Monday, April 14, 2014

Back to the House of Refuge

Today we wind up our visit to the House of Refuge in Hudson, accompanying Mary A. Worswick, who reported on her visit in the New York Press in August 1890.

In the prison I talked at length with one of the "hard cases," Ida P--, commonly known as "Jumbo," a procuress. She came from a village in Central New York where the whole community was enraged at her shameful traffic. Her own sister, a girl of 16, now in this institution, was one of her victims. Ida was 24 years old when committed and had already served two six month terms in the Albany penitentiary.
"She has been here over two years, but seems to make little progress," said the superintendent. 
Ida was indeed a monstrosity, fat and ungainly, with a double chin and an ample waist, short haired, cross eyed and altogether unprepossessing.
She told me her story very readily, and very ingeniously left out all the facts that reflected discreditably on herself.
"I was brought up in the country," she said, "an' when we moved to the village it was the worst thing we ever done. Says my father: 'The country is the place for girls and the village is the ruin of them.' My father worked in a pork packing place and my mother worked in a knitting mill. My mother was always good to me, but my father used always to be hitting me over the head. 'Tain't no decent way to treat children—hit 'em over the head. My father didn't do right by me. I'll tell you how I got sent here. I didn't do nothing. It was them girls' lies. They went around telling lies about me. If ever a get aholt of that McLaughlin girl—" and Ida shook her fist ominously. "Yes, I was in the penitentiary, but it was all lies that got me there. Yes, my sister Evy got sent here, too, but I ain't what they'd make me out to be. If I live to get free I'll know better'n I did before. I'll never be the girl I was, though. I was never half they says, for I'll take God as my guide!" concluded Ida with a pious uplifting of her eyes.
But Ida will probably not have a chance to exercise her Christian piety outside the Refuge for some time to come.
The next subject was a "Race Problem"—Mary T—, 18 years old, a colored girl with blue eyes and red hair and when she spoke [line missing] modified brogue. Mary was sent to the refuge as a vagrant and prostitute.
"She was loathsome in person and habits, an object of physical as well as moral contamination, when she entered the prison, and is as low down in the scale of humanity as any girl we have," said the superintendent.
"I was born in the city of Washington," Mary related. "Washington, D.C.," she added, with evident pride in her geographical knowledge.
"Me mother died. I coomed North to live with me aunt in Saratoga."
"Was your aunt kind to you?"
"No, ma'am. She bate me."
"Had you no other relatives?"
"Yes'm; me father. He bate me."
"How long did you live with your aunt?"
"Not long. I run away. I went out to wurrik. I wurrik in a hotel. Then they sent me here—me aunt and me father. They wanted me back and I wouldn't do with them. I live in streets first. I will never go with them. They make me wurrik hard, and then they bate me."
Amanda T—, a good natured little mulatto, 17 years old, stupid but smiling, told me what a good mother she had.
"I'd never gone wrong if I'd minded my mother. We was a big family and I went out to work. I only was to school one week. But my mother learned me to sew. She was always so pertickler I should do my work just right, and she'd make me rip out all the stitches and do it over again if it wasn't just so. My mother does washing for a living—there are nine children of us. My mother always told me to do right."
May F—, a tall, slender, dark haired girl, with a very white face, told me her story quietly and sadly. 
"I have been here a month. I came here very unwillingly. I was drunk and having a row when arrested. I was very unhappy to be sent here, but perhaps it has brought me to a sense of my wrong way of life as nothing else could.
"My early life? Oh, I went to school and grew up like other girls. No, I did not have a  happy home. I shall never say a word against my mother—I don't blame my life to anyone but myself.
"I went out to work between 15 and 16. My father ran away and left the family without support. My mother took in washing. I got $2.50 a week in a family, but that wouldn't pay my mother's house rent and dress me. Yes, I suppose I was fond of fine clothes. I did very much as I pleased and got into bad company and bad ways."
Of the 114 instructed during the year in the Refuge school, the majority were practically illiterate.  Less than one third had, in varying degrees, a rudimentary knowledge of the common branches; only five had a common school education or its equivalent, and twenty were totally illiterate.
These are great statistics for our educationalists. Twenty women, gathered from the midst of civilization and free schools in New York State, totally ignorant of the alphabet even, shut out from the world of ideas!
With isolated exceptions these girls lack moral, mental and industrial training to fit them for the work of this life. By moral I do not include religious training, for nearly all of them lay claim to some sort of religious belief and there are a number of church goers among them, a large percentage being Roman Catholics. Religious faith has not saved those unfortunate women for the evils of the life here, whatever it may be supposed to effect in saving souls from the ills hereafter. Here in the midst of civilization we have a class of moral heathen. Fallen women are crowding the jails, poorhouses and charitable homes; brothels and dives are the leprous spots of our cities; prostitution is one of the rankest growths of our social system. With the causes and cure of this great evil are we concerned?
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 weigh the forces of heredity, of want, of temptation."
The reference to "Ingersoll" is to Robert G. Ingersoll, a lawyer, social activist, and orator, nicknamed "The Great Agnostic," who was prominent during the Golden Age of Freethought. He is said to have memorized his speeches, which could go on for as long as three hours. The words quoted by Mary A. Worswick are from an address entitled Crimes Against Criminals, delivered before the New York State Bar Association in Albany on January 21, 1890.

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