By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — For more than 160 years, the gray stone fortress-like building on Hampshire Street was the House of Correction. The jail closed in 1989 after years of overcrowding and lack of maintenance.
Then, several years ago, the Lawrence History Center received more than 25 boxes containing jail records dating back to 1853.
Now, Alejandra Santos, 14 and Jazmine Rodriguez, 15, both of Lawrence, are helping History Center staff members Kathy Flynn and Jennifer Williams sort through the records to save them for posterity.
Williams, archivist at the history center, said there are many reasons why the jail records are so valuable, especially for genealogists and historians who are curious about the city’s history and demographics.
“People love to know about their ancestors and this may be the first time they’ll be able to find about this person,” she said.
The files of people who participated in the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 are among the documents, including those of union leaders Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti. Both were defendants in a murder trial after the strike and both were acquitted.
“The records give us a look into the city,” Williams said. “They show us what type of crime was being committed, the wave of immigration and the issues they are facing at that time.”
Williams said Santos and Rodriguez are sorting out the files by year first; then by date.
“This is something we want to have done, but we usually focus on it when we have student volunteers,” Williams said.
Ultimately, she said the History Center wants to add it to its data base so people can access the information from its website.
It has taken two years to sort through the files because of the volume of documents, and Williams said it may take another year to finish.
“This is a huge task,” said researcher Kathy Flynn. “It’s great to have help doing it.”
Santos and Rodriguez are students at Sparhawk School in Amesbury and are volunteering at the Lawrence History Center as part of the school’s Winterin, a learning experience in which students at the private school participate between the fall and spring semesters.
“It gives you a better understanding of life and people of that time,” Rodriguez said.
Santos is impressed by the history she has found through the files she has read.
“We’re seeing it and touching it; it’s living history,” Santos said.