Some Rutlanders today still remember the women who washed laundry. One remembers going with her grandfather to drop it off and pick it up. Someone else remembered their large vegetable garden, another the candied apples they’d hand out at Halloween. Still others recall eating meals served by the women and singing Christmas Carols alongside them.
Believe it or not, these women they remember were inmates; prisoners housed at the Women’s Reformatory, which stood until 1970 on the corner of State Street and Pierpoint Avenue, the site of the current correctional facility.
The fact that “Rutland people have been perfectly splendid about Riverside,” and “interested… awfully friendly,” with the Rotary, 4-H, and clergy, and women’s organizations even holding meetings within its walls, is a testament to the woman who believed that a “prison is nothing but a hospital for mind and soul”: Miss Lena Ross, who was superintendent from 1921 until her death in 1936.
In 1929, there were 53 women and girls, aged 16 to 51, housed at the Riverside Women’s Reformatory in Rutland. While a few were “hardened criminals” sent in from out of state, most were Vermonters serving terms for petty theft, simple assault, or selling liquor. Most of these women — 24 (45 pcn) to be precise — were there convicted of “crimes against morality” or “against chastity,” meaning adultery, cohabitation, or prostitution. One was charged on an account of bigamy.
The Rutland Reformatory opened in 1921 in the sprawling building which had formerly served as the House of Corrections, which closed in 1919. The building had barred, blacked out windows and small, dark, musty cement cells. When long-time Rutland elementary school teacher Lena Ross was asked to run a women’s prison she agreed only when she was told she could scrape off the “dark gray paint that concealed the sweet beauty of the mountains from the prisoners’ cells.”
And she didn’t stop there. Walls were pulled down to make large, sunny and airy gathering places, such as the dining room and chapel, where large stained glass windows were installed. Walls were painted canary yellow, and pretty curtains were put up. Cold cells were furnished — in many instances with donations from willing Rutland residents — and made into pretty bedrooms with coverlets, photos, and other personal possessions. The doors were unlocked and guards were replaced with matrons who guided, rather than guarded, the women. Picnics and daytrips to Lake Bomoseen were even arranged, from which the women would return singing.
Expressing their surprise upon their visit there in 1931, authors Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) and Sarah Cleghorn, said to Ross, “Now come, no nonsense, you must have runaways! How many have you had in the nine years you’ve been here?” When Miss Ross replied just three, including one who immediately asked to come back, Canfield asked, “But what do you do to them to make them act so?”
Apparently with a tone of indignation, Ross replied, “I treat them the way I’d like to be treated myself if I had to come to a place like this.”
THE EUGENICS CONNECTION
However, here we are faced with a seeming incongruence. Ross was a committee member of the Vermont Eugenics Survey and the Survey, which seemingly went out of its way to label people — particular those of non-Western-European descent — as “inadequate” and “degraded,” lists the Reformatory as a partner in its operations. And indeed, in 1929, Ross requested that Eugenics Survey fieldworker Martha Wadhams come to Rutland to perform psychological tests on the women under her care.
Referred to as sodden, sullen and warped by a judge; alley-cats and helpless creatures by Canfield and Cleghorn, the “girls” of the Reformatory, as Ross called them, were written up in the Eugenics Survey report as “handicapped… by unfavorable early environing influences and by limited mental capacity.” The “crimes against chastity” — which were rendered as “crimes of submission” or “imperfect emotional control” — were committed by the “untrained” employees of hotels and restaurants (as 51% of the women were, according to the report). Wadhams determined these fields of work “afford[ed] little supervision and … offer[ed] many temptations.”
Wadhams again refers to the subnormal intelligence of the women, which according to the Survey’s IQ tests, named 58% of them “Feebleminded” with the “mental age” of ten. However, in the conclusion to her report, she ponders this: “Yet we have assumed the responsibility of ‘punishing’ them as though they were normal persons who had chosen to act as though they were not normal persons.”
