The New York House of Refuge is now in the extent of its operations the greatest reform school in the world.
—State of New York, No. 8, in Senate, January 9, 1857.
IX. Coming of Age (1827–57)
The spread of the Refuge movement to Boston and Philadelphia during the first ten years of the development of the New York reformatory raised the expectations of the managers of the pioneering institution. The diffusion of the reformatory system meant that it had, to some extent, become a national phenomenon. Basing their projections upon the sudden success which the movement seemed to be enjoying, the founders of the New York House of Refuge prophesied that every city and state would soon have a Refuge in its midst.
First, however, it had to be determined if the Refuge system was going to succeed where it was. Even while founder John Pintard envisioned all the “little Devils” being prevented from becoming “big ones,” the initial impetus which had given birth to the institution began to show signs of slowing down. After the acceptance of the Refuge idea in the three eastern coastal cities, with their greater population, interest flagged. The period from 1829 to the mid-1840’s marked a period in which the Refuge system, at least in the eastern cities, consolidated its early gains and prepared for the day in which the reform school concept would replace it.
Some of the early reformers, such as John Pintard, satisfied that the work was well begun, immediately turned over the reins of leadership to younger men. Others, such as Arthur Tappan, turned elsewhere for new worlds to conquer. Never particularly enthusiastic about the cause of the juvenile delinquent, the dour reformer remained in the Society for only one year after the founding of the New York House of Refuge. Temperamentally more suited for crusading than supervising, he girded himself to do battle against Southern plantation owners and their “peculiar institution.”
Gradual reform of the type carried on by the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents did not appeal to men of Arthur Tappan’s temperament. Reformers such as Tappan, who were “determined to emancipate all the slaves by a coup de main, offended conservatives and gradualists alike. Writing in his diary, former Mayor Philip Hone, a staunch Whig and political conservative, described abolitionists such as Tappan as provokers of disorder. When violence broke out and a wild-eyed anti-abolitionist mob broke into the Tappan residence on Rose Street, ransacking it and throwing furniture into the street, Hone piously concluded that Arthur Tappan had received his just reward. Later, Hone, himself, and a number of likeminded colleagues, would band together to see what might be done to squelch anti-slavery agitators.
Some Americans managed to sustain interest in the cause of juveniles while they went on to other reforms. John Tappan, a Boston merchant, far more flexible than his brother, could work on several fronts at once. Taking up the banner of temperance, Tappan also continued to be active in the work of the Boston Farm School for delinquent youths. He felt that service to any good cause aided them all. “Is it not a fact,” he wrote his friend Gerrit Smith, “that embarking in a new scheme to do good never diminishes ought of the progress of other plans for the same general object?”1 John Tappan urged moderation in the service of reform. He congratulated Smith for joining the Anti-Slavery Society because he felt that Smith would steady the zealots, such as William Lloyd Garrison and his own brothers, who were already in it.
Although no longer active participants in its governing, a number of the older founders of the original House of Refuge still maintained an interest in its progress. In contrast with Joseph Curtis, who created constant problems for his fellow managers, Professor John Griscom, the leading spirit behind the founding of the House of Refuge, continued to be its faithful servant. Visiting the Refuge one day a week, the Professor spent long afternoons of quiet discussion with the boys. Occasionally, he lectured to them on subjects of morality and religion, but more often he told them little stories about nature. Griscom wished to teach the youngsters to “look through nature up to nature’s God.” 2
Griscom did not intend for his lectures to “convey to their young minds any profound instruction, or to prepare them for the pursuit of science; but the intellectual darkness in which they have been involved, and the difficulty of inducing them to devote the requisite degree of attention to their simpler studies” made it necessary to combine, when possible, “the ideas of study and amusement.”3 In keeping with the educational emphasis brought by Griscom, and enhanced by the arrival of Superintendent Nathaniel C. Hart, the managers doubled the amount of time set apart for instruction, purchased more books for the library, and replaced the Lancastrian form of instruction introduced by Joseph Curtis with John Griscom’s more vigorously controlled, but somewhat similar—in that it utilized the inmates as assistants—monitorial plan of education. John Griscom continued to fulfill the roles of guest lecturer to the inmates and compiler of annual reports for the Society until 1834 when he closed down the Monitorial High School and left the city to go to Rhode Island.
