Quietly and uninterruptedly it has performed its purpose, rescuing erring and guilty youth from the consequences of sinful habit, the companionship of the vicious, and a finished education in crime.
—Robert Kelley, President of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents (1854).
VIII. The New York House of Refuge System (1827–54)
While the Reverend E. M. P. Wells and others were struggling to bring the concept of mild treatment for young children into being, the various administrators of the New York House of Refuge went about their business building a disciplined and seemingly efficient system of penal reform. Just as Louis Dwight was running into a new wave of humanitarian reformers bent on humanizing institutions, so the Refuge officials would have to contend with efforts to alter its discipline, from within the institution as well as from outside its walls. The fact that the institution showed relatively little effect from these onslaughts testifies to the consistently united front presented by the managers and the Superintendent and the tone established by the second and probably the most important Superintendent, Nathaniel C. Hart.
When Hart took over from Joseph Curtis in 1826, Refuge discipline was a shambles. Within a short time, however, Hart managed to reduce the number of escapes, to establish a solid program, and to gain total control of the institution. In 1834, Hart informed President Stephen Allen that the prospects of the institution had never been more promising. Writing to Allen, who was at the time preparing the tenth annual report of the Society, Hart informed him of the institutions progress. As chief administrator of the institution for eight years, he had reversed the trend set in motion during the Curtis regime and had made himself master of his own institution.
At the outset, Hart had presided over all of the affairs of the establishment. Since the managers had often been preoccupied with external affairs, such as obtaining adequate funding, this had not been difficult. The manual training program, as well as the academic program, came under his guiding hand. In his elementary education program, Hart stressed the basic skills of “cyphering,” reading, spelling, and writing. As a means of offsetting the void of religious instruction in the inmates’ lives prior to their incarceration, Hart also allowed a tremendous amount of religious and moral training. He conducted the morning and evening family prayer, thus, assuring himself a high place in the managers’ eyes. Hart read from the Bible and, when circumstances seemed to warrant it, he delivered an “exhortation.” Throughout the week, he also administered “personal moral advice” to those whom he felt needed it the most.1
When it came to providing moral instruction, Superintendent Hart could always rely on the managers. On Sunday morning and afternoon, visiting clergy conducted chapel services. Prior to and between these services, the Society managed to sandwich in at least one “Sabbath School Session.” If this were not enough, “pious gentlemen” would often descend upon the Refuge and volunteer their services as informal instructors. In their campaign against the “immoral” habits which the children had learned from parents, the visitors encouraged the youngsters to “recite” Scripture lessons. As a reward for sustained effort, the visitors parcelled out little religious books.
Even though inmates received a steady Sunday saturation of religion, Superintendent Hart was not sure of its effect. “Because a child professes to become moral or religious,” Hart commented, “we do not suffer ourselves to place too much confidence in him or her, until we have given them time to show how it wears—noticing their lives and daily walk.”
Nevertheless, a few children, surprised the Superintendent. A number became quite upright in their morals; some even became “decidedly pious.” Hart was fond of quoting Samuel Wood, a zealous Quaker and a manager of the Society. Wood had attended a Love Feast near Newburgh, New York, and had witnessed a former Refuge boy testifying for the Lord. The boy told his fellow worshippers that he had once been a “very wicked boy, but he thanked the Lord that he had ever been sent to the House of Refuge; it was there he found the Lord in the forgiveness of his sins, and that he then felt the happy influence of God in his heart.”2
Rigid discipline, fourth in the hierarchy of prescribed Refuge treatment, was chiefly the prerogative of the reigning Superintendent. (See Table V, p. 192.) When Nathaniel Hart held sway, orderliness, regularity, and morality dominated the life of the Refuge. After each inmate arrived, Hart delivered him to the keepers for a thorough scrubbing, a close haircut, and a suit of clothes. Thus transformed, the youngster would then be brought to the office of the Superintendent. There, perched on the edge of a strategically placed chair, the boy would wait for the Superintendent to break the stony silence. On one wall, the benign eyes of Joseph Curtis, rendered by some unknown artist, peered down. From behind the desk, the eyes of Superintendent Hart bayoneted the boy. After a while, Hart would break the silence by impressing upon the youngster the two “rules of the House … 1st, ‘Never tell a lie—2nd He must always do as well as he knows how.’ ” Hart then made the boy memorize the two rules. In this manner, countless children received their introduction to the Refuge.
