Writing the Criminal Child:Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child
This article analyzes how early American theories of the child self arose in conjunction with emerging writings about juvenile delinquency. I read the day-to-day records of the New York House of Refuge, the first U.S. prison specifically designed for children, alongside popular domestic manuals ranging from John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education to Lydia Marie Child's The Mother's Book. These dual archives converge to generate visions of a childhood physically estranged from the adults around them and thus outside of socialization or discipline. Targeting poor and immigrant children, in particular, the perceived opacity of so-called "incorrigible" children reproduces juvenile subjectivity as a suspect entity, which is unknowable and therefore always potentially deviant from the broader social body.
Juvenile Delinquency, Carceral Studies, Immigration, Incorrigibility, House of Refuge, Lydia Maria Child, The Mother's Book, John Locke, Corporal Punishment
Let Society beware, when the outcast, vicious, reckless multitude of New York boys, swarming now every foul alley and low street, come to know their power and use it!—Charles Loring Brace, First Annual Report of the Children's Aid Society (1854)
For nineteenth-century Americans, the futurity often associated with childhood could hold as much menace as promise. When the philanthropist Charles Loring Brace describes the New York boys whom he wishes to reform, his prevailing tone is not a familiar concern about the vulnerabilities of children. It is instead a pronounced fear, centered on the unpredictable, uncontrollable future that "outcast, vicious, reckless" children would bring. Brace is, of course, hyperbolic in the cause of fundraising, but his logic reflects a much larger set of mid-century anxieties bound up jointly in the identification of children as a new object of attention for the carceral state and the new popular understanding of the child self as potentially criminal. Brace's warnings about dangerously unsocialized children echo older stories of so-called feral children in Europe.1 However, where feral children were imagined as the products of isolation in nature, Brace writes about children in the city who were surrounded by adults but possessed no social relationship with them. As members of the new cultural category of the "juvenile delinquent," the New York boys in Brace's writing represent the growing [End Page 307] belief that some types of childhood were so fundamentally disconnected from "proper" adult authority that they are ungovernable.
Through the early nineteenth century, an unlikely pair of genres—domestic parenting manuals and the records of newly founded juvenile prisons—joined to a project of reimagining the child self to allow for this possibility of child criminality. The dual formation of the child self with the child criminal, however, is more than a quirk of antebellum child history. This newly independent conception of child character, when applied to affluent white children, worked to manage the contradictions between US individualism and the dependency of childhood. By promising authority beyond physical force, it reassured the parents of these children that their parenting was enlightened and kind, rather than tyrannical. However, the same ideas insist that other childhoods can only be ruled by force. These proto-psychological theories of child character help to define the reproductive limits of antebellum citizenship, estranging poor and immigrant children from child socialization and instead institutionalizing them indefinitely.
Specifically, I want to suggest that a legal construct from the early days of delinquency discourse–that of "the incorrigible child"—frames this isolation as a problem of bodily interpretation. By the turn of the nineteenth century, incorrigibility marked a penal category tied to those people held to be the more fundamentally criminal. In William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, "incorrigible" criminals can be recognized either through "repetition of minuter crimes" or "some one crime of deep malignity" and must be imprisoned without delay or clemency to prevent their "repeating perhaps the worst of villanies."2 For antebellum juvenile law in particular, though, incorrigibility came to be deemed an offense in itself, labeling those children as existing beyond correction and, paradoxically, giving them over to unchecked state discipline.3 In its wider meaning, however, the status of the incorrigible takes on a certain ambiguity from being declared beyond correction. The Yale Literary Magazine in 1847, for example, deploys "incorrigible" to describe not a recalcitrant child but a geometric principle which cannot be disputed.4 In this sense, the "incorrigible" takes on a specific epistemological standing based on the idea that some statements must be accepted as true. Grounded in phenomenological experience of the body—scents, tastes, pains—the incorrigible assertion is one that, whether true or not, exists beyond interrogation by any other parties.5 Under this model, criminalized children defy scrutiny because their bodies have been marked unreadable. Paired with growing anxiety [End Page 308] over juvenile delinquency, incorrigibility maps a child self beyond adult comprehension.
This discursive investment in ungovernable children was accompanied by a demographic wave of children in northeastern cities. In the 1820s and 1830s, industrialization had increased urban populations of all ages, and child workers, useful in factories for hands able to fit the tight spaces of factory machines, were no exception. A boom in immigration also brought around 300,000 new arrivals to New York every year.6 The immigrants who remained were, in the words of Walter Kamphoefner, disproportionately "young, single, and mobile."7 Moreover, because states had responded to the need for short-term child labor in factories by allowing juvenile workers to make their own contracts without requiring parental oversight, many of the children in these cities were operating with an unprecedented degree of independence and mobility.8 In New York, one of the most affected cities, the chief of police estimated in 1849 that 10,000 children lived in the streets.9 While a fraction of these subjects were funneled into the public orphanages that proliferated between the 1830s and 1860s, a parallel discourse emerged from the penal system to define the social standing of these urban youth as criminal, justifying their confinement in prisons called "Houses of Refuge."10
Labeled with the newly popular term "juvenile delinquent," children in the city could be criminalized for having unstable housing or a home that was deemed unsuitable by authorities or for participating in informal economies ranging from sex work to petty theft to picking chips of dried horse manure to sell as fuel. Because time served in the House was regarded as rehabilitation rather than punishment, inmates were not given sentences of a specific length.11 Instead, if inmates' behavior was deemed suitable and an opportunity was available, they left the institution by indenture into an apprenticeship or, more rarely, they were released to familial care. If not, Houses had authority over their charges until they reached the age of majority, which was typically twenty-one for male subjects and eighteen for female. Prison advocates generally saw such confinement as a replacement for parental authority that they deemed inadequate or inappropriate and directed prison discipline toward the reformation of individual character.12 Immigrant children and the children of immigrant parents were particularly targeted by these early juvenile prisons. By some counts, children born outside the United States represented more than half of inmates in 1830; by 1850, Irish American children alone represented slightly more than half of the [End Page 309] prison's population, while only 28 percent of inmates had been born in the United States.13
I approach the category of the incorrigible child by bringing together archives written from either side of the question, one which assumes deviance and the other which assumes its absence: records from the early years of New York's juvenile delinquency facilities, beginning with its first entry on December 25, 1824,14 and the popular genre of domestic manuals on child rearing.15 Despite the differences between their intents and venues, both discourses converge on the same questions: by what means can one assert authority over an unformed subject and transition that disciplined subject into socialized, adult citizenship? By reading these two archives in parallel, a larger pattern of thinking emerges in which children's inner selves are not necessarily connected to their outer affect; the connection between inner self and outer expression may be stabilized by genealogical bonds, linking parent-child bonds to their physical similarities, but it can also be broken by physical punishment that, supposedly, drives children to act in a way that they do not feel. This drive to eliminate corporal punishment, though, relies on a perceived physical continuity from which most of the children entering Houses of Refuge were excluded. The same logic that saved affluent, nonimmigrant children from violent treatment declared that it might be the only path available for disciplining poor and immigrant children. The divergent archives of domestic manuals and juvenile prisons give us access to this model of the incorrigible child, deemed inscrutable to authority and thus left under its full power. Through these writings, child criminality was constructed by a problem of reading and, specifically, of child bodies which could not be read to reveal their inner thoughts.
