Injustice in the Justice System: Women in Prison in the Mid to Late 19th Century


Reading through the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons records is not unlike reading nineteenth century crime novels. Many of the crimes presented in the case reports are akin to Jean Valjean’s crime of stealing a loaf of bread that eventually earned him nineteen years in prison in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. That is to say, they are nothing short of unbelievable. From the man arrested for “stealing” a small piece of cloth (who actually bought it and had a receipt) to the grandfather arrested for hugging his own granddaughter, it is unbelievable from the 21st century perspective that these cases resulted in arrests and trials. These case reports provide a view into Philadelphia’s past that helps the modern citizen understand just how arbitrary the system was, and just how easy it was to end up in one of these horrible prisons that this society set out to reform.

This collection highlights the fact that, in public prisons, all prisoners were held together. Men, women and children were all combined regardless of crime. The murderers and rapists were assembled with the women who were victims of abuse and the children accused of stealing petty change. This fact, in combination with the unsanitary conditions of the prisons, explains the need for reform of the prison system.

These manuscripts come from the papers of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, a prison reform group created in 1787 based off of the work of prominent Philadelphians, such as Benjamin Franklin, to reform the harsh penal code of 1718. The society continued the work of these men by investigating existing prisons and seeking to reform the prison structure that caused all people, regardless of crime and guilt, to be held together in overcrowded unsanitary holding cells for as much as several months as they awaited trial. This society was engaged in the construction and establishment of the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, which was modeled off of their ideas for a humane prison environment. The group still exists today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

Upon reading the “case reports” section of this collection, it became evident that women were often the ones arrested for crimes in which they were the victims. These stories also show just how warped the disciplinary system was at this time, the man accused of molesting two young girls was in prison for the same amount of time as the woman accused of keeping a “disorderly household,” a crime that, much to my surprise, does not imply a lack of cleanliness but rather the operation of a brothel or a house “kept in such a way as to disturb or scandalize the public.” The stories below are directly quoted from the case reports in the collection and show the imbalance of the prison system in America prior to the reform that began in this era.

The Girl Who was Arrested for Making Ten Pairs of Drawers

January 14, 1862: “[The case] of a young girl, about sixteen years of age, that was charged of having stolen 10 pairs of drawers. In the investigation of the case it was shown by her book, which was given to her by the contractor, from whom she received the drawers to make, that she had not stolen them, but the prosecutor who charged the prisoner with stealing them, stole them from the prisoner and took them into the contractor and took the pay for the making, which rightfully belonged to the prisoner; whom she had imprisoned out of a mere pretext to save herself from a prosecution for the taking of them.”

The Woman Who was Arrested for Being Beaten Bloody by her Husband

February 16, 1869:“Number 2 was the case of a woman who had been imprisoned at the insistence of her husband, upon the charge of assault and battery. Obtained her discharge from the court with consent of Judge Brewster who took the agent for bail. This arrangement afforded her an opportunity to leave the prison at once and to institute legal proceedings against her husband who was the prosecutor, for cruelly beating and whipping her in such a shocking manner, so much so, as to require medical aid of the prison physician. It seems that she got into the difficulty by taking down a portion of her clothes line and attaching it to a sled for the amusement of her children who desired to draw it over the ice. Her drunken husband not being pleased with this arrangement, took the rope and twisted it together, and cruelly whipped his wife in the presence of her five children until the blood ran down her back; and in order to prevent her from suing him, he sued and imprisoned her upon the above named charge; an offense which he alone was guilty. The agent procured her immediate release without costs, and sent her to her home to inform her husband, that if he dared to strike her again, or misuse her in any way, the agent would interfere and have him arrested and imprisoned.”

The Woman Imprisoned for Being Chased with a Poker

April 13, 1869: “Number 5 was that of a poor colored woman who was unjustly committed to prison upon the charge of misdemeanor. Her prosecutor chased her through the street with a poker for the purpose of beating her, at a time when he was drunk. He then went to the magistrate and sued and imprisoned her for an offense of which he alone was guilty. The agent went to the magistrate, explained the case, and obtained her discharge by becoming bail for her appearance at court, when she will be supplied with counsel who will speak of the drunken condition of the prosecutor, who should be punished for his improper conduct to the prisoner.

The Young Girl Who was Seduced by an Older Man Who was Arrested for Asking Him for Help

August 16, 1870: “Number 1 was the case of a young girl who was imprisoned upon the charge of breach of the peace. Her offense consisted in her asking for some assistance from a man who seduced her when she was but sixteen years of age, and took her from the home of her respectable parents, and kept, and lived with her for a period of five years. He then deserted her and married another. As he was in good circumstances, and wealthy, the prisoner thought the least that he could do would be to give her some assistance to enable her to live. This he refused to do, and caused her to be arrested and imprisoned upon the above named charge. The agent procured her discharge from the alderman by explaining her case, and by becoming bail for her to keep the peace for the future.”

The Old Woman Who was Arrested for Being Beaten by a Young Man

August 16, 1870: “Number 2 was that of a poor woman whose daughter had married the son of a wealthy citizen. The young man’s brother and mother were displeased with the match, and sought to get revenge and satisfaction by beating the prisoner, who was the mother of the young girl. She was knocked down in the street on a Sabbath day, and badly beaten by the prosecutor’s son. Her cries for help caused a mob of four or five hundred persons to collect in the street who came to her rescue, and interfered in her behalf. The mother of the man who inflicted these injuries upon the prisoner in the presence of so many witnesses immediately sued the prisoner upon the false charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. This was done to prevent this poor woman from prosecuting her son for an assault and battery with intent to kill her. She was scarcely imprisoned before neighbors came to your agent and informed him of all the facts in the case, which they themselves had witnessed. These persons contributed sufficient funds to pay the cost to procure the prisoners immediate release…[she was then] left free to prosecute the young man who had so badly beaten her.”

The Woman Who was Arrested for Trying to Keep her Husband from Drinking on the Sabbath

January 15, 1880: “No. 2 was the case of a worthy woman, who was also imprisoned, upon the charge of assault and battery. She had one of her children in prison with her, she got herself into the difficulty by resisting her prosecutor when he came to her house on the Sabbath day, and persuaded her husband from his home, to go with him to a tavern and partake of intoxicating liquors. She followed him and protested against the tavern keeper selling her husband intoxicating liquors, for the doing of this she was arrested upon the false charge of assault and battery…”

The Woman Sentenced to One Year in Prison for Keeping a Disorderly House that was not her Own while She was Ill and on Bed Rest  

October 1, 1880: “No. 1 was the case of a woman who was convicted and sentenced to one year upon the charge of keeping a disorderly house…She only occupied a room in the house with her father as she was sick and in a diseased condition, the agent procured a certificate from Dr. Smith the prison physician, that certified that she was not a proper subject for the prison and should be sent to the Almshouse…”

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