Located less that a mile west of the town limits is the
Federal Reservation of 517 acres, principally within Summers County and a
small section in Monroe. Here is the nation's first model prison,
the Federal Reformatory for Women.
early 1920's, widespread agitation began for prison reform. Women
Federal prisoners were scattered all over the country, frequently under
very poor conditions. Twenty-two national women's' organizations
urged a Federal prison for women.
In 1921 Mrs. Mabel Willebrandt became the first woman
Assistant Attorney-General, and she recognized the need and actively
worked for such a prison for women. In June 1924, the first Enabling
Act to establish such an institution became Federal law. the
recommendations were for a prison for women only, near the geographic
center of prison population, with a capacity of about 700, a minimum of
500 acres of land to be know as Federal Industrial Institution for Women,
and to built of the "cottage plan", and to have a woman warden.
A site with the following qualification was desired:
close to Washington, with good climate and water supply, good land for
building and agriculture, and close to railroad transportation.
Several sites were inspected by Attorney-General Harlan F. Stone,
Secretary of Interior Hubert Work, and Secretary of labor James J. Davis.
Mrs. Willebrandt and other officials made inspections. The Alderson
site was chosen January 25, 1925.
The newly organized Alderson Chamber of Commerce had
gone to work to give the Rose farm of 202 acres valued at $30,000.00 to
the U. S. Government. Tom Woodson, E. Chase Bare, J. N. Alderson ,
the J. Albert Rigg headed the solicitation for the town. The drive
was successful although there was some opposition to the prison's being
located near Alderson. (Some apparently thought the Government was
going to rake up several hundred female criminals and dump them in
peaceful Alderson.) The prison over the years has been a major
economic asset of the community.
In 1924 Congress appropriated $909,100.00 to finance
the Reformatory and on July 3, 1926, appropriated $1,509.300.00 to finish
the project. March 12, 1925 is one of the most remarkable dates in
the Reformatory's history. Dr. Mary B. Harris, Ph.D., took her oath
of office as warden. It is hardly conceivable to have obtained a
better public official. Dr. Harris was a remarkable woman. She
had a brilliant mind, a splendid education, remarkable talents, a wide
influential acquaintance with great national leaders, a passion for
service to humanity. She advocated and believed in precisely the
purposes advocated for a Federal prison for women - reform, not
punishment, rehabilitation, training and education. She went to work
and the administration of the reformatory took shape.
In 1926 the Nash farm of 300 acres adjacent to the
original Rose farm, was purchased by the Government for $48,000.00 and the
much smaller Meadows farm was secured for $2,700.00 in 1927. Male
prisoners were transferred to custody of the West Virginia State Prison
from Federal prisons at Atlanta and Leavenworth. There was
established a Federal Prison camp of about 250 men. These prisoners,
using Stat of West Virginia equipment, cleared the site and built the
The first two employees of the staff began working
April 26, 1926. They were Miss Anna Kestor, using men prisoners from
the prison camp, raised a crop on the farm.
The Virginia Engineering Company, Newport News, Va.,
won two bids to construct the large number of buildings, cottages and
power plant. The first bid by them was accepted November 1, 1925.
The C. & O. put in a siding and ran a railroad through the construction
areas. Hundreds of workmen, many from Alderson, went to work.
On April 30, 1927, the first tree prisoners were
transferred from the Reformatory for Women, Rutland, Vermont. There
three women weighed more than 200 pounds each and their total weight was
649 pounds! One was West Virginian, and she was assigned number 1-W.
The formal opening was on Saturday, November 24, 1928.
Dr. Harris assembled her staff and she accomplished
her objectives. The reformatory was shaped and administered to
reform, train, educate, and it was the Nation's model. She sought
and obtained wide publicity for the prison, and many magazine and
newspaper articles described the institution. Dr. Harris was
enormously popular in the Alderson community as she actively engaged in
all kinds of civic and social functions.
The name of the institution was later changed to
Federal Reformatory for Women. Through the years, the original
objectives have been unchanged. A prisoner, if she stays long
enough, can come in illiterate and leave with a high school education
recognized by the West Virginia State Board of Education. Prisoners
work eight hours a day at dozens of skilled occupations such as sewing,
cooking, beauty culture, baking, laundry work, farming, clothing
manufacturing, custodial work, nurses aide, x-ray technician,
storekeeping, painting, butchering, dairy operation, landscaping, weaving,
IBM machine operation, calculating machine and other business machine
operation, photography, library work, and others. Federal Prison
Industries, Inc., operates the laundry and garment factory where shirts,
pajamas, shorts, aprons, medical gowns, and other garments are made and
sold to other Government agencies.
