New York World – Sunday, January 13, 1889

They Tell Nellie Bly That Women Never Reform
An Interesting Visit to the Big City Prisons and Talks with the Female Keepers—Matron Webb and Her Foundlings—Prisoners Who Return Again and Again—A Field Beyond the Reach of Charity.

“17 years is a long time for an innocent woman to be in prison.”

I answered the speaker with a sympathetic smile. I thought, as I glanced at the kindly face and the neatly dressed hair, which Time has touched with frosty fingers, what love of humanity, what patience she must possess to spend seventeen years in unceasing labor for the ill-fated outcast world. Almost everybody has streaks of charity in them, greater or less, but of all, surely the hard-worked, ill-paid prison matrons represent the truest charity. At least I believed it so, and because of that I decided to visit a few of them. Matron Webb, at Police Headquarters, whose little rooms furnish shelter for every deserted child, waited for me to continue the questioning process.

“Do you not tire of your work?” I asked at length.

“No. There is a variety in it and I have grown so accustomed to it that I should be miserable away from its cares.”

“Do you only receive children here?”

“No, indeed. Very often women who are lost or homeless are brought here for a night’s shelter.” Then, with a smile, she continued: “I used to wonder what disguise you would come in, but I never thought I would see you as Nellie Bly.”

“Tell me about yourself. How did you get this position?”

“My husband was appointed janitor when this building was first opened and I was given the position of matron. My husband has since died, but I still retain the place.”

“Where are the babies brought from which you take charge of?”

“From all parts of the city. There is a law against children being kept in prison after 9 o’clock at night, so they are all sent here. We receive them at any hour. When the officers find the little deserted babies or lost children they take them to the nearest station-house, where a commitment is made out and they are brought to me. Lost children are always very dirty, and so the first thing we do is to give them a bath and put them in clean clothing, of which I keep a supply. If the foundlings are clean we put them to bed without bathing them. They make very little fuss. The foundlings find the warmth and a bottle of milk so comforting after exposure and hunger that they go to sleep in a very few moments. The lost children are so weary that after I give them food they drop off and do not wake until daylight.”


“Do you ever have any deaths?”

“In seventeen years I have only had one child die while in my charge. Don’t you think that a good record?” she asked. “But I was going to tell you about that. Some time in the night an officer brought a baby in. I took it and found that it was sleeping very nicely. It had a bottle with it, and I once determined to take the bottle away; but then, as it was so quiet, I concluded not to disturb it, so I covered it up in the crib. In a few moments another officer came in with another baby. As we were putting it in a crib he remarked that it was one of the smallest he had ever seen. ‘It’s not so small as the one that came in a little while ago,’ I said, and we went over to the crib to see it. I pulled the covers down softly, so as not to awaken the baby, and saw at once that it was in convulsions. We rang for the ambulance, but before the doctor got here the baby was dead. We found that its milk had been poisoned. Since then I am very careful to take bottles away from foundlings the moment they come in and give them everything fresh and clean.

“You would not think,” she continued, “to see the condition of the lost children that their parents ever thought of them. Some children are so filthy that we have to take their rags off the first thing and burn them.”

“And they look as if they never had a bath in their lives,” interposed Mrs. Webb’s son.

“They do, indeed,” she assented, with a laugh. “You would think their parents did not care for them, yet the dirtier the child the louder their parents wail when they find them. We had a man come in here in search of his lost child. It had not been brought in yet, so he sat here wailing and moaning until the moment it was brought in. Then he doubled down before it and shook his fist in its face and yelled, ‘Just wait until I get you home!’

“There is no romance in it. I suppose we get hardened to anything. I recall one time a little girl was found and brought here. She was so filthy that I burned everything she wore. It just happened that I had nothing here which would fit her except a very bright yellow dress. It was very yellow. Evidently it was made for a child’s party dress, to be worn under lace, but having nothing else I had to dress her in it. After a while an Italian came in search of a lost child. After looking around at all the children he said his child was not among them. ‘How old was she?’ I asked, and he replied, ‘Four years’. I thought that little girl was about four, so I told him to look again. He looked with the same result.’ Isn’t this your child?’ I asked, pointing to the one in yellow. He shook his head ‘No’. Then I told him that I had changed her dress. He went over and knelt before her and only then did he recognize her, and he almost fainted. I don’t think he ever saw her washed before, and as it was he only saw the bright yellow dress. Such cases are not rare. Parents often fail to recognize their children because they never saw them clean before.”


“Do you ever have any foundlings that apparently were born of wealthy parents?”

