(Photo by Calvin Shepherd - Use By Permission)
Alderson West Virginia - A History
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.     (Click on photo for larger view) 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.   I   was   to have   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. The   total   weight   of   these   women   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   theater   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   92nd   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.
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
Main Index
Looking West (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) Southwest View (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) Warden's House (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) School and Chapel (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) Inmate Cottages (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) First Board of Directors (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied) Helen Hironimus - Charter staff member. Became warden in 1941 (Photo-Library of Congress, no restrictions implied)
Photos from the U. S. Library of Congress (Click on photos for larger view)
The History of Alderson, West Virginia From The Journal Of The Greenbrier Historical Society On  Alderson, West Virginia Written by Kenneth D. Swope - Compiled and Transcribed by Barry Worrell