Katharine Bement Davis' Class of 1892 portrait is among those of famous alumnae featured in Vassar's Web Home Pages.(It is a sepia version of the photo at the top of KBD Chapter 7 that was made available through courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)
By THOMAS C. McCARTHY*
In March of 1900, Lowell wrote Chicago University's Dean of Women Marion Talbot if she could recommend someone. Talbot did: Davis. Lowell contacted her, was impressed, and encouraged Katharine to go to Albany and take the Civil Service exam for the position. Davis did, passed easily and was appointed that September.
At first glance, the idea that the holder of a doctorate in political economy would seek and be accepted for the post of reformatory warden seems strange. But when the background of this particular Ph.D. recipient is considered, the idea does not seem so strange at all.
The major emphasis at reformatories, distinguishing them from prisons, was educational. Davis had worked as a teacher, full or part time, for about 15 years. She let the managers know she intended to run the place as an educational institution, otherwise she would not be interested in the position.
The stated goal of such facilities was the personal reformation of inmates for return to society. For four years Katharine had headed the Philadelphia settlement house trying to help poor Russian immigrants and migrant blacks from the South move from society's margins into its mainstream through their personal reorientation; that is, the immigrants' Americanization and the migrants' urbanization. Personal reorientation and personal reformation have similarities.
The long-drawn-out construction of the facility's more than half dozen buildings resulted in the earlier-built structures needing repairs by the time later ones were erected. Therefore, the warden needed to know about construction, renovation and building repairs as well as know about managing group residences. Her Chicago world's fair model home project, her housing work and settlement house management in Philadelphia, and her Foster Hall supervision in Chicago equipped her to take on related duties as reformatory superintendent. Even her needle skills from years of sewing virtually all her own clothes would come in handy when she set up sewing as one of the main industries at the reformatory.
Her Progressive views in penology and education were evident in an interview granted to a Tribune reporter in advance of the first inmate arrivals. At the time, Davis was living near the reformatory's hilly campus while daily supervising its construction, renovations and furnishing.
"Every girl will be trained to be self-sufficient. This is the only means for securing lasting reformation. All will receive instruction in cookery, sewing, plain and fancy laundry and general household work. Outdoor life is expected to do a great deal for the moral and physical regeneration of the girls. There will be greenhouse work, market and vegetable gardening, the raising of small fruit, and recreational games. Matrons are to be women of culture and character [who] in the cottages will associate with the girls at their work, eat at the table with them and sit with them in the evening. Each girl will be made to understand her standing will depend, not on her past record, but wholly on her conduct while here."
Schooling in the academic subjects was to follow, so far as applicable to a reformatory, the educational principles of Dr. John Dewey, then at Chicago University. Katharine shrewdly used the interview to promote applications for instructor openings. In the reporter's paraphrase of KBD's pitch for applicants, the reformatory offered "a fine opportunity for some able and ambitious college graduate to do society a service and at the same time make a name for herself as a teacher." Doing society a service while making a name for oneself was a career advancement formula on which Davis could speak with authority. Certainly both able and ambitious, she applied that formula throughout her own professional life.
On May 11, 1901, the Bedford reformatory officially opened. In addition to a central administration building, the rolling campus included a reception hall, four "cottages," a laundry building, a powerhouse, a gate house and a stable (remember this was not yet the age of the auto). One wing of the reception hall resembled the traditional prison: three tiers of 24 cells each. The other wing was remodeled into rooms accommodating 42 inmates.
The cottages were large group residences accommodating 28 inmates each. Standford Hall cottage, which included a nursery, housed the inmates with babies of up to 2 years of age, married women, and single women over 21 who had not yet "earned" promotion to Huntington Hall, a kind of honor cottage for those over 21. Gibbons Hall cottage represented a step up and a step out for those under 21 housed in the reception hall. Lowell Hall cottage was the honors home for the best behaved of the adolescents. Each cottage had a garden and its own kitchen where the inmates cooked their "family" meals under matron supervision.
Davis had vowed to the Tribune in the spring of 1901, "The least possible restraint will be exercised. There will be no bars except in the reception house. Neither will there be any prison wall -- only a fence of wire netting which, being nearly invisible, will not give a constant sense of being shut in. There will be no uniform, no marching to and fro in squads, few rules."
A dozen years later a Times writer visited the Bedford reformatory. His description of it demonstrated that Davis had been true to her word given at the start. He wrote:
"At the station were two donkeys, crated, waiting to be taken up to the reformatory, to become draught animals in the service of the inmates who do all the work on a great farm, even carrying on a good part of the present building operations. As the horse-drawn vehicle which carried me approached the nested buildings, we met other donkeys drawing carts laden with farm produce . . . The drivers were the [inmate] farmers, looking healthy and well pleased with life . . . I saw no armed guards on patrol; in fact no guards at all."
Years of erratic funding by the legislature had resulted in the reformatory campus needing, even when it opened, various other structures, road work, sidewalks, and general landscaping. Just as she had refused to let bureaucratic delay stop her Philadelphia settlement housing projects, Davis did not let it stop her Bedford program. She refused to be discouraged when her officers laughed at her plans to have the inmates clear acreage for farming, grade the hilly terrain for lawns, and lay sidewalks, roadways and foundations. She personally led the inmates in mixing concrete; pouring foundations, walks and roads; leveling the land.
A typical instance arose in 1905 when Governor Benjamin Baker Odell Jr. vetoed $1,500 for various improvements to the Bedford Station facility, later known as Bedford Hills. Undeterred, Davis organized the inmates to do the work themselves, including embankment grading. Davis later recalled:
"Our steward said it reminded her of a person trying to plow with a team of cats . . . It could be done if you could get enough cats and if you could make them all pull together. I succeeded in getting my cats to pull together and they filled, graded and seeded the whole bank."
Davis' employment of female inmates in outdoor projects not traditionally thought of as "women's work" was controversial but she persisted. She wanted her charges to have fresh air and sunlight, build up their physical strength, feel pride of accomplishment, and develop what today would termed an attitude of self-empowerment. She argued that women inmates needed programs to build their physical, mental and moral fibre because, when returned to the outside world, "they are going to have a harder fight" to stay straight than male inmates due to fewer opportunities open to women for honest work at decent pay. The disparities in job opportunities and wage scales between men and women were subjects Davis spotlighted throughout her career: in settlement house research, in her doctoral studies, in her writings for learned journals and in her talks at meetings of prison professionals.
For many women leaving Bedford reformatory, domestic work offered the only avenue of employment. Davis helped several find "situations" with families, some nearby. Westchester historians recall area households that had "taken in girls from Bedord" as servants who "stayed on" for generations, becoming virtual members of those families themselves.
As her years at Bedford passed, Davis became well known among American and European penologists, often attending and sometimes addressing their conferences, usually stressing distaff needs in her remarks. At a 1906 American Prison Association meeting, she wryly observed:
"Most of the speakers have talked about men prisoners . . . I suppose that is because most of the speakers know more about men than about women. I do not profess to know anything about men, but I do know something about women, and you will pardon me if I confine myself to the woman side of the question."
While she accepted that hereditary factors help explain criminal behavior among some women with family histories of mental disorders, she held to the Progressives' view that the larger responsibility lay with industrial society itself having victimized these women first by failing to provide them with the kind of educational and job opportunities needed for them to live decently in urbanized America. She rejected the racist and nativist views of those eugenicists who saw criminality as a genetic trait among immigrants and African Americans.