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When Elizabeth Fry, in 1815, rapped at the prison doors in England, she not only summoned the turnkey, but sounded a call to women in other lands to enter upon a most Christlike mission. The reports of her work in Great Britain and on the Continent, published at intervals during several succeeding years, extracts of which found their way into American papers, not only awakened admiration for the fearless courage mani. fested in the self-denying efforts, but marvel at what she was able to accomplish, and, from the reading, a few women in our land arose to ask the question, “Lord, what will Thou have me to do?” and in the answer found new light upon the words, “I was in prison and ye visited me.”
There was no talk about " going to work," but, from their knees, two or three women in New York, as early as 1830, began in the quietest manner possible to visit the district lockups and prisons, making careful inquiries concerning these places and their inmates, thus gathering up food for thought, which sent them back to their prayers with something definite to ask for.
In 1834 these women, with a few others, organized “ The New York Moral Reform Society," with Margaret Prior for their first missionary, and they made systematic prison visitation a part of their regular work. From their own records, “ Our Golden Jubilee, 1834-1884," we quote: “ Our prisons were at that time in a sadly demoralized condition,-as our missionaries went through these public institutions, gathering facts relative to the spiritual condition of the inmates, they saw an urgent necessity of reform and gave themselves no rest till it was accomplished." To their memorials, petitions, and personal appeals, the State Legislature at length responded, and several reforms were inaugurated, among them better arrangements for separation of the sexes and the placing of matrons over the female departments. At this time Mrs. Dora Foster was given charge of women at the Tombs, then used as a police district lock-up, and she proved of such exceptionable character and qualifications as to continue in favor and in office more than forty years. A great change in the moral atmosphere of the place was effected by her discreet management, and many and sore evils were prevented.
SPREAD OF WORK. Reports of the work were taken to other cities, and in 1839 the society became national in name, with vice-presidents in seventeen different States, and in the next few years, particularly in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, we find the women prominent in anti-slavery and other reforms, giving special thought and personal efforts, toward the amelioration of the condition of persons confined in our various institutions. Thus quietly was the leaven working in many places, hindered, hampered, and limited by prejudice against woman's work, and the fear of their seeing too much, if once admitted and allowed the privilege of inspection.
It is recorded, that on one of the ladies being denied the opportunity which she sought of seeing and ministering to a sick female prisoner, while a minister was allowed to go in and on his asking the reason of it, “Why," said the official, “it wouldn't have done, she's too sharp; she wouldn't have come in here and just prayed and gone away about her business as you have; she'd wanted to know the cause"; and another time when those in authority had been solicited by a public-spirited gentleman to grant permission for women to go in and out these places on their errands of mercy, they explained their refusal by saying, “ That until the State was ready to expend money enough for several changes, it would only be inviting trouble to have such women spying round and seeing everything, as they were sure to do.”
NEW YORK PRISON ASSOCIATION. On November 23, 1844, a company of gentlemen gathered in a private parlor in New York City “to take into consideration the destitute condition of discharged convicts"; then a circu. lar was issued, calling for a public meeting on December 6, at which time the following resolution, among others, was offered by Isaac T. Hopper : “Resolved, That in the foundation of
such a society (the New York Prison Association), it would be proper to have a female department to be especially regard. ful of the interests and welfare of prisoners of that sex.”
Public meetings were held, and in June, 1845, a house was taken, two matrons placed in charge, and a committee of ladies organized to superintend and control its operations. A sewing department and school were established, and at a later day a laundry.
In 1854 the women dissolved all connection with the New York Prison Association, and were incorporated as “ The Women's Prison Association and Home." Up to this time the Home had averaged about 150 inmates per year. We quote from one of their reports : “We will not dwell upon the many years of up-hill work through every possible discouragement, but proceed at once to the results of a pre-determined endeavor to take by the hand the unfortunate of our sex and lead them to a better life, where by patient industry they might earn an honest livelihood.”
In 1859 the association adopted as a distinctive name for its house department that of “ The Isaac T. Hopper Home.” The work has gone steadily on, the women of the association having been to the front in every effort for prevention of crime, and reform of the criminal girls and women, and in their fortyfourth annual report, we find, “During the year 119 women have been sent to service in families in the State, and 31 out of the State ; 4 were returned to friends." Only those who can read between the lines can understand all that these items mean. To those who talk glibly about “abandoned women ” and the “utter hopelessness of trying to save them,” the subjoined lines from the same report might seem“ mere sentiment,” but to those with clearer vision it is the secret of their success. “We believe that woman, in her deepest degradation, holds something sacred, something undefiled; and, like the diamond in the dark, retains some quenchless gleams of the celestial light.”
