should be administered to all who cheerfully obey the rules and regulations of the same,” he said.

The warden said, “Kindness and obedience will, as a rule, ever be found marching hand-in-hand in the prison as well as in the family circle.”

“Men are not essentially changed the moment they are cast into prison,” Bean’s report declared. “Putting on the garb of a prisoner does not necessarily shut out humanity. Though fallen they are yet men, and, so far as possible, should be treated as men. It is not the severity and rigor of a crime sentence, but the certainty of it, that sways the deterrent scepter.”


At Thomaston, where three guards with guns patrolled the walls, one visitor at the time found the most striking thing about the prison was its monotony.

“After a man has served 10 years in prison, if he has not lost his identity and is anything more than a mere machine, he must originally have possessed considerable individuality.

“One day after another at the prison goes on like this: At 6:35 o’clock, the breakfast bell is rung and breakfast in tin dishes carried to the prisoners in their cells, by convict waiters. At 6:45 o’clock, the convicts empty their buckets and go to the workshops, attended by officers. They work until five minutes of 12 by local time. At 12, they file into their cells, taking their tin dishes of dinner as they pass in. At 12:50 p.m., they are rung out and return to work. They work until six o’clock, when they go to their cells again and are locked in for the night. Supper is carried to them. They may have lights in their cells till nine o’clock. The evenings are spent in reading or writing or looking at illustrated papers and magazines. No work is permitted in the cells.”

A postcard shows the kitchen at the Maine State Prison. Private collection

For breakfast, they got “simply bread and coffee,” except on Sundays when they also got pork and beans. Monday dinner was fish, potatoes, bread and water. Tuesday featured pea soup, bread and water. Wednesday offered beef, bread, vegetables and water. Thursdays had bean soup, bread and water. Friday, inmates got fish or clams, bread, water and a side dish. Saturdays, they made do with vegetable soup, bread and water. In addition, prisoners received a pint and a half of molasses each week and half a pint of milk daily.

The prison’s physician, J.B. Walker, said in a report that “the amount and kind of labor each prisoner performs has been so regulated as to be conducive to health, and relaxation from labor and restraint has been enjoyed to the extent consistent with proper prison discipline.”

A Lewiston Evening Journal correspondent recorded that the bread baker was “a general favorite” named Oscar Blaney, who had been sentenced to hang for helping a wife murder her husband. Like Lowell, his sentence was commuted after a botched hanging in 1875.

The Lewiston paper called him “a sleek young man with a daisy little moustache” who wore a cap with a jaunty air.

Lowell got only a mention in the Journal’s story — as “a quietly, orderly prisoner” who worked in the harness shop.

This is the 24th chapter of a serial that will run every Sunday for much of the year. Follow the mystery here.

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