A Tangle of Circumstance

By Tobi Jacobi

This article first appeared in the fall 2015 edition of Columbia County History & Heritage (volume 14, number 2). You can visit the Columbia County Historical Society website to obtain a hard copy of this issue.

While Columbia County visitors and residents may be aware of the architecturally rich prison near downtown Hudson with its iconic red brick cottage-style buildings and Tiffany window in the chapel, its social and educational history is relatively unknown. Girls living at the Training School were caught in what Superintendent Fannie French Morse called “a tangle of circumstance” as they navigated the everyday challenges of adolescence and the social and economic pressures of emerging adulthood alongside charges of incorrigibility, immorality and other criminal codes of the Progressive Era. Many of the girls, institutionalized at the school when it opened in 1904 until its closure in 1975, were labeled not just delinquent but “incorrigible,” a label that functioned as a catchall for “crimes” ranging from teen rebellion and truancy to acts of survival after parental abuse.

During its seventy-one years of operation, the school had a residential population of girls between the ages of 12 and 15 that often exceeded 350 girls and even had a waiting list in the 1920s. In 1925, the Board of Directors affirmed the school’s aim to “develop in every girl under the control of the school an ideal and a desire to become a useful citizen in the community and fill an honorable place in society” (p. 3, 1925 annual report). Whatever their circumstance, girls who found themselves court-ordered to live at the Training School found themselves working to overcome social delinquency through a steady stream of educational, vocational, and recreational opportunities. 

Meet the Training School Girls

Who were the girls sent to live at this training school? It is difficult to know since many of the more intimate case files and institutional documents remain unaccounted for. In 2011, however, Hudson business owner Lisa Durfee discovered a box of old documents at local garage sale that inspired renewed interest in the many girls and employees who lived and worked at the school in the early 20th century. The box yielded a treasure trove of fragmentary medical forms, home visit reports, letters and other court documents suggesting the rich stories of girls who had lived at the Training School in the late 1920s and early 1930s...


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