An “Adamless Eden for Female Offenders”?: Katharine Bement Davis and the Carceral State in Progressive-Era New York

In 1912, journalist Ida Tarbell wrote an admiring article about Katharine Bement Davis, the first superintendent of New York’s Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills (commonly known as Bedford Reformatory). In keeping with the aims of women’s reformatories, Tarbell explained, Davis had made Bedford a site of rehabilitation rather than retribution. With “Good Will to Women” and “an apparently exhaustless source of cheerful energy,” Davis had instituted a program of schoolwork, physical exercise, domestic chores, religious instruction, and “a varied program of dances and entertainment.”

“An Avalanche of Unexpected Sickness”: Institutions and Disease in 1918 and Today

Between August 14 and August 19, 1908, the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-minded Children at Elwyn admitted seven new “inmates,” part of the yearly influx of new arrivals before the school year began. They ranged in age from seven to twenty and received diagnoses at the highest (“high grade imbecile”) and lowest (“excitable idiot”) ends of the classification scale used by Elwyn’s superintendent, Dr. Martin Barr. During their time at Elwyn some of them learned woodworking, floor scrubbing, laundry, or chicken keeping. Their unpaid labor was crucial to the maintenance of Elwyn’s budget and staffing levels, both of which were stretched impossibly thin. Other “inmates” were deemed “helpless.”