“No. As I tell you, there is little romance about it. The foundlings are always cheaply clad, with sometimes a show of cheap lace. I never have them here more than twenty-four hours, generally not a third of that time. So I do not become attached to them.”

“Do they ever have names pinned to them?”

“No, and you should see how they get their names,” said Matron Webb’s son. “Some one comes in and says: ‘Is it named yet? I’ll name it,’ and so they give it a name. Other times the place it was found or the time names it, such as in May a baby girl was found in a hallway and we named it ‘May Hall.’ Last year we had 174 foundlings. When parents abandon a baby they never want to know its fate.”

“I can always tell an Italian baby from the peculiar way in which it is dressed,” said Matron Webb. “A piece of linen about five inches wide and two yards long is wrapped about them from their arms down to their heels, until their bodies are rigid. I always take it off the moment they come in, for I think it must make them very uncomfortable and cramped.”

“What results do you get from your work among women?” I asked of Matron Webb.

“The results are discouraging,” she answered, sadly. “But yet, with the hope of some time saving one woman, I am encouraged to persevere. In my seventeen years as a matron I have never known a woman to reform or to have any gratitude for aid extended to her.”

Matron Webb has made her rooms in the top floor of Police Headquarters very cozy and homelike. Her mother was a Quaker, so one can know how very neat the house is kept. In the cozy little parlor opening off a pretty little hall are many things of interest. The first thing which impresses one is Mrs. Webb’s love of music. In one corner is a fine piano, in another a music-box, and in front of the pier glass, which separates the windows, is an organ-box and table combined. Mrs. Webb does not pay any rent for her rooms, as they are meant for a place for the matron as well as for her charges, who have comfortable cots and cribs and chairs in another part of the flat. But for all her work, of which one can form but little idea, she is only paid $33 a month. Of that slender amount many a 50 cents goes to help those who have less.

“It is not the deserving poor that one ever hears of,” said Matron Webb. “I know of a family who are very much reduced. The mother receives a pension—her husband was in the army during the Mexican war—of some few dollars a year—about thirty, I think. The daughter made an unfortunate marriage, and she and her one child were deserted. Both the mother and daughter are in very poor health. They make hat frames for a living. I have sent missionaries there, but they look about and they see everything clean and well-cared for, so they give no help. If they went into a house where everything was neglected and in a state of filth they would be very anxious to aid the people. Some missionaries cannot understand such things as poverty and cleanliness. I did get one wealthy old maid to visit them, and then because they were not connected with some church—and really it costs too much to go to church for poor people to indulge in it—she would not do anything for them.”


I went down to the Tombs. The passageway was crowded with people who had come to visit their friends, and I stood aside to watch them. Some had tales of misery in their faces, and some had the misery in their apparel, while their faces were hardened as if it were an old story to them. They formed in a long line. The first, a man, handed a little dirty card in the window to an officer. He looked it over, then slowly open the iron gate. The man entered and the gate was closed but the man was told to stand still. Then, with a rapidity which bespoke long experience, the officer slid his hands into the man’s pocket, and in a second he knew everything the man had about him. He found something which looked to me at a distance like a knife. He handed it back to the man and pushed him out of the gate.

While this was going on I attempted to read the long list of rules for prisoners, and then I noticed a smaller black board beside it. This is what was written on it in chalk:


A nice old gentleman in uniform came out then. He was surrounded by a number of eager visitors, so I waited. As he started to enter the prison again, I timidly caught his coat sleeve and said:

“If you please”—

He stopped and looked around. I handed him my card of admission, which he read carefully, and then asked me to follow him. Past the long line we went and to the iron gate. There he said some magic word to the keeper and I was allowed to enter. We came to a second gate.

“Is the young lady with you?” asked the keeper.

“I have her in charge,” the Deputy Warden said, smiling at me. At the next door Matron McAuliffe met us, and the old gentleman, after saying a few pleasant words, left us together.

“I have three assistants and a night matron,” said Mrs. McAuliffe as she took me into the dining-room, where they have three long tables, at each of which sixteen prisoners eat, “and we change off our work each week. I have been matron twelve years. I was first at the Workhouse on the Island, and then I was transferred here. I like the work; my whole soul is in it. Of course it is very trying, but it does not get monotonous. Our hours are from 7 to 7, and by giving notice in advance we can get a day off every week.”

“Are any of the prisoners ever abusive to you?”

“I have very little trouble with them. They are most always obedient to me. We feed the prisoners three times a day. Then, they can also have what their friends send them.”