To correct any misapprehensions about the place, Hart would inform each new inmate that the House of Refuge was “not considered in the light of a prison, such as the Penitentiary or State Prison, but for wicked and unfortunate children—to reform them; and our efforts shall be unremitting to try and do them good; and we will be fathers to them if they obey our rules.”3
After he completed his short disquisition, Hart would pin the Badge of “No. 1” on the youth’s sleeve, informing him of its significance. If the new inmate followed the regulations for a whole month, he would then receive a “blue riband,” denoting that he belonged to the class of honor. But, Hart warned, if the new inmate were to fail, Badge No. 1 would be stripped from his arm and replaced by Badge No. 2. If the youngster were to fall as low as Badge No. 3, he got no playtime, and if he sank to No. 4, he not only lost his opportunity to play, but was deprived of the best meal of the week, the Sunday dinner. A youngster who stubbornly persisted in naughtiness could also look forward to being locked up in a solitary cell and placed on bread and water. Occasionally, a whipping might be in store for him.
Hart did not hesitate to use corporal punishment. The humanitarians, with their soft ways, irked him. He held the Old Testament as his guide. He thought of himself as “too much of the old school” to believe in the milk-toast methods of the new thinkers.
… in this refined and enlightened day, when people have become so wise about what is written, and insist that it is found that the time has arrived when no corporal punishment is necessary, that none are so bad but precept and example is sufficient for all … under these circumstances I refer to the inspired writer whom God in His wisdom had chosen to write for the instruction, reproof and guide of his fallen creatures—when I find strong language is recorded in the Bible for the Guide of Parents, and Guardians, as relates to the Government of children especially by Solomon.4
Hart scoffed at those who believed in mild discipline for all children. They deluded themselves. He maintained that there were at least four different classes of children and each required a different approach. The first, of course, always sought to know their duty and could be counted on to perform it. The second required more urging, although there was no need to use the rod to nudge them. The third class occasionally needed physical persuasion to make them know that there was danger of a more severe application of the rod. The last class required that “more severe application.” Through his system of graded punishment, Hart hoped to coerce boys and girls into conforming behavior. In contrast to the Boston regime of the Reverend Wells, Hart motivated his charges with fear to a far greater extent.
Despite his extensive utilization of corporal punishment, Hart seemed aware of its possible abuse. He never allowed himself or any of his staff to punish “in a passion” and he expressed “much satisfaction” over the results of his punishment. Often, Hart observed, “those whom we have had to be most severe with, love and respect us, after calling to see us after an absence of years.”
The Refuge discipline possessed an attraction far more than the immediate audience to whom the annual reports of the institution were directed. Edward Livingston and other national authorities on punishment lauded Hart’s Refuge regime as exemplary prison discipline. Livingston, in a report which went before the United States Senate, singled out the New York House of Refuge in his introductory section.5 While De Beaumont and De Tocqueville might designate the Boston House of Reformation as a better place for treating juvenile delinquents, few of the Americans who possessed knowledge on the subject would have agreed. So far, no Dorothea Dix or Charles Loring Brace had come upon the scene to denounce the Refuge regime as inhumane. For the time being, Superintendent Hart would receive only accolades for his efficiency. Such a system, in the minds of its supporters, should be duplicated over the entire country. Moralists such as Samuel Chipman, for example, praised the Refuge and its Superintendent for the salutary effect which he felt it had on society. When he surveyed the various jails and institutions of New York State, Chipman came to the conclusion that the New York House of Refuge constituted one of the bulwarks of virtue and decency.
… I hardly know which presents the highest claims to my admiration; the admirable manner in which it is managed, the rare union of security and comfort which it presents, or the plan itself, of thus placing these juvenile delinquents, whose depraved morals and vicious conduct rendered their confinement indispensable, in a situation which to them is truly a REFUGE; a refuge from hunger and nakedness; a refuge from the corrupting example of older and more hardened adepts in wickedness; at the same time, that it is a school for the improvement of their minds and the cultivation of their morals.6
Chipman, a temperance advocate and moralist through and through, declared that the Refuge represented a haven from the wickedness so rampant in society.
The public image of the Refuge, however, did not exactly correspond to the reality of Refuge life. Growth had its problems; Hart’s health had begun to fail by the late 1830’s; and the time for another test of the Refuge system was fast approaching. Could it survive a change of administrators?
With increased size and prosperity, the Refuge leaders had encountered new problems. The pressures of population and the external needs of the city forced the managers to uproot the concern. In fall, 1839, they moved the inmates, under cover of night, to a new location at the foot of Twenty-third Street and First Avenue. For the next fourteen years, the same amount of time spent at the old location, the institution occupied the East River site.
The 1839 move came none too soon. All through the spring and summer, David Terry, who had succeeded N. C. Hart as superintendent, was plagued with a series of harrowing incidents. Perhaps, these early events in his tenure would be symptomatic of his total stay in office. Fire struck first. A little after eight o’clock one May morning, just a few mintues after Terry had left the premises, a blaze erupted on the roof of the Refuge.
