“That girl you saw in the dormitory,” a matron of the Magdalen Benevolent Society explained to the reporter. “She is really the worst girl in the place. I wouldn’t trust her out of my sight.”
“Her parents haven’t much for her, “ she continued. “Their only worldly possessions are seven small children and a pushcart. Her sisters told me a woeful story of poverty.” (New York Tribune, October 19, 1907)
In September of 1903 a seemingly routine real estate transaction transpired on the northern tip of Manhattan.
Inwood resident Francis A. Thayer sold, to the New York Magdalen Benevolent Society, a large tract of land on the northwestern end of Dyckman Street overlooking the Hudson River.
On this sizeable property, equaling roughly five acres, the Society planned to erect a country residence for wayward girls and fallen young women.
Inwood Hill Park would not be dedicated until 1926, and during these intervening years, charitable institutions and private residences belonging to New York’s merchant class dominated the ridge.
Since establishing itself in lower Manhattan in the 1830’s, the Magdalen Society’s sole purpose had been rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice—sometimes, quite literally, kidnapping them from brothels.
According to their mission statement, “The object of the society is the promotion of moral purity, by affording an asylum to erring females, who manifest a desire to return to the paths of virtue, and by procuring employment for their future support.” (New York and Its Institutions, 1609-1871)
During those early years the group’s ambitions were modest. From a rented upper floor on Carmine Street the Society cared for no more than ten women at any given time.
By 1836, the Magdalen Society had moved uptown, into a large wood frame structure on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.
For many years, the home, surrounded by an imposing brick wall, served the Society, whose wards ranged in age from 10 to 30, well, but as lower Manhattan marched ever northward, the neighborhood became too costly to suit the institution’s needs.
Looking further north, the Society chose an isolated spot, with picturesque views, in a then mostly undeveloped area called Inwood.
The sixty-five odd inmates had long outgrown their 86th Street home and had briefly relocated to another residence on 139th Street until their capacity problem could be solved.
To say the Society had grand plans for the new location in rural Inwood would be an understatement.
Tasked with the charge of building the new dwelling were architects Carleton Greene, W.W. Bosworth and F. H. Bosworth.
The building was to have a magnificent façade designed in the style of a French chateau — in reality if would be another asylum of stone and concrete whose neighbors would include the House of Mercy and a home for tuberculosis patients.
But to the outsider, the home must have had a magnificent European feel:
“On every side are great windows, looking out into the woods or over the waters of the Hudson. The workroom where the girls sew is like the deck of a steamer, and so are the dormitories where they sleep. The bathrooms and sanitary arrangements are admirable, All kinds of cases are sent there. Some are women who come or are sent there. And there is a spotless infirmary with surgical appliances and a medical chest, so that any girl who is ill, or thinks she is, can be examined and treated if necessary.” (New York Tribune, October 19, 1907)
A reporter for the New York Times offered the following description:
“This is a five-story fireproof structure solidly built of stone, covered with white stucco, with large, light, airy rooms and every comfort and convenience necessary for the physical and mental health of its inmates. There are 60 of these now and the new home will accommodate 100.
The building is high up on the hill with a winding drive leading to it, a high stone wall, also covered with stucco, surrounding it, and a picturesque little lodge at the big entrance gate. Here lives the engineer, who has charge of the heating apparatus of the building. His wife acts as gatekeeper.”
The society has purchased five acres of land, on one corner of which the building is erected. The grounds are sodded, the grass even new is a rich green, while all the Autumn flowers are in blossom in the garden. These grounds are open to the women inmates of the home when they are not engaged in their duties around the house. Owing to the slope of the grounds, the high wall does not shut off the view across the river.
Everything inside is white and clean and cheerful. The dormitories in which the women sleep are on two of the upper floors. The dining room is a large, sunny room, and over the chapel, which is at the front of the house, is a large room, with a piano, for amusements and celebrations. The workrooms are in what may be called the basement, being below the parlor floor of the building, but that, too, is lighted by large, sunny windows.
It is in the basement that the chief work in the house is done, for the home maintains a laundry and teaches its inmates to become fine laundresses, one of the employments at which they are most likely to find work when they leave. Everything is done in the most modern and improved way, and a large number of New Yorkers send their laundry work to the home, where it is done at reasonable rates. On their work the society cleared $6,000 last year. Laundry baskets are sent and delivered to the owners by express at their expenses.” (New York Times, October 20, 1907)
When the Society formally dedicated the new home the afternoon October 19, 1907, the press were on hand en masse to cover the event.
After a brief benediction by Reverend George Shipman Payson, the pastor of the local Mount Washington Presbyterian Church, Superintendent Harrison showed off her “family”—that’s what the inmates were called—as well as the shining new facility.