The patterns of thought about childhood in the relatively specialized discourses of juvenile prisons and middle-class parenting draw from literary metaphors of interpretation. But they also give us access to a wider legacy of antebellum figures of childhood in lit er a ture itself. In 1834, roughly ten years after the establishment of the New York House of Refuge, John Neal wrote a gothic interpretation of childhood in which latent adult evil lurked undetectable in child bodies. The essay, originally titled " Children: What Are They?," is framed around the semicomic scientific conceit of narrator and reader standing at the window to survey the children playing in the streets as the would-be experts attempt to answer, by the evidence of those "specimens," the question posed by the title.16 From this apparently [End Page 310] quaint and mundane study, however, emerges an answer that is literally horrifying, for along with the early iterations of positive adulthood—"the gifted and the merciful, the wise and the eloquent, the ambitious and the renowned"—evidence also appears of all the most condemned and excluded categories of adult, including "the wicked and the treacherous, the liar and the thief, . . . the burglar, the ravisher, the murderer and the betrayer of his country."17 Worse still, there can be no reckoning between the two categories, so that the person who plays with a child runs a terrible risk of intimacy with a secret monster. Neal declares:
Playthings! God! If the little creatures would but appear to us in their true shape for a moment! We should fall upon our faces before them, or grow pale with consternation, or fling them off with horror and loathing. What would be our feelings to see a fair child start up before us a maniac or a murderer, armed to the teeth?18
Confronted with small bodies that conceal violent wills, Neal remakes the apparent vulnerability of children into a deceptive camouflage for "their true shapes." This ability to conceal one's true self provides the major convergence for Neal of the figure of the child and the figure of the criminal. Sidelining the questions of child reason which had dominated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century debates over juvenile crime, Neal locates child criminality not in intent but in the impossibility detecting intent.19
This rewriting of childhood as suspect extends into one of the most canonical antebellum novels, The Scarlet Letter (1850). With his portrait of Pearl, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Prynne, Hawthorne presents the problem of a child who is born so far outside the social norm that adult authorities have no connection to her. Even more than Neal, Hawthorne lingers on the possibility of a breakdown in communication between adult and child:
[Pearl's] outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly express, the various properties of her inner life. Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but—or else Hester's fears deceived her—it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with an order [End Page 311] peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered.20
As Hawthorne writes, even as an infant, she "lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born," and her private thoughts followed "an order peculiar to themselves [. . . . which was] impossible to be discovered." This is not to say that Pearl lacks the external markers of feeling. Indeed, her "outward mutability" refers to a chaotic and excessive presentation of feelings; Pearl is prone to laugh or weep at apparently random intervals. However, that surface-level affect shields a more isolated interiority, which it "indicate[s], and [does] not more than fairly express." The carefully qualified contradictions of this promise means that, while the unpredictability of her outward appearance might serve as an analogy for an equally unpredictable self, her outward appearance itself does not actually reflect her inward self. Her interior life is fundamentally asocial.
These figures of latent child criminality matter because they give us insight into the ways that marginalized children were often actually treated and because they provide a reminder that the consolidation of childhood into an idealized model has been a messy business accompanied by a host of rejected or submerged alternatives. From a disciplinary perspective, scholarly work on childhood has recently had a minor renaissance, particularly in the field of the nineteenth-century United States. This has been largely propelled by two trends in scholarship born from the intersections of childhood with queer theory and critical race theory. First, childhood studies has seen increased focus on the harm that childhood can do as a rhetorical tool for heteronormativity and white supremacy. In response, though, it has also seen new focus on the exclusions built into this normative childhood and on the ways that it has been withheld from children of color, disabled children, queer children, and other poor or working-class children.21 However, what we still know less about are the figures of childhood that exist outside of that narrow tradition and the relationship that those excluded children still had to discourses of youth.22 Juvenile delinquents were treated differently as a result of their age—and that special treatment could lead to unique institutional captivity. The specter of incorrigibility allows us to think about the possibility of a figure of the noninnocent, nonreformable child and its material consequences for the predominantly immigrant and/or poor children whom it encompassed. [End Page 312]
Socializing the Child Body
Despite all his famous interest in educating the mind, John Locke was also absorbed by the problem of disciplining the body. Even in Locke's writing, where one might most expect a disembodied subject, the foundational principle of disciplining children is physical. While the bulk of his Thoughts on Education is devoted to developing faculties such as reason, judgment, and virtue, Locke begins his text by noting the impossibility of rational improvement without physical management: "I imagine the minds of children as easily turned this or that way as water itself; and though this be the principal part, and our main care should be about the inside, yet the clay cottage is not to be neglected."23 Unlike the easily swayed mind, the physical conditions of the child could only be managed, not scripted wholesale. As a result, Locke's famous treatise on the training of human reason begins with an exhaustive regime for addressing the child body. Cold, wet feet are recommended to strengthen character.24 Melons, peaches, and plums must be banned, but gooseberries are acceptable—provided they are eaten ripe, with bread, and only before or between meals.25 Beer is allowable but only at "blood-hot" temperatures. All bowel movements must be carefully monitored and kept to a strict schedule.26 Locke's digressions on the body seem to balloon, unable to leave any aspect of physical life as a variable in his curriculum. Attempting to control the bodily condition of the child at every turn, Locke suggests that the physical must be corralled by constant and painstaking discipline to give access to the mental. Locke was not alone in the awkward predicament of severing physical growth from rational development and, subsequently, of preserving a fantasy of the pristinely disembodied citizen. In the discourse of antebellum domestic manuals, the unruliness of children's bodies is threateningly contiguous with the limits of adult authority.
One reason for this is that they also appear as the original source of adult authority. Children's bodies are consistently presented as the first means for socialization of a nonspeaking infant. Humphrey, for example, promises that bodies code a deeper feeling and that a mother "conveys her meaning in tones, and looks, and smiles, and frowns, to her darling boy, long before it is capable of understanding a single word that she utters . . . and in this way she begins to mold its temper and habits to her wishes."27 Faces act in the absence of language as a naturalized method of communication, allowing immediate access to "mold" an infant's character and allowing its socialization to begin before it is physically [End Page 313] capable of social behavior. Child seconds this idea of infantile responses to a mother's face and extrapolates a version of the child body that remains connected to its mother even after birth. Claiming that infants will cry at the sight of their mothers looking unhappy, Child frames the situation as a matter of innate communication and an almost physical inheritance of feeling. She explains that such a young child "cannot possibly know what that expression means, but he feels that it is something painful."28 This connection between a family body and personal feeling is so intense that Child returns to an already outdated theory that a mother's emotions could be transmitted to a child through milk, declaring that " children have died in convulsions, in consequence of a mother nursing, while under the influence of violent passion or emotion."29 This connection, so visceral that it almost exceeds the category of communication, stages infants as being innately socialized in a temporary but very literal way through the intensity of the maternal bond.