Cadwallader D. Colden, a key figure in Washington and Albany when the Society needed influence in government, also came to the Refuge quite often. When he retired from public life in 1830 and resigned his position as president of the Board of Managers of the association, Colden informed his associates that there was “nothing in which I have been concerned to which I look back with more satisfaction than I do to the share I have had in the establishment of an institution, which, in itself, and as an example, should it not be destroyed by jealousy and prejudice, will, I am convinced, have a benign influence on the condition of mankind.”4 Four years later, shortly after his death, Colden’s widow thanked the managers for their concern and remarked to them that among all the institutions for which her husband labored, the Refuge was his favorite.
Another of the pioneers of the reform remained active up until the time of his death. Thomas Eddy, well past seventy-five years of age, sustained an interest in the Refuge up until the fall of 1827, when an attack of paralysis overtook him and put an end to his long career of good works. The city’s philanthropists, hastening to prove their debt to the veteran reformer, immediately extended their sympathy to his widow. Wishing to “mingle” his tears with hers, Governor DeWitt Clinton told Mrs. Eddy that her husband had finally joined the great procession of philanthropists who had pushed forward the “glorious cause” of reform.5
The Governor himself soon joined the procession. Before the winter had passed, Dr. David Hosack became greatly concerned over Clinton’s health. In January, Hosack warned the Governor’s relatives that he had but three weeks to live. One winter day, less than three weeks after Hosack’s prediction, while Clinton sat across the room from his son Charles, the prophecy became fact. For a brief moment, Clinton’s troubled eyes fell on his son, concentrating “all his kind and affectionate feelings.” Then, murmuring that he was “very sick,” Clinton hung his head in death.6
With the deaths of Colden, Eddy, and Clinton, another effective team of private and public benefactors passed from the scene. Their careers, beginning in the Revolutionary period, spanned almost two generations. Men with a sense of mission and a faith in an enlightened republic, they possessed a dual sense of personal and social obligation, carrying out their duties as faithful stewards to God and to their own country. Even while these founders fell from the ranks, others came forward. One of the first was Stephen Allen, fresh from a legislative stint in the New York State Senate. Taking over as president of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents from Cadwallader Colden, Allen would direct its affairs for the next thirty years.
Since Jacksonian democracy had come into its own in New York State, the Society could not have chosen a better representative. Thoroughly known to most of New York’s officials and a stalwart Tammany man, Allen was also a confidant of the governor-elect, Martin Van Buren. In 1829, Allen commanded the influence which Eddy had possessed in the critical days of the institution’s founding. In the months and years ahead, the managers would be glad that he was at the helm. A man of stem moral convictions, Allen held to a rigid code in both public and private affairs. If he thought a good cause would be jeopardized by participation in politics, he would jettison the political opportunity rather than allow it to interfere with good works. When he could, Allen tried to combine the two.
In 1840, when asked by President Van Buren to take the political plum of the receiver generalship of New York, Allen at first declined. Stating that he was too occupied with his own brood of seventeen children and his affairs at the New York House of Refuge, Allen did not feel that he could take on the job. When both Senator Silas Wright and Allen’s own wife convinced him that he ought to take it, and he assured himself that he could still continue his other duties, he finally accepted the position, only to resign a year later after changing political tides had swept in William Henry Harrison and his followers. The job fell into good hands, however. Robert C. Cornell, a Whig colleague in the affairs of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, became Allen’s successor.7
Although Allen maintained a lifelong participation in the Society and contributed heavily to other reforms as well, he was no soft touch for the importunate seeker of alms. When approached by a Flushing clergyman for funds with which to establish a church for Negro Presbyterians, Allen turned a deaf ear. He “rarely refused contributing…” his share to worthy objects of this type, but he had to decline this particular request. Several years before, with the stipulation that he would receive his money back if the whole amount of the drive could not be raised, Allen had responded to a similar call by donating fifty dollars. The fund-raisers then announced the successful completion of their drive and took Allen’s money. But, he noted, less than two years later, “the Church was sold for payment of the debts of the congregation, and purchased by the Jews, and is now occupied as a Jewish synagogue”8 Allen wanted nothing to do with such ill-starred ventures. In contrast with them, the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, a reform successfully initiated and perpetuated, received his devoted support.
