[KBD: Eleven]

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

-- City Service -- 1914 & 1915: Correction --

[Commissioner Davis as Candidate Davis]

As State Constitutional Convention Delegate-at-Large Candidate, Davis selected this photo for the cover of the four-page campaign piece distributed by the Progressive Party in the 1914 election. Running to spotlight the woman suffrage issue, Davis appears to have been the first of her gender nominated for New York statewide office on a major party slate. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)

By THOMAS C. McCARTHY*

This then was the 53-year-old woman whom New York City's youngest mayor up to that time, 34-year-old John Purroy Mitchel, picked to head Correction, thereby breaking the City Hall cabinet gender barrier. Her earthquake relief exploits had given her name recognition with the general public. Her long tenure at Bedford had made the appointee well known to the city's judges, police, prosecutors, defense bar, newspapers, and social work leaders. Even before being offered the city post, she had been involved with many of them on such projects as planning a decent city jail for women.

Her reformatory innovations had also won her a national and international reputation as well as a network of contacts among penologists, reformers, social scientists, and philanthropists. The Prison Association of New York had declared that, "Under its superintendent, Dr. Katharine Bement Davis, the reformatory is becoming perhaps the most scientific institution of its kind in the world."

Also making the city's establishment even more aware of Davis was a 1913 book she helped publish detailing prostitution's corrupting influence on the city's government, law enforcement, and justice system. The study by a professional corruption investigator had been underwritten by the Bureau of Social Hygiene that Rockefeller, Davis and others founded a few years earlier. The book, Commercialized Prostitution in New York City, included a chapter contributed by Davis about 650 prostitutes studied at Bedford. Again she rejected racist and nativist views blaming blacks and foreigners for prostitution. Her research showed more than 60 percent of the prostitutes were white, native-born Americans. Women not born in the U.S. accounted for 24 percent; African-Americans, for 13 percent. Unemployment, under-employment and low wages for women were cited as major factors. Background checks showed a significant number had family histories that included alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, insanity and tuberculosis.

Davis was known to a number of people whom Mitchel would consult concerning appointments and related matters. Mitchel conferred with Rockefeller Jr. on offering the post to Davis while Katharine consulted him on whether to accept it. Mitchel's own service as president of the city Board of Aldermen had made him aware of Bedford Hills as the state facility in Westchester where many New York City women were sent for violating laws, including some that the Aldermen had roles in enacting. The last fusion reform mayor prior to Mitchel had been Seth Low. His mayoral term had coincided with the opening of the Bedford Hills facility whose inmates came mostly from New York City. Low had been Columbia College president at the time it affiliated with Barnard College when Davis took courses there traveling from Brooklyn Heights where she taught. A former mayor of Brooklyn, Low later had a home in Bedford Hills to which he retired after quitting Columbia in 1914.

Katharine was known also to several leaders in the Progressive Party that had gotten Mitchel elected. These included one of its chief national organizers, Frances Kellor who had pursued graduate sociological studies at Chicago University while Davis was there. Kellor was among the women, from different parties, who came together to promote woman suffrage by "nominating" female candidates for the parties to run for State Constitutional Convention seats, either as district delegates or as statewide delegates-at-large. Davis was the only suffragist nominee selected by a major party to run statewide as one of its 12 delegate-at-large candidates. Her placement on the Progressives' 1914 slate appears to establish Davis as the first woman to run for New York statewide office on a major party ticket before women had won the right to vote.

'An Entirely New Order'

Some members of the general public not fully aware of her background may have expected her to serve simply as a female figurehead deferring to the male commanders in the Correction Department. Anyone who had that mistaken notion soon discarded it. Davis demonstrated from her first day at DOC that she would be a hands-on, take-charge, no-nonsense Commissioner. A Times reporter covering her activities that day noted, "She took charge of everything about her, including her long-time friend, ex-Commissioner Patrick Whitney. Mr. Whitney started to show his successor over the building, but as soon as she found where the Commissioner's desk was she settled down and was a very busy woman for the rest of day."

