Mending the past 6: Prison


Arbetarflicka by Helene Sofia Schjerfbeck, 1878

In the cell close by sat a child’s murderess. I saw her only through the little glass in the door. She had had heard our footsteps; heard us speak; but she sat still, squeezed up into the corner by the door, as if she would hide herself as much as possible: her back was bent, her head almost on a level with her lap, and her hands folded over it. They said this unfortunate creature was very young.

–Hans Christian Andersen, Pictures of Sweden, 1851

Maja Lisa was 22-years-old when she was sent to prison. We know that she gave birth in August 1838 and, assuming she was afforded the usual month to recover, and assuming there was a hearing in Vartofta härad district court, it was probably late autumn by the time she was carried away from her home in a horse drawn cart, fifty miles, to Mariestad, the capital of Skaraborg County. She had perhaps never been so far away from home. Most people in those days never went further than the nearest market town.

I found one description of Mariestad prison in 1835.

It consisted then of a granite building with a seven cubits high wall all around. (10.5 feet)
The building contained 13 cells.
The building was probably built in 1749.
When Sweden instituted a comprehensive penitentiary reform in the mid-1800s, Mariestad’s prison was one of the first to be designated as dilapidated and inappropriate.
Only ten years after Maja Lisa served her sentence, a new Skaraborg County Prison was opened in 1848 as part of a wave of international prison reform. The new prison was designed to replace the work house model in favor of enforced solitary confinement, the better to contemplate one’s crimes and sins. Hans Christian Andersen visited this new prison in 1851 and wrote about it in his travelogue Pictures of Sweden.

Spinnhus Flicka by Per Nordquist, 1800

I imagine that Maja’s prison experience was more like going to a workhouse or a spinnhus, the style of women’s prison in Sweden for almost a hundred years. There was a spinning house in Göteborg and one of the most well known was Långholmens spinnhus in Stockholm. Prisoners were put to work spinning, weaving and sewing with their output sold to textile factories and used to clothe the military. The worst aspects of prisons such as these were the overcrowding, spread of disease and the punishing work conditions.
The stated focus of Maja’s prison term was her diet. To be put on bread and water was a feared punishment. I found one of the best descriptions of this on Hans Högman’s page on crime and punishment. He writes,

Those who were put on bread and water soon became emaciated and those sentenced to this often came from social groups that were already malnourished when they were imprisoned and were lacking in any form of fat reserves. If they then also encountered stomach diseases in prison with diarrhea and vomiting, the body very quickly became depleted of salts and minerals . This just got worse and worse with no access to nutritious food. Salt and mineral deficiency caused severe cramping and disorientation, often leading to a very painful death by starvation.

Prisoners got to drink as much water as they wanted, but often it was dirty. Also the more they drank, the more they peed. This led in turn to the body even more rapidly becoming depleted of salts.

Furthermore, there were strict orders that the [type of] bread that was given to the prisoners on bread and water was not to be fortified with salt; they were to get the same bread as the other prisoners. Furthermore, a sentence on bread and water was to be served without interruption so it was not possible, so to speak, to cancel the sentence if the prisoner became ill.

Högman also writes that there were limits to the number of days that men and women could be sentenced to bread and water. I don’t know what the guidelines were for Maja. He mentions 28 days for men and 14 days for women being the limit to what could be endured. In this light, the 20 days Maja received seems harsh. She could have died. It would perhaps have been seen as God’s will.
If Maja could survive her punishment she might be able to get her life back. Some never got that chance. I read about the case of Anna Maja Holmström who was given a life sentence for infanticide in 1813. She died at Långholmens spinnhus in Stockholm five years later at the age of 36. Bread and water punishment was abolished in Maja Lisa’s lifetime as inhumane. It was 1884, two years after she had immigrated to the United States.

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