Once upon a time in Manhattan, there was a little northern jut of land called Tubby Hook. Later it would be known as Inwood, and it was one of the last bastions of bucolic existence on Manhattan Island. Perhaps because it was somewhat removed from the bustle of the city, while still being readily accessible, Inwood became the site of various institutions of “confinement,” primarily for women and girls. The House of Mercy was one such institution that was intended to be a “home” for wayward girls until they grew into the age of majority (which was 21 at that time) or were married, whichever came first. The building was grand and castle-like on the hill, presenting a beautiful but imposing visage to the world. The reality of the House of Mercy was a lot less than anything considered merciful, and a lot more like prison and forced labor—all in the name of “decency.”
The House of Mercy was established by the Protestant Episcopal Church during the 1850s in a location known as the “old Howland mansion.” It was founded by Mrs. William Richmond whose husband was the rector of Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church. Their mission was one of assistance offered to women who had been abandoned or mistreated, which was often code for unmarried and pregnant or practicing indecency by way of prostitution. What might be considered indecent varied widely and could be a label applied by parents, judges, or police. Some women were sent to the House of Mercy if they were merely drunk in public.
In September of 1863, the Sisters of Saint Mary took it over, taking it upon themselves to act as not only house matrons, but also prison guards who would chase down escapees until they convinced police officers to do the chasing for them. They were strict, reform-minded, and had the ultimate say regarding a girl’s access to the outside world, including her parents and communication with them.
In May of 1891, the House of Mercy was relocated to Inwood Hill in a vast building with three wings meant to house up to 154 “inmates,” as well as the sisters quarters. At this point, the House of Mercy was limited to girls as young as 12 and as old (or older) as 21. In reality, it served more like juvenile detention for whomever got brought to their door. It had support from churches and societies for the welfare of children, but the House of Mercy actually operated a laundry service, which was the primary source of income for the operation, in addition to funding from the city and charitable donations. The institution also conducted a school for training the girls, known as St. Agnes’ House, but within the same building.
Shortly after its opening on Inwood Hill, stories of abuse began to circulate around the House of Mercy. One of the first stories of concern centered around Lizzie Rudolph, who had been a 14 year-old runaway from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1890. Her mother, Kate, received word of her location in New York City from a Mr. Wilson of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children, nearly 5 months after she had gone missing. Mr. Wilson wanted Mrs. Rudolph to commit Lizzie to the House of Mercy for one year. Mrs. Rudolph refused. She agreed that Lizzie deserved some sort of punishment for running away, but only for three months. She was told she could collect her daughter after three months. When she attempted to do this, the sisters of the House of Mercy refused, and reluctantly let the mother see her child for the first time since she ran away. She continued to press for her daughter’s release. After 23 months of trying, the Rudolphs were told she could not be released unless the sisters recommended it. The next notification the Rudolphs received was a postcard from a Sister May indicating that Lizzie would not be released until she was 21! The mother pursued assistance from lawyers and judges, procuring a writ of habeas corpus, but somehow the discretion for release was granted to the sisters of the House of Mercy. According to one account, Lizzie was eventually released to the family, likely after she had contracted tuberculosis sometime in 1892. Unfortunately, she soon died at the age of 16 in Hoboken on 9 January 1893.
This story would repeat itself time and again wherein girls were picked up for vague or minor reasons and deposited at the House of Mercy. Then, they’d be held there for no true, legitimate reason, even in the face of parents’ protests. Essentially, kidnapping girls to run a laundry seemed to be the unspoken intent of the operation, although “reform” was often the spoken reason. These were not always “bad” kids involved in anything remotely nefarious. Annie Sigalove’s case has some conflicting information reported in the papers, but she was picked up for dancing at a dance hall in Coney Island. Perhaps her young age was the main factor, because surely it was not unusual nor illegal for girls to be dancing at a dance hall? Some accounts indicated she had been taken to the hospital and from there she was released to the House of Mercy. The Sigaloves appealed time and again, disputing her reported age, and even showing up with a young man wanting to marry Annie to try to get her freed. The judge claimed to have no jurisdiction and she was left to stay there until she was 21.
Annie’s case brought attention to charges of abuse occurring within the House of Mercy. Apparently, she was most unhappy about being there, resulting in being considered “obstinate” and “intractable.” She was punished by having her head shaved, barred from seeing her parents, and having food withheld from her. Many girls reported the same, some saying they only ate bread and molasses. The work they did in the laundry was hot, windowless, and unrelenting. They were rarely let outside. If they became unruly, there were solitary confinement rooms in the basement. Fannie Hirschberg was confined at the same time as Annie and was treated similarly. Her mother was equally desperate to get her released and was similarly denied. Some young girls were deemed so unruly, that they were sent to the adult workhouse, as was the case for a child named Mary Pardener. She, too, was actively sought by her parents, also with a man offering marriage to get her released.
In a few cases, the girl’s situation was dealt with in ways slightly more benevolently, but only if there was some legal loophole. In the case of Laura Forman, her father had personally had her committed to the House of Mercy to prevent her from marrying a man of her choosing. She was 18 at the time of her entry into the House of Mercy, soon to be 19. She had been visiting her sister when she met George Lefferson and they became, at least by some accounts, betrothed. Her treatment at the House of Mercy was again an account of abuse wherein she was often fed only bread and molasses, as well as occasionally being gagged. Mr. Lefferson requested a hearing on a writ of habeas corpus, after nearly two months of Miss Forman being imprisoned there. The judge deemed her confinement unlawful and she was released. Had she been placed there by police, however, she likely would have been sentenced to remain there for two more years, at least.