We walked to the door of the prison, where a colored woman and a white woman were talking through the bars to their visitors. We went inside and looked about at the poor, wretched prisoners.

“A number of these are voluntary prisoners,” explained Mrs. McAuliffe. “They are unable to work, going to illness, hard times, and oftener laziness, so they come to the police courts and ask to be sent to the Workhouse for shelter.”


We had hardly reached the door when some one called out:

“A visitor for Addie Stanton. Addie Stanton.”

A slender woman, wearing a light ulster, whose hair was golden on top and brown at the roots, came rushing down from the upper tier.

“Addie, you can step outside,” the Matron said to her. She did so, and a handsome man, well clad and with every appearance of respectability, caught her by the hand and pressed a light kiss on her upturned lips.

“How does she conduct herself?” I asked.

“She and Ella Hammond are about the best-behaved prisoners we have. They are quiet and attend chapel every time.”

“Please, ma’am, I’d like to bring the children to see their mother,” a colored man said who left his wife at the gate to speak to the Matron.

“You cannot do that, because it is against the rules,” the Matron answered kindly, but firmly. “The Warden objects to children being brought in here. He thinks the sight of their parents behind the bars is not a desirable thing to impress on their young minds and that the effect is hardening.”

The colored man, with many a break in his voice, told his story to the Matron, and she patiently listened, expressing quiet sympathy for his misery.

“These are the same stairs that were used when the old prison was here,” said Mrs. McAuliffe, as we went up the winding staircase, which had been scrubbed thoroughly. We entered a small room in which were two altars and a number of benches. “This is the chapel. We have service here on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Sunday morning the Sisters of Charity are here, and in the afternoon the chapel is devoted to the Episcopal service. Prisoners can attend or not, just as they wish. Before a prisoner is hanged if he wishes he can come to service here. Poor Danny Lyons came here the day before he was hanged. When a hanging is to take place of prisoners are very sad and quiet. It affects the whole prison. This hall back of the chapel is called ‘The Magdalen’. We confine women who have received their first sentence and children to it, to keep them from coming in contact with hardened criminals. You see we have a nice stove fire and comfortable beds in the dormitory alongside. This window, which opens into the chapel, was to enable a crippled woman to hear the service. She could not get up and down stairs, so her chair was always wheeled to this window.”


“Did you ever know of any woman reforming?” I asked.

“No, I never did. I have known of hard drinkers keeping sober for several months at a time; but they can’t control themselves, and a wild desire will return which brings them here again.”

Out near the gate where the visitors first enter is a small whitewashed room, lighted with a single gas-jet and furnished only with a table and a chair. Here Mrs. McAuliffe introduced me to an assistant matron, Mrs. McLaughlin. She has large brown eyes and short, curly hair, and a very amiable manner.

“I was for some time a matron on Hart’s Island and Blackwell’s Island, and I read your experience in the Insane Asylum with pleasure,” she said to me. “I always say the insane are my people, and I always get along so well with them. I would devote my life to it if I could afford to do so. We know the cruelty to the insane is dreadful, but what else can we expect? They cannot employ educated nurses for $16 a month, and the ignorant are always cruel.” 

“How do you like searching women?” I asked Mrs. McLaughlin.

“At first I was very much ashamed to do it, but now I don’t mind it. They try sometimes to carry in drink and knives and such things. We find them in the funniest places. Sometimes they make a pocket in their stockings; often they suspend a bottle by cords from the waist. They are very new visitors who try to smuggle things in now; others know it is impossible, and they also know that if they send any reasonable thing here it is always given to the prisoners.”


Mrs. Byrnes, the matron at Jefferson Market, is a pretty, slender woman, who looks so girlish that one is astonished to be introduced to her son Edward, a bright, healthy lad of 12, who rushes in at noon and kisses her on the cheek. Mrs. Byrnes was educated in a Montreal convent, and is a French scholar and a musician. She made choice of this work because it is not so public as many things women have to do. Mrs. Byrnes receives the same salary as the matrons at the Tombs—$37 a month. The head matron at the Tombs, Mrs. McAuliffe, receives about $43 a month, and an old lady who was once matron, but is now past work, receives her salary as a pension, which lasts until she dies. I think this very just and considerate in the Commissioners. Mrs. Byrnes once worked at the Tombs, where she had charge of the boys. She liked that very much better than her present position, as she had some hope of good resulting from her work among the young.

