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Sara R. Ehrmann papers

 Collection
Identifier: M039

Scope and Content Note

The collection documents capital punishment in the United States in the twentieth century, the activities of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council to Abolish the Death Penalty, and also Sara R. Ehrmann's work opposing capital punishment. It includes case files of prisoners (mainly those condemned to death), material related to the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, files documenting state-specific abolition activity, and collected published and unpublished information about capital punishment, crime, criminal justice, prisons and prisoners. The collection also includes biographical information on Ehrmann, including correspondence, notes, and a limited amount of information related to her activities in Jewish and women's organizations.

Researchers should be aware that there is overlap between some of the series in the collection, in particular Series 1 (Geographical Files) and Series 2 (Subject Files). Correspondence to or from Ehrmann, the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment, or the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty is concentrated in Series 4 and 5, but it can also be found in other series, particularly in series 2, subseries B and series 3. More detailed information on overlap can be found in the series summaries.

Dates

  • 1845-1993 (bulk 1924-1988)

Creator

Conditions Governing Access:

The collection is unrestricted.

Historical Note

Sara R. Ehrmann was a Boston-area civic leader who for many years led the battle to abolish and then prevent the return of capital punishment in Massachusetts. Her efforts also extended nationwide. Her career as a capital punishment abolitionist began in 1925 when her husband Herbert B. Ehrmann became an associate counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists convicted of murder and condemned to death. Ehrmann reacted to the perceived injustice of the Sacco and Vanzetti case by waging a single-minded campaign to abolish capital punishment.

The Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty was founded in 1927 in the wake of the Sacco and Vanzetti case. Ehrmann joined its board in 1928 and was a key leader of the organization for 40 years. The Council occupied several locations in Boston before eventually moving to an office in Brookline. In 1967 an urban renewal project forced the Council to leave its Brookline office and temporarily relocate to Ehrmann's home. The Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty was renamed Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty in 1981. A nominally separate fund-raising organization, the Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty Fund was created in 1983.

The American League to Abolish Capital Punishment was founded in 1925 and was originally headquartered in New York City. Vivian Pierce, Clarence Darrow, and Lewis Lawes were among its principal organizers. In addition to its work advocating the abolition of capital punishment, the League spearheaded the establishment of state abolition groups. In 1949 Sara R. Ehrmann assumed leadership of the League when it relocated to the Boston area and shared office space with the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The American League to Abolish Capital Punishment ceased functioning sometime around 1969.

Ehrmann also advocated for prisoners. From the 1920s until 1988 she visited and assisted prisoners and their families through organizations including Friends of Framingham and the Norfolk Lifers Group. She also served on the board of directors of the United Prison Association of Massachusetts, which was formed in 1939 as a result of the merger of the John Howard Society, Friends of Prisoners, Inc., and the Massachusetts Prison Association. The United Prison Association's activities included providing legal aid and educational assistance to prisoners and ex-prisoners. In addition, the organization lobbied legislators and provided information to scholars, students and the general public. The United Prison Association of Massachusetts was renamed the Massachusetts Correctional Council in the late 1960s.

Throughout her career, Sara R. Ehrmann published articles, gave legislative testimony, spoke publicly, worked on individual capital cases, and remained active in criminal justice issues into her mid-90s.

Other organizations Ehrmann was associated with include: the American Academy of Political and Social Science, the American Correctional Association, the American Society of Criminology, Citizens Against Legalized Murder (member, Advisory Committee), Correctional Council (organizer), the John Howard Society (Board of Directors), the Massachusetts Campaign Against the Restoration of the Death Penalty (honorary chair), and the Massachusetts Civic League.

Sara R. Ehrmann's activism extended beyond criminal justice reform. She was a member of a number of local civic organizations, including the Beth Israel Hospital Women's Auxiliary, the Boston YWCA, the Brookline Community Council (which she founded), and the USO Greater Boston Soldiers and Sailors Committee. Jewish organizations Ehrmann was a member of include: the American Jewish Committee (national membership chair), the Associated Jewish Philanthropies (board of trustees), the Combined Jewish Appeal of Boston (chaired the Women's Division), Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Council of Jewish Women, Joint Defense Appeal, and the United Jewish Campaign (executive chair, Women's Division). Ehrmann was also active in a number of women's organizations, including: the Brookline Women's Club, the League of Women Voters (including its Brookline chapter, which she founded), the National Organization for Women, and the Women's City Club of Boston.

