Why Don’t Women Reform?

Nellie Bly

The New York World/June 17, 1888


Nellie Bly Asks This Question Of Police-Court Prisoners.

She Spends a Day at Jefferson Market Court and Jail—Drink Seems to Be Responsible for Most of the Evil—Missionaries Apparently Can Render Little Aid—What the Women Have to Say for Themselves.

I went to the Jefferson Market Police Court on Wednesday. It was a beautiful bright sunny morning outside. Within the contrast was not a pleasant one. The courtroom was dark and forbidding. On an elevated platform, inclosed by a high board partition, sat Judge Ford, a pleasant-faced silver-haired man, who seemed to judge rightly the accused brought before him. Directly in front of Judge Ford’s desk topping off the board partition was a wide shelf furnished on either end with a gas jet and Bibles. This is reached by a small platform mounted by two steps. In couplets, like the gas jets and Bibles, an officer occupies either end. Their mission is to direct prisoners in swearing—on the Bible, of course—and to restrain their emotions during examinations. On this and at its base the prisoners relate their tales of trouble.

Three colored men were called. One was accused of moving another’s trunk, free of charge, and forgetting where he left it. It had been left by the owner at George Washington’s house. The defendant said George complained that it was in his way and asked him to remove it. The Judge did not seem to think “cherry-tree-hatchet” tales fellow the name, and George had to swear and kiss the Bible just the same as if he had been John Smith. George swore, in true Southern dialect, that he had never seen the prisoner before he called for the trunk.

“What did you do with the trunk?” asked the Judge.

“I dunno, sir: I think I left it at 127.” He was sent back to jail until further evidence could be procured.

A woman clad in a calico dress, with a shabby shawl over her shoulders, tried several times to get out of the iron gate. She evidently did not want to appear against her husband, a short, cross-eyed man who, were he as square as his face, would be a sure delegate for wings. He had taken a clock, among other things, and was trying to pawn it to get money for drink, she said, mildly, and he did not deny it very strongly. She left sadly, bearing the clock under her arm, while he was sent back to jail. I wondered how much she would here to suffer for it when he gets out.

Then came two boys, who had run off from home to join the Wild West. The mother of one broke down completely at the sight of her son in charge of an officer. Next came four women who made some display in dress. “I have nothing to say,” was the stereotyped reply of each to the Judge.

“Ten dollars or ten days,” he said. They walked quickly down, paid their fines and quitted the room. Benefited? Taught a lesson? No, with a capital N and an accent. They may be there again the very next night.

In The Prisoners’ Ward

The most interesting part of my visit was the talk I had afterwards with the prisoners. The big man who opens the door to the jail  had a kind face but no manners. “This is my friend, Miss Hamilton,” said my escort, and the tall man politely turned his head aside and said something about us being without passes, but still we got in. First we saw a long, narrow room with high barred windows. On one side was a slanting board table where the prisoners sleep their first night. Of course there are no pillows or bed clothes. The softest thing in sight is the board. The women’s side was empty, but the men quite filled their room. Some came boldly up to the grated door when I came in sight. Others rested carelessly on their board beds, using their coats for pillows. Those I spoke to were quite unlike other prisoners I have seen. They were guilty! That is, they acknowledged their guilt.

“My wife put me here,” said one comely looking fellow, “because I drank.”

“Why do you drink?” I asked.

“Because I have too much money. Buy clothes? Why, I have three suits. You wouldn’t want me to buy more” You’ll be getting married some day and putting your man in here.”

What The Men Eat.

We mounted the iron staircase, taking care not to rub against the whitewashed walls, and were soon in the ward, or whatever they may call it, where the male prisoners were. It looked the same as any public building for punishment. The walls were all white washed, the floors were all stone and everything marvelously clean. I walked along the iron balconies and talked with a few of those confined behind the barred doors. James, the newsboy-bootblack arrested on the charge of robbing an express wagon, rose, pale and worried, from a reclining position-on his cot.

“It’s lonely in here,” he said. “Do you know when I will get out? I don’t know nothing about it” (referring to the robbery). “I black boots for the Mayor’s secretary, and was there the time they said I did it. If I could only send him a letter he’d come to see me and sell them. Read this,” handling me a paper. “They say I’m a legged tief, which means an old tief.”

I read in the newspaper notice “an alleged thief” and explained to him the difference much to his relief.

“I never took nothing, and I never was ’rested cept for playin’ ball,” he said. “I know they can’t do nothin’ with me ’cause I’m innocent, but it’s a long time to be sent up.”