Locke's emphasis on the physical management of childhood as the underpinning for moral adulthood permeates guides written during the antebellum period as well. Humphrey, in fact, very nearly paraphrases Locke's metaphor of water and clay cottage, declaring in one passage that "although the young mind is that priceless gem which it should be a parent's supreme care to polish, the casket must not be overlooked, nor neglected."30 Alcott similarly believed that the primary force in infancy was the "claims of animal nature" and insisted that a session of active play was the necessary preparation for a child to be able to engage intellectually, claiming that bodily energy must be dealt with for intellect to be invoked.31 Child, in fact, goes so far as to trace the national characters of the Dutch and the French back to the manner in which they are physically handled as infants. Dutch "heaviness," she ponders, must spring from Dutch infants being kept in "repose" for too long, while French "vivacity" originates from the parental tendency to be "perpetually tossing them about."32 An American body, too, was not simply born but had to be handled into being. If the ideal subject of the early United States was the disembodied subject of liberalism, these manuals make clear that the training of that eventual adult was nonetheless a process rooted in corporeal connection.
This method of infant training through bodily response, however, had its more brutal extensions. Gere agrees that there is no reason to delay training children until they are capable of either speech or reason because they can instead be made to respond to physical stimuli. He therefore promises a technique for teaching crying children to calm [End Page 314] themselves on command before the age of six months. Instead of maternal empathy, though, Gere advises that "in general it will be indispensable to make an appeal to fear."33 His advice is that a guardian faced with a crying child should first attempt to distract the child with a few words; but, as this will often fail, Gere recommends an escalation to violence:
It may be necessary to add, on the same principle on which physicians apply counter-irritants, suddenly but gently, a slap, or a shake, just sufficient to render fear the predominant passion . . . But some rare instances will occur, in which these means will not only not answer the purpose, but serve only to increase the passionate excitement which obtains in the midst of a fit of squalling, or of obstinate, silent resistance to parental authority. In such instances, imitate the practice of physicians, who order blisters to establish upon the surface a centre of sympathy, and repeat the slap, or ply the rod . . . with an intention to smart, but never to bruise or injure, until it is obvious that the sensation upon the surface becomes the centre of interest, and no longer.34
Given the excess of the advice itself—that if slapping an infant once fails, then the answer is to strike again—it does possess a strange kind of internal logic, offering a theory of interaction with what is still held to be a largely asocial being. If the child is crying, Gere reasons, the adult can distract it out of a tantrum by inspiring a new "predominant passion" of fear or pain. In his choice of medicine as the arena for a training that could as easily been made a matter of etiquette or religion, Gere asserts that the route to a child's thoughts and feelings is fundamentally a physical one. Sympathy, as it appears in this interaction between parent and child, is hardly the product of abstract affinity but rather the physiological impulse that can spur feeling; the "centre of sympathy" is the site of an instructive pain, coupling physical sensation and mental attention in an immediate proximity.
Gere's suggestion would have been controversial and he himself acknowledges that some of his methods have been condemned as "oppressive and cruel."35 They would have been polarizing, though, precisely because they pinpoint contemporary fears about whether childhoods predicated on force, rather than feeling, could produce the types of middle-class, liberal adult that the manuals' readers would have imagined themselves to be. Discussions about corporal punishment made explicit how greatly adult authority relied on the child body as a relay for [End Page 315] controlling the child self. When Gere advocates that pain precede language as a system for communication with infants, he does so directly from the premise that authority over the child corresponds strongly with authority over the adult. At the heart of Gere's method is his belief that the feeling of fear "among others, in its different grades, appears to lie at the foundation of all human obedience, from infancy to old age."36 This logic runs surprisingly parallel to opponents of corporal punishment, who believe that identifying physical force as the fundamental socialization for the child self threatens to undermine the putative freedom and rationality of the adult self.
Gere's theoretical basis, if not his conclusions, follows directly from Locke, for whom corporal punishment threatened to disqualify children from democratic citizenship. While Locke's extrapolation between child liberty and the political rights of adults springs from a considerable tradition of paternalist analogies, his discussion moves beyond analogy and into an analysis of how corporal punishment shapes the development of child subjectivity itself. He critiques whipping, therefore, as making the child into an adult unfit for political participation:
Such a sort of slavish discipline [as whipping] makes a slavish temper. The child submits, and dissembles obedience, whilst the fear of the rod hangs over him; but when that is removed, and by being out of sight, he can promise himself impunity, he gives the greater scope to his natural inclination; which by this way is not at all altered, but on the contrary heightened and increased in him; and after such restraint, breaks out usually with the more violence.37
The prospect at least of physical discipline seems inevitable, because for all his reluctance, Locke still admits that when faced with what he interchangeably terms "obstinacy" and "rebellion," physical checks are the only assertion of control.38 Counterintuitively, though, the harm of corporal punishment is not the submissiveness that Locke first flags but deceit. Corporal punishment strengthens the asocial tendencies of the self; as Locke concludes, a beating leaves the child's natural inclination "heightened and increased," but better concealed. Whipping is ineffective because it isolates the body and thereby teaches the child that outward appearance can be used as a shield between its inner self and any illicit desires lurking there and disciplinary surveillance.39 To grow into a proper citizen, on the other hand, children must be trained with a temper [End Page 316] that can moderate between their desires and the external social world. Essentially, they must undergo the process which I have been referring to as socialization.
The aversion to corporal punishment in Child's manual is similarly not concerned with an abstract dislike for violence or even a wish to avoid causing the children pain but rather with the fear that it would teach children how to put on a deceptive face of obedience. They might learn to act good without being so. Unlike Gere, Child finds intimidation to be an inadequate source of authority, on the grounds that "mere fear of suffering never makes a person really better. It makes them conceal what is evil, but it does not make them conquer it."40 As she continues to explore the division between children who "conceal" and those who "conquer" their vices, Child outlines the dangerous possibility that a man may grow up having learned by force to "regulate his outward behaviour" and to project "outward goodness" all without having "cleanse[d] his heart," avoiding punishment through "hypocrisy" or "concealment."41 In this worst-case scenario, the child disciplined by force matures into an adult who lives deceptively, functioning socially yet never revealing a true self to the rest of the world. By isolating the body as the source of power, corporal punishment also articulated limits to adult authority, tracing it to a mode of domination that was judged as always partial and, moreover, as a thoroughly unacceptable basis for sovereignty over the adult citizen that these manuals attempted to produce. This thinking places the body in the paradoxical position of being both central and oppositional to socialization. The corporeal proves a vehicle for adults to access child character, but it also brings with it the threat that this vehicle could fail or be misleading.
