Ridgefield notable: B. Ogden Chisolm, prison reformer
B. Ogden Chisolm devoted much of his life — and his money — to a portion of the population few have ever cared about: prisoners. Though a wealthy member of a prominent New York City family, Chisolm served with government prison agencies as well as wrote books and lectured widely on the need for humane prison reform.
He was also a friend — and helper — of many in Ridgefield.
Benjamin Ogden Chisolm was born in 1865 in Queens, N.Y., studied architecture at Columbia, but became a banker, serving as secretary and treasurer of the Greenwich Savings Bank of New York for 41 years.
In 1908 he joined the board of the New York Prison Association. Fifteen years later, President Coolidge appointed him the U.S. commissioner to the International Prison Commission for which traveled to many nations to inspect prison conditions and often contributed his own funds to support the commission’s operations.
He promoted prison reform that focused on rehabilitation, believing sentences for a term of years were wrong and urging that confinement for crimes be set at one year as a minimum; release would depend on the prisoner’s fitness to return to society. His books and pamphlets included “The Man Who Slipped A Cog,” “If It Were Your Boy,” “Making the Prisoner Over,” and “How Shall We Curb Crime.”
In 1902 Chisolm bought a 22-room “summer cottage” on Peaceable Street, calling it Wickopee Farm and expanding the property to 12 acres on High Ridge and Bryon Avenue, adding barns, fields and some livestock.
Hardly a snob, Chisolm mixed easily with the town’s working class. He often attended movies at the town hall and was also a major financial backer of the Ridgefield Playhouse on Prospect Street, the town’s first movie theater (now replaced by The Prospector).
“Mr. Chisolm had great compassion for those who were suffering through the Great Depression and felt that he should do something to furnish employment for those who were unable to find it,” historian Dick Venus said. “In the mid-30’s, he hit on the idea of building a new barn. It should be said that the last thing he needed at that time was another barn. However, he felt that in doing this, he was doing his part, as he phrased it, ‘to drive the Depression blues away.’ ”
Superintendent of Wickopee Farm was Julius Tulipani, as well-known in town as his boss he was a popular selectmen. Chisholm was so pleased with Tulipani’s service that he gave his superintendent a home and the portion of his farm that fronted High Ridge, where Tulipani lived the rest of his life.
B.O. Chisolm died in 1944, age 78. —Jack Sanders