“Some parents of the wayward girls are sensible about committing them; others are foolish, or worse, and want to get them out. A pretty girl of nineteen came in yesterday, escorted by an officer…” Miss Harrison said.
“She had been to court; her mother is trying to get her out,” Harrison continued. “Her mother had her singing at Coney Island last year and she was going to ruin as rapidly as a girl could. A man in the District Attorney’s office found her there and had her committed to us. Now her mother wants to take her back to Coney Island. What kind of a mother is that?” (New York Tribune, October 19, 1907)
A society matron, Mrs. Griffiths, was quick to point out that alcohol was the underlying malady that most affected the “family.”
“That woman has been with us for years,” Mrs. Griffiths, said to the reporter, passing a pleasant looking, middle aged woman, who was putting away sheets in a linen closet.
“If I were to tell you who her husband is you’d be surprised: he holds an excellent position in the theatrical world. She was an actress, too, but drink was her curse; she could not trust herself or be trusted outside. I feel most for the drinkers,” Mrs. Griffiths continued. “A woman who does wrong when she is drunk doesn’t know what she is doing, but a girl who goes on the street and sells herself in her sober senses—that is dreadful.” (New York Tribune, October 19, 1907)
Asked if it was a good idea to have girls and women comingling in the same facility, Mrs. Griffiths responded without hesitation, “Yes. The women, who have been through a good deal, often have a motherly feeling for the girls. They seem to desire to save the girls from what they have undergone. And sometimes the girls can help the women. As for the girls learning evil from the women—well, some of these girls who have lived on the street know all the evil there is to know, I fancy; no woman could teach them that. Of course, we are with the family. It isn’t as if they were left alone.”
Dying to Get in
While most young women would go to great lengths to avoid or even escape the confines of the asylum, one early resident did just the opposite—
In October of 1910, a nervous and terrified young woman, who called herself Emma Young (she never revealed her real name), wandered into the East 22nd Street police station.
She claimed she was the victim of a stalker and sought the safe haven of the precinct house.
“I am afraid of being murdered,” she said to the lieutenant. “A man I despise has been following me. He has threatened to take my life. I know he is desperate enough to do it, because he is infatuated with me and I refuse to have anything to do with him. I thought I saw him following me along Sixth Avenue so I rushed in here. I want to be sent away where he cannot reach me. “(New York Evening Telegram, October 24, 1910)
A policeman named Dresler calmed the weeping woman.
He then escorted her to night court where she begged the magistrate to place her into protective custody, even if that meant being committed to an asylum.
According to a published report, “She said she wished to start life anew—to get away from the influences of her past life. Magistrate Herbert said he would let her act as her own judge. He mentioned several institutions and the length of time to which she could be committed to them. She selected the Magdalen Home. She readily signed the commitment papers when they were placed before her.” “(New York Evening Telegram, October 24, 1910)
Young “Emma,” tragic and mysterious, also refused to name the man “she so greatly feared.”
Who’s that Girl?
By 1913, every police detective in northern Manhattan was familiar with the “family” on the hill.
Distress calls were made by the home’s matrons with alarming frequency and usually involved either an escape or a riot that needed to be quelled.
So, it was no great surprise when a call for assistance came in on November 19, 1913.
What began a simple request in tracking a young Magdalen, who had absconded into the night, turned into a confounding mystery.
Earlier that evening 24-year-old May Brown and 23-year-old Mary Allen attempted a death-defying escape from the Magdalen Asylum. Sometime after six o’clock the two young women leaped from a forty-foot wall and into the rocky ravine below.
According to the press, the girls “took advantage of a celebration at the home last night to make their escape. It was planned to hold a musical last night, and yesterday the girls had more freedom than usual in preparation for the affair.” (New York Tribune, November 13, 1913)
May Brown broke a leg and was knocked unconscious in the fall. Her cohort, despite an intense search by mounted police, managed to vanish into the descending darkness.
Later, police would discover that May Brown, doing time for posing as a Sunday school teacher, had given an alias at the time of her initial arrest.
The real May Brown, police would discover when detectives arrived to tell her parents of the near deadly fall, was the victim of identity theft.
In addition to having allowed one young woman to elude capture, the clever young lady chained to the hospital bed refused to reveal her true identity to the tired and frustrated detectives.
On the night of June 19, 1913 police received another desperate call from the Magdalen Asylum.
A riot had broken out. Please send help.
When special officer William Hartigan arrived on the scene, the grounds of the Institution were a vision of pandemonium. At least seventy-five girls were involved in the uprising—scratched, bleeding, clothing torn, tossing furniture out of windows, chaos…
“The fight raged through the main corridors of the institution. Mrs. Harris and her women guards and attendants were powerless to separate the combatants…Mrs. Harris called in William Hartigan, a special officer, and he, too, was severely beaten by the girls.” (New York Herald, June 20, 1913)
Luckily, reinforcements were moments away.
