1928 - Alderson High School - 1968

The Journal Of The
Greenbrier Historical Society
Alderson, West Virginia
Written by Kenneth D. Swope

Federal Reformatory for Women

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.

In the 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 roads.

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 operations.

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 Rose".

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 charge.

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, 1962.

Next: Alderson's Fair

The contents contained in this series is copyrighted and the sole property of The Greenbrier Historical Society - Lewisburg, WV
Used by permission - November 18, 2008