Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Women of the House of Refuge

Gossips has been following along on a visit made to the House of Refuge in August 1890 and reported on by Mary A. Worswick in the New York Press. So far, we've learned about the buildings and routines and how the institution went about its noble work of reforming fallen women. Today we meet some of the women of the House of Refuge--those in charge and those incarcerated.

To me, as I listened to the stories of the poor girls of the Refuge, there came the pictures of unhappy homes; of childhoods of hardship and ignorance; of the great wrong of child labor not alone in shops and factories but in households and kitchens; of small wages, long hours and few pleasures of these workers' lives, and above all, there recurred to me the plea of Browning's "Mildred," the simple pathetic words, "I was so young; I had no mother."
Mrs. Coon [the superintendent of the Refuge] has taken the record and listened to the experiences of every girl admitted to the Refuge.
This woman, tall, dignified, refined-faced, "clothed in authority," as though the garment fitted her nature, is still so cordial and motherly in manner as to win confidence in her kind heart from even the most timid and distrustful among the unfortunates. With her own words, "In talking with these girls from time to time one learns to pity rather than to condemn them. With few exceptions they have bad records. Through ignorance and neglect they have been left to drift along as best they could. From their earliest years they have been subject to the worst influences, have never known a better life. They do not seem to realize the degradation nor the low level to which they have sunk. They relate their miserable histories as freely as one would tell a pleasant story."
"Poverty is 'the root of all evil' in the lives of most of these girls," said Mrs. Herriman, the bookkeeper, in answer to my question, "and vanity, I think, comes next--love of dress which they are unable to gratify honestly. So many of them have unhappy homes, are motherless, with unkind stepmothers, perhaps have harsh or intemperate fathers or stepfathers. Poverty and hardship drive these girls out into the world very early in life. They begin work so young that they have had no fair advantage of education, home training, though most of them have been servants. They have generally speaking, little knowledge of domestic work or the right way of doing it. A number have no occupation at all.
"There are so many pitiful stories here it makes one's heart ache to think of them. There is constant appeal to one's sympathy, and some of our girls are so bright, intelligent and good. No! Do not think that the women sent here are the lowest of the low, for they are not. There are not more than a dozen really vice hardened cases among the whole number here, and even they struggle to improve."
Truth is sadder than fiction oftentimes, and among the poor girls of the refuge there are characters as innately noble, with lives as sadly ruined, as ever were read in romance. One sad instance is the case of Hattie V—, a tall, fair haired, pretty, intelligent girl, with the capacities for a noble, useful womanhood, who was saved by the Refuge from a life that is worse than death. Mrs. Coon showed me a clipping from an Elmira paper, relative to the commitment of his girl:
"If I have to go to prison for five years I think some of those who are responsible for my trouble, and who are as guilty as I am, ought to suffer," said Hattie V—, the sixteen-year-old who is confined in the county jail awaiting her transfer to the Hudson Reformatory on the charge of being an immoral character. 'My father lives in Geneva,' she said. 'He is married to his second wife, and it was not pleasant to live there, so I was induced . . . [line missing] with my uncle, though not married to him. It was there a year ago that I was ruined, and that woman was responsible for it.'"
A beautiful girl of good family and ladylike in speech and manner, Frances G—, is an especially sad example of fallen womanhood. She had lived a life of shame only four weeks when committed here, aged 17 years.
Emily P— was convicted of prostitution and brought to the Refuge by her brother when she was within three months of becoming a mother. Her baby was born in the Refuge. She is 20 years old.
Convicted of frequenting disorderly houses, six times; convicted of drunkenness, five times; married twice and the mother of two children, both illegitimate. This woman, Emma P—, is a hopeless moral wreck at 24.
Married at 14; divorced from her husband who ill treated her and drank; convicted of keeping a disorderly house, and on this charge Kittie H—, aged 26, was sent to the Refuge.
The descriptions of the women Mary A. Worswick encountered at the House of Refuge go on, and Gossips will continue recounting them in a few days.

The reference to "Browning's 'Mildred,'" is to a character, Mildred Tresham, in the tragedy A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, written in 1843 by Robert Browning. A 'scutcheon or escutcheon is an emblem bearing a coat of arms. 

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