House of Mercy

by Cole Thompson

House of Mercy 1932

Starting in the late 1800’s various institutions serving alcoholics, drug addicts, tuberculosis patients, petty criminals, runaways and “women of ill repute” lined the ridge in what is now Inwood Hill Park. Of these bleak fortresses  of infirmity, born of era  when inebriates were often treated with hypodermic injections of nitrate of strychnine and married women could be sent away under lock and key for up to three years for simply dancing in public, Inwood’s House of Mercy was considered cutting edge.

The original House of Mercy,  established in the 1850’s, was located at the foot of 86th Street near the current Riverside Drive in a building described as “the old Howland mansion.” The home for “abandoned and troubled women” was founded by Mrs. William Richmond, whose husband was the rector of Saint Michaels.

When the Sisters of Saint Mary took charge of the home in September of 1863 they were desperately poor. The nuns themselves were given a per Diem of just eight cents.

Sister Harriet Starr CannonFounded by Harriet Starr Cannon (right), the first Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of Saint Mary; the early sisters had lofty notions as how to best care for their wards.

In a biography, Cannon said of those early days,  “As the early spring and summer came we were able to give out-door pleasures to the girls, which helped them very much, for their confinement in the House during the entire winter was a little irksome to them.

In the early days of the Institution we did not know the best way to manage them. We gave ourselves more trouble and them more care than was really necessary. For instance, if any of the girls got away we would think it our duty to spend our time in search of them: entire days were spent by the Sisters in looking up a girl. Now, of course, it is quite different. We have only to send a description of the missing one to a police station, and she is very soon returned to us.

Bishop Henry Codman Potter

The House of Mercy relocated to their uptown location, currently Inwood Hill Park, in May of 1891. Bishop Henry Codman Potter (left)  himself consecrated the massive brick and white trimmed structure before several hundred clergy and lay persons as a vested choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.

This home for women,” according to one description, received “destitute and fallen women upon their own application, or committed by the city magistrates.” The house was run, under the guidance of the Protestant Episcopal Church, by the Sisters of Saint Mary.

According to a New York Times article dated May 27th 1891, “The new House of Mercy has been erected on a plateau, one of the highest points at the northerly end of New York Island, a half mile north of Inwood Station, on the Hudson, and within 400 feet of the river, equal in area to eighty city lots. The building consists of a main structure 204 feet in length, facing the west and the river front, with wings at each end running at right angles to the rear and 104 and 128 feet respectively in depth.

House of Mercy 1925

The building is so arranged as to provide for three distinct divisions of the institution work—the House of Mercy proper, St. Agnes’s House, and a division for penitents. Each division has everything necessary for its proper and systematic working, and the inmates of one division are not brought into contact with those of the others. The House of Mercy and St.Agnes’s divisions are similar in arrangement and consist, on the first floor, of reception rooms, laundry and ironing rooms, packing, dining, and bath rooms, sister’s and lady associates’ dining rooms, reception rooms; and the chapel is also on this floor. The third floor contains dormitories and rooms for the sisters and penitents.”

House of Mercy, 1890, from Linda Hall Library

A later Times article offered this description: “The view is beautiful, but the girls in the home do not see it. The windows of the rooms which they occupy command a view of a tangled mass of forest and, in some instances, a fleeting view of the Harlem….In spite of the architectural beauty of the buildings and the natural beauty of the surrounding country, the place is not a cheerful one to see…Iron gratings guard each door and lighter ones are fastened across each window. They are twisted and convoluted and intertwined in an artistic manner, but they are bars nevertheless, and strong ones at that.”

1916 Map of Inwood Hill

1916 Map of Inwood Hill

Initially the House of Mercy was built to house 154 female “inmates”. While  conditions inside the House of Mercy might be considered inhumane by modern standards, these turn of the century women could have fared worse. The House of Mercy dealt with a “better class of fallen women” and the huge brick structure included such amenities as steam heat, light, ventilation and plumbing.

But despite Sister Cannon’s early idealism and the state of the art design and concept of the facility, the House of Mercy was also a product of its time.

Not long after the consecration reports began to surface claiming that cruel and unusual punishments, isolation cells, and bread and water diets were routine  behind the walls of the House of Mercy.

House of Mercy, road to, 1925

Court papers accused the institution of “locking inmates in a small room or cell without food or water for periods varying from one to five days…corporal infliction by whipping, the use of a gag, handcuffs and a straight jacket….that inmates are not permitted to communicate with or to see friends for long periods of time.

And while the report by the New York Department of Social Welfare would vindicate the House of Mercy, the charges would not be the last to be leveled against the home on the hill.

