Susceptibility: To Evil” seems stark and reductive enough in an official document evaluating a sixteen-year old boy.  We catch glimpses of this in a large ledger in the Library Manuscripts Department labeled Board of Parole of the New York Reformatory of Misdemeanants (N.Y.) records 1910-1911.

We have in recent years seen passage of a Raise the Age Law to keep teen-aged offenders from being charged and housed with adult criminals.  The beneficent impulse to shield young lawbreakers from hardened criminals and to prevent them from being held back by criminal records is, in fact, not new.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the Prison Association of New York was one such charitable organization hoping for the humane rehabilitation of these young misdemeanants. So, too were the very judges tasked with sentencing the youthful offenders. 

Boys working near the greenhouse, Hart Island Reformatory for Boys, Hart Island, Bronx, N.Y., July 12, 1913.  PR066, George E. Stonebridge Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society

The teenagers and young men had aged out of juvenile asylums and thus had been committed to a workhouse at Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island. There, reformers complained, “they were thrown into the company of old and hardened offenders and where they lived a life of almost total idleness.”  

The solution was for New York City to create a separate facility on Hart Island in the East River where the boys, quartered in buildings that had once housed the insane, were given half-day schooling. 

Entries for boys and young men held at the New York Reformatory of Misdemeanants. Board of Parole of the New York Reformatory of Misdemeanants (N.Y.) records 1910-1911. New-York Historical Society

The ledger is the beginning of the record of this experiment. We see the crime and sentence noted, and, in each case, the young man was evaluated in this ledger the very next day.  The “Crimes” recorded here range from selling cocaine and petty larceny to a vague, “Disorderly, refusing work & Incorrigible.”

The most important evaluations seem quaint and judgmental to our eyes and ears.  “Susceptibility” can be classed as “easily led” as well as “to evil.”  “Associations” could, sadly, be “none”—many of the young men were orphaned young—but also simply “Bad” and with “Bad Boys.”  “Mental Capacity” is sometimes followed by “Bright” but also by “Stupid.”  And, to sum up, we see “Wayward—Tricky,” “Ignorant” or “Simple” under the all-encompassing “Types.”  

To be expected of the time, “Nationality” is important even for those who were born in New York City.  These examples show the Irish, Austrian, Italian, and West Indian offender.  Citizenship status, however, is not given.  

On a more concrete level, we find that many of the young men come from a “tenement” environment.  Surprising perhaps, is that most were indeed employed in credible work: a hospital nurse, an “elevator boy” (identified as “colored”), the Italian-American boot black, a young Irishman with the relatively new tech profession of telephone operator, and a plumber’s helper (whose past crime was stealing a lead pipe).  

Dormitory, Hart Island Reformatory for Boys, Hart Island, Bronx, N.Y., July 12, 1913. PR066, George E. Stonebridge Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society

This reformatory’s life on Hart Island was relatively short as the institution was moved to rural surroundings at New Hampton Farms in Orange County after 1914.  In summation, the well-meaning advocates of the Prison Association acknowledged that complaints of cruelty toward the inmates were credible, and admitted failure in that the “this institution has not had half a chance.”

This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections

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