For both Humphrey and Alcott, too, corporal punishment comes to be associated with an asocial emotional life. Rather than restricting the practice, however, as Locke and Child do, they reshape corporal punishment to train children explicitly in the proper way to feel about their pain. For Humphrey, this attempt to reconnect the child's mental and physical response is a fairly conventional suggestion that guardians themselves perform the emotional effect that corporal punishment is intended to have on the child. "Let him see," Humphrey advises, "from your countenance and from the tones of your voice, that every stroke costs you more pain than it does him; and he must be perverse indeed, if he does not yield and reform."42 Parents must actively present that beating as an act of emotional transference, suppressing the role of physical suffering so much that the chief injury should appear to be parental [End Page 317] grief. To put it differently, Humphrey implicitly argues that if parents want to discipline children through the body, they must also socialize how children connect interiority to flesh. Alcott extends this idea further still. In an even more unusual stance on corporal punishment, Alcott recommends punishing a child by having him or her beat the adult. Although he does not directly discuss the practice in his own writings, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Record of a School (1833) describes his pedagogy as the "most complete punishment that a master ever invented," because it produces a pain that can "touch the heart to love."43 Rather than teaching children to mimic the grief of their parents, Alcott assigns physical pain to adults in order to make the punishment a pristinely emotional exchange with none of the threatening privacy of child pain.
The risk of such an oppositional childhood, however, is higher for some children than others. As these manuals make clear, the danger of the body barring access to the child's character was far less with one's own, biological children than with the children of strangers. In fact, according US manuals, the supposed bond between a mother's and child's bodies offer the first means for socialization. Recall, for instance, Humphrey's belief that a mother's face was innately legible to her child, or Hawthorne's suggestion that child born outside of a sanctioned family would be illegible to everyone. Where a biological relationship could stabilize this fear that the body would prevent true socialization, then, no such privilege existed for the children of strangers. In a passage that she later recanted, even Child, the otherwise staunch opponent of corporal punishment, made an exception for the children who might join the family as adoptees, servants, or apprentices. She explains that, while she "[does] not believe that most children, properly brought up from the very cradle, would need whipping," she also cautions that " children are not often thus brought up; and you may have those placed under your care in whom evil feelings have become very strong."44 Violence, for Child, is reserved for children brought from outside the household, as a means of compensating for the affective gap between a guardian and a child estranged by the "evil feelings" of an improper background. It might evoke incorrigibility, but it seems the only bond possible when a child has been raised so outside an adult's experience.
For House of Refuge officials, too, the paranoia that their poor or immigrant charges had secret inner rebellion marked a sense of wider disconnection. Michel Foucault has argued that reformative discipline [End Page 318] constructs the subjectivity that it reforms by treating the corporeal as the immediate sign of a noncorporeal, truer self; he writes, in Discipline and Punish, the body "serves as an instrument or intermediary" which power interacts with only in order to "reach something other than the body itself." 45 That bodies are social objects is no revelation from a critical vantage, but read in combination with antebellum theories of socialization, the archives of the House show the officials' realization that the corporeal could be an unreliable witness to the intentions and inclinations of the children they imprisoned. As the House trained the body into compliance, its officials are forced to recognize their failure to scrutinize anything but the body itself.
Delinquent Characters in Profile
The first prison intended specifically for juvenile criminals in the United States was begun in New York City in 1824.46 Known as Houses of Refuge or, less frequently, as Houses of Reformation, such institutions were part of a larger transatlantic fascination with juvenile delinquency, explicitly borrowing their design from similar establishments in London and Dublin.47 Though the United States was slower than Britain to adopt separate penal systems for minors, the idea caught on quickly enough that within thirty years, as the Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy from 1854 reports, Houses of Refuge had been founded in Philadelphia; Boston; Portland, Maine; Providence, Rhode Island; Westborough, Massachusetts; Rochester, New York; Pittsburgh; Cincinnati; and Chicago.48 Although the details of the schools differed, the typical program for inmates consisted of a full workday meant to train the children in a profession while also allowing the institution a source of financial support. An 1827 report by the New York House of Refuge, for instance, reported that inmates attended two two-hour school lessons and labored for another eight hours, with its 122 boys working at "chair-making, shoe-making, tailoring, brass nail manufacturing, and silver plating" and its 27 girls working at "baking, tailoring, sewing, and washing." As this schedule comes from an official report on the institution's benevolence, real work hours may have been longer in practice, as the income from inmate labor was both a source of direct funding and evidence of sustainability used to argue for future support from external patrons. Moreover, the report itself notes that the in-house work done by female inmates "engrosses almost the whole of their time" as those twenty-some [End Page 319] children were responsible for clothing the whole of the institution's population.49
The common arguments for building Houses of Refuge, rather than age-integrated prisons, relied on bringing together two contradictory halves of the discourse on juvenile criminality. On one side, the pathos of a popularized vision of childhood innocence suffering in prison permeated many sentimental appeals for the construction and funding of institutions of delinquency. The chief justice of Massachusetts in the 1820s, for instance, wrote a much-quoted endorsement of South Boston's House that declares traditional prison unfit for minors, because " these unhappy little victims of neglect, or shameful abuse of authority, are hardly proper subjects of punishment—their offences are not their own."50 Children, such advocates argued, erred through ignorance of the law brought about by bad upbringing, rather than individual malice. On the other hand, some commentators followed Beaumont and Tocqueville's complaint that, because of the pathos inherent in the child prisoner, juries would refuse to convict even repeat offenders when the only option for sentencing seemed so harsh.51 As advocates for the Philadelphia House of Refuge put it in an 1840 pamphlet titled Design and Advantages of the House of Refuge, this pity itself can breed further criminality in its young objects
The prospect of making [children] convicted felons is repulsive; and thousands have been permitted to continue unmolested, in preference to hurrying them to the Penitentiary. Thus our most natural sensibilities become panders to public wrong, and contribute to keep up the juvenile gangs so necessary to the schemes of old culprits.52
For these reformers, too much sympathy, in keeping child criminals away from adult convicts, returns them to the hands of the adult criminals still outside of prisons. The special sympathies held for children, such commentators argue, shields their criminality and ensures that they will grow up into "old culprits" themselves.
The inmate profiles written by the House superintendent mirror this divide between delinquent as a victim of environment and as criminal agent. As institutional texts, these case histories are reasonably consistent and systematic in their structure. As each new inmate entered, he or she was assigned an identifying number and had an interview with the current superintendent, who asked for a brief version of the inmate's [End Page 320] early biography (e.g., age, birthplace, ethnicity, status of parents, with whom the child had lived) and then pressed for an account of all past crimes, however minor, the inventory of which would be recorded in full. This biographical background forms an introduction to the second half of the document, which records the child's time after he or she had become an inmate of the House. This portion, titled "Remarks," consists of dated entries which could vary in frequency from every few days to an annual update and which featured brief character sketches or recorded significant events in the child's reformation, or nonreformation, such as indentures, escape attempts, or persistent rule-breaking. Nearly all remarks sections include at least one entry made after the delinquent had left the House recording relapses, professional standing, or merely a lack of further information.53
The disciplinary history of Ann McCollister, the fifth inmate to enter the House and one of its early failures, suggests the frustrated attempts at communicating with a delinquent subject. Her biography prior to entering the House includes more criminal activity than the average entering child, but her involvement in petty theft and sex work was nothing unusual. Born in New York to an enlisted and subsequently absentee father and a working mother, Ann bounced between informal employments, roaming the streets, the Almshouse, and, after being taken up for theft, Bridewell prison. On January 5, 1825, Ann was transferred from Bridewell into the House of Refuge. She was, at that point, twelve years old. Ann remained at the House until 1830, when she aged out of the program and was moved back into the Almshouse as a "hopeless subject."54 In the interim, she escaped or attempted escape from the House continually, stole, injured a teacher with a knife, and was almost consistently defiant. At last record, she had left the Almshouse, collected several other women who had been delinquents with her in the House, and, together with these House veterans, started her own brothel. In sum, Ann was not reformed.