It [the fire] walked right through the Boys’ House the length—and through the Wing until arrested by a party wall, but not only was the Roof on the Buildings consumed but the flames ran through the Building—from top to Bottom as if greedy of its prey.7
By the time Terry returned to the Refuge, the boys were milling about in the barn and the girls were huddled in the Matron’s parlor. Hustling the boys off to the chapel, Terry and the others quickly turned to rescue what remained of the property before it could be carried off “by the lawless throng who hang about our Fireman.”
In the effort to protect the property and subdue the fire, managers, officers, children, and interested citizens rushed to the scene and took their stations. Ten managers worked steadily throughout the day, one staying on into the night to help the children into their bedclothes. Terry and his staff remained on duty throughout the night. Three of the Ladies Committee even arrived to lend their hands in the time of crisis.
During the day of the fire and in the unsettled days immediately following, six inmates escaped. While the managers moved quickly to erect temporary shelter and repair the damages, one night after supper while the boys were in the yard, someone outside the Refuge walls nearly negated the managers’ efforts by tossing a “Box of Loco, foco matches” over the wall. Three days later, the whip shop burned to the ground. Although no lives were lost, Superintendent Terry angrily presented the matter before the Acting Committee. Since the day of the first fire, two boys had been received into the Refuge for setting fires. Something must be done.
The threat of fire constantly haunted Terry. On June 25, another batch of matches came flying over the high Refuge wall. Less than three weeks later, the Superintendent discovered another source of danger. He found that mischievous boys outside the wall had smuggled matches into the Refuge through the gas pipe leading into the boys’ washroom. Terry called in three suspected youngsters and the rash of fires subsided.
Of all those who rejoiced over the move to the foot of Twenty-third Street, David Terry was the happiest. “We most earnestly desire to be on our new premises for we have got to be so thick here that in our sleeping Halls especially—we have scarcely a board left with which to accommodate a boy to lay down upon.”8
Despite their removal to a new site, the inmates still plagued Terry with escapes. In fifteen years of experience, neither the managers nor the officials of the Refuge had been able to protect themselves from the clever trickery of evasive youngsters. Terry possessed his own theory of how to correct the situation.
From all that we have learned concerning these evidences of uneasiness we concluded that the best way to check it would be to take the largest and worst boy in the concern and make an example of him, which we did by hand-cuffing him in the presence of several others of the boys concerned with him and sent him to be locked up on Bread and Water for a while.9
For all his rigor, Terry got no better results than his predecessors.
In April, 1840, the Superintendent appeared before the Acting Committee with a long list of escapees. It seemed as if the pattern of Joseph Curtis were being repeated. The Committee decided to investigate “with power to discharge such officer on the Premises as shall have appeared to have been delinquent in his duty and to provide any additional security to prevent the like occurrence.”10 Terry was in trouble; even his records were disappearing. On one occasion, when Terry stopped for a few minutes while on his way to a meeting in the Bowery, a thief stepped into his carriage and absconded with his record books and papers. Two years later, thieves pilfered his records again. While on his way home, Terry stopped at James Armstrong’s store on the comer of Third Avenue and Twenty-third Street to get his daily paper. In the short time in which Terry was in the store, the records in his carriage disappeared. Terry called Armstrong, and the two set off in different directions in search of the thieves. They turned up nothing. The area, the so-called Burned District, was crowded with shanties, open lots, and convenient cellars in which culprits easily could vanish.11
Although the loss of the records might have been convenient for Terry, it came at a “peculiarly grievous” time. Shortly before he had lost the books the second time, Terry had resigned the post of superintendent, and was just finishing out his service. On the same day he lost the books, several members of the Board of Managers arrived on the grounds of the House of Refuge to receive Samuel S. Wood, formerly superintendent of the Orphan Asylum and now the successor to David Terry. In many respects, Terry left the scene under a cloud of suspicion and doubt. It would remain to be seen whether or not his successor would do any better.
The Superintendent’s role at the Refuge had become complicated by factors beyond the usual employer-employee relationship. Unlike his predecessor, Terry had been forced to contend with external threats from officials in the state government. Although the managers usually sided with him, this additional interference from outside probably taxed Terry beyond his resources. One such threat came from Governor William H. Seward. Unlike other government officials, Seward professed to be a reformer. His criticisms of the Refuge could, perhaps, indicate the source of future perils for their establishment. By thrusting his great nose into the reformatory’s affairs, the well-intentioned Governor presented a direct threat to the managers and their program.
In the spring of 1839, the managers had their first brush with Seward. An unruly young Irishman named James, from the vicinity of Albany, was the reason for their encounter. In May of the previous year, the managers had recieved the boy, aged fourteen years, from the Albany Court of Special Sessions. Taken in by the police for stealing, the lad had “been a regular companion and ring leader of bad boys in Albany for a long time.” The Superintendent thought him “as daring and impudent as any boy we’ve had in many a day.”12 Less than two weeks after he entered the House of Refuge and a week after his first attempt to escape, young James broke out of his cell. While the others sang hymns in the chapel, James scaled the wall. For almost a year, the managers heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then, in the middle of March, an Albany policeman appeared at the gate of the Refuge with James in tow.