In the next cell was a frank-looking young man.

“What are you in for?” I asked.

“For stealing a watch,” he said, getting up on his cot and looking at me with a smile.

Why He Stole

“Why did you steal it?” I asked again. He looked at his hands as they lay clasped on his knees and then up to me rather sadly. “I don’t know why. The man in the next cell—that’s his wife and baby visiting him—was with me and we got drunk. I don’t remember how it was, but we got in a fuss on the street and the watch was found in my hands. I must have taken it, of course, but I was too drunk to know anything about it. When I get out I’ll keep sober. I hope the other man will get out. You see he has a wife, and the watch was in my hands.” As he talked the delicate young girl swayed back and forth in her endeavor to hush the mournful cries of the babe whose father stood behind the iron bars quietly watching them.

A man, said to be “Weeping Lawrence,” but who told me his name was Campbell, was next seen. He had been sitting despondently on the cot until I spoke to him. He rose a tall, well-built man, of probably forty years, and removing his plain straw hat, stood with uncovered head. Of course he said he was not the “Weeping Lawrence” who had been gathering subscriptions for twenty years to bury his dead wife. His wife was alive and he was a stonecutter by trade. He had me write a card to notify his wife of his imprisonment and then I left him.

The little runaways were confined in one cell. They lay on the cot building a future for themselves. They were not in the least ashamed of their Wild West escapade, nor of the money they had purloined. I think had they been confined in separate cells, with no one to speak to, that their punishment might have made an impression. Confinement is not so hard when one has congenial companions.

With The Women

I then left the men and talked some time with Mrs. Byrnes, the matron of the female word. I really think no one could fill the position better. She is a delicate-looking refined little woman, anxious to do what she can for the poor creatures in her charge. They all spoke of her kindness. “I get to know them all,” she said, “they became regular guests. I never knew any to reform. They start in looking very well and go down, down to the very lowest. The cause? Drink. But they have good hearts. They often use horrible language to me, but I do not mind it, I know they are in drink. When sober they are nice. I have done little favors for them that came within my power, and they always repay them.”

She escorted me into the ward, which is exactly like those below. A motley crew of women were sitting about on the benches and a few were walking up and down the ward. What pen could ever describe the pictured misery? The pencil of Dore might have got a sketch of Hades from such a scene, so lost, so hopeless were their expressions. Is there no remedy for this? Is there no punishment that will teach these creatures to do differently? Who is more competent than themselves to say? I decided to ask them.

“I want to speak to you,” I said placing a detaining hand on the shoulder of the awning-maker. She passed in her walk, looked at me inquiringly from beneath the black straw hat and red reeds while she folded her arms is her shawl across her breast. She was better dressed than the others and looked like an honest working girl.

Was She Innocent?

“What brought you here?” I asked. “The policeman,” she answered, looking with cold, gray eyes at me. “His story was false. I was returning from a friend’s and it was only 8 o’clock. What brought me here first? Drink, of course. I lost my husband and then my only child—a girl of eight years. I commenced drinking, and here I am. There’s no use trying to do differently. Once the police know you they have you out all the time drunk or sober.”

She started off in her short, nervous walk and I spoke to others. A colored girl had fallen to the floor in a fit and the majority grouped around her. Two women in “ticking” dresses, with their hair combed back smoothly and their sleeves rolled up, attracted my attention. “What brought you here?” I asked the larger.

“Drink,” she answered, looking up with a smile. “I took two glasses of beer while out marketing. The lady scolded me for it and I felt ashamed. So I went out and drank more. The police brought me here and I’ve got ten days,” and she began to roll her sleeves up higher, without any pugilistic intentions, however.

“And how did you get here?” I asked of the girl beside her.

“Same thing” she said. “My time’s up, though, and I get out to-day. I don’t drink much. I went in and took a glass of beer and it set me off. It was fixed.”

“That is true,” said Mrs. Byrnes, who, having come) in, had overheard the girl’s story. “There are many, many places run quietly, having the appearance of a private house, and when girls go in there they are drugged and their little bit of money taken from them.”

The Police Powerless

“Why don’t the police raid them?” I asked.

“I do not know. I suppose the majority are unknown to them.”

“You won’t drink again when you get out?” I said to a battered-up creature in a cheap calico.

“Oh, yes I will,” she said earnestly, “just as soon as my three months are up I’ll get drunk.”