The prison committee, through its chairman, gave in 1887 an exhaustive report upon the condition of prisons and station houses, and in 1888, through their prison visitor, a female M.D., a careful report, both of which contain items which are strange reading for nineteenth century civilization and progress.
PERSONAL WORK. In the autumn of 1844, Margaret Fuller Ossoli accepted a position on the New York Tribune, and became an inmate of the Greeley mansion. The prison on Blackwell's Island was on the opposite side of the river, at a distance easily reached by boat, and Sing Sing was not far off. Margaret was to “ write up” these places, and gladly took the first opportunity to visit them. Her biographer says: “She had consorted hitherto with the élite of her sex, she now made acquaintance with the outcasts to whom the elements of womanhood are scarcely recognizable. For both she had one gospel, that of high hope and divine love. She seemed to have found herself as much at home in the office of encouraging the fallen as she had been, when it was her duty to arouse the best spirit in women sheltered from the knowledge and experience of evil by every favoring circumstance.” She herself said of a meeting where she addressed the female prisoners, “ All passed, indeed, as in one of my Boston classes.” This was after Mrs. Farnum had been appointed matron, a woman of uncommon character and ability, and the women already showed the results of her intelligent and kindly treatment. Through the letters published in the Tribune, on “ Prison Discipline," “ Appeal for an Asylum for Discharged Female Prisoners,” “Capital Punishment,” and others, public attention and interest were awakened, and Mr. Greeley says, “I doubt that our various reformatory institutions had ever before received such wise and discriminating commendation to the favor of the rich as they did from Margaret's pen during her connection with us.”
Dorothea Dix, of blessed memory, whose specialty seemed the caring for the insane, gave much thought and gracious ministry to those in bonds; and many were indebted to her personal efforts in their behalf, both while in prison and in the trying time of their release. She was also fearless in lifting up her voice against abuses, and in favor of needed reforms. She was so persistent in reiterating her protests, that attention had to be given, and her demands secured changes which are thankfully remembered.
In Rhode Island, as early as 1830, a young and gifted woman, whose heart had been stirred by accounts given by her father, a prominent lawyer, began to visit the institutions of the State ; and through a long and eventful life has continued her ministrations. Even now, in her ninety-first year, she has not entirely laid down her work. By voice and pen she has appealed stoutly against wrongs and abuses, and while she has been the spiritual mother of numberless men and women, she has not neglected the financial aid so important to those who emerge from prison life. She was the originator of the “Rhode Island Prisoners' Aid Association," and the founder of the “ Temporary Industrial Home" for released female prisoners, which was opened in 1880, and bears her name,“ The Sophia Little Home.”
Among the special workers should be named Miss Linda Gilbert of New York, who has devoted much time to prison work, and in fifteen years has procured employment for over six thousand ex-convicts ; six hundred of the better class of these she has by her own individual aid established in business in a small way, and in speaking of the results of her ventures in thus assisting them, she says, “I am happy to state that not ten per cent. of the number thus aided have turned out unsatisfactorily.” She has also presented twenty-two libraries to prisons in six different States, and among other projects which she hopes to accomplish is the establishing of a national industrial home for ex-convicts, where various branches of labor can be taught and the inmates put in the way of becoming selfsupporting. When a little girl of only eight or nine years, she used to visit the prison nearest her home and take some little gift, if only a few flowers, to cheer the prisoners, who learned to look upon her visits to their dark abode as they would a stray sunbeam from heaven.
Elizabeth Comstock, of Michigan, upon whose head in childhood Elizabeth Fry placed her hand as she said the kindly words, “Remember what I tell thee, dear Elizabeth ; to be Christ's messenger to those who know him not, that is the happiest life," has so well carried out her avowed purpose, “ To bear our Father's message of love and mercy to the larg. est household on earth, the household of affliction," that in thirty years, mid duties urgent and varied, she has visited over 120,000 prisoners, awakening hope and giving direction to many lives.
A long list of other names might be added, but our space is otherwise needed.
REFORMATORY PRISONS FOR WOMEN. In the year of 1873 startling revelations concerning immoralities connected with the Indiana Southern Prison led to the immediate occupancy of the buildings in Indianapolis, which had been under way for two years and which were to be known as “ The Reformatory Prison for Women and Girls.” The institution was officered entirely by women, with Mrs. Sarah J. Smith, one of its chief founders, for Superintendent. The project was looked upon as a doubtful experiment, and the speedy relinquishment of the idea prophesied. The board of managers