When Allen’s life was finally snuffed out in the explosion of the steamer Henry Clay in 1852, Robert Kelly, another active Tammanyite, succeeded him as President of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. A close political friend of Governor Horatio Seymour, Kelly obtained his support in the Governor’s annual message and in his presence at the dedication of the new Randall’s Island facilities. On the rainy November 24, 1854, when Governor Seymour sailed across the East River to attend the formal dedication, the weather seemed remarkably like that of the Christmas Day on which the first institution had been dedicated, twenty-nine years before. Hugh Maxwell rose to address an audience of several hundred dignitaries. James Gerard also presented a speech in which he traced the early history of the Refuge. Governor Seymour praised the Refuge because it converted “the very errors of youth into a blessing rather than a curse.” He acknowledged that the laws of the state were inadequate to handle juvenile crime, but he trusted that the Refuge would help assure the “preservation of virtue, and … the promotion of good society” in future years.9
Not all New York’s citizens, as well as a number of outsiders, would have concurred with Governor Seymour’s laudatory acclamation. One of the city’s alderman, when visiting the Refuge on an earlier occasion, had confided that at least one of his colleagues felt that the Refuge “had interfered with the Public Interest from the beginning.”10
Earlier, De Beaumont and De Tocqueville had also raised a number of questions about the Refuge discipline. The right of indeterminate sentence, however, to which some authorities objected because it gave the managers considerable control over the lives of the youngsters, received their approval. Not only did they regard it as useful, but they also felt it to be necessary. The managers could not “foresee how much time will be necessary to correct the children, and to reform their vicious dispositions,” but the indeterminate sentence would, in the commissioners’ minds, improve the prospects of total reformation.11
In support of the two Frenchmen, Francis Lieber, a prominent political theorist, corrected any impression that the managers could exercise omnipotent control over the fate of the children. He observed that although the state did not interfere in the management of the institution, the managers had to refrain from making any regulations contrary to state law. Also, the judiciary could, if it so desired, reduce the power of the managers through the power of habeas corpus. As long as the managers exercised proper judgment, however, such procedures seemed unlikely.
William Crawford, an English prison commissioner, who came to the United States three years after De Beaumont and De Tocqueville, dissented from the majority opinion. He objected not only to the indefinite sentence, but also to the committing of neglect cases to the House of Refuge. These two features of the program actually stood out as unique to the American institution, distinguishing it from the English reformatory. To Crawford, the indeterminate sentence and the inclusion of neglect cases with delinquents weakened the “bonds of parental obligation.”12 By taking in neglected children, Crawford argued that the managers of the House of Refuge encouraged the “vicious and the depraved” to “neglect and forsake their offspring.” The institution operated to the detriment of those who, “disdaining to have recourse to charitable aid, strive to maintain families by prudent habits and honest industry.”
Crawford felt that his own long experience with London’s Refuge for the Destitute gave him “abundant opportunities of witnessing the practical operation of the evils” to which he referred. When the London institution opened, there had been no restrictions on taking in neglected children. Parents desirous of ridding themselves of their children soon filled the place with cast-off youngsters. The directors finally had to put a stop to the influx. “If the juvenile vagrant has parents,” Crawford reasoned, “they are bound to maintain him, or to procure from the parish the means of subsistence. If the vagrant habits be occasioned by destitution, the workhouse is his asylum.” In addition to his criticism of the detention system of the New York House of Refuge, Crawford also thought the claims of its managers were highly exaggerated. They claimed that nine out of ten inmates had been reformed. He doubted that. Crawford caustically noted that Hugh Maxwell’s laudatory account of the institution’s impact on the number of juvenile delinquents, originally written less than a year after its opening, was still being printed in the annual report of 1833, eight years after the judgment had been hastily rendered. Maxwell had built his house on sand, anyway. The remarkable decline in delinquents sent to the police courts had come about through the ambitious activities of police magistrates. As soon as the magistrates located a delinquent they packed him off to the newly open Refuge. Small wonder the court handled fewer children.