“It only make me worse,” said a colored girl who sat next, while several others joined in saying it did no good.

“What shall we do with you, then?” I asked in bewilderment.

“Why, they should build a place and put in the ones who keep it up for life. It’s not use putting them in and out all the while. They never reform”

“We are not so bad at first, but every time we go back we get worse,” said another. “Then, you see, the police get to know us, and it’s no use trying. They run us in just for the sake of having a case. Then they lie about us.”

“What brought you here?” I asked an old woman, whose face was bloated almost out of shape.

“You know, same thing as brings us all,” she replied, lifting her bleary, bloodshot eyes to me “Do different? Who wants to? It’s no use. I’ve only been out three weeks, about as long as I ever stay I’ve got my position on ‘The Island.’ I get discharged. I take a holiday, and then I always go back.”

The Missionary

Just then a gray-haired women, in a little black poke bonnet, came in. She placed a pair of black-rimmed glasses astride her, and from the satchel on her arm distributed tracts. “I am sorry to see you here,” she said to me, taking me for a prisoner. “But he sends us here to soften our hearts. He took all my loved ones from me to soften mine, and he brings you here to soften yours. If I was not too old I would lift up my voice and sing for you all. I must give you a tract that tells of his kingdom.”

“Thank you, madam,” I said gravely, taking the little blue paper, entitled “Looking unto Jesus.” This incident amused the prisoners very much.

“We can’t laugh at her, for she is an old woman,” explained a pretty, dark-eyed girl who sat in front of me. “She has been twenty-five years visiting here, but missionaries do no good here. What prisoner will need such talk at such a moment? Their whole thought is on how they will get out, or how they can put in their ‘time.’ There are moments when one thinks of religion as they do of home, but it isn’t on such an occasion. I know such talk hardens us instead of doing us good.”

“How can we reform you people, then, when persons and religion have no effect?”

“You can’t reform us so long as we don’t want to reform,” she said, toying with the long. slender purse she carried. “A missionary talked with me for an hour one day. I kept silent because she was an old woman. She wanted me to go to a charitable home to reform. ‘Madam,’ I said, when she had ceased, ‘what’s the use of going to that home, when I have one of my own to go to, if I want to reform!’ ”

“Why doesn’t imprisonment reform people?” I asked curiously.

“Because we have congenial companions. We get board fee and altogether it’s a pleasant change or rest from the streets.”

“Why did you leave home?” I asked.

Reform Impossible.

“My parent’s were too strict with me,” she said, with a sigh. “I was between fifteen and sixteen and they would not allow me any companions except of their own choice, whether I liked them or not. I ran off one night to a hall and my father beat me for it, so I ran away. I have regretted it since, but it’s useless now. Indeed, many parents drive children away by being too harsh.”

“Why don’t you reform?”

“It’s an impossible thing to do. Even if I were to try, the very police who have pulled me in would jeer me on the streets, and if I were returning from work they would ask if I were up to my old tricks. They have done it. Once the police know you, you are done for. They pull you in and tell stories, and the more you say to the Judge the more you hurt yourself.”

“Try to reform; it’s worth making a trial,” I suggested. She looked at me with a twinkle in her soft, black eye, while she said a little warningly:

“Don’t turn missionary.”

“I won’t,” I replied, feeling utterly helpless; “but really you understand the subject and the subjects so well you should be a missionary yourself. But go to work. It seems so hard after a while.”

“There are things hundreds of times harder than work,” she replied, a shadow coming into box eyes.

“Then you don’t want to reform?” I said, sadly. She pressed my proffered hand. We gazed a moment at one another and parted. I tell you it is useless!

Another girl, who was imprisoned on the same charge, said:

“Why don’t the police pull men, who are worse than we are? They insult helpless working women. Why don’t the police protect us instead of protecting men, who are simply able to care for themselves? When a woman is insulted on the streets she most endure it unless she wants to appear in a court-room. There are many men who lounge around the streets at night just to insult timid women. I have known plenty of them. Are they ever pulled? If the officers were half so diligent in protecting women you would see more men brought up in the mornings that you new see women.”

I believe such to be the case and I think the girl’s suggestion a good one.

What made the greatest impression on me?

First, the utter uncleanness of the modern form of punishment.

Second, that the majority of misery results from cheap drinks.

(Source: Undercover Reporting, http://sites.dlib.nyu.edu/undercover/sites/dlib.nyu.edu.undercover/files/documents/uploads/editors/Why-Dont-Women-Reform.pdf)