“No, I do not find that very many reform,” Mrs. Byrnes said. “Indeed, I cannot recall any, but I do find them grateful. Why, one woman was brought in here feverish from long dissipation. I gave her an orange, and many months after when she came back—for they always do—she recalled herself to me and thanked me for the orange. I always find them grateful for a kindness. I am watching a case now of a young woman who began drinking and ended here. She was very young, so I worked hard to get her sent to some home instead of to the Island. After I had everything arranged with the Judge and the authorities of the home she refused to go, preferring the Island. I was so disappointed that it made me sick at heart. Since then I have heard from her, and she regrets that she did not take my advice, so I am waiting until she has served her sentence to see if she reforms or goes back to her old way.”


“What is the chief cause of crime among women?” I asked.

“Cheap drink, undoubtedly. These women often tell me that they can get trust for all the drink they want at saloons. If drink was not so cheap the police courts would not have so much to do. It leads to everything else. After these women serve a sentence for being drunk they go out, and probably the next day will find them in again. Why? Well, they say they need something to brace them, and they brace too much. I look on these women as diseased. They really cannot help themselves. The ones I have no patience with are the lazy women who commit themselves in preference to working. I think a young, healthy woman who would rather go to the Island than to work cannot receive too severe a sentence.”

Mrs. Stack, who is matron at the Essex Market Prison, has the most uncomfortable place of all. She has only one little corner at the foot of the iron stairs which lead to the upper tiers for herself. The prison is damp, dark and cold. The only heat which comes from the furnace beneath is so filled with gas that the inmates find freezing preferable to it. Mrs. Stack, who has been a helping friend to the unfortunate for eleven years, has some very good ideas of what the weak as well as the wicked need. It was 5 o’clock, the hour they serve supper, when I visited Essex Market Prison. One dim gas jet flickered faintly in the corridor, and a number of wretched women sat on some benches against the whitewashed wall. One woman on the end, who still wore her shabby bonnet and shawl, was sobbing bitterly. She had been arrested while going to her dressmaker’s the night before, she said, but the officer had told a different story. She was an old offender, so the officer was believed, and she was sent to jail. A number of the other women were listening intently to the story of a young girl who alternately stood and kneeled before them. She said that she was not yet sixteen, but she was tall and as slender as a stalk of wheat. Her dress and shoes were cheap, and her bustle had the pointed shape so usual to badly clad women. A strange story she told.

That morning she had left her home to go to the type-foundry where she was employed. On the way she met a “young gent” whom she knew, and he took her in some place and gave her drugged whiskey. How did she know it was drugged? Because as soon as he left her she went into a nearby store and stole a clock.

Two men came in carrying a large boiler, which they placed at the end of the table. Mrs. Stack went down and served the tea from the boiler to the prisoners. Each prisoner had a large tin pan and was given as much bread and tea as she wanted. An old woman came out of a cell way down the corridor. She hobbled to a bench, but made no move to approach the table. 

“What is she?” I asked, rather vaguely.

“She is seventy-six years old and bound for the Almshouse,” replied to the matron, “the result of a misspent life.”

After dinner the women were all appointed to their cells, the young girl marching with them as proudly as if she were a model of goodness. Then they were locked in and Mrs. Stack returned to me.


“Drink is the root of all evil,” she said. “Every crime, every wrong deed is the result of drink. And sending women to the Island does more to promote evil than anything else. No woman who serves time on the Island ever reforms. We have one woman here to-day who left the Island yesterday at 10 o’clock after serving a six months’ term. Some of the keepers gave her 20 cents to pay her carfare into town. Instead of that she went into the first saloon, and at 4 o’clock we had her back again. Now she has another term to serve.”

“Good night, Mrs. Stack, I am going,” said a woman coming from one of the cells. “Won’t you wish me luck?”

“I do,” replied the matron, “and here is enough money to pay your carfare.” And with a few kindly wishes she let the woman out and locked the door.

“Now, you see there is a woman who has served her sentence. She is going out at night, homeless and penniless. What is there for her to do? Who will take her in or trust her? A few days will bring her back, because there is nothing else for her.”

“What of those Homes?”

“They are filled already with women who have not served time. If, instead of the Island, they had a place for women where they could, while serving time, be taught to work, and for good work and conduct receive 50 cents a month, when their time was up they would have enough to support them until they could find work, and while there they would have learned to do something. If arrested on the same complaint a second time they should get, instead of a few months, a year. Make the punishment severe for a third failing. The Island makes women worse instead of better, so what is the use of sending them there? It neither punishes them nor reforms them, so it is a failure.”

I bade her and the Warden, who has served forty years at this one post, good-by and went out into the night sick at the sight of misery and discouraged at the idea of reform.

Nellie Bly

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