The disgruntled Crawford also wanted to set a few other matters straight. As usual, “pretentious” Americans had tried to take credit where none was deserved. He examined the annual reports of the House of Refuge with great care, and nowhere did he find reference to the debt which the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents owed English institutions. He attributed this omission to a “morbid anxiety” on the part of Americans to maintain some claim of originality. If he had not felt duty bound to expose the preposterous claims of the managers, Crawford stated that he would hardly have bothered to call attention to their work at all. One could not expect Cousin Jonathan to show his indebtedness to the Mother Country for anything.
Another Englishman, E. S. Abdy, observed other flaws in the New York House of Refuge which he felt to be characteristically American. He discovered that both the officials of the institution and its inmates were striving to separate themselves as much as possible from the Negro children. When Abdy remarked that he could not see why the Negroes were treated differently, he received “a contemptuous smile and a very silly assertion that Nature, by degrading the one race, had placed an insuperable barrier to a closer approximation with the other.”13 Such a remark, because of Abdy’s militant antislavery point of view, was not allowed to go without challenge.
Not all of the criticisms of the Refuge originated from foreign sources. Ironically, Dr. John H. Griscom, the son of one of the founders, declared in 1845 that the institution was a health menace. Dr. Griscom conducted a careful scrutiny of dormitory space and discovered that the children’s rooms were woefully small and lacking in ventilation. The keepers of the Refuge locked the inmates into these tiny spaces, which became fouled within thirty minutes, for a period of nine hours each day.14 Because of Dr. Griscom’s searching inquiry, the Refuge managers had added fuel for their contention that a new physical plant was needed. They did not, however, noticeably relax their disciplinary and security measures.
Despite the misgivings of William Crawford and a few other detractors, by the mid-1830’s the New York House of Refuge seemed well on the path to success. In his annual message to the legislature in 1834, Governor William Marcy, following the pattern of his predecessors, praised the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents for its good work and pledged continued support. Due to the extended supervision which they had received and the useful employment taught them, he felt that “most” of the former inmates of the House of Refuge went on to pursue a “virtuous course of life.”15 The same type of treatment, argued Marcy, might well be applied to adult convicts.
One of the most highly touted features of the Refuge system was the successful pattern of eventual disposition of its inmates. At this point, the Refuge officials pointed with great pride to their indenture system. In a way, the indenture system was supposed to resemble a composite of the total Refuge program of education, work, religion, and firm discipline. Indentured to a virtuous tradesman or farmer, the youth’s academic education would, presumably, continue as he learned further work skills. Also, the managers hoped that the indenture situation would be a quasi-parental one in which morality and surveillance might combine. They did not often mention the possibility of the development of an affectionate relationship, but it too might occur.
Although they made great claims for their system of indentures, sometimes it went awry. The case of Sarah Jane proved that fouled lines of communications, plus a devious girl, could make a farce of even the most carefully designed indenture program.
On September 21, 1852, the Indenturing Committee sent Sarah Jane, the fifteen-year-old daughter of intemperate English immigrants, to a New Jersey farm. Although he kept her on the place, each year the farmer sent back an unfavorable report. One day, four years and eight months after she had been indentured to the old fellow, Sarah Jane appeared at the Superintendent’s office, disheveled and penniless. Israel Russell, a hard-working manager and chairman of the Indenturing Committee, steaming at the thought of such ungrateful treatment on the part of the farmer, immediately admonished him. “Do you know what the obligations in your part toward this girl are? (To say nothing of what men of kind hearts would have shown).”16 Did not the man remember the agreement of the new suit of clothes and the Bible he had agreed to give her on the completion of her service? “It is evident you never should have been entrusted with the care of any one as your object appears only to get all the service you could from her without evincing the least interest in her future welfare.”
