By Frankie Bailey*
Historical research is an adventure. Robin Winks, Yale history professor and fan of mystery/detective fiction, titled his classic volume on historical research The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence (1978). In a series of case studies, Winks illustrates that trying to reconstruct the past has much in common with conducting an investigation – finding clues, following leads, questioning witnesses, and analyzing the evidence to develop a defensible narrative about an event.
In the case of the prison in Hudson, NY, there is an intriguing connection between two institutions that occupied the same site. The House of Refuge For Women (1887-1904) for female offenders was the forerunner of the New York State Training School for Girls (1904-1975). When the House of Refuge for Women closed, the Training School took over the cottages and other buildings. As the transition was underway, the last residents of the House of Refuge for Women were released or transferred out to make way for the “incorrigible girls” who were arriving. To understand this evolution from one institution to the other, it makes sense to go back to the beginning and investigate the history of the House of Refuge For Women.
History detective work involves asking basic questions – the “five Ws” of gathering information-- who, what, where, when and why. In the case of the House of Refuge For Women, the “who” includes the reformers that proposed the facility; the politicians and others who supported or opposed the proposal, funding, and placement in Hudson, NY; the boards of managers appointed by governors to oversee the operations of the facility; and the on-site superintendent and other staff members who put policies into practice in their day-to-day interactions with the inmates in their charge. Learning more about these “who” will answer some questions and suggest others.
The role of Josephine Shaw Lowell and other reformers, such as Abby Hopper Gibbons, in lobbying the New York State legislature for penal institutions for women and girls has been discussed in other blog posts to this website. There are still questions to be answered about the lengthy effort that resulted in the approval of the House of Refuge, funding by the legislation, and siting and construction of the facility in Hudson.
Although equally as interesting, we know less about the selection of the make-up of the Boards of Managers who were appointed by the Governor and approved by the legislature to provide oversight of the House of Refuge for Women. Articles in the archives of the New York Times reporting the actions taken by governors and the state legislature provide one source of information about appointments and resignations. This annual list of Board of Managers provides title, name, and city of residence of each appointee. Even when no more information is provided, a researcher has multiple leads on the “who” various governors believed suitable for this position of responsibility.
For example, a reader of the July 28, 1899 issue of the New York Times might have seen a brief article titled “The Governor Fills Offices”. Governor Theodore Roosevelt had appointed Carl S. Burr, Jr., of Suffolk County, to succeed Hamilton Busby, who had resigned as a manager of the Hudson House of Refuge. Roosevelt also appointed Howard Townsend, of New York City, to succeed Dr. Christian A. Herier. Burr was the Supervisor of Accounts of trotting race meetings. Townsend was a Harvard-educated attorney, member of a number of clubs, a ninth generation descendant of the Van Rensselaer family on his mother’s side, and the son of “one of the leading physicians in Albany.”
That year of 1899 was a period of transition for the House of Refuge for Women. A Times article on July 16th, 1899, titled “House of Refuge for Women,” reported that Mrs. Abbott, the superintendent, tendered her resignation to the board of managers and it had been accepted. The board was now seeking applicants for the position under Civil Service rules.
This same article reported:
A resolution was unanimously adopted forbidding all corporal punishment in any form. It is the purpose of the new board to work in conformity with the Controller, the State Board of Charities, the Civil Service Commission, and all the State departments.
A reader might suspect that the resolution concerning corporal punishment and the new board’s purpose to work in conformity with state agencies hinted at some underlying problem. A July 13, 1899 article in the newspaper, titled “House of Refuge Inquiry” revealed that the State Board of Charities was investigating charges against the Refuge. At its regular meeting that day, the Board of Charities considered “the abuses said to exist at the House of Refuge”, charges made by State Controller Morgan in a statement issued to the public the week before. The Board of Charities held a behind closed doors meeting and consulted with the Hudson Board of Managers.
Professor Mills, the president of the Board of Managers, had given a copy of unofficial testimony taken at the institution to the Board of Charities. However, it was not intended that this testimony be made public. As the July 16th New York Times article reported, Mills was a member of the new board appointed by the governor. The board was organized by the election of Herbert E. Mills of Poughkeepsie, President; Mrs. Marcia C. Powell of Ghent, Secretary; and Fulton Paul of Hudson, Treasurer. A great deal of information is available about Mills. A May 10, 1946 obituary in the NY Times reported “Dr. H. E. Mills Dead; 41 Years at Vassar.” The obituary noted that Mills was the first president of the Dutchess County Child Welfare Board and was appointed to the House of Refuge Board of Managers by Governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1899. A visit to the Vassar College website provides more about Mills, who studied history and economics and became the first professor of economics at the college. He was legendary for his influence on his students, who he encouraged in volunteerism and community service. The social networks of the members of the boards of managers during the existence of the House of Refuge are worth examining for what they reveal about who the managers were and their spheres of influence.
The public papers of the various New York governors (available as digital records online at the New York State Library) provide information about how the chief executive officers of the state perceived the House of Refuge. In 1892, Governor Roswell P. Flower responded to an appropriation request by discussing the status of the House of Refuge as “the first reformatory institution of the kind to be established by the State.” He noted, “the experiment there tried has been so satisfactory as to leave no longer any doubt of the value of these institutions in reforming fallen women.”
Seven years before the 1899 allegation of abuses, Flower wrote, “The Hudson institution has been so well managed that it is estimated that seventy per cent of the inmates are permanently reformed”. Given the success of the institution in achieving its goal of reformation, Flowers was inclined to listen to the argument made by the State Board of Charities that the numbers of inmates committed to the House of Refuge should be no more than two hundred and fifty to allow for effective “direct reformatory influence upon the individual inmates”. Since the House of Refuge already had “upwards of two hundred and seventy inmates,” Governor Flowers thought it wiser policy “to establish separate institutions than to enlarge existing institutions beyond the limits of their usefulness”.
With this in mind Governor Flowers had “already approved the bill to establish a women’s reformatory in New York or Westchester County, and this proposed institution, together with the new one at Albion which is to be opened to commitments in the November next, ought to be sufficient to supply the needs of the State for a number of years”.
But as the annual reports of the Board of Charities and the House of Refuge for Women’s Board of Managers indicate, in the years between 1892 and 1899, concerns grew about the inadequate facilities and how they were being used. In its 12th annual report in September 1899, the Board of Managers headed by Professor Mills reported that in addition to Mrs. Abbott’s resignation as superintendent, “[t]here have been other resignations and some dismissals. This has made many changes among the officers, some of whom are entirely new and untried in this kind of work”.
As for the physical plant, the board reported a number of needs. The most urgent was for a complete remodeling of the interior of the prison to deal with the damp dungeon cells and the close proximity of the cells to each other that “do not answer the purposes of punishment”.
Other needs included: new plumbing; an isolation building for cases of infection; a carriage shed; a gymnasium and outside recreation space; a guard house that could be used for solitary confinement of the “most obdurate cases”; fire equipment; new ceilings; drainage and grading; and a house on the grounds for the steward. Moreover, the House of Refuge for Women had 273 inmates. If the Board of Charities had been correct, the institution was now beyond its optimal capacity for effective programming. It was also dealing with physical plant issues that made it even more difficult to carry out its mission.
There are still many questions to be answered about The House of Refuge for Women in Hudson, NY. But we have a few more clues…
* Frankie Bailey collaborates with the Prison Public Memory Project on scholarship about the birth and evolution of the House of Refuge for Women and the NYS Training School for Girls in Hudson, NY. Frankie is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany (SUNY). She serves as the director of the school’s Justice and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century project.