Four days later, a merchant from Albany appeared. The merchant presented two documents to Superintendent Terry, one a pardon signed by Governor Seward and the other a letter of explanation. Terry reluctantly gave up the boy, although he thought the matter should have been first brought before the Indenturing Committee of the Society.13
Before the first youngster had even been released, two more boys under sentence from the Albany Court of Sessions arrived at the Refuge. Their presence represented a new run on the institution. Frederick, son of an Albany laborer, a user of “sperrituous liquors,” became the center of the new struggle for power. Even before he arrived, Frederick had already embarked on a somewhat distinguished criminal career.
This boy had lived with a Gardner the towa [sic] summers last past and has been at home winters—this last winter toward spring he left home and staid out all night lodging in a barn the owner found him & took him & his fellow to Jail where he staid 1 day, recently he concented [sic] to carry some weighs [?] for a lad who had stolen them, they were soon coght [sic]. This boy was sent to us, but the other one had a Father who paid something and got him clear.14
All that was in Frederick’s favor was a superb attendance record in Sunday school; the managers would be impressed by that.
On April 8, Terry received another communication from Governor Seward and one from Alderman Bleecker of Albany. This time, he brought the letters before the Indenturing Committee. The Committee, sensing the threat implied in the Governor’s actions, instructed Terry to bring the letters before the Society’s Acting Committee.
In the meantime, Terry, on the authority of the Indenturing Committee, wrote the Governor. He informed Seward that Frederick would probably not be bound out until “next spring; as it is not our custom to Indenture our children until after they have been in the House at least 9 or 12 months, in order to [secure] their Reformation.”15 If, however, some of his “connections who reside out of the city should wish to have him bound to any of themselves,” they could come to New York next spring, bringing, of course, “unquestionable evidence of the suitableness of the Applicants’ character to have a child as an Apprentice, laying such evidence before our Indenturing Committee.” Terry assured the Governor that such applications would “find a friendly set of Men with kind hearts whose sole concern it is to make the best possible disposition of our children.”
The managers hoped to convert the Governor to their way of thinking. One of the best ways of course, would be through personal contact. Aware that Seward would be visiting New York City in May, Terry, writing in behalf of the managers, invited Seward to visit the Refuge. The managers would “wait on” Seward as soon as he arrived, in order to convey him “to one of the most interesting charities of the Empire State.”
Contact could not have altered the Governor’s convictions. If a constituent applied to him on the grounds that their offspring had been illegally committed to the House of Refuge, he would grant the request. On July 1, he discharged another boy, and on July 8, he acted on the case of young Frederick. Although intimating that he was not entirely convinced of the correctness of his own action, Seward explained it on the basis of strict legality.
A few days since I granted a pardon to a juvenile convict in the House of Refuge because the judgment was illegal—One of the grounds upon which it was held to be illegal is that persons convicted of petit larceny cannot lawfully be sent to the House of refuge. I then anticipated that this decision would be followed by other applications for pardon upon the same ground—A petition is now before me for the pardon of Frederick…. I am not clear that it is my duty to pardon … convicts in the House of refuge even when their confinement there is not warranted by law—The responsibility rests with the courts and it may not be improper to leave to them the correction of their own errors.16
The Governor’s argument struck the managers hard. Sensing the need for immediate action, the Superintendent conferred with the Acting Committee. The next night, Terry appeared before the Board of Managers of the Society with Seward’s letter. On the following day, Terry penned a reply to the Governor.
Now thoroughly situated between the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents and two irate parents, the Governor wrote back that he appreciated Terry’s letter, particularly that portion relating the number of commitments sent to the House of Refuge charged with petit larceny. Seward was surprised, however, that Terry had not answered his questions as to the health of young Frederick, an inquiry which Seward never actually had made. Presumably under the pressure of the parents and his other duties, the Governor next added injury to his own error, by lecturing the Superintendent:
Unreasonable fears are often excited on the part of parents and I am able to relieve their solicitude and reconcile them to the privation of their children by obtaining much information from the prisons … Mrs…. is now an afflicted but excellent woman, and might in my judgment be safely trusted with a knowledge of the condition of her child—It requires a heart of stone to deny such a womans [sic] petition for the pardon of a child 13 years old and at the same time refuse to inquire whether the child is well and cheerful.17
Seward made his judgment of the legality of petit larceny commitments on the basis of an interpretation of the Revised Statutes. He noted that although the act of 1826 had clearly allowed such commitments, subsequent repealing legislation had made no mention of petit larceny. From his scrutiny of these documents and from official advice, he decided “with great reluctance” that “petit larceny was not an offence for which a convict can be sent to your institution.” “Impressed” as he was with the House of Refuge, its intent, and its prospects, Seward suggested the managers look to their own mistakes. They should return to the law of 1826. If they so desired, he would gladly sit down with the Board of Managers and discuss the matter.