Russell did not bargain for the response he was to receive. The farmer fired back in defense. He maintained that during the previous twenty months, the wench had given him nothing but “confusion.” For one thing, she never emptied her chamber pots. “Her urine has several times streamed down the ceiling of the room under her and once dropped on the floor near me [while I was] taking breakfast.” If this were not enough, the farmer declared that she had tried to entice every lad in the neighborhood into the haymow. The farmer had to forcibly drag her away from a “Stripling boy” whom she later met in the bam. Out of this incident, the farmer was sure that he “and all of his sons” would suffer the charge of bastardy.”17
If Superintendent Russell had had the presence of mind to recall his earlier communications, nearly all unfavorable, he might have seen his error. The irate farmer stated that he had given the young slut not one but two new suits of clothes, and paid her way back to the Refuge. If she had come to the Refuge besmirched with dirt and with her clothes tom and rumpled, he claimed no credit for it.
Somewhat chastened, the Indenturing Committee shuffled the girl off again. This time, she left her place immediately and took a job on a riverboat. She soon tired of river life, however, and returned to the old farmer again. He did not make the mistake of inviting her in; profiting from past experience, he refused to open the door. From this point on, no one heard from Sarah Jane again. In the eyes of the Refuge officials, no doubt, she would have to be regarded as one of the least successful of the Refuge graduates.
From the mid-1830’s on, the New York House of Refuge gained acclaim from all quarters. Internal squabbles such as those represented by the irate farmer and Sarah Jane remained outside the public’s observation. Elijah DeVoe’s exposé seems to have been the only major crack in the Refuge public image throughout the period prior to the movement to Randall’s Island in 1854. Although it received some criticism, the Refuge often received acclaim from reformers in other fields. Boston’s Doctor Samuel Gridley Howe, Brahmin reformer and crusader for the education of the blind, visited the Refuge in company with leaders of the New York Institution for the Blind and commented favorably upon it. Foreign ambassadors and American congressmen also made the Refuge a point on their itinerary when visiting New York City.
While it was not the type of reform over which journalist Horace Greeley could become enraptured, Greeley nevertheless praised the managers for their labors. He thought the Refuge had “proved itself an indispensable engine for the correction of vice and immorality.”18 Although Greeley called it a “prison,” a term which probably made the managers writhe with indignation, he thought the inmates received “the greatest kindness, and with one eye to their becoming useful members of Society.”
Although the managers were visibly disturbed by negative accounts such as those made by William Crawford, they tended to shake them off for more favorable appraisals of their institution. Scrutiny from newspapermen and clergymen, two potential sources of criticism of the Refuge, never materialized. Since many of the Refuge managers were closely involved with journalistic and religious interests, few negative comments arose from those quarters.
The following account typified the newspaper response of the period:
The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquency is a good institution, having its very existence in consequence of the necessity which vice and degradation imposes. It seeks to reform those whom it would benefit. Coercion is only used in extreme cases and then in a manner as to awaken no vindictive or revengeful feelings … What a pity the philosophy of the managers of the institution could not be generally taught and practiced in the world. There would be many reformed delinquents—many an erring one brought back to rectitude who now becomes brutalized by harsh treatment, or hardened into recklessness by the chilling scorn of a censorious and philosophical community.19
When the Refuge managers received criticism they tended to denounce it as misguided. Their response to two unfavorable commentaries prepared by James R. Hale in 1855 for the New York Tribune indicated the Society’s attitude toward criticism of its program. The managers prepared a pamphlet and circulated it about the community. In the pamphlet, they expressed their indignation that:
an attempt should be made for the gratification of personal ill-feeling, and in a spirit of retaliation for a supposed personal injury; that it should be founded upon misrepresentations and distortions of fact; upon suppressions of the truth which were equivalent to falsehood; and upon inferences and generalizations unfairly drawn from single cases selected ingeniously and stated imperfectly; and that a task so serious and sad as this ought to have been, to a writer actuated by proper motives and convinced of the truth of his positions, … performed in a tone of levity and sarcasm.20
To some extent, the case of Hale was similar to that of Elijah P. DeVoe, the former assistant superintendent who had done such damage to them. In their reply to Hale and to their public, the managers made sure that everyone knew that Hale had been an insubordinate incompetent assistant teacher. He had served in the capacity for about four months and had been fired after a series of stormy sessions. To correct the public misapprehension created by Hale that the Refuge regime brutally repressed guiltless juveniles, the managers described their charges as “bold, bad, strong boys, who have been guilty of crimes of violence, and not infrequently, of rebellion against their parents or masters, such as no ordinary authority or punishment could quell.” In order to demonstrate their case, the managers cited the occurrence in the month of March when eighteen boys had staged a bloody uprising in an attempt to escape. The presence of such a dangerous element called for a firm government, argued the managers. Corporal punishment and separate incarceration had to be part of the discipline. Even so, the managers wanted it understood that corporal punishments could only be meted out by “authorized persons” and that such punishments were kept as minimal as possible.
