This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
On May 31, 1848, Maria Seaboth, a 14-year-old orphan, showed up at the door of the second location of the Isaac T. Hopper Home, a halfway house for women just released from prison at Tenth Avenue and 21st Street. Life couldn’t have been worse. She was destitute, homeless, and friendless and had been wandering from place to place, taking shelter in “various filthy and disgusting abodes,” the matron’s diary recorded as she observed the couple of dozen women in her charge.
Throughout that year, a total of 123 women in similar desperate circumstances would take up temporary residence at the home, which the Female Department of the Prison Association of New York (now the Correction Association of New York) established three years earlier, in 1845. It was spurred by Isaac T. Hopper, who had given up years of fervent abolitionist activity to, with his daughter, Abigail Hopper Gibbons, devote himself to prison reform. Hopper’s close friend and biographer, L. Maria Child, said that the cause “had occupied Friend Hopper’s mind almost as early as the wrongs of the slave.”
This oldest of US advocacy organizations devoted expressly to women with criminal backgrounds later separated from the larger group to become Women’s Prison Association, which is still in operation. At its founding, it described its mission as to give each of its women residents “an asylum, a retreat where she may be sheltered from temptation, where her feeble purposes may be strengthened, her new habits confirmed, and where, in the ward and watch of Christian women, her reform and instruction may proceed,” according to the association’s annual report of 1854.
Over the coming three decades, the house on Tenth Avenue served 5,800 and became so overcrowded the association looked for new quarters and ended up buying the three-storey Greek Revival townhouse of the Ralph Mead family at 110 Second Avenue. It still operates there today, serving women who have prison records and who need a home.
In its first four years at the new location, its annual reports and other documents show that it served as temporary shelter for more than 1,300 women, more than 800 of whom were listed as either “Irish” or “widow” or both.
Georgia Lerner, the home’s current executive director, explained that the large Irish widow contingent was likely a result of the Civil War and The Conscription Act of 1863, which allowed draft exemption to either be purchased for $300 or by finding a substitute draftee. Since Irish immigrants were among the country’s poorest people, an estimated 150,000 Irish Americans fought for the Union.
But Lerner also said that the widow story was not always true. In some cases, husbands who had emigrated to the United States a few years before their wives, had married other women and ended up husbandless once they got off the boat. In those cases, Lerner said, “The wife was left with nothing.” As the historian Hasia R. Diner explains, these ostensible widows may have found it “somewhat more respectable and sympathetic to be in the role of the bereaved.”
In the early 19th century, New York City, with its newly built canal and turnpike system, had become a transportation and economic hub, surpassing Philadelphia as the largest city in the United States.
As the city grew and crime became more rampant, penitentiaries replaced local jails and fines to punish wrongdoers. A new perception of criminals emerged. No longer were they seen as “individual sinners who remained integral members of the community,” writes Estelle B. Freedman in her book, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930. Instead, they were seen “as members of a separate criminal sub-culture.” The Hopper home, which started from its earliest offices on 4th Street near Eighth Avenue, grew out of the need to reintegrate ex-offenders into society.
To that end, the Hopper home remains a place where residents can receive counseling, participate in religious activities, and acquire skills meant to lead to employment
Young Miss Seaboth of 1848 could have been the prototype for the reporter’s cynical response to efforts like the Hopper Home. On arrival, the matron was particularly taken with the teenager who, she wrote, “amidst all her loathsomeness and nays, shone forth a cheerful, smiling face.”
Two months later, the matron was less enthusiastic. Her verbal abuse of a fellow resident erupted into a fight that left Seboth beaten up. A month later, Seaboth took off, an act that a matron attributed to her “naturally restless spirit.” When she returned a year later, complaining of harsh treatment from a family that had taken her in, the matron had lost sympathy. “She is a very bad girl,” she wrote in her diary as she turned Seaboth away, “and would have a very bad influence in the house.”
Over the years, many women tested the patience of reformers, who allowed many of their charges to move in and out of the house freely. It was common for residents to leave without even giving notice or to return and beg for second and sometimes third chances. Substance abuse was common. A medical report of 1913 by the Home’s physician that among the 35 women who were admitted for the first time that year, 29 suffered from acute alcoholism.
The open door policy was still in effect in 1968. A letter to the Department of Buildings from Carolyn Thompson, the Women’s Prison Association’s director at the time, explained that the Home was “used as an open shelter without restrictions other than a reasonable curfew, and clients are free to terminate residence at will.” As recently as 2009, Sarah From, who was an association director of public policy, told the New York Times that the willingness to not exclude residents from urban life was intentional. “It’s a home,” she said.
Fundraising for the home is as difficult today as it was in 1874. As Abby Hopper Gibbons wrote to her friend Sarah Thayer on learning that New York State had favored an infant asylum with five times the $5,000 grant it had given the Hopper Home, she lamented, “People do not have faith in sinners,” and then quickly added, “But I will stand by them as long as I live.”
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Today, the Isaac T. Hopper house is the only remaining row house of four that once stood in the stretch of Second Avenue between 6th and 7th streets.
The Home still serves the newly released and the homeless, as long as space permits, and it serves only women. To address the need to help ex-offenders who are being reunited with their children after prison time, a second home has been established at 347 East 10th Street, named for Sarah Powell Huntington House, in honor of a former president of the association. It currently serves 28 families. At Isaac T. Hopper Home, the current occupancy is 38 women. As Lerner said, “The beds are full here.”
Editor’s note: this article has been amended to reflect the correct address of the Isaac T. Hopper Hope, which is 110 Second Avenue, not 10 Second Avenue.