“The policemen went into the crowd without gentleness, pulling the girls apart and hurling them from the centre of conflict. As they pulled a girl away women guards would seize her and lock her in a room. In that way, one by one, the girls were separated.” (New York Herald, June 20, 1913)
In all, six girls were arrested.
Police theorized the girls had rioted in hopes of being sentenced to other institutions where the minimum term was less than the three years to which Magdalen girls were generally committed.
The Long Fall
In March of 1914 sixteen-year-old Sarah Greene was killed in an apparent escape attempt.
In a printed account, a newspaper scribe wrote, “Being unversed in even the elemental theories of physics, Sarah Greene…tied one end of a rope composed of ripped bed clothes to a chair on the forth floor of the Magdalen Home…and started to lower herself from a window to the rocks bordering the Hudson…As soon as she changed her weight from the window sill to the rope the chair followed her out of the window and seventeen bones in her body were broken when she fell on the crags.” (New York Herald, March 14, 1914)
The matrons, who heard the cry, immediately locked the other girls in their rooms until “Sarah Greene, unconscious and dying, was sent to Washington Heights Hospital.” (New York Herald, March 14, 1914)
Two years later another inmate was killed in a similar fall:
September 1916: Helen Miller, a 23-year old “hunchback…known to the police as an incorrigible,” plunged, fully dressed in the uniform of the asylum, to her death from a third floor window. Magdalen administrators claimed the young woman had a habit of walking in her sleep, but could not explain why she was fully clothed. (The Evening World, September 17, 1916)
In July of 1914, members of the Magdalen “family” once again waged a pitched battle with the local constabulary.
After responding a frantic call that an incident in the dining hall had turned into full scale melee, police found a mob of girls smashing furniture and china, ripping open pillows and mattresses and breaking every mirror and window within reach.
There in the midst of it all, once again, was special policeman William Hartigan, once again getting tossed about by a swarm of angry young women.
“Detective Louis Hyman responded to the call, and when he arrived the young women reviled him and then set upon him. The detective then telephoned for a platoon of police, who soon arrived at the home in two patrol wagons and arrested the girls.
Scarcely had the police bundled the sixteen young women into the patrol wagons and left the institution in charge of Special Policeman Hartigan, when six other young women began to riot. When Miss Jeanette Macconachie, assistant to the superintendent, attempted to stop their screams they attacked her, Hartigan went to the rescue. One girl grasped him by the coat, while others tackled him in football fashion. Soon they were rolling about the floor with the policeman, scratching and biting him and tearing his clothing.
Meanwhile two other girls started singing and howling. Hartigan managed to free himself and attempted again to restrain the young women. Then they dashed up the stairs, threw chairs out of the windows, following with furniture with clocks, bowls and pitchers. They broke the mirrors in the bureaus and smashed every window within reach.” (New York Herald, July 20, 1914)
According to the Times, the riot ended in multiple arrests: “After sixteen of the girls, most of them colored, had been selected as the ringleaders and removed to the patrol wagon, the police were able to restore some type of order.”
The Riots Continue
On April 29, 1915 police wagons were again dispatched to Inwood’s Magdalen Asylum.
The replacement of a well-liked, reform-driven superintendant with a stern new disciplinarian, who reportedly ramped up punishments while eliminating many of the few privileges the girls enjoyed, had resulted in a full-on mutiny involving over 100 girls.
According to a news account published the following morning:
“By the time the reserves arrived in two patrol wagons from the West 177th street station, a mile and a half away, the women keepers had put down what they called the worst rebellion that ever had occurred at the home. At that time more than 100 girls had been beaten into submission by the women attendants and were imprisoned in rooms.”
While ten of the alleged ringleaders were taken to night court for examination, most were back on the grounds several days later to participate in a Memorial Day celebration attended by the Institution’s high society benefactors.
Of the event, which included Maypole and Tango dancing, one reporter wrote, “The ten ringleaders in the recent riot pranced about the grass as innocently as the rest. One of the group, who spent several days in the Jefferson Market Jail, led the procession of America’s dancers under the wing of the Goddess of Liberty herself.” (New York Tribune, June 1, 1915)
The Great Escape
While not exactly Alcatraz the Institution’s high walls made escape a difficult proposition. Through the years several girls were killed or injured climbing out windows in failed attempts at freedom.
In the winter of 1916 inmate Margaret Darcy succeeded in an escape so daring the retelling of the event in the morning papers seemed the stuff of an adventure novel.
One Friday evening, just days into a three year commitment to the Home, Margaret feigned illness. Left alone in third floor dormitory she quickly squeezed her thin young frame into a twenty-four-inch tube used as a laundry chute.
After surviving a twenty-foot vertical drop into the basement, she opened a window, cut a hole in a heavy wire screen and raced across the courtyard just as a night watchman sounded the alarm.