As to Hale’s contention that the youth spent a disproportionate amount of time at work instead of school, the Board of Managers wanted it known that they were “decidedly of the opinion that the formation of habits of industry is equally important with the exercises at school.” In this fashion, they squelched public criticism and defended their program. While no one was looking, they might make minor alterations in it so that they could defend themselves in the case of future criticism.
Not until the period from 1880 to the turn of the century did the Refuge receive major criticism from the community. In the middle of the first generation of reform, the Refuge leaders basked in the good wishes of men such as Monsieur Charles Lucas, a French lawyer from the Court of Paris. After visiting the Refuge and other American institutions, Lucas wrote a book in which he concurred with the managers in the wish that the Refuge would endure as a lasting tribute to “la sagesse et I’humanité du siècle et du pays” (“the wisdom and the humanity of the times and the country”)21 He even remarked that France ought to follow the noble pattern of the American reformers. Such laudatory commentary was not likely to help the Refuge leaders conduct an unbiased evaluation of their own program.
In addition to the remarks of foreign visitors, the managers received the accolades of public officials. As noted before, a select committee of state senators, upon visiting the institution in 1857, described it as the “greatest reform school in the world.”22 Such a recommendation did not help the managers to adopt a critical stance toward their institution.
Part of the confidence of the Refuge managers arose from the fact that the institution had become codified in law and practice. Somewhat earlier, in a decision rendered in Pennsylvania, the official character of the Refuge had been designated as a school, and not a prison. In the Ex Parte Crouse-Habeas Corpus case of December, 1838, the Refuge had come to be regarded only as a prison for the “juvenile convicts” who would otherwise be thrown in jail. The basic goal of the Refuge, contended the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, was “reformation.” This end was to be achieved by training in industrial pursuits, moral training, and separation from corrupting “associates.” Reiterating the in loco parentis status of the Refuge managers, the justices of the court commented that the “right of parental control is a natural, but not an unalienable one.”23 As to the “restraint” or “confinement,” the court felt that this was no more than the appropriate operation of any school.
In spite of the legal decisions upon which the definition of the House of Refuge was built, new forces had already begun to alter the situation. If Stephen Allen and his counterparts who represented the managerial leadership of other institutions, notably Philadelphia, had taken into account the rise of the reformatory and regarded it as a separate entity from the Refuge, their perceptions of the appropriate role of their institutions might have been significantly different. Assistant Superintendent J. B. Brown, writing in 1850 to the editor of the Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy, pointed to the need to change the name of the “Houses of Refuge” to “Houses of Reformation.”24 Brown felt that a refuge simply meant “a place of security”; only those who needed protection ought to be housed within its walls. The juvenile criminal really had no place there. Because of such terminology, the courts, as well as the public, were “misled” into sending youngsters there who might better have been handled in some other way. By contrast, the house of reformation implied, to Brown, an entirely different concept. The delinquent youngster should be sent there “to be kept for such length of time,” not beyond certain age limits, until it could be determined that the training administered by the house had succeeded in reforming him.
