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.