Quaker Women in Prison Reform

While many Quakers are familiar with the pioneering work of Elizabeth Fry in Newgate Prison, London, relatively few are aware of the additional numbers of Quaker women who struggled to reform prison conditions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. A recent study of women in the United States who were pioneer prison reformers, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930, by Estelle Freedman, listed 33 percent of all the women she studied as Quakers. In addition, I discovered three more Quaker women who should be included. This is a high percentage for our numerically small society, and it speaks of the dedication of Quakers to a testimony against cruel and unusual punishment.

There were, of course, Quaker men who pioneered in prison reform: in Philadelphia, Roberts Vaux; in New York, Thomas Eddy, John Griscom, and Isaac Hopper; and in Ohio, Elisha Bates. But their stories have been told, individually and collectively, many times, while that of Quaker women prison reformers remains to be thoroughly explored.

The tradition of Quaker women’s concern for prisoners goes back to the beginnings of the Quaker movement in England in the middle of the 17th century. Elizabeth Hooten, the first disciple of founder George Fox, was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle in 1655, and wrote a scathing letter to Oliver Cromwell:

Oh, thou that are set in Authority to do Justice and Judgment, and to let the oppressed go free, these things are required at thy hands, look upon the poor prisoners here that have not any allowance although there is a great sum of money that comes out of the country sufficient to help them that is in want, both their due allowance and from setting those to work, which would labor. And it is a place of great disorder and wickedness, so that for oppression and profanities I never came to such a place, because a malignant woman keeps the jail.

Despite such isolated protests as Hooten’s, Friends did not turn their attention seriously to humanitarian reform until the late 18th and early 19th century, when a reformation swept through Quakerism, renewing their spiritual roots and turning them to social concerns. Out of this reformation came the motivation for Elizabeth Fry, who first visited Newgate Prison in 1813 and was appalled by the conditions she found among the women prisoners. In 1816 she returned with a group of women determined to make a difference. They established themselves as the Ladies Association for the Improvement of Female Prisoners at Newgate and organized workshops, Bible classes, and a system of discipline based on rules that the inmates themselves agreed to. These changes produced a notable difference in prison conditions, and Fry became an advocate for prison reform through parliamentary action, addressing herself particularly to the conditions on prison ships. Her pamphlet, Observations in Visiting, Superintendence, and Government of Female Prisoners, published in 1827, urged women to enter the field of prison reform.

A member of a wealthy and privileged family and married into another, Fry was no radical. She had no interest in the women’s rights movement that was burgeoning in the United States, and she pointedly avoided Lucretia Mott when the latter came to London for the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, in part because she was a Hicksite, but also because Lucretia was insisting on the seating of women at that convention. Nevertheless, her belief that women prisoners should be under the control of matrons was eagerly adopted by the 19th-century women reformers, especially in the United States.

Inspired by Fry, a group of Quaker women in Philadelphia, under the leadership of Mary Waln Wistar (1765-1843), established themselves as the Society of Women Friends and began visiting women prisoners in the Arch Street prison in 1823, reading the Bible to them and supplying clothing. Their first ventures met with resistance. Roberts Vaux, a member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society and Mary Waln’s son-in-law, wrote a letter intended to discourage their efforts:

The unhappy females whom you visited yesterday form a circulating medium of poverty and vice, alternately to be found in the wards of the Alms House and within the walls of the Prison—They are known to almost every watchman in the City and their names are to be found on the docket of almost every magistrate. Their habits have become chronic and I fear in most instances past restoration. If many of them were "arrayed in purple and fine linen" by an unbounded charity, and set at liberty through the agency of a generous sympathy, such is the depravity of their minds, that in a few hours their garments would be surrendered as the price of some sensual appetite, the indulgence of which in a few more hours would insure their return to Prison—of consequence it follows, from a knowledge of these circumstances, that great caution be observed in administering assistance to habitual offenders, lest such be rendered more comfortable than those who subsist by honest industry, and thus unintentionally, though in effect offer a bounty for crime, and present a reward for vice.

Vaux was in many ways a Quaker liberal. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and secured a passport for Robert Purvis when he was denied one because of his color. But his belief in the sharp distinction between degraded and pure womanhood was typical throughout the 19th century, and women prison reformers, within and without the Society of Friends, had to combat it daily.

Fortunately, Mary Waln Wistar and her friends were undeterred by Vaux’s warning. Other male friends, including Mary’s husband, Thomas Wistar, encouraged them. The women continued their visiting and began to offer the women prisoners classes in reading and sewing. Later, they pressed the Prison Society for a home for juvenile female offenders. As a result, the House of Refuge was established in 1828. Their next successful campaign was for the women to be under the control of a matron. In 1835, when the Moyamensing Prison was opened in South Philadelphia, the women divided into two groups, one continuing to visit the women in Arch Street and the other making the long trip to Moyamensing. In 1853, under the leadership of a Quaker woman, Susan Lloyd (1801-1857), they established the Howard Institution for Discharged Women Prisoners, which operated until 1917.

