Gov. Alexander Ramsey, in his first message to the new Minnesota Territorial Legislature on Sept. 3, 1849, advised that “there should be a proper and safe places of confinement” for prisoners in the new territory. Minnesota’s first prison was located at Stillwater and opened its gates under Warden Francis Delano in April 1853.
The Stillwater prison saw male convicts serve time for the crimes they were found guilty of. Women convicted of crimes seemed to be placed in local or county jails and not in the tougher state prison. It wasn’t until 1870 that the first female convict entered the prison in Stillwater.
She was 19-year old Nellie Sullivan, who was said to continue the crime in prison for which she was incarcerated for. It became apparent that separate quarters for female convicts be constructed and a prison matron hired to oversee care of women prisoners.
Matrons, to begin with at least, seem to have been a wife of a deputy warden or a guard. The first recorded matron of the prison was Letta Hall, wife of Deputy Warden Abe Hall. She continued in that position from the mid-1870s until 1882, when Annie Dowling was appointed Matron.
The St. Paul Daily Globe of Feb. 12, 1883, said the female department under Dowling “is a model of neatness and good order.” The Globe added that “female convicts in the penitentiary are universally considered the hardest and most depraved of all prisoners, and to control and discipline them is no easy matter, and requires constant care and attention.” The female convicts worked at mending, washing and ironing clothing at the prison.
Matron Dowling married prison officer George Dodd in June 1883. She continued as matron until replaced by Sarah McNeal, wife of prison guard George McNeal, in 1886. It would be under McNeal that the biggest scandal of the Stillwater Prison would occur.
In 1887, Warden John A. Reed was replaced with Halvur Stordock. Soon after taking over, Stordock would accuse his predecesor of misconduct in appropriation of prison goods for personal use on his private farm. In addition to these charges, Matron McNeal accused Reed of inappropriate behavior with female convicts. The trial played out in the newspapers throughout the state and in the end, it was determined that the charges against Reed were false. Stordock was reprimanded and McNeal was let go from her position.
Helping bridge the time through the controversy, Virginia Cayou was appointed matron to oversee the female convicts. Cayou’s time as matron was short and she was replaced less than two years later in 1889 by Hattie Walker. Walker had previous experience as a matron at the Ramsey County Jail. She would leave in 1893 to accept another position as matron with the St. Paul Police Department.
New prison Warden Henry Wolfer appointed Mary McKinney as matron. McKinney, according to local newspapers, had previous experience in eastern prisons, most recently with the Detroit House of Corrections. She would continue in the matron position 22 years, being the first matron in the new prison in Bayport.
In late June, 1915, she suffered a stroke and died a few days later in her quarters at the prison. Her funeral took place at the prison where the shops and offices closed so everyone could come and pay final respects. The Stillwater Messenger stated that she “had devoted the greatest portion of her life to work in the prison, being faithful, charitable and gentle in her dealings with those who came under her charge.”
For 50 years, women were incarcerated in the Stillwater prion and during that time there were other women who made sure that they were taken care of. In 1920, the Shakopee Correctional Facility for Women was opened, ending the need for the matron position at the Stillwater Prison forever.
Brent Peterson is executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater.