For a punishment to attain its end, the evil which it inflicts has only to exceed the advantage derivable from the crime; in this excess of evil one should include the certainty of punishment and the loss of good which the crime might have produced.

All beyond this is superfluous and for that reason tyrannical.

—Cesare Beccaria, On Crime and Punishments (1764).

IV. Joseph Curtis, First Superintendent of the New York House of Refuge (1824–26)

Although desirous of getting the House of Refuge under way as soon as possible, the managers of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents faced unavoidable delays. Before the Superintendent and his family could move in, the barracks purchased from the United States government required extensive rearrangement, and the officers’ quarters particularly needed renovation. Faced with these delays, the managers postponed the official opening of the institution to January 1, 1825.

The selection of the first Superintendent posed few such problems. Joseph Curtis, an intense businessman, immediately volunteered his services. Curtis’ decision to take on the post meant the willing sacrifice of a lucrative position as superintendent of James P. Allaire’s successful firm for the more trying task of ministering to young delinquents. The new job paid $1,000 annually.1 A less righteous man would have refused it.

Joseph Curtis, however, felt at home in his new mission, for benevolent activities of this type filled his life. Although not originally a Quaker, his marriage into a family of Friends had converted him to their views on life. Engaging in their various projects seemed to fulfill a need for Curtis. He cherished affiliations with almost every philanthropic organization in the city. Now, he welcomed the new enterprise as an opportunity to further expand the range of his philanthropic influence. Curtis never limited his sympathies, but ministered constantly to all those who surrounded him. When he took over as the first Superintendent of the new House of Refuge, Curtis envisioned the utilization of the humane methods developed by European reformers. He had read Cesare Beccaria and Johann Pestalozzi and was eager to test their theories. Also, Curtis thought of the new institution as an opportunity to pour out his own love for humanity upon a portion of the population which he felt had never known any.

Late in 1824, with the fullest intention of conducting a benevolent regime, Curtis, his family beside him, arrived at the officers’ quarters of the old arsenal. A young girl, having no home of her own, came with them. On January 1, 1825, the doors of the institution opened and Curtis met his first problem. While the police delivered seven waifs at the front door, the girl who had been living with the Curtis family escaped out through the back, taking with her a “fine Pea Jacket” owned by the assistant keeper.2 Already, the benevolent rule of Joseph Curtis seemed threatened. Curtis went looking for the girl. Four days later, he finally found her in the Bridewell. She, along with the other seven, became the first “inmates” of the little institution.

Curtis soon found a vast gap between what he had envisioned as the ideals of Pestalozzi and Beccaria and the realities of his own establishment. To certain boys, kindness and verbal reprimands seemed to mean nothing. One boy had been admonished until it had lost its intended effect. Curtis resolved that “if good and pleasant words would not answer, then he could be harsh as any other father.”3 Four days after Curtis had first substituted harsh punishment for kindness, he had to correct another boy. The youngster used improper language in the presence of the girls; Curtis made sure that in the future the boy would know “better.” The fact that the boy had never known any other than “improper” language apparently had not occurred to Curtis.

As Alderman Burtis had predicted earlier, the security of the institution proved to be one of the Superintendent’s greatest problems. While Curtis dined and his assistant supervised the inmates, two boys seized a long plank and vaulted over the north wall. Their effort, however, brought them little reward; a city marshal soon hustled the pair back to the Refuge. Curtis promptly imprisoned them, one in a solitary cell, and the other in the hayloft. All through January, Curtis’ little charges kept up their activities. The boy in the hayloft chewed off his “Toecloth” handcuffs and escaped. Two other boys also managed to get away, jimmying a window with a piece of iron while Curtis was at tea.

Although he found it contrary to his convictions, Curtis increasingly adopted severe modes of punishment. The boy who had escaped from the hayloft was brought back by his stepfather, and Curtis wasted no time in clapping the boy in irons and placing him in a cell. Youngsters of this sort severely vexed the benevolently inclined Superintendent. When Curtis had first received the hayloft occupant, the boy was only thirteen years old. His criminal career, however, had already been under way for a number of years. His own father dead for a long time, the boy’s mother had married a “stage actor.”4 Although only nine years old at the time, the boy soon began to steal. In company with an older boy, he had robbed a grocery store and had stolen innumerable items from other places. On one occasion, the pair made off with five shirts, two sheets, two handkerchiefs, four neckerchiefs, two pairs of pantaloons, one coat, and a vest; they sold the lot to a man living on Market Street.

Sensing that the boy was headed for a career of crime, his parents sent him to an out-of-town boarding school. This interlude, however, allayed his newfound joys for only a short time. Three months after he arrived, the boy stole a watch from a “stingy old fellow living close by the school” and ran off to New York to join with a group of young thieves.

The New York City police spotted him soon after his arrival. They detected the boy, in the company of another youngster of the same age, stealing a piece of broadcloth. The police promptly placed both boys in the city penitentiary for a period of six months. When they completed the sentence, Alderman Burtis sent them to live with a basketmaker at Pound Ridge. This proved less successful than the boarding school. While the family attended church, the two youngsters went on a spree of vandalism. They broke all the chairs and crockery, burned the baskets and splints, broke windows, threw water all over the floor, and destroyed the recently cooked food in the kitchen. After thus desecrating the house, the boys “cleared out for New York.”

Since yellow fever raged in the district in which the boy’s mother lived, he took up residence elsewhere, living part of the time with the other boy’s parents and part of the time with “a colored man” in a cellar on Catherine Street. Yellow fever greatly assisted the boys in their new operations. A number of houses lay ready for plunder because their occupants had fled. Taking advantage of the situation, the boys broke into a house on Broadway, pilfered a batch of brass rods, and sold them to a broker for “11/6.” The following day, they entered a house on Greenwich Street, but this time their luck failed them; some dockbuilders seized the young rascals and trotted them off to the police. They were brought before the Court of Sessions and sentenced to the city penitentiary for eighteen months.

After the sentence expired, Burtis placed the boy with a person outside of the city, but he ran away again. This time he went to his mother’s home, but soon tiring of the lack of activity, he returned to the cellar on Catherine Street. While “boarding” there, he and another boy used the place as a center of operations and a hiding place for their booty. They went abroad at night, raiding grocery stores and stealing items from the patrons of theaters and circuses. One day, Captain Clark of the city police force, accompanied by a marshal, came to search the cellar for stolen goods. Fumbling about in the darkness, they summoned the boy to fetch a candle. He fled.

In a few days, however, the lad was back on the scene, stealing sheets of copper, rope, smoked beef, razors, and pen knives. Anything he could touch, he stole and sold to the man who lived in the cellar. One day during this stage of his career, the police found the boy and sent him to the newly opened House of Refuge.

Delinquent girls, even more than boys, vexed the Superintendent. One twelve-year-old girl named Ann particularly exasperated Curtis. Her father had enlisted in the army at the time of her birth, and her mother, a working woman, had not even heard from the fellow for three years.5 During the first years of her life, Ann was passed from one relative to another, and she and her sister often spent their waking hours in the streets. One day when the two girls were playing about, they were taken to the Almshouse and “put to live” with a stranger. Ann remained there for four months before returning to her mother in the fall of 1824. While living with her mother, she joined a company of girls whose chief occupation was “picking up chips off the streets,” a practice which Curtis and Griscom had tried to curtail some time before. Ann also spent a great deal of her time “running about the Docks, stealing sugar, coffee, and tea, and selling it to the Market women.” Some days she obtained as much as two dollars in this manner. Ann spent her evenings running about the streets and obtaining money from various men.

Ann committed her first “robbery” in company with three other girls. They found an inebriated old man in the park and “offered to go with him.” While he feverishly worked himself up with licentious thoughts, the girls busily divested him of his purse. Once this was accomplished, they ran off down the street. Ann’s share of the booty amounted to eleven dollars. She spent the most of it on clothes and food and gave the remainder to her mother, saying that she had found it in the street.

A week after this episode, Ann joined several cohorts for a new adventure. This time, they spotted a “country merchant.” The girls sent the boy in their group to inquire as to whether the fellow “wanted a girl.” He replied with an emphatic “Yes.” They then led him to a deserted building on Warren Street and while he engaged himself with one of the girls, Ann systematically rifled his discarded trousers.

The proceeds from the encounter amounted to about two hundred dollars, but the youngsters never got a chance to spend it. City marshals descended upon them and hustled them before the police. The police confiscated the money and packed the youngsters off to the Bridewell for a few days.

A week later, fresh from the Bridewell, Ann, her sister, and two other children “fell in with an old man” on Broadway. He followed them to Church Street. There, “under the wall of St. Paul’s churchyard,” they filched his purse and ran off into the darkness.

Ann knew many of the ways of womanly “wickedness.” She had gone to Eliza’s house of ill-fame in Theatre Alley a number of times. While there, Ann “accommodated” a number of men, charging her visitors sums ranging from two to twelve dollars. She also entered several stores on Sunday and at nights “for the purpose of having relations with different men.”

With this type of career behind her, the twelve-year-old girl entered the House of Refuge on January 1, 1825. The authorities brought her in under a charge of theft. While in attendance at a theater, Ann supposedly lifted a watch from the pocket of a theater-goer.

Faced with the task of subduing Ann, Curtis encountered a string of difficulties. “Repeated admonitions” had no effect.6 He finally spanked her, but even this brought little change in her conduct. She shed no tears and appeared totally unruffled. Curtis, however, had exhausted himself. He decided to put her in solitary confinement in the questionable hope that it would serve to break her spirit. Ann, however, resolutely went to her cell; when he carried in three blankets to her and made her bed, “not a word was spoken.” She had determined to show Curtis that she had no intentions of becoming docile.

The next day, Ann refused to eat and spent most of the day “singing, Hallowing, and pounding.” Finally, on the third day, she consented to eat, “in a manor [sic] that bespoke more her convenience than from any feeling.” This was the first food she had taken in a period of fifty-four hours. After eating, she “commenced shouting and crying again, keeping it up for three hours.” During her ranting, Ann “effected to represent herself as undergoing corporal punishment—at times she would call murder with the view as is believed of alarming the neighborhood which must have been heard to a considerable distance,” because of the stillness of the night. Noting with relief that she had calmed down, Curtis released her from confinement in the morning.

The remainder of the first month brought few quiet moments for Curtis. Every day he detected fresh signs of disorder, and punishment became the predominant theme of the institution. On January 25, “the most orderly day since the House opened,” Curtis handcuffed two boys and gave them the “side table,” a form of punishment which entailed eating in isolation.7 He informed the rest of the inmates that “they or another that spoke to them subjected themselves to punishment.” One of the boys put little stock in Curtis’ threat; less than an hour later, Curtis clamped irons on the boy and ordered him to the new shop building. Bound and stripped, the boy then got “a little to let him know what he might expect thereafter.”

On January 28, Curtis punished six boys and girls for violating the side-table laws. Somehow, it appeared that the side-table punishment of eating by oneself in silence created additional insubordination. He took the boys to a “Barrel,” lashed their feet to one side and hands to the other. With their pants removed, the boys thus presented “a convenient surfice [sic] for the operation of the 6 line cat.” While he administered the punishment, Curtis sorrowfully lectured the children to “help themselves” or he would be forced to help them “in a mannor [sic] not acceptable.”8

To prevent them from escaping, Curtis threatened the children with the prospect of solitary confinement. But this mode of punishment met with difficulties: the number of escapees waiting to be punished substantially exceeded the number of punishment cells. Curtis appealed to the managers and they directed him to build a six-cell prison. In the hope of preventing future escapes, they also provided for additional strengthening of the exterior walls of the institution.9

During this period, the managers began to realize that the everyday activities of the Refuge would require a small committee with authority to act for the committee of the whole and exercise surveillance over urgent matters. They designed the Acting Committee to meet this need. It contained a rotating membership of five men selected from the Board of Managers, the ultimate governing body. Detailed with the supervision of the day-to-day operation of the House of Refuge, the Acting Committee met much more frequently than the Board of Managers and served as intermediary between that body and the Superintendent. In February, the number of members was raised to seven.

Sensing that the punitive methods of Curtis were primarily negative in nature and noting that they appeared to be making little headway, the managers tried to insert a system of rewards into the Refuge program. With this in mind, the Acting Committee directed John Hyde and Robert Cornell to procure a set of badges for the children. The managers hoped that the badges would help to differentiate between those who were conforming to the Refuge regime and merited public approval, from those who insisted on resisting its discipline.10

In spite of all the attempts to prevent inmates from escaping, and even after the Acting Committee had installed their system of incentives, Curtis could not keep the children from running away. Escape was the major internal problem of the Refuge. One day, in desperation, Curtis took one of his most incorrigible escapees to the penitentiary and delivered him to Alderman Burtis. While there, the boy trudged out his “promised 6 miles on the stepping mill.”11

Almost in desperation, Curtis decided that the children might be more likely to accept a regime of punishment inflicted by themselves. He consequently set up a jury system.

We believe that many of the boys are disposed to do the things that are right, … were they not provoked by those who are restrained by fear only. We therefore to enable them to get rid of such company, have organized a court and trial by juror;—the jurors consist of 5 to be elected by themselves, before whom … charges of misconduct are to be stated, and they are to pass sentence.12

In late March, the proceedings of the jury began. The jury fined one boy “three blows … for leaving his work and playing.” They sentenced the same boy to 24 hours in solitary prison for using “indecent language.” The jurors gave a sentence of 48 more hours to him because he scared another youngster with a ghost story. In the eyes of the young jurors, ghost stories produced greater evils than curses.

Fortunately, Curtis did not have to confine all of his activities to punishment. Some of his time he used in the more pleasureable activity of giving rewards. He gave cake and coffee on Sunday mornings at 11 o’clock to those who had conducted themselves properly throughout the previous week. Also, any boy who had finished his work by Saturday afternoon could go for a swim on summer days. In addition, the boy could gain the right to an afternoon of freedom. If the boys abused such privileges and ran away, they could expect swift punishment, but if they returned on their own, Curtis forgave them.

Curtis tried to create an atmosphere favorable to the cultivation of the youngsters’ minds. During the long winter evenings, the children sang and told stories and Curtis often read to them. The works which he read were invariably gifts from various members of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. The managers intended these works, saturated with religious and moral teachings, to strengthen the character of the wayward urchins. John Pintard, for example, gave the Refuge a two-volume edition of Stearns Reflections on the Work of God with the request that the volumes “may be read to the children.” 13 As the youngsters sat around the long table, they plied the Superintendent with questions on various subjects. If they asked him enough questions, they could stay up later than usual.

For Curtis, the evening session fast became a favored time. He felt deeply satisfied when he could dispel the children’s fears about nature and religion. A rumor once circulated among the children that the world was coming to an end; Curtis quickly allayed their fears.

On one particular night there was to be a ring around the moon, and, sure enough, there was, and many began to fear. About eight o’clock that summer evening, he said, “My sons, you see that ring, as they have foretold. It denotes nothing to fear for those that do as well as they know how.” He talked kind and long till our fears departed.14

Curtis encouraged exercise as well as work and education. After awakening the boys in the morning, he usually formed them into a line and then challenged them all to a race. Although they ran as fast as they could, few boys could keep up with him. After this display of vigor, they all trooped into the house for breakfast. He also played baseball with the boys, helped them to make and fly kites, shoot marbles, and spin tops, but when the “hour for recreation was passed, the past familiarity was at once forgotten.”15 The time for obedience and escapes, if possible, had come.

Curtis and his colleagues of the Acting Committee expended a considerable amount of their energies during the early months of the year in attempting to carry out the program of reform which the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents had promised the public earlier. The inculcation of skills and habits of industry being a major feature of the plan, the managers first had to procure suitable employment and indentures for the children. The Acting Committee, attempting to meet this need, authorized Curtis to set up a straw factory for hats and baskets. The managers were eager to supply ideas as to how the children could be gainfully employed; President Cadwallader Colden suggested that Curtis obtain a vertical spinning machine as a useful device for training the youngsters.16 The first request for indenture came from Captain Anthony Moffat of the Julia. One of the boys agreed to sign on with Captain Moffat, and Moffat promised to take more if the youngster performed well. Josiah Williams, a farmer in Poughkeepsie, also agreed to take two children.17

People outside the city also applied for youngsters. Judge Ebenezer Foote of Delhi, one of Governor Clinton’s associates, requested “a black girl” to serve in his family. The managers complied, sending Diana, a thirteen-year-old girl, to remain with Judge and Mrs. Foote until her eighteenth birthday. Diana’s indenture was the first official contract negotiated by the Society. For his part of the bargain, the Judge agreed to give Diana “One Quarter Schooling in each year during the said term and a new suit of clothes … and a new Bible at the expiration thereof.”18

Shortly after they had already made provisions for the initial indentures, the committee members decided to systematize their operation. They delegated Alderman Burtis, now a member of the group, and Superintendent Curtis to draw up an indenture form. Isaac Collins read the completed form to the group on April 23, and they ordered 250 copies printed.

The Acting Committee and Curtis spent much of their time during this period parrying parental attacks. Suddenly realizing that the Society had usurped their parental rights and privileges, a number of parents petitioned for the return of their offspring. The incarceration of their children forced some to realize their obligations, and these parents, pleading for another opportunity, generally met with a favorable response. On the grounds that he had not been “guilty of any criminal offense; that they are desirous of giving him schooling, and will take more particular care of him than heretofore,” the parents of a boy named William applied for the discharge of their son.19 Two committee members, in order to “ascertain their characters and ability to govern the boy,” visited the youngster’s parents. After the visitation, the committee discharged the boy to their custody.

Occasionally, a child got into the House of Refuge without the knowledge of one or both parents. One father, on returning from the hinterland, found that his wife had committed his daughter during his absence. He went directly to the Refuge and requested her discharge. The committee examined the father and released the girl to him, admonishing him to send her to school and “pay attention to her morals.”20

Some parents officially challenged the authority of the Society. On one occasion, the managers were bested by a legal-minded sailmaker. The police had seized the sailmaker’s boy on April 20 and sent him to the House of Refuge as a vagrant. The boy’s father applied for his release four days later, but Curtis refused him. The irate father then went to the police justices and they, in turn, reversed their earlier stand and demanded the boy’s discharge. Curtis’ legal counsel advised him to retain the boy, only releasing him on the order of the Board of Managers or the Acting Committee. The father next managed to get the Recorder of the City to grant a writ of habeas corpus. Thus outflanked, the committee decided to retire graciously from the field. They conducted a cursory examination of the boy’s parents, decided they were fit to care for and instruct him, and released him.21 Although the managers thus suffered a momentary loss in legal power, they managed to cover the retreat; perhaps, the future might hold an opportunity for a recoup of authority.

The Acting Committee also spent a great deal of its time wrestling with financial matters. Deciding that the current facilities for the inmates were inadequate, the managers planned a more substantial dormitory. This expenditure, along with the expenses incurred in renovating the existing plant, made it necessary for the committee to conduct a drive for additional funds. The managers readied themselves for another appeal to the public.

Ordering the printing of five hundred copies of an address directed at the annual subscribers, the managers intended to inform the public concerning the salutary effect of the institution as well as its financial need. They invited subscribers to visit the Refuge where they could see for themselves “that idleness has been changed to industry, filth and rags to cleanliness and comfortable apparel, boisterous confidence to quick submission” and “vice and wretchedness” replaced by “usefulness and virtue.”22

In the midst of their fund-raising, the Acting Committee tried to tighten the operation of the institution as much as possible. As spring advanced, they turned a critical eye for the first time upon the Curtis administration. Although they commended him for his work and assured him that the continuance of runaways reflected in no way upon him, the Acting Committee grew continually uneasy with Curtis. Some indulged in the hope that the new building would help to eliminate the escape problem.

Part of the committees concern might well have come about as a result of the influx of a host of visitors to the institution. During the spring, the Refuge swarmed with visiting dignitaries. On May 9, Louis Dwight, the executive secretary of the American Prison Discipline Society, made a quick survey, and on May 21, a distinguished assemblage headed by Governor DeWitt Clinton, General Stephen Van Rensselaer, and Chancellor James Kent toured the establishment.23 The managers naturally wanted to keep their mistakes from showing; consequently, they suppressed their momentary discontent.

As the year progressed and the public became more familiar with the Refuge, confidence increased in its program. One parent, convinced that the Refuge system would help to straighten out his own child, joined the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents and requested the managers to take his boy. At a meeting of the Acting Committee, Peter Sharpe, one of the members of the committee, resolved that the man “on becoming a Life Subscriber to the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, and on the payment of 50 dollars, shall have permission to send his Son to the House of Refuge.” 24