The emergence of the New York Juvenile Asylum in the early 1850’s could also have served as a clue to the fact that the term “refuge” no longer, if it had ever, served as an appropriate name for the New York House of Refuge. The new Juvenile Asylum took neglect cases, and the Refuge became the repository for delinquent youths. Since, however, they had had the term “refuge” affixed to their institution from the very beginning, they chose to stay with it rather than adopt the new term “house of reformation.” After all, in the west, new cities such as Cincinnati and New Orleans were building new institutions which could most appropriately be termed “reformatories,” and were naming them “houses of refuge.” Even though the Refuge had, in fact, become a reformatory itself by the 1850’s, it would never change its name. The alteration of New York’s intake procedures, however, signified that the New Orleans official was correct in his assertion that the “house of reformation,” a term which the Boston institution had possessed from the very beginning, constituted a more precise appellation.
When the managers, with the help of a considerable infusion of state money, erected a new edifice on Randall’s Island in 1854, they further solidified their investment in the Refuge concept and all that it stood for. At this point, the New York House of Refuge had become by far the world’s largest repository of delinquent children. The year 1854, however, also symbolized the successful completion of thirty years of operation. In addition to this, 1854 represented a concrete establishment of a set of principles for the prison discipline of youngsters. In 1854, the Board of Managers adopted a set of bylaws in which they carefully worked out the ingredients of their system. The Board’s own role, described in Chapter One of the bylaws, provided for seven standing committees and a set of procedures for the various officers. Chapter Two dealt with the Executive Committee, which had replaced the old Acting Committee as the most immediate contact with the insitution and its paid staff. In the chapters that followed, the managers defined the duties of the Finance, Indenturing, School, Law, Repairs on the Grounds, and Ladies Committees. The most comprehensive set of guidelines fell to the Indenturing Committee, whose duty it was to carry out the entire process of indenturing the children, “with a view of promoting their reformation and welfare.” In Chapter Nine of the bylaws, the managers described the functions of the Superintendent; he was to serve as the “executive representative of the Board of Managers,” but his comings and goings would be regulated by the Executive Committee of the Board. After spelling out the duties of various other officers of the Refuge, the managers went on to specify their system of “division and Classification.” Because of their new quarters, the managers were able to separate those youngsters whom they considered more “depraved” from those who possessed less of a taint. Chronological age, the managers agreed, was not the important variable in separation.
In keeping with the system which the founders had adopted, the Refuge officials also classified the children according to moral conduct. Class No. 1 constituted the “best behaved and most orderly boys and girls, those who do not lie, or use profane or indecent language or conversation; who attend to their work and studies, are not quarrelsome, and have not attempted to escape.”25 The worst class, No. 4, contained those who are “vicious, bad, and wicked.”
After stating their mode of classification, the managers presented a description of the “Rewards and Incentives” of the Refuge, as well as the “Punishments.” Solitary confinement, which entailed being kept in total darkness for a period not exceeding six hours at a time, clearly represented the chief punitive threat. No corporal punishment, “except for light cases of discipline in the school,” was to be allowed unless such punishment was administered in the presence of the Superintendent, who possessed “discretionary power” in the area of punishment. The managers continued that the Superintendent would be expected to exercise great caution and good judgment and that he should never carry out corporal punishment under the influence of passion.
Elsewhere in the document the managers enumerated regulations regarding the labor of children and the arrangement and time in the institution. Although it varied according to the season, the managers noted the following typical winter day for the Northern Division of the Refuge:
|6:15 A.M.||Wake-up Bell|
|6:30 A.M.||Time to Rise|
The summer schedule varied only in that it provided for one more hour of work and one-half hour less of school. The day also started an hour earlier. During the winter months the Southern Division of the Refuge, obviously regarded as more tractable, received one hour less of work and one-half hour more of school. At no time, however, did any of the youngsters work less than six hours; even though it happened on occasion, play was not mentioned. Labor, with its “moral benefits,” clearly represented the chief program of the Refuge. On Sunday, of course, the Refuge relaxed its regimen to allow for religious services in the morning and afternoon. The managers allowed parents, without specific permission, to visit their offspring once every three months “between 1 and 4 o’clock.”
While such a regime would not appear to be very enlightened by later reformatory standards, it represented a considerable improvement over what youngsters could expect if they were imprisoned in the Tombs or some other jail. Even though it might not represent a thoroughly benevolent system for juveniles, there was a sense in which the presence of the Refuge discipline represented a subtle infiltration of the older and harsher regime in vogue at Auburn Prison and elsewhere.