Benjamin J. Seward of Chautauqua, brother of the Governor, hinted that his brother sincerely wanted to talk with the managers. Discussing the matter briefly with Terry while obtaining a girl for indentured service from the House of Refuge, Benjamin maintained that the matter of issuing any pardons whatsoever concerned the Governor a great deal.18
The managers decided to take the Governor at his word. They selected a five-man committee to confer with Seward and instructed Terry to write the Governor of their readiness to meet with him. After Terry pointed out Seward’s omission relative to the request of news concerning the inmate’s health, the Governor apologized and agreed to hold up the pardons until such time as he had conferred with the Society committee.
Now on a better footing with Seward, the managers attempted to convert him again. In September, accompanied by Stephen Allen and the managers of the Society, Seward toured the Refuge. “Passing through our Houses he familiarly conversed with several of our children as to the cause of their being sent here, the place from whence they came etc. and after addressing a few words to the Boys and afterwards the Girls the whole company repaired to the new premises.”19
Familiarity bred approval. On October 26, the Indenture Committee quietly bound out Frederick, formerly the center of dispute between the Governor and the managers, to a shoemaker in Westchester County.20 Seward, by now converted to the cause of the Society, corresponded freely with the managers prior to delivering his annual address. Refuge officials tried to maintain the relationship throughout the remainder of Seward’s term in office, sending him detailed reports of their activities and writing often. The Governor, in turn, thought well enough of the Refuge to remove juvenile offenders from the Auburn State Prison and place them in the more tender hands of Refuge personnel.21 This resulted in another brief skirmish.
The managers were not always as pleased to receive prison youngsters as the Governor was to send them. On November 25, 1842, the Governor removed a Westchester County boy named George, on the ground that he was under seventeen years of age, from Sing Sing Prison and sent him to the House of Refuge. The managers knew George through and through. Two years before, the Court of General Sessions of Westchester County had committed the young rogue to the House of Refuge on a charge of burglary. Before they could get him to the Refuge, he escaped from the county jail. Before he escaped, George confided that he was already seventeen years of age. Later on, the authorities caught up with George and sentenced him to the state prison for three years.22 Terry knew the family well. Two of George’s brothers had been inmates of the Refuge. The police possessed a long and bitter acquaintance with both George and his mother, “a sort of Fortune Teller” by trade. Under these circumstances, the managers suggested to the Governor that he remand his order and return George to Sing Sing to serve out his term.
Only one other time did the managers lock horns with Seward. This last time he interceded in behalf of a young girl from Albany named Eliza Jane. “Considering the character” of the mother, “her deportment and associations, and those of her husband, and also the very tender age of the child,” Seward was “of the opinion that it would be expedient to restore the child prisoner to her mother.”23
Terry could not concur. Would the Governor agree to releasing a child to profligate parents? Prior to her commitment to the Refuge, the watch had found Eliza Jane wandering around late at night, not once, but several times. Her mother also took the girl out in rowdy company during the evening hours. The managers believed that her career would be thoroughly jeopardized by returning her to such neglectful parents.
Seward mused over Terry’s rejoinder. Perhaps, he had been hasty. “A personal acquaintance with some of the gentlemen who testified for the good character of the child’s parents” had favorably disposed him toward them. Looking into the matter further, he discovered that the parents, since Eliza Jane’s commitment to the Refuge, had become “communicants of a church” in Albany and that their “deportment and conduct” was “not known to be … irregular or immoral.” Still convinced of the propriety of his decision, Seward thought it best to return Eliza Jane to her parents.24
The managers, however, had stolen a march on Seward. Before they received his letter, they quickly indentured the youngster to a “good family.” Yet, if the Governor still thought it best to return her to the parents they would “do their best to cancel the Indenture with Eliza’s Master and send her back to Albany.” Eliza evidently did not care to go back. Her master wrote Terry that she had little desire to return to her parents, “as she appears to entertain very little affection or respect even for her Mother—and of her Father she speaks in bitter terms.”25
Thus, after a see-saw battle for over three years, the managers, with the help of the little girl’s desires, successfully circumvented the Governor. They could not, however, relax until the elections finally put Seward out of their way. When he was ousted at the polls in 1842, many of the managers, no doubt, breathed a great sigh of relief.
By the mid-forties, the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents had been in existence for twenty years. Having won the majority of their political and financial battles, they seemed to be a sort of entrenched success, especially by comparison to emerging reform groups springing up all around them. While Arthur Tappan and some of his associates left the Society to go chasing after slave-holding Southerners, the managers of the Society felt that they could count on solid success, or so it seemed.