Ever since the initiation of the program of juvenile reform, one group of delinquents had particularly vexed Curtis and his associates. Although their number was smaller, female delinquents posed greater problems for the managers than did their male counterparts. Ever since they had heard of the successful labors of Elizabeth Fry at Newgate Prison in London, the managers had sought unsuccessfully to interest some of their own women in similar labors. Due to the cloistered atmosphere in which the American female invariably lived and moved, they faced greater difficulties than their European counterparts. Nevertheless, the managers sensed that their efforts to reform unruly young girls would fall short of success until they managed to obtain feminine assistance. When a group of dedicated women, mostly Quakers and nearly all wives or sisters of the managers themselves, agreed to form a Ladies’ Committee, the managers experienced a measure of relief. During the late summer of 1825, the managers officially welcomed the ladies into the company of the Society on an auxiliary basis.25

The ladies viewed themselves primarily as caretakers of the morality and cleanliness of the girls. They had the task, they felt, of changing filthy little females into dignified and virtuous young ladies.

As far as opportunity offered we endeavored to improve the moment in conversation with those destitute females placed by the kind hand of Providence [the Police Justices and the Almshouse Commissioners] to this place of refuge, and while we are making our Feeble attempt may our Heavenly Father grant us his aid that we may be faithful … not only to their temporal but especially to their spiritual welfare.26

To encourage piety, the ladies instructed the girls to commit to memory as many scriptural verses as possible. The ladies then gave public recognition to those who memorized the most. If the girls were slovenly, however, the ladies reprimanded them and put them to work. No matter how many verses she might recite, the slattern could not get into the ladies’ good graces.

On certain occasions, the ladies occupied the time by delivering little sermons to the girls. At one such occasion, one of the committee discoursed “feelingly on the necessity of a preparation for death and mentioned the sudden decease of a religious child, and of her happy close.”27 The girls reportedly sat in rapt attention. By telling morbid little stories of premature death, the committee duplicated the pattern of story-telling which existed in many of their own households. The ideal figure of the pure, but deceased, little consumptive filled the pages of many of the women’s periodicals during the period and the ladies hoped to supply the wanton little girls with the same kind of example.

The ladies also tried to be on hand when a girl left the institution, particularly if she had shown signs of future good conduct. They could thus take advantage of a positive example. On hearing that one of the girls would soon be leaving and would be “placed in a suitable family … several hundred miles distant, and supposing it might be a final separation, and she having been a good girl, very industrious, cleanly in her habits, and keeping strictly to the Truth,” the Ladies took the opportunity to deliver a short talk on the rewards of virtue.28 After remarking upon her good behavior and admonishing the others to do likewise, they presented the girl with a “Bible, Tract, and pincushion, as little tokens of regard.”

Occasionally, the ladies found their task less rewarding. Sometimes, they found that certain girls had “deceived their Superintendent respecting their work.” At these times, the ladies tried to show the girls the error of such ways. One girl had lied to the Superintendent, saying that she “had plaited more yards of straw in such a time than was true.” For this, they severely lectured her and forced her to listen to a chapter taken from the Scriptures on the topic of “Lying.” After the reprimand and the sermon, the committee members reminded the girl that “to be good is to be happy.” Unfortunately, the girl took little heed of their admonitions; she never overcame the “heinous sin” of telling falsehoods and the ladies were forced to relegate her to the eternally damned.29

With the onset of fall, 1825, the managers stopped momentarily to appraise their operations. Part of this was in preparation for the deliverance of the first annual report. The managers asked Joseph Curtis to give a ten-month report on the inmates, and he gladly complied. Curtis reported the presence of sixty-nine inmates in the House of Refuge, six of whom the Court of Sessions had committed under charges of larceny and forty-seven of whom the police had brought in under charges of stealing and vagrancy. Of the forty specifically charged with vagrancy, Curtis reported that “all have practiced stealing except three: Some have been 3 and 4 times in the Penitentiary, and 5 have been guilty of Highway Robbery.”30 The commissioners of the almshouse had also sent sixteen youths to the Refuge for “Stealing, Vagrancy, and absconding.”

After Curtis reported, the Acting Committee members decided to create a new division of responsibility, a “Standing Committee for Indenturing Children from the House of Refuge.” They delegated two members to serve on the new committee until such time as it could be more formally organized.

Throughout the remainder of the year, the managers busied themselves with various tasks, hiring matrons, readying the new building, fund-raising, indenturing and providing employment for the children, and obtaining retail outlets for the children s manufactures.