A more problematic case in 1914 revolved around Marguerite Murtha. She had been seduced at age 13 by a man at least 6 years older than herself, Samuel Jacobson. Once it became known that she was pregnant, the couple ran off together, much to the dismay of Marguerite’s family. They searched for her, following leads as they heard about them–Adele Murtha was especially committed to finding her sister. When Marguerite was located, she was first admitted to the House of Mercy by recommendation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children. But, as her pregnancy advanced, her story became a public scandal. Her family was barred access to her as well, being accused of horrible treatment, although the only real fault of the family was abandonment by the father, leaving Mrs. Murtha to work outside of the home, meaning Marguerite was free to pursue her own interests when not in school. Susan Murtha was not even allowed to see her child who continuously asked for her–not even while Marguerite was in the hospital to give birth (at age 14).
Jacobson had been arrested on the charge of statutory rape, but was released in order for him to marry the girl. The judge in the case barred the marriage saying it was not in Marguerite’s best interest. After she gave birth, she was supposed to return to the House of Mercy until she was 21, for her own good. However, an arrangement was made by various charity groups for her to marry Jacobson in February of 1915, allowing her release from the sentence. She was to live in the home of a charity group member until she gave birth, and then she and Samuel were meant to live together. By May of 1916, however, the couple were divorced because Marguerite had returned to her mother’s house and refused to reunite with him.
The sisters who ran the House of Mercy seemed to lighten up after 1898, treating the “inmates” less harshly and were more concerned about educating and “reforming” the girls so they could become upstanding citizens. It is entirely possible, however, that they simply got better at covering their misdeeds, as rumors of girls being whipped and even dying continue to linger around the legacy of the House of Mercy. Eventually, the funding for the charity waned, and the building began to fall into disrepair. It served as a temporary orphanage/foster home between 1921 and 1922, but the building’s failing state made it unsuitable for further use.
The House of Mercy, the building, entered into its final stage of existence. The city purchased the property and hired a manager to watch over it. The Murphy family moved into the 200-room building with crumbling walls and leaky pipes--a veritable paradise for the family of 12 after cramped tenement living in the city. The 10 Murphy children had the entire building to roam through and play in, while also romping around the grounds making friends with the neighboring beekeeper, the folks in the houseboat settlement along the riverbank, and the “shack” dwellers who were living rough in the woods. The family recalls happy memories there, although the building was literally falling down near the end of their 7-year stay. Mr. Murphy even kept the kids there as demolition began, moving room to room until there were none left to move to, sadly retreating to the city again as the final walls crumbled. The above picture was shared by one of the Murphy’s grandchildren who recalls being very confused about how they had such a rich outdoor life growing up in Manhattan.
All of the Inwood institutions were eventually demolished and the current day 196-acre Inwood Hill Park took their place.
Records of America’s Indigent, Destitute and Delinquent
Prior to implementation of the federal Social Security Act of 1935 and welfare reform, public relief was largely the responsibility of private or religious charitable organizations. Support of the poor in America began during the Colonial era, emulating the practice from the colonists’ native England. The English referred to the places which housed the needy as almshouses (the root ‘alms’ meaning charity). In America, these were sometimes referred to as poorhouses, county homes or houses of relief, and the term was also used as an umbrella expression for workhouses, poor farms, asylums, indigent hospitals and houses of reform.
The early almshouses, such as the one built in New York City in 1734, were homes for paupers and those who were suffering from illness, as well as those being punished for various crimes or acts deemed immoral, and also served as workhouses, as described below:
…and was furnished with implements of labor for the use of the inmates. The Churchwardens were appointed as Overseers of the Poor, and all paupers were required to work under penalty of receiving “moderate” correction. As the building was also a house of correction it was used as a sort of calaboose for unruly slaves, their masters having permission to send them thither for punishment.
Sometimes admittance was forced (court ordered), while at others it was on a voluntary basis; however, it could be difficult to meet the eligibility requirements for Poor Laws. Over time, the entities who supported the relief houses also began to distinguish between those who were worthy (i.e. widows, orphans, disabled, elderly) and those who were unworthy (i.e. prostitutes, the intemperant and debaucherous). Regardless of the reason, time in an almshouse held a social stigma, almost as if inmates deemed “worthy” were even punished for their indigency.
Inmate details, as well as supplies necessary to run the facilities, were largely recorded and many of the various registers and records are extant today and can be found through online repositories, as well as state and local archives. Many of the records are biographically rich in detail, while others may impart interesting context to your family histories.
Inmates were oftentimes enumerated in the census schedules at both the federal and state levels. In addition to the population schedules, they were also recorded in the special schedules. One example is the 1880 Federal Census, which included schedules for the disables, paupers and indigent persons, homeless children and prisoners, where individuals residing in poorhouses and other such institutions were recorded with details such as their form of disability and whether they were able-bodied, habitually intemperate, epileptic or had ever been convicted of a crime. Some states also had special schedules for almshouse inmates. The New York schedules conducted by the New York State Board of Charities- included details of birthplace, marital status, occupations, religion, port of entry, names and addresses of relatives. The specific fields varied over the years, as did the levels of completeness of the form fields.
Public welfare had evolved largely to state-funded programs by the late-1800s and early-1900s. However, the Great Depression led to the collapse of the majority of these systems due to the sheer volume of need from individuals and families without work or means to support themselves. Though federal programs became the predominant supporters of those in need, state-funded poorhouses were still in existence in some locations, such as Texas, into the 1970s.
Many of the almshouses and similar institutions also had their own cemeteries where the inmate dead were interred. Learn more about institutional cemeteries in the archived blog post, Asylum Cemeteries.
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