During her two years as Commissioner, she introduced operational and management changes transforming the agency from what sometimes seemed a loose confederation of local facilities into a centrally-run, administratively-unified department. Perhaps no example better illustrates Davis' tight-ship style than her reaction to a draft document she was handed shortly after becoming DOC Commissioner Jan. 1, 1914. She was given the annual report prepared for the year ending Dec. 31, 1913. The draft followed the standard form of previous DOC annual reports. Its 60 pages were simply a collection of separate reports by individual wardens and by the departmentís accountant and other officials, covered by a single paragraph transmittal letter from the Commissioner to the Mayor. But in her letter of transmittal, Katharine sounded a wake-up call:

This report as now rendered comprises a collection of independent reports . . ., apparently complied without coordination either of form of presentation, or of contents. As, however, I possessed no jurisdiction over the operation of the department in the year 1913, I present this report without comment other than to direct attention to this incoordination and to the fact that the report for the year 1914 will follow an entirely new order of presentation. I also call attention to the fact that the statistics relating to prisoners in this 1913 report contain a considerable amount of repetitional information, which tends to destroy the value of the figures presented as statistics.
Some "without comment other than . . ."!

True to her word, the two annual reports prepared at her direction reflected "an entirely new order," not merely of presentation, but also of agency operation and organization. Her two reports ran at least three times as many pages, were focused on the department as whole, and included statistical analysis, strategic planning, and the reports of studies by outside experts conducted at her invitation. The Commissioner's own preface to the detailed report ran several pages. They summarized and analyzed the facts and figures, reviewed current conditions, projected future needs and set forth plans and programs to address current and future needs. Another innovation was the liberal use of illustrations -- bar graphs and pie charts -- and photos, things never before appearing in DOC annual reports.

As sources of historical information, annual reports have their uses and their limitations, whether they originated with public agencies or with private corporations. Yet even discounting the public relations aspect built into virtually all annual reports, those done under Davis' direction are so dramatically different when compared with those preceding hers, they evidence a substantive change in management calibre and direction, not merely cosmetic alteration of presentation. The information was so thoroughly integrated to convey a total picture of the agency as a whole, rather than simply a series of snapshots of constituent parts, that the reports constitute credible testimony to the vision of the department Davis left as her imprint.

A historical truism about the Civil War holds that before the conflict, "United States" was considered a plural noun and that after the war, the noun became singular. In somewhat the same sense, Davis' tenure represented such a departure from the past that her two years can be said to mark the emergence of the Department as a whole into the modern era. Two decades earlier the city's inmate-related facilities had been part of the Department of Public Charities and Correction (DOPCC) but, under urging from reformers such as Josephine Shaw Lowell, the city and state divided that dual agency into two separate agencies. The laws setting up the separation specified which facilities under DOPCC came under which separate new agency, DOC or DOPC. This facility-focus continued in the early DOC years. With Davis, the focus clearly shifts to the department as a whole. The seeds for that development may been planted, and the tender shoots tended, prior to her arrival but she was the Commissioner who brought the development to fruition.

Zebras and Bedticking

Among the reforms for which she fought, often victoriously, were classification of prisoners, segregation of inmate types, a coherent system of inmate record keeping, and inmate blood testing. Perhaps her best remembered reform was the abolition of prison stripe clothing, saying it undermined efforts to raise inmate self-respect. An incident that happened in connection with the clothing change reflects aspects of Katharine's character -- quick with wit and quip, long on thoughtful analysis, decisive in action.

On Jan. 2, 1924, Davis and her deputy, Burdette Lewis, accompanied by a group of reporters covering the city's first woman executive commissioner on her early rounds, ferried across to Blackwell's to inspect the Penitentiary. As they approached the island's docking area, men in black and gray striped clothing could be seen unloading a coal barge there. Adopting what one biographer described as a "characteristic serio-comic mien," Davis spontaneously recited to the person standing next to her on the boat:

When first he saw the zebra,
The donkey wagged his tail.
"Good gracious," was his comment,
"That mule has been in jail."

Davis turned quite serious and told those with her that she believed strongly in the psychological impact clothing had on their wearers; that people always had more self-respect when wearing their best. "Half the degradation and sullenness of prisoners is a result of their hideous stripes and shapeless garments. I shall order the women prisoners' clothes be made out of neat, pretty gingham. You can't reform a woman who is wearing bedticking." She indicated that the equivalent held true for male inmates in stripes. Not very many days later newspapers were announcing the Commissioner was abolishing convict stripes as soon she could "get rid of 18,000 yards of stripes."

Similarly, she halted public sightseeing tours at the Tombs, calling it degrading for inmates "to be gazed upon like wild beasts in cages."


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