The process of Ann's nonreformation as it was recorded by superintendents Joseph Curtis and N. C. Hart was a process of trying and failing to find a medium of communication.55 Most pressingly, the records come as an attempt to make Ann's body into the point of contact for her subjectivity, against her considerable resistance. The unusually lengthy first entry of the Superintendent's remarks, written twelve days after her entry to the house in the log portion of her profile, for example, offers a miniature drama of refusal on Ann's part to be involved in the House's discipline. The Superintendent describes the event: [End Page 321]
She is the most refractory of all the girls she appeared to treat the repeated admonitions with indifference, and as if to [illegible] whether she could receive any but pleasant words her conduct during most of the day bespoke a total indifference to all that was said to her; in private (before tea) she would not give the least appearance that she was disposed to do better, [I] found it necessary to chastise her as a child which she received with a degree of stubbornness to me surprising though she must have suffered much yet after she was seated there was no appearance of a tear or any irregularity in breathing Her reply to my first question was as clearly spoken, as full of temper as before she was corrected, after a few moments reflection, I found myself considerably exhausted I then found it necessary to give her solitary confinement. She went to Prison at 6 o'clock PM with much firmness of manner Shortly after I carried her 3 Blankets and made her bed not a word was spoken.56
This interaction comes in three waves. The first is purely discursive. At stake are "repeated admonitions," "pleasant words," and Ann's "total indifference to all that was said to her," whether praise or criticism. Ann does reciprocate, though, in her meeting with the Superintendent through her entirely clear and forthright refusal to change her behavior; she is honest about her intention to remain unruly. After talking fails, the Superintendent turns from words to action—asserting his authority over her body by "chastis[ing] her as a child," a euphemism for corporal punishment that emphasizes the body as a source of influence for subjects seen as underdeveloped in reason. Finally, the corporal punishment having failed to subdue Ann's speech, all attempts at verbal communication are cut off ("not a word was spoken"), and the Superintendent reduces the demonstration of his authority to his control over her physical experience by isolating her in prison.
I also want to pause, however, on the specific moment of failed corporal punishment in this anecdote and suggest that its ability to leave the Superintendent "considerably exhausted"—and thereby to turn the record's scrutiny fleetingly back on it author—represents a crucial moment of disjuncture in the attempted socialization of Ann. As I have mentioned, under Foucauldian models, the disciplined body acts as a means of inventing an inner self or soul, with materiality acting as the immanent medium on and through which power can operate. What the author encounters in Ann, though, seems to be a body that itself has not been [End Page 322] socialized to respond to discipline. Though the Superintendent imagines from his experience of bodies that Ann "must have suffered much," she shows none of the bodily signs that would have let him interpret her pain, for as he marvels, "there was no appearance of a tear or any irregularity in breathing." Unsurprisingly, without Ann's body as a point of contact, her posture toward the House, and her "temper" at the Superintendent, remain unchanged. Instead, it is the Superintendent who is left apparently shaken and in need, as he writes, of "a few moments reflection" by the paradox of corporal punishment's effect on a subject whose physical body appears unruly. The regularity of Ann's breath has itself become an element of her moral deviance, not because it reflects any specific vice but because it marks the Superintendent's utter failure to engage anything other than the body.
The lesson that Ann learns in her time at the House and the height of her improvement lies, in fact, in constructing a wall between her intentions and her outward comportment. At her best, Ann's profile presents her as having tricked her observers into optimism. Only two notes of more than two dozen show approval of Ann, one noting that she has "recently made profession of a religious nature which gave us much encouragement" and the other, more ambivalently, observes she "now and then evince[s] . . . a disposition to do well."57 The case history, however, describes both her religious awakening and more general wish to improve as diversions and false signs that prove utterly useless in predicting Ann's future behavior. In each case, the entry that signals hope also includes its disappointment. Her religion is quickly submerged in "her strong propensity to evil" such that "she again becomes ugly and troublesome," and the entry that observes her occasional improvement in disposition declares that she would always "again break forth in wickedness" and comments, almost passingly, that her "last very bad act was in stealing the matron's sweetmeats, and plotting to burn the female house."58 Where, in most cases, arson plots alone are enough to justify an entry in the log (which is not to suggest that they were especially rare), for Ann, the case is extreme enough that they become merely anecdotal evidence of an incorrigibility that is much broader than any set of acts alone. After this latter entry, the record stops for two years, resuming only to recount the aftermath of Ann's departure from the House, as if stymied entirely by her recalcitrance. In fact, Ann's education lies entirely in this improved ability to perform a mode of sociability that she does not feel, moving from an unrepentance that permeated speech, body, and putatively mind into an unrepentance that could be kept temporarily apart [End Page 323] from her external behaviors and sheltered in a version of selfhood that remained illegible.
Perhaps an even more pointed example of the anxiety surrounding the unstable signification of child bodies comes in the profile of Samuel Slowly, who was admitted in 1826 at the age of fourteen. Unlike Ann, Samuel was criminalized without having committed criminal acts of any kind, entering the House solely because his father took Samuel to be committed to avoid supporting him.59 The first portion of his stay in the House is, accordingly, low profile. The first note made under "Remarks" records Samuel's indenture away a little less than five months after his arrival, suggesting that he was found to be in no need of major reform. The profile takes a sharp turn, however, after it records Samuel's escape from his indenture and his eventual recapture by police, because the Samuel who returns is markedly different from the one who had left. The Superintendent marvels at the scenes caused by Samuel's arrival:
His appearance was very excentric—his hair long—his movement much like a female &c.—He states that he left his Master Mr. Mappa in Girl's clothing to avoid detection—served better than a year in the country in the capacity of a Girl—came to the City in the same habelement—some however judged that he was a Morphredite [sic]—and whenever he appeared in the Streets, let his apparel be what it might, he was mobbed by boys &c. so strong was the impression that he was neither male nor female by the remarks of the boys in the Yard,—that means was taken to ascertain the fact,—when lo, he was a man—but had practiced to put on female airs in walk &c.—so much that he still in walk &. carries the appearance to this day [sic].60
Samuel returns to the House physically changed, but the Superintendent is hard-pressed to locate the precise nature of the change. The most he can do is to list—"hair," "movement," "walk"—but his frequent refrain of the catchall "&c." in this short paragraph suggests his difficulty in finding exactly what it is that signifies Samuel's gender as female. Foiled by appearance, he turns to anatomy as the ultimate arbiter of identity, recasting the mob assaults of Samuel, which he also reports as incessantly repeated, into a singular moment of discovery building to a dramatic apostrophe, "lo, he was a man." Of course, the physical conclusion itself was a foregone one. As a former inmate, Samuel's anatomy would have almost certainly already been known to House officials. However, the [End Page 324] insistence on returning to the body to settle what had already been an officially settled question, whether Samuel was to be treated as male or female, appears as an attempt to manage the fact that Samuel's body has also learned to be female so thoroughly that, even after a seemingly definitive conclusion, the Superintendent circles back to the femininity that continues to mystify him.