In recognition of her work, Ehrmann received numerous awards, including: the Boston Chapter of the American Jewish Committee's Norman J. Rabbi Merit Award (1971), the Paulist Center's Hecker Award (1981), the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts' Abraham T. Alper Award (1982), the Community Church of Boston's Sacco and Vanzetti Memorial Award (1982), and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Northeastern University (1992).

A longtime resident of Brookline, Massachusetts, Ehrmann died in 1993 at the age of 97.

Chronology

  • 1895 Birth of Sara R. Ehrmann in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
  • 1917 Ehrmann receives her bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, having also taken courses at Smith College. She marries Herbert B. Ehrmann, attorney and founder of the Greater Boston Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
  • 1921-1922 Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Radcliffe College.
  • 1925 American League to Abolish Capital Punishment is organized.
  • 1925 Herbert B. Ehrmann becomes associate counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti. Sara R. Ehrmann begins career as capital punishment abolitionist as a result of her husband's involvement in the case.
  • 1927 Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti despite worldwide protests. Founding of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
  • 1928 Sara R. Ehrmann joins the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, becoming a member of its board and playing an active role in its leadership for the next forty years.
  • 1937 Sara R. Ehrmann organizes the Correctional Council of Massachusetts.
  • 1937-1939 Sara R. Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Boston University.
  • 1939 Sara R. Ehrmann helps to organize the United Prison Association of Massachusetts.
  • 1942 Sara R. Ehrmann is a founder of the Brookline, Massachusetts Chapter of the League of Women Voters and serves as its first president.
  • 1947 Last execution in Massachusetts to date.
  • 1949 The American League to Abolish Capital Punishment relocates from New York City to Sara R. Ehrmann's Brookline office, a location shared with the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Ehrmann assumes the League's leadership.
  • 1951 Enactment of the “mercy bill,” abolishing the mandatory death penalty in Massachusetts, giving juries the right to choose between the death sentence and life imprisonment in capital cases.
  • 1963 By a narrow margin the Massachusetts legislature defeats a bill abolishing capital punishment.
  • 1967 An urban renewal project forces the closure of Ehrmann's Brookline office, the shared headquarters of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The Sara R. Ehrmann Collection on Capital Punishment is established at Northeastern University. Ehrmann retires from active leadership of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
  • 1968 In a referendum, Massachusetts voters approve retention of capital punishment.
  • 1970 Death of Sara R. Ehrmann's husband, Herbert B. Ehrmann.
  • 1972 U.S. Supreme Court invalidates existing state and federal death penalty laws. In subsequent years, new death penalty statues were enacted and executions resumed.
  • 1977 Sacco and Vanzetti receive a posthumous pardon from Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis.
  • 1979 Massachusetts reinstates capital punishment as a penalty for first degree murder.
  • 1981 The Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty is renamed Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
  • 1982 Massachusetts constitution amended to permit capital punishment.
  • 1984 The Massachusetts Supreme Court blocks enforcement of capital punishment laws.
  • 1985 Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty Fund establishes the annual Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award.
  • 1985 On June 15, the day after Sara R. Ehrmann's birthday, the Massachusetts legislature proclaims Sara Ehrmann Day.
  • 1988 Sara R. Ehrmann makes her last visits to prisoners and their families.
  • 1992 Sara R. Ehrmann receives and honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Northeastern University.
  • 1993 Death of Sara R. Ehrmann at the age of 97.
1895
Birth of Sara R. Ehrmann in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
1917
Ehrmann receives her bachelor's degree from the University of Rochester, having also taken courses at Smith College. She marries Herbert B. Ehrmann, attorney and founder of the Greater Boston Chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
1921-1922
Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Radcliffe College.
1925
American League to Abolish Capital Punishment is organized.
1925
Herbert B. Ehrmann becomes associate counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti. Sara R. Ehrmann begins career as capital punishment abolitionist as a result of her husband's involvement in the case.
1927
Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti despite worldwide protests. Founding of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
1928
Sara R. Ehrmann joins the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, becoming a member of its board and playing an active role in its leadership for the next forty years.
1937
Sara R. Ehrmann organizes the Correctional Council of Massachusetts.
1937-1939
Sara R. Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Boston University.
1939
Sara R. Ehrmann helps to organize the United Prison Association of Massachusetts.
1942
Sara R. Ehrmann is a founder of the Brookline, Massachusetts Chapter of the League of Women Voters and serves as its first president.
1947
Last execution in Massachusetts to date.
1949
The American League to Abolish Capital Punishment relocates from New York City to Sara R. Ehrmann's Brookline office, a location shared with the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. Ehrmann assumes the League's leadership.
1951
Enactment of the “mercy bill,” abolishing the mandatory death penalty in Massachusetts, giving juries the right to choose between the death sentence and life imprisonment in capital cases.
1963
By a narrow margin the Massachusetts legislature defeats a bill abolishing capital punishment.
1967
An urban renewal project forces the closure of Ehrmann's Brookline office, the shared headquarters of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The Sara R. Ehrmann Collection on Capital Punishment is established at Northeastern University. Ehrmann retires from active leadership of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
1968
In a referendum, Massachusetts voters approve retention of capital punishment.
1970
Death of Sara R. Ehrmann's husband, Herbert B. Ehrmann.
1972
U.S. Supreme Court invalidates existing state and federal death penalty laws. In subsequent years, new death penalty statues were enacted and executions resumed.
1977
Sacco and Vanzetti receive a posthumous pardon from Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis.
1979
Massachusetts reinstates capital punishment as a penalty for first degree murder.
1981
The Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty is renamed Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
1982
Massachusetts constitution amended to permit capital punishment.
1984
The Massachusetts Supreme Court blocks enforcement of capital punishment laws.
1985
Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty Fund establishes the annual Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award.
1985
On June 15, the day after Sara R. Ehrmann's birthday, the Massachusetts legislature proclaims Sara Ehrmann Day.
1988
Sara R. Ehrmann makes her last visits to prisoners and their families.
1992
Sara R. Ehrmann receives and honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Northeastern University.
1993
Death of Sara R. Ehrmann at the age of 97.