“But the girl was exceptionally agile and reached a tree near the wall,” the New York Herald reported. “This she climbed so fast that she was out on a large branch before the guards reached the yard. In a second she had dropped outside the wall and was gone.”
“Police were called and they searched the woods about the home, but found no trace of Margaret. Workmen will be busy today adjusting steel bars in front of the laundry chute in the third floor dormitory.” (New York Herald, January 24, 1916)
In 1917 the Magdalen Benevolent Society changed its name to Inwood House.
During the annual meeting inside the Cosmopolitan Club, Executive Secretary Mary Paddon explained that the name had been changed to avoid “confusion and misunderstanding.”
“It seemed a pleasanter thing for girls to say, after being inmates there,” she explained to a journalist, “that they had lived at Inwood House, rather than a Magdalen institution.” (New York Herald, February 28, 1917)
Another monumental announcement followed.
Paddon revealed that the Society planned to sell the Inwood site and move north to a more isolated location.
“When the home builds in the country there will be a group of small cottages, instead of one big building,” Paddon continued. “Young girls will be placed in one cottage, girls with babies in another, the feeble minded in a third, older women in a fourth, and so on.”
That Paddon would change the name of the home to Inwood House while simultaneously announcing a proposed move out of the neighborhood must have struck some in attendance as odd.
The asylum on the hill now had a new name, though little else changed in the day-to-day running of the institution.
Yet dark days lay ahead.
Shortly after renaming the institution, Inwood House began a massive public relations and fundraising campaign. Advertisements and pleas for assistance peppered the New York press.
One clever op-ed written by Cornelia T. Emmet, the then President of Inwood House, managed to connect the plight of her wayward girls to the war effort in Europe.
“To the Editor of The Tribune,” Emmet wrote, “Thousands of men are coming into New York City each day from the training and concentration camps in search of relaxation and recreation. With this added danger and complication we are facing the need of caring for the unprotected girls of this city who have been weak enough to yield to temptation.” (November 27, 1917)
Emmet was referring to the spike in pregnant girls who had streamed into the facility as soldiers, often seeking companionship, returned from the front.
In another letter to the editor, Inwood House booster Bruce Cobb would write, “The care of the women who are going to come in contact, is a civil way perhaps, with the men who have faced God on the battlefields of Europe, is one of the problems in which all women must cooperate.” (New York Herald, March 4, 1918)
While fundraising efforts continued, the Inwood era of the Society’s existence was nearing its end.
Many of the young women who passed through the doors of the Inwood institution had worked the taverns, brothels and alleyways of lower Manhattan before being “rescued” by the Society.
Venereal diseases were a common and legitimate concern and during the infancy of modern medicine and many remedies were far more frightening than the conditions themselves.
In the spring of 1920, two young women, Fanny Busch, 18 and Edith Johnson, 19 were rushed to Fordham Hospital suffering from bichloride of mercury poisoning.
Oddly, the night superintendant of the home refused to provide any details about the incident.
A reporter who visited the hospital was rebuffed when he inquired how it was possible that two girls had somehow ingested a dangerous substance normally kept under lock and key.
“Whether the poison was swallowed accidentally or whether the girls joined in a suicide pact was left unexplained by the hospital authorities, who, it was said, had heard the story from the superintendent.” (New York Herald, June 14, 1920)
The mystery was finally solved when inspectors from the Health Department visited the home not long after the incident.
“For many years, the institution has been giving douche and mercury treatments for venereal diseases….hypodermics of mercury were given twice a week until twenty had been received by the patient. A two-week’s period of rest followed this course of treatment, at the end of which time a blood test was given. If the result was still positive a similar course of treatment followed. This plan was continued until a negative Wassermann resulted.” (Source: Journal of Social Hygiene, 1922)
The End and a New Beginning
In the summer of 1920, not long after the dual mercury poisonings, the site was purchased by officers representing the Jewish Memorial Hospital.
Renovations on the building, dedicated to the memory of Jewish soldiers who perished during the First World War, began the following year.
The director of the old Magdalen Benevolent Society made good on her promise to see that the organization’s work continued well into the future.
In fact Inwood House, though drastically changed, exists to this very day.
From their headquarters on 320 East 82nd Street, Inwood House has long focused on the needs of young and unwed mothers.
According to their website: “In March 2009, Inwood House opened a state-of-the-art Teen Family Learning Center at 320 East 82nd Street in Manhattan with corporate, private foundation, individual, and public support. The only one of its kind in New York City, the Inwood House Teen Family Learning Center serves as a national model of service for pregnant and parenting teens, our city-wide programming headquarters, and a training institute for the City’s graduate schools of social work, public health, and early child development.”
While times change, taking care of fallen “family” members never goes out of fashion.