She continues, “And we have been so concerned about the offense, that we have given but little thought to the offenders. It would seem rather difficult to determine beforehand how long these anti-social people need to spent [sic] in an institution to learn to change and reconstruct some of their deeply ingrained habits of conduct, till they are ready to enjoy once again the freedom that all members of society have conducted themselves in socially acceptable ways… Some might even require constant supervision irrespective of the degree of the crime committed.”
And it is this “supervision” and personal attention to each “prisoner” that Ross believed in. It seems, although an apparent Eugenist, Ross was able to see each of her “girls” as an individual person with individual human needs, who, above all, held the potential for change.
While Wadhams insists upon “careful diagnosis and treatment” of these delinquents, — or as one author put it, “major social menace” — Canfield and Cleghorn report of their cross-questioning of Ross, “groping for some machinery to report to a world that puts is faith in machinery and organization.” But Ross, despite calling some of the arriving prisoners, “rotten with venereal disease… without an ideal in her head, healthless, vicious, violent, unclean,” goes on to say what surely made the Women’s Reformatory the successful, even respected place that it was for half a century:
“Humanizing conditions are the only ones that’ll make human beings, aren’t they? And if you spend a great deal of money and thought to make a place as inhuman as possible, why be surprised that it dehumanizes the folks that have to live in it?”
A SENSE OF PURPOSE
Although Ross hints at her prejudices throughout her interview with Canfield and Cleghorn, such as in her statement that the laundry business provided “a natural coming and going, in and out of the laundry room, of whole, decent human beings…” [my emphasis], the fact that she asked for the Survey to come in and test the women appears to have a higher purpose. She felt that if the women were “found low-grade,” “something might be accomplished.” She was hoping for a “special permissive legislation” which might permit the women to stay at Riverside longer as they continued to build up the “healthy pride, workmanlike responsibility and social solidarity,” which Ross believed allowed the women to readjust to acceptable societal living.
While the Survey saw the tests as “good eugenical practice” to “check the trend” of “passing on undesirable characteristics” and hopefully “elevate” the women’s tastes so they might procure “favorable matings,” (no specific mention is made of sterilization in this report, but we do know that by 1936, 65 women in Vermont had been operated upon in this way), it does seem that Ross viewed the Eugenic Survey as a tool by which she might help the less fortunate gain a sense of purpose and belonging, and thereby better their lives.
The women themselves were a testament to her success. Some continued to write letters after their release, some returned for celebrations, and one, a Southern mother of 16 children who had been convicted of selling liquor, wrote, “I never got such kind treatment anywhere else as I got from the Yankees [at Riverside].” Another woman, “a repeated offender, a very hard case,” for whom Ross had called in a specialist to operate on a painful double mastoid, wrote to the judge who had sent her to Riverside, saying it was the “first place where she was ever treated as if her health and happiness were of any importance.”
Wadhams and other Eugenists believed their “deficiencies” rendered these unfortunates — such as “Mary, a potential sex-delinquent” — “liable to frequent antisocial acts” which they would “presumably” pass onto their children, because “defects,” according to Wadhams, “do not actually ‘breed out,’ ever” [my emphasis]. It is language such as this that indicates a belief in human-nature as something static and incapable of transformation. Yet, in response to Canfield and Cleghorn’s amazement at the changes in the incarcerated women, calling it “magical,” Ross said, “It’s no more magical than water running down a hill…”
A prison, she continued, should be, “just as useful to any community as its churches and schools and hospitals, and just as much a matter of pride and satisfaction. We talk so much, we Americans, about the sacred, inestimable value of good home life. If we think it’s as fine as that, why not give a little of it to prisoners who mostly never had a single minute of it before being convicted?”
Information for this story was gathered from Miss Ross’ Girls by Sarah Cleghorn and Dorothy Canfield, 1931 and from various other reports and articles found in University of Vermont: A Documentary History at uvm.edu/~eugenics.
Originally published 3/25/14 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young