Whether Samuel saw their disguise as an opportunity to express a gender identity which had to be otherwise hidden or strictly as a convenient way to avoid arrest is beside the point because what is threatening about the incident from the Superintendent's vantage is the impossibility of resolving that question. One way or another, Samuel's body has ceased to be a stable expression of Samuel's identity. Even the noun provided to name this gender indeterminacy, "Morphredite" (a colloquial variant on "morphodite," itself a variant of "hermaphrodite"), is a hazy assignment of an already unstable signifier rather than any stable pathology or a taxonomy. Etymologically, too, the label is apt. "Morphredite" sheds its ties to the classical namesake suggested by "hermaphrodite" and instead takes up a closer association to the Greek "-morph," a suffix which would normally indicate a formal similarity to the thing named by the first portion of the word. Without this first element to anchor the suffix to a particular thing, however, "morphredite" signals the purely formal, suggesting the recognition that a structure or order exists, while giving no sign as to what that organizing principle might be. To mark Samuel as a morphredite, then, is to record a form of subjectivity which eludes other understanding; the Samuel of House records is coherent but not recognizable.
The Superintendent's greatest frustration, though, comes not in spectacular failures like Ann's recidivism or Samuel's femininity, where there is at least a narrative to the failed reformation, but in those cases where he realizes his inability to describe at all. A persistent rhetoric emerges across the first five years of the House's records in which, rather than characterizing the most difficult children, the Superintendent collapses into tautology. Entries declaring, often in full, that "John is John still," "Wesley is Wesley still," and "Alfred is Alfred still" are less description than they are abdication of description: when past entries struggle to set down just what John, Wesley, and Alfred were like, such notes add nothing but temporal duration to the portrait.61 Similarly, to move from a portrait of Sarah Doxey that describes her as having "a curious combination in conduct and disposition" in that "sometimes she is as good a girl as can be wished" but "at other times she is disagreeable and stubborn and but little dependence can be placed upon her" into the [End Page 325] plain declaration that "Sarah is about Sarah still" is an abbreviation, not a change in meaning.62 The latter is the only reliable thing to be said about a girl who is sometimes one way and sometimes entirely different. Where external signs promised to be symbols of an inner self, these tautologies suggest a collapse of this relay. To be Sarah has a particular meaning, but the Superintendent has no insight into the content of that meaning beyond that particularity. Her behavior can be documented endlessly, but nothing like the portrait of a private self can be gleaned from that data. As result, the Superintendent cannot have the slightest assurance that a moment's good behavior is an internalized improvement rather than either a calculated ploy or just a fluke. Because the House cannot construct a knowable version of Sarah's self, it certainly cannot hope to reform that self into a lawful citizen.
As a result, the language of individual progress, that ideal bildungsroman of growth into conformity which would signal institutional success, instead lapses into stasis. Tautology, by definition, cannot develop into anything but itself, and bureaucracy takes on something very near despair as it struggles to manage such records like those for Peter McKeaman, a boy sent to the House in early 1828 at the age of ten for petty theft and vagrancy, for whom sequential entries read:
March 31, 1831—Peter is about Peter still
October 27, 1831—I hardly know what to say about Peter—he affords but little hope,—no confidence can be placed in his word, gets clear of all the labour he can by dishonesty—wrestless in his disposition, forward in his manners—and on the whole we have to hold him with a curb bit as to government, to keep him any way tolerable.
Sep. 10, 1833—Peter is about Peter still63
The imposition of dates seeks to corral the profile into an appropriate temporality, dutifully insisting that two and a half years have elapsed, but the content of those remarks suggests strongly that something other than the linear time of calendars is at work. Peter at sixteen is indistinguishable from Peter at thirteen, and Peter at thirteen equally seems alike to the eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old Peter described in his biography as having denied his "roguery so innocently" to the judge that he was twice let off from jail. Peter seems to be at once a fixed point in the history of the House and a figure who defies any stable description; the Superintendent has "but little hope" for the future, while also "hardly [End Page 326] know[ing] what to say" about the present. Peter cannot grow up because he cannot be known well enough for officials to notice a change, and, severed from the potential for an eventual maturity, he loses his claim to childishness as well. Paradoxically, the categories of delinquency present him as a subject removed from age itself, stranded in a persistent exclusion.
That is, the grounding assumption of the House's disciplinary regime is that, by constant monitoring and correction of the body, the child's character may be formed, monitored, and corrected. Delinquents such as Ann and Samuel, however, present bodies that explicitly need socialization before they can become intelligible to others and, in the process, learn to trick observers into thinking they have more insight than they do. Ann, whose body is displayed as horrifyingly unresponsive to violence when it fails to provide the tears and labored breathing that the Superintendent demands, must gradually learn to present a face of strategic remorse. Perhaps even more unsettlingly to the House's taxonomies, the fugitive Samuel retrains a previously masculine posture into a feminine one as a disguise from surveillance, leaving it unclear whether a "reform" back to that previous masculinity would be anything but another disguise. The putative correspondence between body and character, which had made it possible for the House to imagine reforming children by changing their environment and dictating their routines, became a tool for inmates to foil observation. The idea that one can act one way and feel another is hardly unique to delinquency, but to consider children simultaneously as having been born outside of social norms and as capable of this deception is to accept that there may never be full understanding of the children being raised. Even the best-behaved child threatens incorrigibility if external behavior can be a ruse rather than a stable reflection of their inner self.
This sense of inaccessibility, in turn, breeds a feeling that incorrigible delinquents are entirely and perpetually unpredictable in their actions. If good behavior might be calculated to deceive, then past action is no sign of the future. Thus, the Superintendent often returns to his fears that inmates who reform do so only when an authority is watching. Of James Bennett, for instance, he writes that "perhaps we never had a much more hopeless case but by preserving with strict discipline of every variety, that appeared rational for several months, he begins to be afraid, however of nothing but punishment."64 Charles Wright, too, an inmate repeatedly beaten for trying to climb over the House walls, is damningly set down for good behavior so strategic that it cannot be [End Page 327] believed, for, as the Superintendent frets, "the whole of his conduct appears to be governed by policy."65 The improvement in Charles's behavior is no sign of an increased willingness to follow House rules, for the Superintendent speculates that he is "afraid . . . of nothing but punishment" and that, in fact, "he has never lost sight of his former propensity for escaping."66 The practical effect of guarding subjects like Charles and James who were "governed by policy" or "afraid . . . of nothing but punishment" is to mandate keeping punishment constantly present, so that the like-reformed behavior, however insincere, also remains present. Hypersurveillance is the only response to a prisoner who always needs watching. The apparent common sense of this policy, however, stems from incorrigibility's particular production of an unknowable subject. By failing to provide a deeper self for the House to monitor, incorrigible delinquents are excluded from the more common narrative of internalizing and reproducing an external force and remain instead in the stage of needing a constant monitor.