The managers also diverted a considerable portion of their activity to securing passage of bills in the state legislature, but after these measures, which gave the institution vital support, went through successfully, they felt free to return to the internal management of their institution. Joseph Curtis, after a brief respite, would now need to become increasingly careful in his management of the Refuge. Because of the large number of escapes and Curtis’ preoccupation with punishment, the internal affairs of the institution presented quite a different picture to the managers than that which they had publicly extolled. Raising funds and securing public approval had occupied so much of the managers’ time that they had previously had very little opportunity to supervise the actual operation of their experiment. Now that they possessed sounder financial backing, they could devote their time to greater participation in the daily life of the House of Refuge. When the Acting Committee created a subcommittee on visitation, Curtis should have been warned that an increased surveillance was in the offing.

On January 24, 1826, the first open break occurred. Two boys, with the aid of keys obtained several weeks before, managed to escape from the new building. After directing the Superintendent to find and secure all keys except his own and those of the assistant keeper, the managers issued a stem reprimand. “In the opinion of the Com. the manner of escape … does not show that watchfulness and attention on the part of the Superintendent and Assistant, that appears to be necessary.”31 Curtis, disgruntled with the Acting Committee’s attitude, tartly replied to the committee’s accusation. His response angered the committee and they, in turn, re-directed his note to the governing board of the Society. In the face of mounting opposition, Curtis backed down. On February 11, he appeared before the Acting Committee and assured them that he “considered the Acting Committee as authorized and empowered to regulate the Discipline of the House, and that he should promptly obey and execute their orders.”32 Thus Curtis had been bested in his struggle for power with the Acting Committee.

Although Curtis was discomforted and engaged in a silent struggle with some of the managers of the Acting Committee, most of the members of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents felt satisfied that things were progressing well. One warm Sunday morning in April, 1826, John Pintard attended religious services in the makeshift chapel at the House of Refuge; everything delighted him. The “63 lads decently attired & 18 girls, the latter as cleanly clothed in blue striped cotton Gowns, manufactured in the House with white cotton long aprons and Vandykes,” dazzled the kindly old manager.33 The place could easily be mistaken for an orphan asylum. “Let enquirers attend the House of Refuge on the Sabbath,” Pintard urged, and see how much is performed by the benevolent Manager of an Institution, destined I trust to redeem thousands of Brands from the burning.” Elated with the working program as well, Pintard felt that the “growling misanthropists that infest every society” would have difficulty criticizing a place of this type. The children contributed their labors to help pay for their keep and to learn how to become industrious citizens. The program could not fail. “Prevention is better than cure,” Pintard concluded. “With perseverance we shall save numbers of little Devils from becoming big ones.”

Governor Clinton also registered his pleasure. He told his venerable friend the Reverend Stanford that the House of Refuge and Stanford’s contribution to it “ought no longer to be concealed under a bushel.”34 All the public acclaim and roseate predictions must have worn on Joseph Curtis. At the very moment when others lauded the institutions management, Curtis submitted his resignation. The Acting Committee, eager to accept it, hired a successor on the same evening. They immediately granted an increase in annual salary of $600 over the amount Curtis had received.35

Curtis told a different story than that recorded in the official records. In his version of the episode, Curtis argued that the Acting Committee flouted his efforts at every point. He had only sought to carry out a “policy of mercy,” and the Acting Committee had hampered him beyond measure.36 When a boy ran away, but returned penitent and subdued, the softhearted Curtis forgave him. The Acting Committee, scornful of such weakness, unanimously ordered the Superintendent to administer a number of lashes to the miscreant. Curtis implored the committee to reconsider their action, but they refused. Thus crushed, Curtis came forward with the keys, saying, “ ‘Gentlemen, I am not a slave-driver, and I have forgiven. I resign the keys of the Refuge.’ ” The committee, supposedly humbled by the action, refused to take the keys and rescinded their order, but Curtis, “hampered by a policy that put so little faith in human nature,” resigned anyway.

In his letter of resignation to the Board of Managers, Curtis contended that his own philosophy of the purpose of the Refuge so differed from that of the Acting Committee that he felt it necessary to leave. To him, the institution was not a factory, but a place where “the poor, misguided, and neglected youth should be taught to wash his face, comb his hair, tie his shoe, sit erect, keep out of dirt, learn his book, bridle his tongue, and do as he is told.”37 Curtis agreed that these might be little things, but “small as they are, they require a work that no man, in my opinion, can give a theory for; nor, till he has an opportunity (by actual observation) to see the fruit produced by a particular course either approve or condemn.” He believed in trusting children and giving them privileges, but since the Acting Committee believed that reformation could only be achieved by punishment and incarceration, he could no longer work with them.

