52 Ancestors, Week 15: Solitude. Quaker Ancestors. Quakers and the Invention of Solitary Confinement.

I have quite a few Quaker ancestors that lived in several American Colonial states including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina. Quakers were no stranger to punishment, torture, confinement, spending time in jails and prisons, and even being hung on occasion.

The first Quakers in American were stripped, beaten, and starved. Puritans fined anyone who brought a Quaker to America. Women were stripped and beaten. Quakers caught in Massachusetts had their ears cut off. Four Quakers were murdered by Puritans for their beliefs. The Puritans threatened Rhode Island for harboring Quakers. People who spoke out in the defense of Quakers were arrested. Two Quaker children were almost sold into slavery (but not a single captain in the country was willing to let them use his boat to sell the children into slavery). Dead Quakers’ bodies were desecrated and humiliated. Europe had to intervene to save the Quakers. Although Americans, during this time period, never stopped torturing Quakers, but, in the end, the English government banned the persecution of Quakers. (1)

It is often thought that Quakers invented solitary confinement. Quakers did not invent solitary confinement. The idea of solitary confinement had been borrowed from a Calvinist, John Howard, who introduced the idea of solitude and silence leading to repentance, and the ideas took hold with the Quakers and Anglicans as humane reform of a penal system with overcrowded jails, squalid conditions, brutal labor chain gangs, stockades, public humiliation, and systemic hopelessness. Prisons up until that point had been dungeons. Quakers were very involved in the organization that started the penitentiary, which was a place that people were supposed to go and be penitent. It was a concept of reforming. It’s a cautionary tale about reforms. It drove many men mad. (2, 3, & 4)

Quakers moved away from solitary confinement within a few years of the opening of the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary. By 1838, leading Quaker Elizabeth Fry was already speaking out against solitary confinement. (4) This mistake, although it was rooted in compassion and a change for the better, caused many repercussions and consequences for people in the criminal justice system.

Solitary Confinement, an idea rooted in compassion and reform that backfired.

Today Quakers activists are engaged in campaigning on many current crime and justice issues, notably restorative justice and women prisoners, to make up for the deleterious mistake that they made in the 19th century. (5)


  1. 10 Horrifying Ways America’s Puritans Persecuted The Quakers by Mark Oliver
  2. Did Quakers Invent Solitary Confinement? – Quaker Speak
  3. Solitary Confinement: A Brief History From Quaker logic to America’s first electric chair, a quick tour of prisons past by Brooke Shelby Biggs. Mother Jones.
  4. Quakers Know Prisons from the Inside Out – Justice Reform. Friends Committe on National Legislation. Lobbing with Quakers.
  5. The Connection Between Quakerism and Solitary Confinement by Frank Sheffield. wildezine.com – The student news site of Sandy Spring Friends School.

Further reading:

  1. Reformers in Criminal Justice – Quakers in the World.
  2. Elizabeth Fry 1780 – 1845 – Quakers in the World.
  3. Eastern State Penitentiary – wikipedia.org
  4. Quaker Prison Reform – philanthropyroundtable.org

Photo credits:

  1. Quaker Heritage – Guildfordiana – Guilford College blog.

If you’d like to learn more about the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project, please visit here:

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

Or join the Facebook group Generations Cafe.

If you use any information from my blog posts as a reference or source, please give credit and provide a link back to my work that you are referencing. Unless otherwise noted, my work is © Anna A. Kasper 2011-2023. All rights reserved. Thank you.

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About Anna Kasper, ACDP

I am an avid Genealogist. I am currently a student at Phillips Theological Seminary (one of the few Catholics!). I am an ACDP - Associate of the Congregation of Divine Providence (Sisters of Divine Providence of Texas). If you are unfamiliar with what a Religious Associate (also called an Affiliate, Consociate, Oblate, Companion) is exactly, visit my about me page for more information. In community college, I majored in American Sign Language/Deaf Studies, and Interdisciplinary Studies when at university.
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