Trajectories of Incorrigible Lives
If incorrigibility sounds like a frustration of power on any level higher than the personal temper of the Superintendent, its longer-term effects suggest that any temporary victory came at a high price. Most obviously, delinquents treated as incorrigible tended to be incarcerated at the House for far longer, because officials had no legal recourse for expelling unredeemable inmates. They were allowed to send inmates deemed physically unable to work away to the Almshouse, and there are hints that the House may have used this outlet to expel at least a few troublesome children.67 Given the number of successful escapes from indenture as well, it is tempting to suspect that some of the runaway apprentices were pursued harder than others. In general, though, without set sentences, inmates had to be held until they were no longer delinquent, whether because they had reformed enough to be indentured or because they had aged out of the category. When they did leave, the category of incorrigibility channeled inmates' lives along tracks which, although deeply gendered, prepetuated the marginal status and persistent vulnerability of all inmates.
Men had the most defined path for leaving the House. The labeling of male inmates as incorrigible may have kept them from entering many of the more skilled professions, but as a group believed to need constant force, they were primed to enter into the whaling industry's system of coerced labor. Whaling became a place of last resort to warehouse delinquent [End Page 328] boys who were held to be unfit for other professions. A sampling of these dismissals gives a sense how commonly and how unvaryingly boys were written off from the House as well as from freedoms which life on land more generally provided:
Isaac is an unstable and wickedly disposed Boy and I think will never do for anything out of the House but a Whaling Voyage68
He's a smart boy, but deep—little can be said as to his state of mind, we fear that he will not stay anywhere, except on board a 3 year voyage69
In the Boy there is nothing special he is rather inclined to vagrancy than otherwise. We hope that the advantage of a good long voyage will help him70
We fear James will ruin himself. Nothing more can be done for him if returned, except sending him a [sic] Whaling voyage71
Edward became unmanageable by his Master, who in consequence sent him a [sic] whaling voyage72
The most popular destination for troublesome male inmates, whaling in many ways offered a close approximation of House conditions for incorrigible subjects believed never to have matured into a larger scope of freedom. With open ocean substituting for the walls of the House, shipboard indentures prevented the escapes frequent in the countryside, while the beatings that had forced submission from inmates continued as floggings onboard. The concordance, however, reads in both ways. The whaling industry suited the beliefs of House officials that incorrigible delinquents could not be self-controlled agents, but the House's production of a set of young men eligible for unfree labor also fueled whaling with a body of men that it could justify coercing into work. Whipping a negligent sailor might have been seen at best as unfortunate necessity, but whipping an incorrigible delinquent into productive citizenship was public service—an early and casual privatization of penal reform enabled by incorrigibility's pathologies.
For incorrigible girls, adulthood held still fewer options. Without a profession available to women that held equivalent recourse to the bare force and strictures of whaling, they were largely left to struggle haphazardly to find a place outside the House. The records of women who left unreformed thus are slipshod and patchy. The assumed fate for those who did age out was that, one way or another, they would eventually end up in institutions that were the adult equivalent of the House. Hence one [End Page 329] inmate, Sally Ann Kingsland, is sent off with the note that "We fear the Refuge has done her no good—and that she will fetch up at Bridewell or the penitentiary [sic]."73 Many female inmates have records describing their lives after the House, but many more slip out of the archive. Euphemisms such as having "returned to her former habits" or being "back on the Town" obscure the precise fate of women who might be surviving off hidden economies such as sex work and theft or be engaged in a relationship outside of marriage or more generally be living in a way not legible to the Superintendent. Precise fates seemed to matter less when subjects neither qualified for legal positions in the market nor fell back into the reach of record-keeping institutions.
The final blow of incorrigibility is thus to isolate those lives it has touched and cut them out of history. The judgment that persons were fundamentally sealed off from the other lives around them was also a judgment that to be incorrigible was to be external, exceptional, and forgettable as minor flukes of a system that bears no responsibility for their condition. This erasure is already at play in the archives dedicated to amassing delinquent histories. Even a cursory reading of House records can feel like an exercise in superlatives: each bad case contends to be the worst, wickedest, and most hopeless case that the House has ever had the misfortune of seeing. Where this hyperbole at first individuates its objects by making them at least remarkable in their shortcomings, by the fourth, fifth, or tenth extreme, these worsts of the worst begin to blur together. The rhetoric of each individual profile argues that that the case is too unusual to represent any larger whole, but the repetition of singularities builds its own collective of children raised to be left out. [End Page 330]
Laura Soderberg is a visiting assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall. Her current project, "Vicious Infants': Antisocial Childhoods and the Politics of Population in Antebellum U.S. literature," examines the intersections among childhood, race, and early American conceptions of population. Her work has previously been published in American Literature and Social Text.
1. For a discussion of feral child narratives in their European context, see Julia V. Douthwaite, The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). For a discussion of the influence that stories of feral children would have as an ideal for American boyhood in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Kenneth B. Kidd, Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
2. See William Blackstone, St George Tucker, and Edward Christian, Blackstone's Commentaries: With Notes of Reference, to the Constitution and Laws, of the Federal Government of the United States; and of the Commonwealth of Virginia, vol. 4 (Philadelphia: W.Y. Birch, and A. Small, R. Carr, 1803), 11.
3. See, for instance, the 1826 Assembly Act founding the Pennsylvania House of Refuge and authorizing it to commit children indefinitely for "incorrigible and vicious conduct," and the 1838 case Ex parte Crouse, confirming the already extent practice of doing so without the extension of habeas corpus.
4. "The Fundamental Ideas of Geometry," Yale Literary Magazine (New Haven, CT: Herrick & Noyes, 1847): 193–96.
5. For an overview of the philosophical concept, see George Nakhnikian, "Incorrigibility," The Philosophical Quarterly 18, no. 72 (1968): 207–215. For more recent philosophical debate of these questions, see Annalisa Coliva, ed., The Self and Self-Knowledge (New York: Oxford Univesity Press, 2012).
6. Richard Briggs Stott, Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City (Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 71.
7. Walter D. Kamphoefner, The Westfalians: From Germany to Missouri (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 84.
8. For a discussion of the legal details of this transition, see James D. Schmidt's "'Restless Movements Characteristic of Childhood': The Legal Construction of Child Labor in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts," Law and History Review 23, no. 2 (2005): 315–50.
9. Laura Leavitt, "Orphan Trains," in The World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey, ed. Hugh D. Hindman (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2009), 464.
10. Timothy A. Hacsi, Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 19–21.
11. Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville seized on this point as a proof of the benevolent, educational value of the House. See Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States: And Its Application in France; with an Appendix on Penal Colonies, and Also, Statistical Notes (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833), 112.
12. For a discussion of individualization in Houses of Refuge and in antebellum prisons more broadly, see Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). For context on juvenile justice's historical consideration of child character, see Holly Brewer, "Understanding Intent: Children and the Reform of Guilt and Punishment," By Birth or Consent (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 181–230.
13. David J. Rothman, Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1971), 262.
14. New York House of Refuge, Inmate Case Histories, 1824–1935, A2064, vol. 1, microfilm roll 1, New York State Archives, Albany, NY, October 3. 2013.