In 1895, twenty-two year old Annie Sigalove, begged Judge Gildersleeve of the New York Superior Court to release her from the House of Mercy. According to a New York Times account, “she said she had been abused and ill treated at the home; that her head had been shaved, and that she had been prevented from seeing her parents for months at a time.” By today’s standards, the offense that led to Sigalove’s incarceration seems minor–the young woman had merely been caught enjoying a night out in a Coney Island dance hall. While Sigalove was eventually released, the Times reporter evidently thought her charges warranted a follow-up . The reporter must have been shocked by the candid answers he received from the Sister who answered the heavy wooden main door of the House of Mercy after ringing a gong whose “echoes would have disturbed the slumbers of Rip Van Winkle.”

House of Mercy,  1932

House of Mercy, 1932

Standing in the doorway facing “a woman wearing a uniform much like those worn by Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy,” the reporter peppered the indignant nun with questions as he scribbled away on his reporter’s notebook.

Heads shaved

“Were the charges true?

“We make it a rule here to never deny any attack made upon us.”

“Had Sigalove been denied visits from her parents?”

“We find that not allowing them to see their parents is one of the best ways to keep them in order.”

“Was her head shaved?”

“We sometimes shave the girls’ heads.Occasionally it is done for sanitary purposes, sometimes for punishment. We find the girls do not like to lose their hair, and that the fear of having it cut off tends to make them more obedient.”

Escape from the House of Mercy, The National Police Gazette, December 1895

As the years passed, more and more girls complained, but conditions at the House remained more or less the same.

House of Mercy 1932

In August of 1896 nineteen year old Laura Forman brought charges against the House of Mercy. Forman claimed that she had been subjected to a bread and molasses diet and was often forced to wear a gag. The Asbury Park, New Jersey woman told the court said she had come into the city to visit her sister. While in the city, Forman said her father hauled her off to the House of Mercy where she had been held against her will.

Bread and Molasses

Her lawyer argued for her immediate release on the grounds that no court had given the authority to commit her in the first place. Despite desperate pleas from Forman’s father to keep his daughter behind bars the trial judge agreed saying, “It may be right from every point of view excepting the legal one.” A free woman, Forman turned her back on her father’s outstretched hand as her attorney told reporters of a $25,000 lawsuit he planned to file against the House of Mercy for false imprisonment.

In 1902, another nineteen year old woman, Harriet Farnham, claimed she too had been kidnapped by her father and, with the help of police, committed to the House of Mercy. “My father looks like a saint,” Farnham told the court, “but he isn’t one; he’s a devil. He has eight children, and all but on of them he has committed to institutions.”

1932 Map of Inwood Hill Park by Reginald Bolton

1932 Map of Inwood Hill Park by Reginald Bolton

During a 1910 census, the House of Mercy counted 107 inmates with a capacity of 110. According to the 1910 document, “These come, some of free will, others by commitment…The women are given practical training in domestic service and do the work of the large laundry which is a source of income. Attention is given to recreation, religious training and to the life after leaving the institution.”

The House of Mercy also received prostitutes sentenced by the courts, many of whom were cast off children and orphans forced into a Dickens-like existence by adult predators who lurked in the shadows.

House of Mercy seen in 1924 aerial photograph.

In 1912 the House received just four adult “women of ill repute“, but the juvenile population was staggering. According to a report published by the now defunct Bureau of Social Hygiene, 1912 also saw 57 girls under 16 sentenced to indeterminate terms in the House of Mercy. “Most, though not all of these cases were strictly related to prostitution.”

By March of 1919, the House of Mercy had fallen on hard times. A public plea for funding was issued, but the times, as Dylan later sang, were a changing.

House of Mercy Building

By 1921, the storied building, ironically, was leased briefly to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children until a more perminent home was completed on Fifth Avenue between 105th and 106th Streets. (All of the photos that follow were captured by Society members after they took possession of the facility.)

Old House of Mercy building

For about a year, life changed dramatically inside the House of Mercy. According to a report published by  the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “the average daily population in the Society’s shelter for the year was 152; the average stay was eight days. In the years before the Society came into existence, all children taken into custody, including the little victims of abuse and neglect, were kept in station houses and jails pending action by the authorities.

DSC08366

No longer a dumping ground for New York’s unwanted women and children condemned to indeterminate sentences, if the near century old reports are to be believed, the old House of Mercy became a temporary safe-haven for children caught up in horrific circumstances.

Old House of Mercy buildingOld House of Mercy buildingOld House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy in Inwood, New York

Old House of Mercy classroom

NY Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Report

Postscript

In 1933, New Yorker contributor Morris Markey made a trip to Inwood Hill Park and met up with the Murphy family, who had taken up residence in the ruins of the old institution.

Markey described his encounter with the Murphy’s in his December 9, 1933 “A Reporter at Large” column:

“Just over the brow of Cock Hill I saw a pair of rusted iron gateposts, a rough road leading between them. Following the road, I came upon the ruin of a vast building. The inner wall of a chapel stood blankly to the sky, and on most of the windows old frames of iron grillework still hung. In a little cleared space between uneven piles of ancient brick a young Italian laborer crouched over a bit of fire, munching a thick sandwich, a bunch of white grapes dangling from his hand.

