Memory Stream: Philly's Magdalen Society Asylum

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The Magdalen Society as depicted in a 1910 print. Said a historian: "If the asylum was a refuge, it was one of last resort."

Vincent Fraley

is communications manager for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

While our hunting and gathering ancestors would certainly challenge the superlative, prostitution is often called the "world's oldest profession." It remains an issue not only in Philadelphia but in communities across the country and around the world.

This is not for lack of ameliorative efforts, however hamhanded or misguided. Consider the story of the Magdalen Society Asylum of Philadelphia, the United States' first association dedicated to reforming "fallen women."

First, some background. Among the 19th century's litany of vice, prostitution rankled reformers as much as intemperance.

But it must be noted: Though Victorians were certainly stuffy about sexuality, the profession was by the end of the century viewed as a constant in human society. Prostitution was something to be "treated" - if not legalized - and was viewed differently than criminality and insanity.

Founded in 1800, the Magdalen Society set out "to be instrumental in recovering to honest rank in life those unhappy females, who, in an unguarded hour, have been robbed of their innocence, and sunk into wretchedness and guilt," according to its constitution.

Things got off to a rough start. It was not until five years later that Magdalen received its first application. During the first decade of the society's operation there were seldom more than a handful of "inmates" at any given time.

Although there were no firm age restrictions, most women were in their teens or 20s. Pregnant women were not admitted, nor were those noted as being "diseased." African Americans were also barred.

It is not difficult to see why the reformers were stymied.

"If the asylum was a refuge, it was one of last resort," observed historian Steven Ruggles.

Codes of conduct were strict. Inmates were not permitted to discuss the circumstances in which they lived before entering the asylum. Mandatory reading of the Bible was enforced, and women were instructed to produce handicrafts and perform other labor to earn their keep.

Referring to the organization's early all-male managers, including Episcopal Bishop William White, "the asylum served no other purpose than to scold some of the most miserable of society's castoffs," Ruggles continued.

They seemed to think the cure for prostitution was simply shaming women into reform. It is no surprise that the managers constructed an 11-foot fence around their original location at the corner of Race and Schuylkill Second (now 21st) Streets to discourage escapees.

It wasn't until 1877, with the hiring of Elizabeth Freeberger and a shift in mission, that the society began to achieve a modicum of success.

The society became more selective, opting for younger, better-educated women. Under Freeberger's leadership, Magdalen slowly evolved into an institution more focused on wayward or homeless girls rather than prostitutes or "fallen women."

Or, as they put it, "those who might be called a better class (who have not yet been so deeply steeped in crime)."

By the 20th century, the society accepted runaways and abused girls. Education and vocational training became integral to their reform regimen.

Still, the organization struggled to fill its beds, even with referrals from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Marriage was the professed goal and - according to their annual reports - the outcome for many. But the cumulative efforts of the society did little to dent the structural problem of prostitution in the city.

In 1918, the society changed its name to the White-Williams Foundation for Girls, in homage to Bishop White and George Williams, a Quaker philanthropist. Now called White-Williams Scholars, the organization currently awards scholarships to low-income public high school students - both boys and girls - who are academic standouts.

In these endeavors they are certainly more successful than their counterparts 200-plus years ago.

Join HSP on March 28 for "Women Visionaries and the Care of Older People - 1817 to the Present," a free program exploring the city's first organization dedicated to caring for elderly women. Visit hsp.org/calendar to register.

vfraley@hsp.org

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