Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Inside the House of Refuge

A couple of weeks ago, Gossips stumbled upon the story of Elizabeth Doyle, the woman who served almost five years in the House of Refuge in Hudson for a theft she didn't commit. After she was released, Elizabeth Doyle told a "startling story of alleged harsh treatment of women prisoners in that institution" to a reporter from a New York City "yellow." This happened in 1901. Three years later, the House of Refuge closed, to be replaced by the New York State Training School for Girls. Despite the fact that the Hudson Daily Register at the time dismissed the report as "false from beginning to end," was this exposé instrumental in bringing an end to the House of Refuge?  

Gossips set out to find the answer and, as so often happens, found more information than was originally sought. Today, Gossips shares the first example of this abundance. 

In 1890, three years after the House of Refuge opened (and coincidentally three years after Nelly Bly feigned insanity to get herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island to investigate reports of brutality and neglect), it appears to have been the thing to do to send a woman reporter to tour the House of Refuge in Hudson. In January 1890, the Hudson Register sent a "lady representative" to the House of Refuge to report on the "noble work" done by the institution.

In August 1890, Mary A. Worswick made a similar visit and reported on it for the New York Press. The reports suggest that the management of the House of Refuge had a routine for members of the press who visited: they toured the facility--the three floors of the prison, the kitchen, the hospital, the cottages, and then were invited to be present when the superintendent "took the record" of a new arrival to "witness the forms gone through with, etc., on the commitment of each girl." 

The authors of both reports--the one in the Hudson Daily Register and the one in the New York Press--seem to have had similar purposes for writing: to expose, for gentle readers, the degradation of the lives that brought women to the House of Refuge and to bring attention to the noble efforts of those who undertook to reform them. Mary A. Worswick's report, subtitled "A Peep at the Character, Previous Lives and Education of the Some of the Inmates--A Deplorable Exhibition of Illiteracy--The Routine of Their Lives and Methods of Instruction--Sad Stories of the Downfall of Overworked and Ill Trained Children," also provides a vivid description of the institution and valuable insights into social consciousness at the turn of the century. The following is an excerpt from Mary A. Worswick's report.

"The Fallen Woman" has ever been a theme that has touched a chord of human sympathy. Society may have barred the door of its heaven upon the outcast, the virtuous pharisee may pass by her with averted eyes and garments drawn aside, but she is still a woman. We owe to her help, charity, humanity. She is in a large sense a victim of cause and circumstance of our social system, and there is no broader philanthropy than that attempted by the State in the establishment of reformation for women.
New York State has a worthy representative of this class of institution in the House of Refuge for Women at Hudson. The institution is beautifully situated on an elevation, just south of the city, commanding a wide horizoned view of the Hudson River and the Catskills. It consists of a main building, four cottages, hospital, prison and outbuildings, and within its wall there are now over two hundred young women convicted of various offenses.
The refuge has been in operation over three years. From all counties of the State, except New York and Kings, women between 15 and 30 years of age, for any misdemeanor, can be committed for a term of five years, unless sooner discharged by the board of managers. Prostitution and drunkenness are the most common crimes among these women. Crime is precocious, and there are children of 15 in the refuge who are old in their experiences of vice. 
It was with the permission of the superintendent, Mrs. Coon, that I went through the institution listening to the stories of the unfortunates, and finding everywhere illustrations of the noble work the refuge is doing in reclaiming young girls from lives of shame. The refuge is conducted on the cottage system. The prison and cottages are carefully graded, strict records are kept of the girls from the time they enter until they are discharged, and a system of promotion provides constant incentive to their improvement. Including the superintendent, there are eighteen women in charge of the various departments and buildings, besides the steward, who is the general business man of the institution, and attends to the overseeing of watchmen and stablemen employed about the place.
Each day has its duty, each hour its task. Here is the daily routine: Rise at 5:30 a.m. in summer, 6 a.m. in winter; breakfast at 6 a.m. in summer, 6:30 a.m. in winter; prayers, 7 a.m.; housework and sewing, 7:15 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; silent study or recitation, 10:30 a.m. to 12 m.; dinner, 12 m.; school, 9:30 a.m. to 12 m.; 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.; gymnastics twice a week, 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.; instruction in singing once a week, 3 to 4 p.m.; supper, 5 p.m.; silent study or work, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.; the rest of the evening is given to recreation; prayers, 8 p.m. in summer, 7:30 p.m. in winter; bed, 8:30 p.m. in summer, 8 p.m. in winter.
The prison is naturally the gloomiest building of the refuge. The three floors are divided into galleries and from each gallery open the cells. There are three dark cells in the lower part of the building for the solitary confinement of insubordinate females. An addition has recently been built in which a school for the prison girls has been opened.
The commitment of a new inmate is one of the sad sights of the refuge. The girl is brought to Hudson in charge of the deputy, the doors of the refuge prison close upon her, she is alone among strangers and behind iron bars. She may have been the boldest creature of the streets, hardened and shameless, but in this hour of her desolation she is only a wretched woman, abandoned to her misery and her tears, in the little office of the prison under the grave questioning of the superintendent, who takes her record. Then she is directed to stand against the wall where her height is measured on a wooden gauge. She is told that she may receive one visitor and write one letter each month and is given a small printed slip of paper to sign:
"I hereby authorize the superintendent and her assistants to receive, open, read, deliver, destroy, retain or return any letters addressed to me."
Finally she is put in charge of the prison matron to be given a bath, dressed in the plain prison outfit--the coarse cotton undergarments and blouse and skirt of blue denim--and assigned to the second division of the prison, where she will begin the routine of her new life.
Mary A. Worswick's account of her tour of the House of Refuge continues and includes descriptions of several of the women she met there. Gossips' coverage of her tour will continue, too, in a few days.

The photograph of the House of Refuge is from Historic Hudson's Rowles Studio Collection. The first drawing accompanying this post appeared in the Hudson Daily Register on January 16, 1890. The other three illustrations are from Mary A. Worswick's report in the New York Press for August 17, 1890.

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