Extent

43.80 cubic feet (49 containers, 7 flat file folders)

Overview

Sara R. Ehrmann (1895-1993) was a Boston-area civic leader best known for her work as an opponent of capital punishment. Ehrmann's career as a capital punishment abolitionist began in 1925 when her husband Herbert B. Ehrmann became an associate counsel for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists convicted of murder and condemned to death. Sara Ehrmann was a key leader of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty (1928-1969) and the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment (1949-1969). She was also active in organizations serving prisoners, notably the United Prison Association and Friends of Framingham. In addition, she was active in Jewish and women's organizations and in civic life in the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Overview

The collection documents capital punishment in the United States in the twentieth century, the activities of the American League to Abolish Capital Punishment and the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, and Sara Ehrmann's work opposing capital punishment. It includes case files of prisoners (mainly those condemned to death), material related to the American League and Massachusetts Council, files documenting capital punishment in each state, and collected published and unpublished material on capital punishment and related subjects. The collection also includes a limited amount of biographical information on Sara Ehrmann.

System of Arrangement:

Organized into 6 series: 1. Geographical Files; 2. Subject Files; 3. Case Files; 4. Organizations; 5. Personal Files; and 6. Audio/Visual Materials.

Physical Location

65/1-2, 66/3-4, FF5/D8
Title
Finding aid for the Sara R. Ehrmann Papers
Author
Finding aid prepared by Jane McCavitt
Date
September 1982
Language of description
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections Repository

Contact:
92 Snell Library
Northeastern University
360 Huntington Avenue
Boston MA 02115 US