Correction's Katharine Bement Davis:
New York City's Suffragist Commissioner

-- Davis Organizes Quake Victims Into Self-help Workforces --


Before leaving examination of Davis' years as reformatory superintendent mention must be made of what happened Dec. 28, 1908, and the weeks that followed. Katharine had taken a long-postponed, much-needed vacation away from Bedford and was in the resort town of Siracusa (Syracuse), Sicily when a major earthquake hit the nearby Messina region. Most vacationers packed their bags and fled but Davis did just the opposite. She unpacked all her garments that could be ripped into bandages, rushed with them to the nearest medical facility and began helping the injured people who were brought in or straggled in from devastated areas.

After long service in the hospital, she took a break but saw on the streets a social problem going unaddressed. Hundreds of quake refugees were wandering about homeless, with no shoes and no work, with little clothing and less hope. Without portfolio, she persuaded the mayor to open a vacant building and to get her sewing machines. Davis recruited homeless women to sew simple clothing for themselves and other refugees. She organized a group of cobblers to make shoes. At first, Davis paid the seamtresses and shoemakers modest wages out of pocket. Similarly, she set up work gangs of adult male refugees repairing and building roads and simple houses. Not only were clothes, shoes, shelter and roads needed on an emergency basis, but the quake victims needed purposeful activity to prevent their detress turning into paralyzing depression undermining their will to recover.

When her own funds ran out, she collected contributions from the few remaining Americans and from friends abroad. For months, she ran a vast emergency enterprise of employment, relief and reconstruction. She directed factories and work gangs, developed housing, and helped rebuild roads. Eventually, the American Red Cross deputized her and underwrote her quake relief/work program.

King, President, Pope Hail Her

The mayor quite literally turned over his office quarters to her. He and other officials held in awe this little lady who one minute could supervise assembly-line sewing and the next minute direct mixing concrete, who could organize into self-help the people of a land and language other than her own, and who brought them back to life from the listlessness into which disaster had stunned them. She did not leave until she had arranged for the operation to continue after her return to the U.S. where President Taft made a presentation citing her earthquake relief labors.

Before Davis left Italy, Pope Pius X personally thanked her for her extraordinary efforts. His Holiness was the son of a cobbler. He could appreciate the widsom of her decision to include shoemaking among the relief industries she set up with and for the quake victims.

In advance of the rare private audience in the Vatican, she went to a beautician who insisted Katharine's hair be "marcelled," despite objections from Davis who never had her hair done in that wavy style. In writing years later about her special interview with the Pope, she recalled the big fuss in the beauty parlor about that once-in-a-lifetime marcel wave. "[In meeting Pius X] I wore a black lace scarf over my head as provide by pontifical etiquette but I hope the Pope noticed the beautiful waves as I knelt down to kiss his ring." Then she added parenthetically that she was just joking. Perhaps she realized someone might miss that she was poking fun at herself for the much-to-do about styling hair that got covered over anyway.

Other honors came from King Victor Emmanuel, the Italian Red Cross and American Red Cross. A series of roads she helped build in Sicily was named for her.

*Copyright 1997 by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York City Department of Correction. All rights reserved.