Monday, April 21, 2014

Another View of the House of Refuge

Recently, Gossips serialized Mary A. Worswick's account of her visit to the House of Refuge, which appeared in the New York Press in August 1890. Her story concluded in this way: 
Sad indeed are the stories of these unfortunates--the children of poverty, ignorance, vice; but we can only judge their sins who, in the words of Ingersoll, "has the mental balance with which to weight the forces of heredity, of want, of temptation."
Nine years later, in October 1899, an account appeared in the Morning Telegraph that paints quite a different picture of the unfortunates incarcerated in the House of Refuge. According to Wikipedia, the Morning Telegraph was a New York City broadsheet "devoted mostly to theatrical and horse racing news." On October 13, 1899, a reporter for the Morning Telegraph with a penchant for alliteration turned his (or her) attention to a sensational incident at the Hudson House of Refuge.

High Old Times at the Hudson 
Reformatory for Women.
Women Freed From Restraint Declare 
a "Rough House."
The change in the methods of handling the inmates at the House of Refuge in Hudson, N.Y., has brought about some wonderful results. There has been developed an impression that the inmates of this institution are "Little Elsie" girls, sweet, loving creatures, with a vague entreaty in their sad eyes and longing hopes of homes where they could live pure, high souled lives. To treat such Louisa Alcott heroines harshly, it has been said in the sensation mongering journals, would be like beating a canary or kicking a butterfly.
The horrors of the institution in the days when they locked the girls in their cells and fed them on bread and water caused the noble minded editors to shudder and wonder through their columns at the awful brutality of people who could be so harsh.
Now for the facts. These "girls" in the Hudson House of Refuge are probably about the hardest lot of tough, hardened, Harveyized steel plate harridans that were ever gathered together to render unbearable the lives of those placed over them in authority. Instead of young girls unstudied in vice, the inmates are a set of the worst criminals from the worst dives in the State. Their language would make Chuck Connors blush and scurry back to Chinatown, where he would lose the English and other profane languages.
Harsh Methods Changed.
The harsh methods of dealing with these loose Lucys has been changed of late by Gov. Roosevelt because of certain newspaper developments and now the girls (?) are asked to be good, because it is good to be good. They are taught that it is very, very wrong to swear and make lewd and profane remarks to the man who may occasionally stroll near the place, and under the existing management the harshest treatment consists in sending these women to the "prison." Here they way talk together and lay plans for the undoing of the helpless manageresses. This they do in good shape, and on Sunday last occurred an outbreak that called for the interference of the Hudson police.
"To smash out" is an expression new to many readers of The Morning Telegraph. It was born at Hudson, in the House of Refuge. It is the equivalent to the vulgar expression of the far Southwest, transplanted East, "to raise hades." "Smashing out" expresses more, however. When the innocent young things of the House of Refuge "smash out" they raise more peculiar kinds of hades than any Texan ever dreamt of. 
Last Sunday some of these Roosevelt pets "smashed out."
They had been expecting the return of one of the old managers renowned for her severity, and they were prepared to make her reception a sort of duplicate of the kind the British are going to get when they go into the Transvaal.
The Plot Was Exposed.
Many of the girls in the cottages "smashed out" so they might be put in the prison and be ready to heat things up for the matron when she came back. The plot was exposed inadvertently, however, and the disliked official did not return when she was looked for. Then the inmates decided to have sport, anyway.
The row began early in the morning. Miss M. E. May, the new superintendent, was informed and at once hurried over to the prison. Her entrance was the cue for the chorus, and the inmates, being the chorus, chorused. A series of wild yells, howls, shrieks and oaths broke out and many of the women began to break the furniture.
Those is the cells broke the crockery, tore the bedding to pieces, smashed everything in sight that was smashable, tore everything tearable and made as much trouble as a pair of drunks of Washington's Division.
They knew that the new orders were to the effect that they were to be treated kindly and the fire hose couldn't be turned on them, so they had no fear of any very strong opposition. Miss May, however, having been chief matron in an insane asylum at one time, was not daunted. Her experience in the "foolish house" had taught her how to handle raging females. The four worst were corraled by Miss May and her assistants and they were handcuffed and thrown, shrieking and yelling like demons, into their cells.
Then the others were subdued and an account of the wreck taken. Miss May's arrival was timely. The women in the prison had attached the fire hose and had turned on the water. The floor was an inch deep in water when the supply was turned off and a few minutes later the battle would have become a naval engagement.
Made the Crockery Fly.
Ten minutes later another row broke out in the dining room. Two of the girls had declared a "rough house," and the way the crockery flew and the profanity prevailed would have shocked a man from Dodge City.
These two female brutes were also chased into their cells and locked in with handcuffs on. Then peace prevailed for several hours. After prayers in the afternoon an ultimatum went forth from the inmates and war was the result. Those in the cells took off their shoes and began pounding on the doors.
They yelled out many things that would have made a Texas burro team man shrink away and hide. They made remarks about the institution, the cooking, the officials and wound up in a wild denunciation of the world and all it contains.
Then a series of riots broke loose and the police were called in several times. Incidentally they loaned Miss May all the handcuffs they had in their possession. At last Miss May telephoned for the constables to come and help put down a ruction. Seventeen "tough skirts" had "smashed out," and, after breaking all the chairs and tables they could get hold of, had armed themselves with the fragments and were defying anybody to put them out.
Sergeant Cruse was game, however. He pulled a pistol and covered them, and they quailed.
After this mob had been placed incommunicado there were other rumpuses until 2 o'clock Monday morning, when an armistice was declared.
On Monday Attorney General Davies came down from Albany after a consultation with Gov. Roosevelt. On his advice the Sheriff swore in twenty deputies for duty on the House of Refuge grounds. 
Mr. Davies left Tuesday stating that the rioting was over, but it's likely we will guess again before the week has ended.
Gossips Notes: "Little Elsie" is a character in the short story "Good for Evil," by Louisa May Alcott. "Harveyized" makes reference to the Harvey process of hardening steel for use on battle ships, invented in the 1890s by the American engineer Hayward Augustus Harvey. The mention of Chuck Connors is not an anachronistic reference to the star of The Rifleman but to a pugilist from the Bowery whose boxing match with Chin Ong is the subject of an early film, Chuck Connors vs. Chin Ong (1899). Gov. Roosevelt, of course, is Theodore Roosevelt, who was elected governor of New York in November 1898. The reference to the British and the Transvaal was very topical. On October 9, 1899, four days before this article was published, the president of the South African Republic issued an ultimatum giving the British government 48 hours to withdraw all their troops from the borders of the Transvaal. The British government rejected the ultimatum, and the consequence was the Second Boer War.

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