Early in the morning of May 12, 1857, the Refuge movement symbolically came of age as a national phenomenon. With the staff of the Children’s Aid Society serving as hosts, delegates from every major “child-saving” institution in the United States gathered inside the Clinton Hall at Astor Place in New York City to attend the first national convention of American refuge and reformatory officials.
Acting upon the prompting of Doctor John J. Graves, a manager of the Baltimore House of Refuge, the delegates had decided the previous summer to meet for the first time as a national group.26 When the time came to count the number of refuges and reform schools represented, eighteen different delegations from eleven states answered the roll call. Besides the reformatory representatives, fifteen other men came to the proceedings as participants. Some of these men were key figures in American child welfare circles. The Reverend Daniel Coit Gilman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, soon to become a leading light in higher education; Henry Barnard of Hartford, Connecticut, another noted educator; and the Reverend Charles Loring Brace, chief mover behind the Children’s Aid Society established in 1853; all came to the proceedings.
In a time described by one writer as the decade of “frustration and failure” in New York prison reform,27 these men came together to celebrate and perpetuate her only remaining pride, the Refuge system. The famed Auburn system and its most ardent defender, the Reverend Louis Dwight, the vitriolic official of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, had passed on. The Refuge stood out as New York’s single outstanding contribution toward the prevention of crime and the betterment of society.
When the time came to select a man to chair the proceedings, the lot fell to a gentleman from Pennsylvania. The choice seemed oddly appropriate. Making his way to the platform, Isaac Collins, a founder of the New York House of Refuge and a long-time manager of the Philadelphia reformatory, now an elderly Philadelphia book publisher, symbolized the spirit which had founded the Refuge system and kept its light burning for nearly thirty-five years.
At the afternoon’s session on Randall’s Island, the veteran reformer delivered his acceptance speech. Standing in the chapel of the largest reformatory in America, Collins looked out on his colleagues. Here and there, he could spot a familiar face from that earlier day when it had all begun. James Gerard, author of one of the key reports of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, now a comfortable lawyer and owner of one of the most elegant mansions in the city, sat before him. Although nearly all the rest of the original movers had gone, Gerard, at least, could rejoice with the old Quaker as he described the fruition of their faith and labor.
My heart swells with gratitude to find that this institution, which in its inception may be compared to a grain of mustard-seed, has grown to a great tree, which now spreads its branches through many of our States, and I rejoice to see before me so many Christian gentlemen, assembled from all parts of our country, engaged heart and hand to enlighten and encourage each other in improving the method of effecting the important work of reforming juvenile delinquents.28
True, the Refuge and its offshoot, the reformatory, had taken firm roots in American soil. Though at times the prevailing winds had gone against it and the sowers of the seed had occasionally neglected their labors, it grew, for good or bad, and reproduced its own kind. Certainly, the House of Refuge stood as an outstanding accomplishment of early nineteenth-century reform. No one would doubt that it had achieved remarkable public success; yet some doubt might well have remained as to whether the institution did all that the managers claimed for it.
If Thomas Eddy and John Griscom had risen from their graves and attended the national convention meeting in New York, would they have been as complacent as their former colleagues? Walking through the humming workshop where rows of small figures stooped over countless machines, would they have been proud of the institution which they had helped to plant in fertile American soil? Would the crotchety Reverend Stanford have approved of what had become of his idea of an asylum for juvenile delinquents? Perhaps Eddy and Griscom would have answered that the Refuge, like themselves, was a child of that earlier age. Stanford might have referred to the prior presence of tractable boys among hardened villains. To him, the Refuge would have at least offered a substantially improved environment with a distinct classification system. Other institutions as well as the Refuge had claimed that they would achieve perfection for all. If the managers had fallen short of creating the perfect society, their efforts could not have been entirely in vain, for other attempts had failed completely. The early House of Refuge movement at least provided a transitional step to the modern reformatory system, which began to show itself at about the midpoint of the century. The task of remolding the reformatory would fall, in turn, to a later generation.