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Collection
Title:Sara R. Ehrmann papers
Dates: 1845-1993 (bulk 1924-1988)
Call Number:M39

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
1895Birth of Sara R. Ehrmann in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
1917Ehrmann 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.
1921-1922Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Radcliffe College.
1925American League to Abolish Capital Punishment is organized.
1925Herbert 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.
1927Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti despite worldwide protests. Founding of the Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
1928Sara 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.
1937Sara R. Ehrmann organizes the Correctional Council of Massachusetts.
1937-1939Sara R. Ehrmann attends postgraduate courses at Boston University.
1939Sara R. Ehrmann helps to organize the United Prison Association of Massachusetts.
1942Sara R. Ehrmann is a founder of the Brookline, Massachusetts Chapter of the League of Women Voters and serves as its first president.
1947Last execution in Massachusetts to date.
1949The 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.
1951Enactment 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.
1963By a narrow margin the Massachusetts legislature defeats a bill abolishing capital punishment.
1967An 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.
1968In a referendum, Massachusetts voters approve retention of capital punishment.
1970Death of Sara R. Ehrmann's husband, Herbert B. Ehrmann.
1972U.S. Supreme Court invalidates existing state and federal death penalty laws. In subsequent years, new death penalty statues were enacted and executions resumed.
1977Sacco and Vanzetti receive a posthumous pardon from Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis.
1979Massachusetts reinstates capital punishment as a penalty for first degree murder.
1981The Massachusetts Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty is renamed Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
1982Massachusetts constitution amended to permit capital punishment.
1984The Massachusetts Supreme Court blocks enforcement of capital punishment laws.
1985Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty Fund establishes the annual Herbert and Sara Ehrmann Award.
1985On June 15, the day after Sara R. Ehrmann's birthday, the Massachusetts legislature proclaims Sara Ehrmann Day.
1988Sara R. Ehrmann makes her last visits to prisoners and their families.
1992Sara R. Ehrmann receives and honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Northeastern University.
1993Death of Sara R. Ehrmann at the age of 97.