During the 1840’s, however, the American prison system was beginning to feel the winds of change. The third major surge of penal reform since the American Revolution was in the process of sweeping through the whole of society. To prison officials, the new wave of reform meant the penetrating scrutiny of Dorothea Dix. She forced them to examine the great dungeons and cages they had built in the previous decades; she also forced them to consider ways in which they could begin to conduct a quiet surveillance of themselves. From the midst of this period arose the New York Prison Association. Created in 1844, it became a force for a more systematic approach to policing institutions from within the profession.
To some extent, the 1840’s did not bring the shattering reforms which might have been anticipated. Reform was characteristic of the period, but its impact was not felt uniformly in all institutions. The forces that unleashed the reforms of the 1840’s seemed largely a convergence of democratic and religious enthusiasms. While evangelical zealots roamed the countryside preaching perfectionism or piety, and sometimes both, other reformers withdrew from society to create utopias in the wilderness. Millennialist sects, such as those represented by the Millerites, could not be expected to concern themselves with the current woes of society; they were too occupied in awaiting the final hour. On the worldly side, the specter of slavery dominated reform. When militant reformers, such as William Lloyd Garrison and the Tappan brothers, turned their attention to abolition, little energy could be diverted to less drastic inequities within the society. Even some of the new forces contributing to crime and pauperism seemed ignored as the press for abolition, pietism, and utopian perfectionism swept through the populated areas of the country. The decline of the cottage system and the emergence of the factory system, with its growing percentage of child and women laborers, had gone virtually unnoticed. The grand rhetoric of humanitarianism tended to obscure the fact that the labor movement had been virtually destroyed following the depression of 1837. A myth of democratic progress, overlaid with a variety of highly visible reformist enthusiasms, tended to grow as the lot of the common man grew steadily worse. Widespread violence, often fostered by Protestant nativists, heightened growing unrest among the working class. Laborers, who had formerly regarded themselves as self-sufficient, found their wages shrinking as prices rose. The growth of the cities also contributed to the situation: urban populations almost doubled in the 1840’s, while the total population rose only a little more than a third. The forces of improved production and transportation tended to combine with increasing urbanization in producing a more volatile society.
Some reformers, of course, sensed the nature of the changes afoot. Temperance agitators, who had continually sounded the call to eradicate the poor man’s sins, had become uncomfortably aware of his situation. Shifting sharply away from their earlier emphasis on condemnation of the unfortunate, some Protestant reformers of the late 1840’s began to mingle benevolence with prohibition. For many of the reformers, their change of heart had come about through personal experience. Phoebe Palmer, a pioneer Methodist social reformer in the Five Points District in New York City, had originally served as a distributor of temperance tracts among the poor. By 1847, Mrs. Palmer had taken over a key role in the New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Sick Poor. Three years later, she founded the Five Points Mission, one of the earliest efforts to establish mission stations in American slums. This agency became the launching site for later major institutional reforms.
In spite of the labors of both secular and religious reformers, the tradition of individualistic reform, so deeply rooted in the United States, when combined with the fears brought about by the unsettling character of social and economic change, tended to obstruct any major approach to the growing structural problems of the society. The dream of opportunity and progress, not to be destroyed to any extent until after the Civil War, still prevailed. Although certain groups, such as Robert Hartley’s Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, had come into existence by 1843, a few drastic institutional alterations came about only later. Even then, changes could best be described as gradual reforms, for no tradition of radical upheaval ever established itself.
A microcosm of the outside world, the New York House of Refuge went through its own transformation. With the departure of Terry, the managers had to start anew—1844 marked a year of transition and trial. The old went out and the new came in. The new order, however, could not guarantee the managers any greater performance than the old. Actually, it held within it the seeds for still further dissension.
During the upheaval in which Terry resigned, the managers hired a new assistant superintendent, Elijah P. DeVoe. At first, DeVoe liked the position. In March, he “returned at an early hour … in good spirits, and accompanied by his better half—a very neat looking young lady.”26 As time went on, the young assistant’s outlook became less rosy. In the summer of 1847, an increasing number of inmates to house, materials to store, and books to keep created a need for space. DeVoe was removed from his office and put in a smaller one. Four months later, DeVoe, smarting under what he believed to be inequitable duties, began covertly to compose a day-to-day account of the operation of the Refuge.