Three warden have followed Dr. Harris; Helen
Hironimus, Nina Kinsella and Gladys V. Bowman, the present warden.
Miss Bowman, a native of Hinton, W. Va. is a career Civil Service employee
who entered the prison service in 1946. She has a M.A. degree from
the University of Southern California in Sociology and was appointed
Warden July 1, 1961. Virginia Wood McLaughlin, an Alderson native,
is Assistant Warden.
The 1963/64 fiscal year appropriation is
$1,609,000.00. (7-1-63 through 6-30-64.) The average number of
employees is 212. The number of inmates averages 600. At
nearly any given time there are women serving sentences from every state.
The largest number comes from the cities. Of course, only violators
of Federal laws serve sentences there. to date nearly 16,000 women
have served sentences from three months to life. They have ranged in
age from 15 to 70 years. None has ever escaped permanently but one
did star away for two years.
Recently the Reformatory abolished its dairy and farm
The staff and buildings do not make a prison -
prisoners do, and the Reformatory has had its share of notorious, infamous
and criminal. Some of these women have attracted national and
international attention to Alderson.
The most infamous prisoner the
Reformatory ever had was Mrs. Iva Toguri D'Aquino, better known as "Tokyo
Another inmate, Mildred Elizabeth
Gillars, was Hitler's singing propagandist, know in the European theatre
by American troops as "Axis Sally."
The Reformatory has been the host of
several other spies and traitors among them a Nazi spy, Lillie Stein,
about whom a movie, "House on 92nf Street" was filmed.
During the gangster days of the 30's
several women connected with various gang were sentenced to Alderson.
Kathryn Kelly, wife of Machine Gun Kelly, was an inmate, and here mother,
Ora Shannon was also a prisoner.
In 1960, Rose Robinson, a pacifist,
refused to pay her Federal Income tax because, she said, most of it was
used for war purposes. She was sentenced to Alderson. She had
been fasting, and when she arrived March 1, 1960, had to be "force-feed".
Two months later ten members of an organization calling themselves
"Peacemakers" of Cincinnati, arrived and picketed the prison by setting up
camp at the main gate. This pack of pacifists, principally
preachers, picketed the prison for a week.
Billy Holliday, the well-known
singer, was at one time an inmate of the Reformatory on a narcotics
Another well-known inmate was
Kathleen Nash Durant, of Hesse jewel fame.
But most inmates are serving time for
common, run-of-the-mill offenses against Federal Law, and their names have
no significance in this history.
The Reformatory has been the subject
of three books. The first was by Dr. Harris, the first warden, "I
Knew Them In Prison", published by the Viking Press, N. Y., 1936.
This first book told of the establishment, aims, activities and
accomplishments of the Reformatory.
Helen Bryan, daughter of a
Presbyterian minister who had once had a W. Va. Church, graduate of
Wellesley College, a professional welfare and social service worker wrote
"Inside", published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, in 1953.
Miss Bryan was sentenced in 1948 to three months in Alderson for contempt
of Congress for refusing to give names of contributors to the Joint
Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, an organization opposing Franco in the
Spanish Civil War. Helen Bryan praised the Reformatory, its work and
officers. She wrote of the inmates she lived with, her warders and
officers and of her experiences, in a friendly compassionate manner.
The latest book on the Reformatory is
vastly different from the first two. It is "The Alderson Story",
by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, published in 1963 by International Publishers,
N. Y.. Elizabeth Flynn entered the Reformatory in January, 1955,
when she was 65 and served 28 months. She was convicted under the
Smith Act for advocating the overthrow of the United States Government by
force. She was an old-time, dyed-in-the-wool, Communist and still is.
She had little good to say for the Reformatory. She was "political
prisoner", she claimed. According to her, everything is wrong at
Alderson - the prisoners, the officers, the rules, the food, the work, the
teaching - everything. She did enjoy the scenery. Flynn
strongly intimated that what the Reformatory need is a good Communist
staff to operate it, then it would be heavenly.
There is also a child's story,
"The Christmas Anna Angel" by Ruth Sawyer published in 1944 by the
Viking Press, inspired by Anna Kestor, the Reformatory's first staff
member and farm manager. The author dedicated the book to miss
Kestor saying, "This is Anna Kestor's story, not mine". The story is
of Christmas in Eastern Europe and was told to Ruth Sawyer by Anna Kestor.
Ref: Scrapbook, The Alderson Saga, Federal
Reformatory for Women School.
Federal Reformatory for Women, Booklet, U. S. Government Printing Office,
The contents contained in this series is copyrighted
and the sole property of
Historical Society - Lewisburg, WV
Used by permission - November 18, 2008