Along with a replacement for Curtis, the committee appointed a teacher. His chief duty was to instruct the boys, although he could also “instruct the Female Subjects under the supervision of the Matron, when … not occupied in the Boys Apartment.”38 The committee also made material replacements. They exchanged the old ball and chain which Curtis employed for an “Iron Bar,” and directed Curtis to obtain five sets of bars and shackles. This action supposedly humanized punishment.

The managers spent considerable time discussing the proper role of the incoming superintendent. John Pintard and his friends, Professor Griscom and Isaac Collins, deliberated for two hours one day on possible means for improving the regimen of the House of Refuge. The aged Reverend Stanford, evincing concern for the discipline of the institution, also expressed his desire to see some changes made. He informed Griscom that he would, in the near future, present his thoughts before the Board of Managers.39

The managers even obtained information from persons outside the city. Professor Griscom wrote to Captain Elam Lynds, Head-Keeper of the newly completed adult prison at Mount Pleasant (Sing Sing). Lynds, an authority on prison discipline and one of the key proponents of the Auburn system, wrote back immediately. He felt that he had little expertise in the matter of governing children, their prospects being much different than his own subjects, but he did feel that a superintendent of prisoners should have certain characteristics. Lynds argued that the primary quality of a superintendent should be unflinching honesty. As to the punishment of prisoners, Lynds, a notoriously hard taskmaster, answered Griscom’s questions with greater surety. Corporal punishment posssesed innate advantages over other forms of punishment, such as bread and water and the dungeon; these led to abuse far more often than corporal punishment. Lynds felt that “if the public were well informed of the quantity of suffering endured in the prisons generally by that kind of punishment they would all be in favor of the rod.”40 Lynds gave Griscom a frank piece of advice as to the future management of the institution. If the Acting Committee, instead of dividing the authority with the new superintendent, would render him supreme authority and let the blame and praise fall upon his shoulders, then he was sure that the managers would receive maximum effort from their man. Otherwise, the superintendent could say that he merely “obeyed orders and is not in fault … in this is all the secret of the failure of the system generally.” Captain Lynds counseled Griscom and his associates to beware the rock upon which Curtis had already foundered.

The Acting Committee, anxious to get the new superintendent started in the right path, requested the presence of the entire Board of Managers at the induction of the new man.41 On July 2, Nathaniel C. Hart, a small rugged man with a will of iron and seemingly invincible integrity, stepped before President Colden to receive the charge of office. The managers had chosen well. Hart totally corresponded to the pattern which they had in mind. He also matched Lynds’s major criterion. A former schoolteacher, Hart was all that Joseph Curtis was not. Where the kindly Curtis knew the ideal of benevolent treatment and grew pained over the thought of aberration from it, Hart possessed few such qualms. A tough-minded administrator and a thorough disciplinarian, Hart’s air of command immediately discouraged misconduct.

President Colden told the new Superintendent the story of the inmates. The children whom Hart was to superintend were “the victims of vice; not always resulting from their own depravity, so much as from the negligence, the bad examples, and very often the precepts of their parents.”42 Hart must remove the traces of such bad guidance and reorient their lives. At the same time Colden conferred the title of Superintendent on Hart, he thanked Joseph Curtis for services rendered to the Society. “We cannot take leave of him, without those feelings which are naturally connected with a separation from a worthy brother and fellow laborer, who so well deserves the commendation of ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant.’ ” Thus rewarded, Curtis went home.

The dreams of a kindly father, ministering to his little brood of unruly children, went with him. So, also, did the dreams of Beccaria and Pestalozzi. Altogether too much of a human being, Curtis’ inconsistent loving and thrashing of his children had made the more orderly souls of the Society restive. They wanted system and Curtis seemed wholly unsystematic. Now a flourishing and supposedly efficient institution, with a number of imposing new buildings and a list of impressive visitors, the House of Refuge had no place for such a man.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781684450084
Related ISBN
9780815627364
MARC Record
OCLC
1055851740
Pages
67-85
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-07
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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