I said, “Was this the House of Mercy?” He shook his head. “Don’ know,” he said. “But I t’ink she bad house. Anyhow, she come down now.” He laughed at the towering, wrecked walls, the rumbled doorways. 

I picked my way toward one such doorway, above it, a row of windows had the grillework still intact, and it was somehow monstrously ironic to observe the gewgaws, the rosettes and the curling scrolls, the faint-hearted attempt to pretend that the iron was something other than a bar to freedom. 

For the unhappy wenches who found their way into this House of Mercy were prisoners. No less. I went through dark, cluttered halls and found the old laundry room with its slate walls. On them, dimly visible in that light, were messages of despair from forgotten souls who once wept above the suds. 

“I wish I was dead.”

“God help me to get out of here.”

“I was put in this House of Mercy for nothing.” 

I saw the little cells where they had lived and I saw the vestiges of the chapel where their sterner and more righteous sisters had ordered them to repent. 

Yet it is the fabulous truth that the one merry tale in all Inwood, the one fine and warming episode, worked itself out between these same depressing walls. I speak of the Murphys. 

Seven years ago, the House of Mercy people decided that they, too, had had enough of Inwood Hill. They moved away to Valhalla and sold their property to the City. Mr. Murphy applied for the job of caretaker, and got it. Thereupon, with Mrs. Murphy and ten small Murphys, he moved out of his five-room tenement flat on the East Side and into the two-hundred reverberating rooms of the castle in the heights.

 No ten children that ever lived had such a time as the Murphys. There was air and sunshine and Indian caves, almost limitless space in which to play, fine and terrifying ghosts always on tap. The long galleries of the prison made perfect roller-skating, and in winter, when the pipes froze and burst, a smooth glassy surface covered the floors in the largest rooms, giving them a perfect indoor rink for ice-skating. For seven years there was never a lack of sport, for each new exploration of the vast building suggested a new game. And there were delightful neighbors.

Three of four hundred yards away, on the northern slope of the hill, Mr. Michael Fesslian had his farm. He had myriads of bees that made honey for him, and he could always get a Murphy or two to help. Down at the bottom of the Clove, on the banks of the Canal, the houseboat colony was a grand place to visit. There wasn’t much money in the houseboat colony, but the people were merry and lived in little floating homes that seemed marvelously snug and adventurous after the great reaches of the empty castle. In several of the abandoned gardens of the abandoned villas, nice fellows had built little shacks where visitors were always welcome.

The beginning of the end of the Murphy paradise, after the seven golden years were almost done, came when the authorities drove out the squatters, or shack people, as the Murphy children called them. Then the houseboat colony was dispersed. Then, alas and alack, the men came to tear down the castle itself.

That, of course, did not drive the Murphys out at once. They just lived on. Even after the sweet-pea bed had been trampled down and the great lilac bush they loved so well had been cut away, as long as there was a bit of roof, one room left so that a man could have a bit of privacy, they delayed their departure. But then, finally, the house was caving in about them and they had to go. I shall always think of it as a tragic spectacle, that day when Mr. and Mrs. Murphy and the ten children, hampered with precious little baggage, trooped out of the falling gateway for the last time, and went slowly down the hill, back into the city from which they had escaped so miraculously.”  (New Yorker, December 9, 1933)

Recently one the Murphy descendents, Danny Hammontree, wrote into Myinwood.net.

“My name is Danny and I live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida… When I grew up my grandmother always told me stories of when she lived up on the hill in NYC. The stories she told me didn’t sound like NYC because it was a 200-room house in the middle of the woods! These stories really screwed up my idea of what NYC was like in the early 1900s.

Many times I’d ask her about the house and when I asked her where it is, and if it was still there, she told me it was torn down but that there was a park there now. I recently took my son to NYC and asked my uncle if he could find out the address of the park so I could go check it out. His research with family members got me the address of the old house so I got online to learn as much about this House on the Hill as I could find.

I found your website and WOW! so much more than I had ever expected… I then went a researched the Murphy family of Inwood Hill and House of Mercy and found a 1933 article in The New Yorker about my Great Grandfather becoming the caretaker of the house in it’s final years and his wife and ten children that lived there…

Last month I drove up to New York to visit this park and try to find the spot where the house once was… I had found many photos including aerial photos which actually lead me to the wrong area… Since coming home to Fort Lauderdale I found a great NYC website that allows me to see clearly where the house used to be located and also how the land was extended out into the Hudson River before 1950 which is what I think through me off to begin with…

I want to plan another trip there soon so I can visit the park again.

Danny was kind enough to share the following photo of his Inwood Hill ancestors:

My Grandmother is Theresa Murphy in the middle with her brother Johnny and sister Patty.” - Danny Hammontree

My Grandmother is Theresa Murphy in the middle with her brother Johnny and sister Patty.” – Danny Hammontree



I hope more photos will follow…

The ruins of the House of Mercy were eventually removed for the creation of Inwood Hill Park.

Click here for more Inwood History.

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