Punishment in the House of Refuge

At its inception in 1825, both the officials and creators of the New York City House of Refuge (HOR) strove to clearly define its intentions of rehabilitating and providing a safe space for at-risk youth as well as its methods of achieving this goal.  Their methods – schooling, evangelization, and placing juveniles into industrial apprenticeships – were widely believed to be the solution to many of the “vicious propensities” that some children harbored.  However, in the case that children proved unreceptive to these remedial measures, the HOR also established regulations for unruly and disobedient children.  The nature of these punishments bore striking resemblances to the standard domestic punishment of juvenile misbehavior – depriving children of supper, isolating them in their room (which in this case was their dormitory at the House of Refuge), preventing them from playing/exercising in their free time, and so on.  As an observer could tell, officials intended to create a “home away from home” for these children, so as with every other feature of the House of Refuge, the take on punishment was modeled after domestic traditions of punishing misconduct.

Official Opinions on Punishment

In 1832, at the behest of the Board of Managers of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents (SRJD), then-superintendent Nathaniel C. Hart of the New York City HOR published his Documents Relative to the House of Refuge (an annual report) in order to give an expansive overview of the institution.  The details of the House of Refuge discussed by Hart cover virtually every conceivable topic of interest: previous annual reports, budget discussions,  listings of all materials produced by the children, case studies of individual, problematic children admitted to the institution, and fortunately for us, rules and regulations    Punishment within the House of Refuge resulted from refusal to undertake supervised labor, disobedience, profanity, or making excessive sounds around sleeping time and usually operated on an “escalation basis”: infractions by themselves resulted in minor punishments, and as the number of infractions increased, the severity of the punishment increased in proportion.  This “escalation” order can be seen in the superintendent’s listing of punishments: “privation [deprivation] of play and exercise, bed without supper, bread and water for every meal of the day, gruel[oatmeal boiled in milk or water] without salt,(Figure 3.1) bitter tea, solitary confinement,(Figure 3.2) “corporal punishment if absolutely necessary”, and “fetters or handcuffs only in extreme cases.”[i]


Figure 1


Figure 2

Physical Punishment- Differences between Genders

As punishment became more physical, its nature changed depending on the gender of the child – the punishment of girls was led by or included a ‘matron’, one of the older ladies in charge of the girls’ dormitories, while the punishment of the boys was carried out by officials within the House of Refuge.  It should be noted that while the nonphysical punishments are explicitly described in a fair amount of detail, physical punishments such as corporal punishment and handcuffing are described in essentially no detail.  This fact became more important in the 1870s and 1880s, when some of the problems afflicting adult penitentiaries such as overcrowding and poor housing quality began to appear, and physical punishment became more of the norm than the exception.

Physical Punishment: Tools and Nature

Although his report dedicates little time to the discussion of punishment within the New York City HOR, we can get an idea of the procedures by observing the Houses of Refuge in nearby states, which were modelled on the original HOR in NYC.  For example, the Philadelphia House of Refuge which opened in 1828 documented its cases of punishment quite thoroughly and within those we find ominous case studies detailing physical punishment, in particular the use of the “cat”.  Some of the individuals receive penalties as benign as a scolding or confinement to a domicile for an evening, but others received various numbers of lashes from the “cat” which refers to the infamous “cat o nine tails”, a multi-tailed whip used for severe punishment in a variety of different areas, ranging from the plantations in the South to naval fleets at home and abroad.(see below)  The “cat” consists of knotted thongs of cotton cord, about 2.5 feet or 76 cm long, designed to lacerate the skin and cause intense pain.[ii]  However, though such a punishment should have been reserved for only consistently misbehaving children, or children who had committed grave crimes such as attempted escapes or arson, officials began to use the cat as a “catch-all”.  For example, on March 19 1829, John Geyer, a boy at the Philadelphia House of Refuge, received a handful of lashes for “hiding his tools” for the first time.[iii] That is, although as we have seen that the protocol for punishing first time offenders within the HOR usually amounted to less recreational time or no supper, this boy received extremely painful lashes for a deed as small as hiding his tools to avoid engaging in the supervised labor that the SRJD emphasized.  Ominously, no explicit justification for this seemingly extreme punishment is given.


Figure 3

Physical Punishment: Girls

The treatment of insubordinate girls was far more lenient in nature – in the eyes of the Society for the Reformation of Juveniles, girls (and future ladies) were ideally models of virtue in a society and thus due special treatment.  Generally speaking, unless a girl committed a very serious infraction or repeatedly misbehaved she would, at worst, receive a severe admonishment.  However, in serious situations, it was not unheard of for a girl to receive the cat as well.  In May 1829, Eliza Philips’ repeated offenses, which included profane language as well as extreme insubordination, warranted a “most severe flagellation” after which she was no longer involved in any complications with the matrons or officials of the Philadelphia HOR.[iv]  The other predominant mode of punishing serious female offenders was the “ducking stool”, a medieval contraption oriented toward females that was generally phased out at the beginning of the 19th century.  The ducking stool consisted of placing a girl in a chair and repeatedly dunking her in a body of water (such as a lake or river) through the use of a seesaw-like mechanism. (see below) It was generally believed that such a punishment cooled the “immoderate heart”; therefore, it made sense to include the punishment in the HOR system because as we have seen a main goal of the SRJD was cultivating a class of ladylike, virtuous women to work as domestic servants.[v]


Figure 4


The reluctance of the New York City HOR to explain in detail the nature of its physical punishments in its overview report by its superintendent is surprising given the relative abundance of detail on less severe punishments.  In the eyes of the institution, hands-off punishments were more successful and less abrasive.  Officials felt compelled to act as the father or authority figure in the lives of these children that were very susceptible to the dangers of pauperism, but were also reluctant to share details about the punishment aspects of the House of Refuge. Ultimately, in its earliest days (the 1830s and 1840s) the SRJD was more concerned with creating successful apprentices than ensuring that the “vicious propensities” of children were dealt with reasonably.  Even in this respect, the demographic shifts of the mid-19th century resulted in a juvenile penitentiary system overloaded with at-risk youth and the quality of the establishment decreased dramatically as the 19th century continued.

-Nicholas Popo

[i] Hart, Nathaniel C. Documents Relative to the House of Refuge. New York: Mahlon Day, 1832. Print.

[ii] Prince, Monique, and Elizabeth S. Wright. “A Runaway Slave. Recollections of Slavery by a Runaway Slave.” Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

[iii] Teeters, Negley K. “THE EARLY DAYS OF THE PHILADELPHIA HOUSE OF REFUGE.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 27, no. 2 (1960): 165-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27769950.

[vi] Ibid.

[v] Ducking Stool Definition:.” Legal Dictionary. Duhaime’s Law Dictionary, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.


Figure 1- Victorian Era, History Cookbook “Gruel” Accessed October 24, 2016 http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/121-gruel.html

Figure 2- Eastern State Penitentiary Photos, Eastern State Penitentiary “Restored Cell” Image Library Accessed October 24, 2016 http://www.easternstate.org/contact/press-room/photos/restored-cell

Figure 3- Cat o’ Nine Tails (w/ American dollar for comparison) “Cat o’ nine tails” Wikipedia Accessed October 25, 2016 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_o%27_nine_tails

Figure 4- Ducking stool commonly used for girls “Ducking Stool” University of South Florida ClipArt Accessed October 25, 2016 http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/60800/60874/60874_duck_stool.htm