In early 1845, Abby Hopper Gibbons, raised in Philadelphia but living in New York, organized a Female Department of the Prison Association of New York, of which her father, Isaac T. Hopper, was then agent. As she and her colleagues visited women in prison under appalling conditions, they decided the most pressing need was to find housing and employment for the women prisoners as they were discharged. At first the reformers brought home as many released women as they could, and placed others with friends and relatives. But the need quickly overwhelmed these private facilities, and in June they rented a three-story house on Tenth Avenue and opened it as the Isaac T. Hopper Home for Discharged Female Convicts, the first halfway house in the world for mature women prisoners.

Besides running this home, the women working with Abby began a series of campaigns: for matrons in prisons and police stations, for women on the boards of all city and state agencies having to do with women, and eventually for a reformatory for women. As early as 1852, they found they had trouble with the male members of the Prison Association, who wished to control their work, and in 1855 they became independent as the Women’s Prison Association, which continues to this day, still running the Isaac T. Hopper House and still advocating for women.

In 1846, the year after Abby Gibbons organized the Female Department of the Prison Association of New York, a third group of Quaker women prison visitors developed in Baltimore under the leadership of a 26-year-old woman named Elizabeth T. King (1820-1856). The Women Friends Association for Visiting the Penitentiary set about teaching women prisoners to read and write and organized a prison school and library. They later began a campaign for the proper placement of discharged women prisoners, for the classification and separation of women prisoners, and for matrons.

In addition to these groups of determined Quaker women, there were many individuals involved in prison reform. An early example is Eliza Wood Farnham, who became matron of the Mt. Pleasant prison for women, a division of Sing Sing at Ossining, New York, in 1844, and introduced a series of reforms designed to make the prison experience more humane and to teach the women crafts and other skills. The New York Prison Association believed that prisoners ought not to be allowed to talk with one another, but rather to work in total silence. Eliza broke this rule and even introduced a piano. She was forced to resign in 1848 because of these perceived heresies.

Following the Civil War, Quaker women interested in prison reform turned their attention to the development of reformatories for women. In Indiana an evangelical Quaker woman, Rhoda Coffin (1826-1909), began visiting prisons, jails, and work houses in 1865 with her husband, Charles, and helped to lobby for and establish the first reformatory for women, which opened its doors in 1873. As first director, Rhoda Coffin chose Sarah Smith, a Quaker woman who had been a Civil War nurse and teacher for the newly freed slaves and had headed up a home for homeless girls in Indianapolis. Sarah served as head of the new facility until 1882.

Closely allied with Rhoda Coffin and Sarah Smith was Elizabeth Comstock, a well-known traveling Quaker minister who visited most of the prisons in the United States and interviewed as many prisoners as possible, winning herself the title of the Elizabeth Fry of the United States. While Elizabeth’s primary purposes were evangelical, she often followed her prison visits with appeals to officials to release prisoners who she believed were innocent, and to state legislatures to improve prison conditions and to establish reformatories.

When the second reformatory for women opened in Sherborn, Massachusetts, in 1877, Eliza Mosher (1846-1928), a Quaker woman doctor, was invited to serve as physician to the 350 inmates. She organized the prison dispensary and hospital as well as serving as surgeon, obstetrician, and even dentist to the women. In 1880 she was asked to become superintendent of the new facility and remained in the position for three years, making many reforms in medical care. A severe injury to her knee caused her to retire from the reformatory after the three years were up, but she maintained a lifelong interest in good penal conditions for women.

In Rhode Island, Elizabeth Buffum Chace (1806-1899) began her career in reform as an abolitionist and, after the Civil War, campaigned for prison matrons and for women to be appointed to the state prison boards. In 1870 she was named by the governor of Rhode Island to a Board of Lady Visitors. She shortly discovered that this board lacked influence and resigned in protest, but accepted reappointment when more power was given to the visitors. Carrying on the tradition into the early 20th century, Martha Falconer (1862-1941) became a probation officer for the Cook County, Illinois, Juvenile Court in 1899, where she worked with Jane Addams and Florence Kelley, the latter a Friend, the former, closely affiliated. After working for several years in Chicago for the Children’s Home and Aid Society as a probation social worker, she moved to Philadelphia to take over the old House of Refuge established in 1828 by Mary Waln Wistar and her friends. She moved it to a new location near Lima, Pennsylvania, and developed it into Sleighton Farms, a model school for what were then called delinquent girls. It continued to function until 2000.

During the past 50 years, more and more Quaker women have volunteered as prison visitors, have established nursery schools for the children of prisoners, and have worked in the Alternatives to Violence Project, teaching nonviolent conflict resolution skills to prisoners. If one woman could be singled out for special mention it would be Fay Honey Knopp, former head of the New York office of AFSC and of the NARMIC (National Action/Resources on the Military-Industrial Complex) program in the AFSC national office, who worked with Robert Horton on organizing prison visiting throughout the Religious Society of Friends, and who became in time an expert at working with men who abused children. No one reading about the lives of these women can doubt that they were motivated not only by sympathy for their sisters behind bars, but by the deep need to put beliefs into action, which is the truest flower of Quaker belief.

Margaret Hope Bacon

Margaret Hope Bacon, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is an author and lecturer. She has written 13 books on various aspects of Quaker history and biography, including Abby Hopper Gibbons: Prison Reformer and Social Activist. She is currently working on a book on Quaker women in prison reform. © 2002 Margaret Hope Bacon