Early in 1848, a feud, long simmering, broke out between Superintendent Wood and DeVoe. The object of the dispute was the placement of a “large boy” at the head of the table as monitor over the children. DeVoe had originally placed the boy at the table, but Wood removed him under the charge that the boy had stolen something. At the next mealtime, DeVoe put the boy back, growling that “no man on earth or under heaven, should dictate to him what course he should pursue.” Incensed that his orders should be countermanded and his authority questioned, Wood bristled and changed color. His eyes throwing sparks, he shouted into DeVoe’s face, “I’ll fix you, Mr. DeVoe, I’ll fix you.”27
A short time afterward, one of the managers appeared at the Refuge and told DeVoe to come before the Acting Committee. At the meeting, DeVoe stood before the managers while they read off a list of charges against him. The managers informed the Assistant Superintendent that he had one week in which to make a reply. Speaking in his own defense, DeVoe declared that he had not refused to remove the boy and that the Superintendent never requested him to do so. Furthermore, the Superintendent had erroneously reported their conversations. Since no one witnessed the exchange, neither Wood nor DeVoe had corroborating evidence in this respect. DeVoe declared that Wood’s confused charges were the work of either a “rogue” or an idiot. If the Committee investigated the matter, he maintained, they would see that the whole thing had been deliberately trumped up by Wood to “force” DeVoe into a “seeming conflict with his authority—Else why has he now, for the first time, claimed as his sole prerogative a function that has constituted part of my duties without exception for four years?” Also, DeVoe wanted to know why Wood so relentlessly pursued the boy for such a common offense. The youngster had only taken some food from the dining hall to eat at another time. “ ‘Stowing’, instead of stealing, would be a more appropriate description of the lad’s crime.” Why had Wood dragged DeVoe into the matter? Either the Superintendent wanted to crush him before the boys or he wanted to goad him into insubordination. DeVoe thought the whole matter a “keystone to an arch of sinuous policy practiced towards me for the last three years.”28 Wood was trying to rob DeVoe of his reputation, so he felt, and leave him without a livelihood.
In devising his own defense, DeVoe resorted to a description of the actual, not supposed, function of the two major officers of the Refuge. Should the Superintendent choose his own monitors? DeVoe maintained that this decision fell under the jurisdiction of the Assistant. After all, the Superintendent was really homme d’affaires, having little charge of the boys and often leaving the institution for other places. The Assistant, on the other hand, had continuous charge of the monitors, who, in turn, safeguarded the discipline of the institution.
Faced with the alternative of backing their Superintendent or his Assistant, and aware that their decision would cause them to lose one or the other, the managers chose to support Wood. They composed a polite letter in which they accused DeVoe of willfully violating the rules. DeVoe laughed at this. “As if it were not notorious that every officer of the institution is ‘guilty of a breach of the rules,’ etc., at least twenty times a day. Every man and officer who strikes a boy, in the absence of the Superintendent” is guilty of flouting the regulations, “and the Superintendent is no less guilty in permitting it.”29 Although he was aware that the Committee had essentially requested his resignation, DeVoe chose to ignore the matter, thus forcing the Board to officially meet and declare a three-month’s notice.
Stung by his dismissal, DeVoe gathered up his manuscript, full of truths, half-truths, and misrepresentations, and took it to the printers. Although he cloaked his enterprise under the title of humanitarianism, DeVoe could not really conceal his desire for vilification of the institution on the one hand and for vindication for himself on the other. He determined that he would set his readers straight on the “true” aspects of the House of Refuge, and in so doing, raise his own stock.
Could anyone doubt that the House of Refuge was a prison? For years, DeVoe declared, the managers had tried to deny it. Yet, let any person walk by that gloomy pile of gray stone flanking the East River and make his own judgments. A great thick wall reared up around the buildings with their “bolts and bars.” “An Asylum is supposed to afford shelter or protection—a place to flee to. The Refuge has hitherto been a place to fly from.”30
Why else should the youngsters be constantly plotting to escape? For those who would just as soon have forgotten it, DeVoe recalled the “bloody” escape episode of April 22, 1830, in which three officers received wounds from razor blades.
For any one the least curious upon this subject it will be easy to learn that the New York House of Refuge has more features of a penitentiary than an asylum, and that its most characteristic name would be a State Prison for Youthful Culprits; or, a HIGH SCHOOL WHERE MERE VAGRANTS ARE INDUCTED INTO ALL THE MYSTERIES OF CRIME. Any boy over fourteen years of age, acquainted with the two institutions, would unhesitatingly prefer being sentenced to the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island to a commitment to the House of Refuge.31
As if to substantiate his charge, DeVoe related the story of a Blackwell’s Island inmate who feigned another identity rather than return to the Refuge.
