Photo of Correction facilities on Blackwell's Island from annual report prepared by Department under Commissioner Katharine Bement Davis. Later, Blackwell's was renamed Welfare Island; still later, Roosevelt Island. Note Queensborough Bridge (aka 59th St. bridge) in upper left. (Photo by Correction Officer Robert Montes of photo in annual report volume made available through courtesy of the Municipal Archives.)
By THOMAS C. McCARTHY*
Seeking a solid basis for action, the new Correction Commissioner had two aides get themselves arrested for "joyriding" and held in the Tombs three weeks. Their experiences provided the grounds for her to initiate steps that shook up the department and the city. Her targets: corruption and favoritism. The undercovers had been able to "buy" the best cells and food. They had witnessed trafficking in, and smuggling of, drugs and liquor.
Davis ordered all prisoners be treated equally, whether wealthy or poor. "Luxury" accommodations for inmate elites were abolished. No longer could food and tobacco be brought in by visitors; they had become drug smuggling channels. The newspapers announced in amazement that the city's most infamous and affluent crooks were being consigned to "common cells by Miss Davis." Wrote one daily: "If this be feminism, let us have more of it."
She herself led unannounced night raids on facilities, surprising keepers and inmates alike, confiscating contraband and exposing various irregularities.
Her success in reducing the amount of drugs and other contraband getting to inmates was one of the causal factors in the Blackwell's penitentiary riot that erupted July 8th, 1914. Other factors cited later were the economic depression then prevailing, the rise of the radical Industrial Workers of World, and the ineptitude of a warden at a critical moment. It all began with a horse's feeding bag . . .
The Davis contraband crackdown drove some inmates to desperate measures to have drugs smuggled to them. A few wrote letters that an inmate hid in the feeding bag of a horse used to haul the cart of a vender making a delivery. The letters to relatives and friends urged new ways be found to get the drugs into the facility. Whatever past practice may have given the convicts hope that letters put into the feeding bag could reach those addressed is not clear. But this time a keeper, who had become suspicious of the inmate hanging around the horse, found the letters and sent them to Davis. When that keeper next appeared in the inmate mess hall, the convicts whose efforts he had frustrated began hissing. The general area from which the hissing had come was known. The warden demanded to know who had started it. When no one spoke up, the warden punished all the men at the two tables in the suspect zone, the hissers and non-hissers alike. They were locked in their cells the rest of the day.
At the time, the facility held a number of Wobblies as I.W.W. members were known. Their advocacy of overthrowing the country's capitalistic structure to be replaced by a workers-run society, and their activities of economic disruption to achieve that goal, had figured in their arrests and incarcerations. The Wobblies seized upon what they characterized as the unjust punishment of the men from the suspect tables. In one shop, an IWWer -- with a gift for oratory -- led his fellow inmates in revolt, smashing machines and slashing motor belts. With that, a full-scale riot broke out.
Commissioner Davis was returning to the city by boat from the Belmont family's Newport estate, where she had attended a Political Equality Association meeting, when she heard the rioters' sounds as the vessel steamed past Blackwell's. Straight away, she headed to the scene without waiting to change from social finery to office wear. That prompted a popular image of the Lady Commissioner quelling the riot at the point of her parasol. She carried no parasol. But quell the riot she did, with a display of courage and sagacity that won her the respect of inmates, staff, press and public.
Davis walked through the cellblocks, talked with the prisoners, told them to name their representatives to meet with her and set up her office in the facility until calm was completely restored. Katharine even preached at the religious services of the various faiths at their next days of observance.
To hear the cases against the riot ringleaders, Davis had the magistrate come to Blackwell's rather than transport them to court. As the Tribune reported, "The firm hand of Commissioner Davis manifested itself again on Blackwell's Island . . . The new Commissioner made a departure in having the trials on the island . . . there in the warden's office, court was held. It was all perfectly legal. The Commissioner took no part in the proceedings. She simply sat by and watched."
A State Prison Commission report on the riot, issued months later, declared, "The Commissioner of Correction took hold of the situation with a firm hand and deserves commendation for the energy, justice, and ability with which she handled it."
At the city prison keepers' annual dinner in the Hotel Breslin Feb. 3, 1915, Commissioner Davis was the guest of honor. She remarked, as quoted by the Tribune:
The riots in the [Blackwell's] penitentiary were perhaps a good thing after all. They cleared the air like a thunderstorm. They convinced everybody in the beginning that to have a woman commissioner didn't mean that discipline was going to be lax. I want to take this opportunity to thank the keepers for the way they stood by the wardens in those trying days.
Then Davis told a story about firing a keeper, the kind of incident one might first think a Commissioner would wish to be silence about at a keepers' social event because it could be so easily misinterpreted as threatening. But seeking safety in silence was not the Davis style. She knew the keepers, under previous unnamed administrations, had experienced the intrusion of partisan politics into their professional domain, placing their job security at risk. The point of her story was reassurance from her that she would not permit that to happen while she was the helm. Davis knew the men would understand exactly what she was saying and would welcome hearing it. They recognized her frankness as a sign of respect for them and it earned her their respect in return. She told them:
We hope to raise the salaries of keepers, too, so as to attract the best type of men into the profession. These may be assured that the only thing that will count in holding the position will be fitness.
The other day it was necessary for me to discharge a keeper. Pretty soon one of my friends came dashing in, "You have dismissed a fellow Progressive," she said.
"I don't know that he was Progressive, but I do know that he was drunk," I answered. I don't think a man's politics are any of my business.
Davis conducted a survey of DOC personnel and discovered orderlies and helpers performing the duties of officers. In her departmental reorganization, she replaced as many as possible of the orderlies and helpers with keepers from civil service lists. She sought higher pay and better working conditions for the keepers, and often spoke directly with them in the down-to-earth manner that was her style. She was highly regarded by the members of the uniformed force, and several kept in touch with her long after she had moved on to other tasks, and even into retirement.
Writing in the April, 1932, issue of On Guard, the monthly published by the Prison Keepers Council, Keeper Joseph P. Tallon recalled:
The Hon. Katharine B. Davis, when Commissioner, found that instead of keepers, the majority of officers were orderlies and helpers receiving $20 or $40 per month salary. Immediately there was a re-organization, replacing [them] so far as possible with keepers from the Civil Service lists [in] those positions [and thereby] cleaning out [from] the department this type of employee, knowing that labor like all other commodities has a standard of value and [that] you only get what you pay for.
Many of you can remember Commissioner Davis addressing the keepers' meetings, explaining what was expected of the keepers, [announcing] the first boost in salary. Unfortunately for the keepers before she had time to complete those changes advocated, Commissioner Davis was appointed Parole Commissioner.
[She passed] on to greater honors and lately to a well-earned rest that she is now enjoying in sunny California. By wishing you the best of health and a long life, I am sure that I am expressing the sentiment of all of the men in our department who knew you as our Commissioner.