By Tobi Jacobi
Innocent queries about loved ones at home. Urgent pleas for help. Tender notes to a possible lover scrawled on the back of a photo. The art of letter writing from places of confinement has a storied history. Women have long turned to sending letters, poems, artwork, and long descriptions of both their incarceration and hunger for news from beyond institutional walls out to friends, family, and others who might hear their voices. Girls at the Training School both wrote and received a wide range of correspondence, and we are grateful to have some examples preserved through the Prison Public Memory Project's archive and the Durfee collection.
In the 1920s, many of the girls living at the NYS Training School for Girls were already marked by "incorrigibility," "immoral tendencies" or worse. Their actions or the actions of those charged with caring for and raising them often marked girls as falling short of progressive era social expectations and sometimes put them into harm's way. Whatever the reason, around 375 girls lived within the walls of the Training School in the 1920s, and letter writing was often their primary window to the outside world.
In 1922, etiquette expert Emily Post devoted several chapters of her 600+ page book on decorum to the art of writing notes and letters. Among the varying bits of advice she offers is this gem: "The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character" (Chapter 27). Yet correspondence sent to and from the Training School was often motivated by anxiety, fear, curiosity—perhaps even boredom as the girls and their families adapted to life apart from one another. Letters were sent without certainty of delivery to either the girls (since letters might be withheld by staff) or to outside recipients. We will likely never know definitively how letters written by the girls at the Training School in the 1920s traveled through the world, though we do know that many, many letters were written and received.
Here we offer a sampling of notes and letters written and received by girls in the early 1920s, a time when women’s rights in America were rapidly changing, though it would take some time for that to be reflected in the justice system for teen girls.
Emotions often ran high as family sought information and reassurance from absent daughters. Rose’s sister writes a telegram sharing her mother’s desperate desire for news:
Just as Sally writes on the verge of collective despair, so does Goldie, sister to Mattie, a Training School girl, vacillate between frustration and encouragement as she relates both her desire for Mattie's release and the challenge of making it so. The burden of being left behind becomes a common feature in correspondence coming into the Hudson facility.
The three page letter from a sister to Mattie, opens with an apology and request for information:
Dear Sister Mattie:
No doubt you think your big sister has forgotten you. Here we are to the 15th and you “poor dear” I suppose still waiting to have me help you home at once. I have done all that I know of Mattie....
Won’t you please write me all you know about your coming home. Surely they will let you go soon. Do hope real soon. Love, Sister Goldie.
Just as Goldie urges Mattie to stay positive, so does her letter reveal her own need for encouragement. She closes her letter with love and an underlined desire—as well as a postscript that documents both the reality of life at the Training School (e.g. shoes that must last) and the dream of a better life for both of them.
“ps. Glad the shoes were with you in time to bring some happiness and that you really do like them. Keep them since you may not get another pair right away.
Be a good girl and don’t give up hope. Good things take a lifetime to find some of us. Your way be hide [sic]. Better come out where you will be seen. Don’t forget Be good.”
Although Post decried sentimentality in correspondence, life at the Training School likely demanded the kind of obedience and order she would have required. We see glimpses of the expectations set forth by staff and ingrained in girls through this letter from Agnes, a girl whose words are rife with remorse. She reflects upon her situation and determines that the only path forward is through a letter of apology, an olive branch so that, as she puts it, she can “turn a new leaf.”
May 9, 1922
As I sat in my room yesterday, I felt as though I couldn’t turn a new leaf without a clear conscience as I am writing you an apology. I do not expect you to forgive me after my show of ugliness and impertinence to you, for to all such things is unbearable. I am utterly ashamed of myself, therefore I am writing you. I am very, very sorry for what I have done, I am going to promise you that it shall not happen again. Every other girl in the school makes me feel a failure to think I would stoop to such a thing. But I am going to start over with all the strength I have and I think that you will never have to punish me again.
Although Agnes opens the letter with sentiments of remorse and recounts her shame, there is also a marked shift by the last line. As remains popular today, Agnes takes responsibility for her actions—but she also claims a line of self-empowerment before closing. “But,” she inserts, “I am going to start over with all the strength I have…”; she is resolved to reclaim some power over her life. She stakes this claim and then rather than shying away from her relationship with the teacher she has shown ugliness to, she affirms her position as a student (“your pupil”) and her right to be there. Fine sentiments indeed.
In her segment on “the letter no woman should ever write,” Emily Post is ominous: "Remember that every word of writing is immutable evidence for or against you, and words which are thoughtlessly put on paper may exist a hundred years hence.” (link) Emily Post, 1922. Yet, girls at the Training School might have a different stake in putting words to the page. While the girls might indeed worry that correspondence could literally be used against them in court, the average age for the Training School was around 16 years old, hardly a time when most teens are savvy enough to consider long term implications. Rather, girls like Dazzle might have longed for normalcy, peer interactions, and the freedom to take risks.
Don’t you want to keep me company? I’m awfully lonesome sitting here alone. This dress is blue silk. You’d never think it tho-would you. Write soon. All the love in the world to you dear from me dear, Always yours. Dazzle
Dazzle’s pen may appear to scrawl across the page—but it may also reveal a desire for ordinary teen banter, the casual exchanges that build friendship, laughter, and even love. Dazzle's note might be read as self-indulgent, flirtatious, and intentionally risky, as though she is well aware of the power she holds over others and that can be held over her.
While these historical artifacts might not offer exactly the mirror of character and status that Emily Post’s guidebook demanded, the telegram and letters do reflect a brief image of several girls’ worlds—and the worlds of the family and friends who were often their advocates. Rather than merely reflecting their appearance, taste, and character, these historical documents also mirror some of the social anxieties about moral behavior, gender, and family that guided Progressive Era justice.
More on letter writing from prison:
Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison (2011)
Jennifer Furio, Letters from Prison, Voices of Women Murderers (2001)
Monique Holeyfield, Letters from Prison (2008)
George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1994)
Hill Harper, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and their Loved Ones (2014)
Student Press Initiative and Jimmy Santiago Baca, From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and other writings (2009)
Jeff Evans and Jimmy Santiago Baca, Undoing Time: American Prisoners in their own words (2000)