Perhaps the city penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island was a welcome relief for graduates of the House of Refuge. Certainly, enough former Refuge inmates arrived there to convince certain reformers that the Refuge was but the first in a series of public institutions for society’s ne’er-do-wells. The Superintendent of the city penitentiary confided to Lydia Maria Child, a well-known writer of works for children, that the whole system increased, instead of decreased, crime. “ ‘It is as regular a succession as the classes in a college,’ said he, ‘from the house of refuge to the penitentiary, and from the penitentiary to the State Prison.’ ”32
DeVoe, in particular, felt that the institution had failed to eliminate the evils for which it had originally been designed. Police officers thrust little boys, whose only crime lay in their lack of a home, in with “hardened” thieves, burglars, and robbers.” In the female department, the error became even more “glaring.” There, “guiltless” little girls lived side by side with filthy young bawds “confirmed in vicious and lewd habits.” The “more experienced in sensuality” told the young their “gross, yet exciting adventures,” thus undermining morality, straining the “imagination,” and corrupting the mind.33 Carried away with his case and bent on exciting the sympathies of his readers, DeVoe introduced the case of a woebegone innocent thrown in with depraved harlots and indolent baggages. Unfortunately, he neglected to state that she appeared before Refuge authorities well over twenty years before, stayed only thirty-four days, and got successfully indentured to a doctor in New Jersey.34
As for discipline, DeVoe held that the managers strayed even further from reality. They called their discipline “moral and intellectual”; he referred to it as “physical and mechanical.” The keeper and his “bloody cat” represented “moral and intellectual” discipline in the Refuge. DeVoe described in detail the manner in which corporal punishment was administered.
Corporal punishments are usually inflicted with the Cat or a ratan. The latter instrument is applied in a great variety of places—such as the palm and back of the hands, top and bottom of the feet—and lastly, but not rarely nor sparingly, to the posteriors over the clothes, and also on the naked skin. The ratan is in the hands of the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent, and Teacher and Assistant Teacher. It is to be found in all parts of the premises, and liable to be used every where and at all times of day.35
Did the public really know what went on at the House of Refuge? For that matter, did the Board of Managers know? DeVoe thought that the annual claims of “unqualified success” put forward by the Society were no more than “tautological eulogies and pompous puffs.” Furthermore, they were the “testimony of one party.” Who ever heard from the inmates? DeVoe likened the youngsters to the lion who might contend “for the superior greatness and magnanimity of his race over that of the human species.” Since the lion had no historians of his own, he lost his case. During all the time he was an officer of the institution, DeVoe never remembered having seen punishments inflicted in the presence of a manager. In all the years in which they had run the institution, the managers had never seen its real face. Perhaps, they did not care to.
To DeVoe, the Refuge story was only another chapter in a long history of crime, the crime of being poor. “Born in a hovel, or a damp cellar, swaddled in rags,” breathing from his first breath “an atmosphere loaded with poisonous gases” and decaying filth, the child of poverty “must be punished because the first objects of his vision were the emblems of poverty and destitution.” “Who says it is not a CRIME to be poor and wretched?”
Although the managers breezed over DeVoe’s writing as the bitter ravings of a jobless man, not bothering to refute him, his attack said much. His criticism carried a warning to the managers. The House of Refuge, over its first quarter-century of existence, had become a miniature Auburn State Prison at a time when reformers dared to hold up Auburn to the white light of public scrutiny. Even Louis Dwight, Auburn’s champion and chief proponent, was on the run in home territory. Samuel Gridley Howe, Charles Sumner, and other Bostonian reformers had turned against Dwight. Dwight, as executive secretary of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, represented the treatment philosophy of the mid-1820’s. By the mid-1840’s, the tide of reform had swept in a new wave of prison reformers who were desirous of imposing a milder regime in correctional institutions. Dorothea Dix thoroughly exposed his misrepresentation of the Pennsylvania system. Shocked at Dwight’s vindictive misrepresentation, she denounced him as an utter blackguard.36
The managers of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, however, had come to believe their own case, and remained sufficiently entrenched to ward off the attacks of the moment. Thoroughly committed as they were to the principle of uniformity and the large institutional approach to reformation, they continued to hold their own.
Even after certain New Yorkers contemplated building an asylum for potentially delinquent youths, the managers took the matter with equanimity. They possessed some cause for confidence in their approach. By the mid-1840’s, others pointed to this institution as the most efficient in the world. Few days went by without the presence of distinguished visitors. Not aware of the behind-the-scenes aspects of Refuge life to which DeVoe referred, many of them went on to duplicate the institution in other places.
In August and September, 1845, delegations arrived from Rochester, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Louisiana, all interested in extending the Refuge system in their own home areas. It looked as if John Pintard’s prediction of twenty years before had come true. By 1854, the year the managers moved to the great edifice on Randall’s Island, the Refuge system had spread all along the northern and eastern United States and in a good many areas in the south and midwest. The bitter voices of men such as Elijah DeVoe and his fellow critics remained unheeded. For, after all, growth did not always produce perfection. Not until long after the Civil War did the Refuge and its program become subject to close scrutiny and revision.
The Refuge had a large size, a system, and a work plan which proposed to pay for a good share of the children’s keep. American legislators loved all three characteristics. How could it fail to retain legislative and public support? It had most of the features which its founders had early claimed for it. In 1857, when the New York State Senate appointed a subcommittee to investigate the charitable institutions in the State, they delivered a completely favorable report on the House of Refuge, referring to it as the “greatest reform school in the world.”37