15. In framing how antebellum Americans attempted to guide interactions with children, I read from five popular domestic manuals discussing the methods of correct parenting. Four of these are products of roughly contemporary American writers and were originally published in either Massachusetts or New York: Amos Bronson Alcott's Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction (1830), Lydia Maria Child's The Mother's Book (1831), Heman Humphrey's Domestic Education (1840), and John A. Gere's The Government of Children (1851). The fifth, John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education, is an obvious outlier geographically and temporally, but despite its English origin and 1693 publication, Locke's work had a considerable afterlife shaping American attitudes about childhood. See Gillian Brown, The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). I here group him with US manuals to preserve the ongoing use of Locke to address immediate questions of child rearing.
16. John Neal, "Children—What are They?," in The Genius of John Neal: Selections from his Writings, ed. Benjamin Lease and Hans-Joachim Lang (Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1977), 193. Neal's essay is perhaps an extreme instance of the concern that the body could not provide a transparent window to the self, but its first incarnation was published in at least six periodicals, including papers as respectable as The Ladies Companion and Brother Jonathan, is echoed in a related piece by Neal on childhood in 1843 even more directly called " Little Monsters," and was eventually slightly modified into the leading essay of an 1870 Neal book titled Great Mysteries and Little Plagues. There was evidently a certain demand for replacing the angelic child with the potentially undetectable criminal.
17. Ibid., 189.
18. Ibid., 192.
19. For this longer history of delinquency, see Brewer's "Understanding Intent," By Birth or Consent.
20. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 85.
21. For scholarship on the use of childhood to enforce straightness, see Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Elizabeth Freeman's Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Lauren Berlant's The Queen of American Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997). For an intersectional critique of Edelman's reading, see José Muñoz's Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009). For discussion of the mutually constitutive relationship of sentimental childhood and white supremacy, see Robin Bernstein's Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Anna Mae Duane's Suffering Childhood in Early America: Violence, Race and the Making of the Child Victim (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010); and Caroline Levander's Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. DuBois (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
22. A major exception to this being the growing body of work on black girlhood. For a recent, nineteenth-century– focused example, see Nazera Sadiq Wright's Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016). For a broader overview of the growth of this field overall, see "The History of Black Girlhood: Recent Innovations and Future Directions" by Corinne T. Field, Tammy-Charelle Owens, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, Abosede George, and Rhian Keyse in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 9, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 383–401.
23. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Hackett Publishing Company, 1996), 10.
24. Ibid., 12.
25. Ibid., 20.
26. Ibid., 18, 22.
27. Heman Humphrey, Domestic Education (Amherst, MA: J. S. & C. Adams, 1840), 42.
28. Lydia Maria Child, The Mother's Book (New York: C. S. Francis, Boston, J. H. Francis, 1844), 4.
29. Ibid., 4.
30. Humphrey, Domestic Education, 61.
31. Amos Bronson Alcott, Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction (Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830), 5.
32. Child, The Mother's Book, 1.
33. John A. Gere, The Government of Children (New York: Lane & Scott, 1851), 59.
34. Ibid., 59–60.
35. Ibid., 82.
36. Ibid., 59.
37. Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 113.
38. Ibid., 54.
39. Moreover, this invocation of slavishness in the context of child rearing would have registered as more than incidental rhetoric to its US readers. As Richard Brodhead has argued, there was a general shift in discourse around corporal punishment, particularly the language of whipping, that made it inextricable from the violence of plantation slavery. Locke's turn to the slave, already more than metaphor at the time it was written, would have appeared in the antebellum period as an especially pointed instruction for how to preserve the democratic mindset, and tacit whiteness, of a potential citizen. See Richard Brodhead, "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America," Representations 21 (1988): 67–96.
40. Child, The Mother's Book, 36; emphasis in the original.
41. Ibid., 37.
42. Humphrey, Domestic Education, 60.
43. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture (J. Munroe, 1835), 145.
44. Child, The Mother's Book, 37.
45. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House LLC, 1977), 11.
46. The institution would not officially open until January 1, 1825, but then Superintendent Joseph Curtis began mustering and profiling the first group of inmates shortly before that date.
47. "Second Annual Report, &c.," Documents Relative to House of Refuge Instituted by The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in the City of New-York in 1824, ed. Nathaniel Hart (New York: Mahlon Day, 1832), 25.
48. "Art. Iii.—Houses of Refuge and Reformation," Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (1845–1856), April 1854, 75.
49. Hart, Documents, 84–85.
50. Qtd. in John Sergeant, An Address Delivered Before the Citizens of Philadelphia, at the House of Refuge, on Saturday, the Twenty ninth of November, 1828 (Philadelphia: Jesper Harding, 1828), 39–40.
51. Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States, 111.
52. The Design and Advantages of the House of Refuge (Philadelphia: Brown, Bicking, and Guilbert, 1840), 4.
53. The organizational layout of these documents requires an unorthodox citation method. To preserve specificity, I have cited first with the relevant case number and then, when relevant, with the date of the cited remark.
54. New York House of Refuge Inmate Case Histories, Inmate 5, August 15, 1830. All subsequent citations are to this archive of case histories.
55. Curtis resigned as superintendent in 1826 and was succeeded by N. C. Hart, who remained in the position until 1837. Because the two held converging attitudes regarding delinquency, and to highlight the institutional nature of their narrative voice, I refer to the author of a given entry by title rather than personal name. For more on the transition and on the distinctions between Curtis's and Hart's philosophies, see Negley Teeters, "The Early Days of the Philadelphia House of Refuge," Philadelphia History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 27, no. 2 (April 1960): 165–87.
56. New York House of Refuge Inmate Case Histories, Inmate 5, January 17, 1825.
57. September 31, 1825; August 1, 1828.
59. This type of immurement for entirely financial reasons was technically against the original spirit of the institution but was not especially unusual—for John A. Mead, for example, the Superintendent ponders, "I rather think this boy has been sent here in consequence of the poverty of his mother" (see Inmate 214; December 2, 1826)—and following the 1838 Pennsylvania case Ex parte Crouse, children who had not committed crimes could still be imprisoned as delinquents if their parents were judged to be unfit guardians.
60. Inmate 138, April 5, 1831.
61. Inmate 385, October 27, 1831; Inmate 454, June 11, 1828; Inmate 323, February 1, 1828.
62. Inmate 116, January [n.d.] 1828, October 15, 1830.
63. Inmate 400.
64. Inmate 442, December 11, 1828.
65. Inmate 69, April 16, 1826.
66. Inmate 69, April 16, 1826.
67. I refer here chiefly to the suggestive case of James Dillon, a boy whose record consists of two remarks. The first, made two months after his entrance to the House, declares him "the most extraordinary we have yet to deal with" and "in every respect disobedient and disrespectful," despite multiple beatings, so that he was eventually sent to the main prison to subdue him (see Inmate 55, June 16, 1825). After an unusually long period of two and half years without any documentation, the silence is broken by an abrupt declaration that James is "an unfit subject" due to "Epileptic fits" and has been sent off to the Alms House.
68. Inmate 136, January [n.d.] 1828.
69. Inmate 416, April 24, 1829.
70. Inmate 35, March 14, 1825.
71. Inmate 78, December 12, 1828.
72. Inmate 80, December 12, 1828.
73. Inmate 45, April 8, 1825.