written by Pam Tice, member of the BNHG planning committee
The story of the House of Mercy, located at the far end of West 86th Street on the Hudson River, is a tale of women’s work. The House was founded in 1855 by a devoted Episcopal woman, Mrs. William Richmond, who used her religious convictions and social skills to establish the charitable home. In 1863, the House of Mercy was put under the management of Episcopal nuns whose establishment was a historical moment for the church. It is also the story of young women of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century and their struggles that reflect the social mores of the patriarchal culture of that era.
Researching the history of the House also offered glimpses into mid-century city life. A minister on his way there described the rickety stairs on West 86th Street that led him down to the river where the House was located. The story of the nuns revealed the struggles between factions in the Episcopal Church. The report of a drowning in the Hudson River showed how the local residents reacted.
The Fallen Women of the 19th Century and the Efforts to Rescue Them
The House of Mercy was a home for fallen women. In the 19th century the term “fallen woman” applied to those who had transgressed current sexual norms. The fallen state goes back to the biblical fall in the Garden of Eden and the loss of innocence. “Fallen” was an umbrella term applied to a range of situations, including having sex just once or habitually outside marriage, a woman who was raped, or sexually coerced by a male aggressor, or a woman with a tarnished reputation or a prostitute. For many women in mid-19th century New York City, prostitution was an economic decision.
In New York City, work with fallen women is divided between those seeking to save and rehabilitate women who have already fallen, and those trying to prevent young women from falling. There were numerous organizations that formed to take on this work.
The New York Magdalen Benevolent Society was formed in 1830 by several denominations to reform females who had abandoned themselves to prostitution. The Society had its first asylum on Carmine Street and moved to a larger site on Fifth Avenue at East 88th Street. In the 1890s, this facility moved to West Harlem between 138th and 139th Streets overlooking the Hudson. The asylum had a second building there that functioned as a laundry, with the proceeds supporting the asylum. Not long after, in 1904, they moved to Inwood where they became known as “Inwood House.”
The New York Female Moral Reform Society (later changed to the “American” Society) was formed in 1834 to prevent prostitution. Other cities soon had similar organizations. Initially, women went to brothels and prayed for prostitutes and their clients. Later, women sought to criminalize men’s role in prostitution and to open homes for “friendless” women, and also for girls who might be diverted from “falling” as they got older.
In 1843 the Roman Catholics established the Sisters of Mercy to dissuade Irish girls from falling into prostitution and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to redeem those who had. By the 1850s, both Sisters were operating asylums in New York City. The Sisters of Mercy had a home on Houston Street to provide protection, especially for young women coming into the city as immigrants. The Sisters of the Good Shepard had an asylum on 30th Street.
The Charitable Christian Lady, Mrs. William Richmond
Sarah Adelaide Richmond founded the House of Mercy. She was the second wife of the Reverend William Richmond, the Rector of St. Michael’s Church located at Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. Mr. Richmond led an active pastoral life, establishing new churches, and holding services at the Bloomingdale Lunatic Asylum, New York Hospital, and other almshouses. His son-in-law, Thomas McClure Peters, worked with him closely and eventually took over his role at St. Michael’s.
In 1849 Reverend Richmond lost his first wife to the cholera epidemic that had broken out in New York City. He decided to leave the city for the west. The California gold rush was in full swing and many others were on their way to California. Richmond was not looking for gold, however. He was to assist the Episcopal Church in its mission to the growing population of California and Oregon. He ended up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, establishing a “mission house,” a new log house that he built, serving the area around Portland and Oregon City.
In October 1851, Reverend Richmond married Miss Sarah Adelaide Adams, a former governess to his brother James, and a former organist at St. Michael’s church. She was the daughter of “the late Thomas Adams of Boston,” according to a local news report. She had gone to Oregon to pursue work as a teacher. Her long journey to the West Coast speaks to an adventuresome nature. One wonders how she and Mr. Richmond ended up in the same place so far from St. Michael’s. Records of their ages differ somewhat but it was about 25 years.
After their marriage, the new couple made plans to establish a school that would become a college. However, by the time the first scholars were in place in March 1852, Reverend Richmond was ill. He had a recovery in the summer but in the fall was ill again, and the couple decided to return to New York City.
Ship records data for New York City shows Reverend Richmond and Mrs. Richmond arriving in New York City on February 18, 1853, on the steamship Ohio that departed from Aspinwall, Panama. Their journey demonstrates the difficulties of travel at mid-century. The trip across narrow Panama at this time was by mule, as the railroad was not yet built. A newspaper account mentions Ohio’s stop in Jamaica and how it ran aground leaving the harbor at Kingston. The news also reported the deaths of a few passengers of “bilious fever” and their burials at sea.
Reverend Richmond resumed his duties at St. Michael’s, and, while he had a lighter load of other pastoral duties, he did visit the prisoners on Blackwell’s Island. Mrs. Richmond accompanied him, visiting the women in the female penitentiary. She saw that a place was needed to support young women who showed some signs of wanting to change their lives.
The assertiveness of Mrs. Richmond, along with her charitable nature came into action at this point. Newspapers were advertising the sale or rental of the Howland family’s mansion on West 86th Street on the North River, as the Hudson was called. Soon she had a benefactor paying the rent on the mansion, and she established her home for wayward girls. In the 1855 incorporation papers for the House of Mercy, her objective was to provide a comfortable home for two classes of homeless females under 20 years (1) those who have just entered a vicious course of life and (2) very young girls who have not fallen but are in imminent peril.
Mrs. Richmond was now pursuing a career in one of the few areas of life outside the home open to women in the mid-century: charitable works. She had to fund her work beyond the support of the benefactor paying the rent on the mansion, so she organized bazaars to raise funds, using spaces available in midtown New York City. Often, they were auctions of donated items or concerts, all reported in the press. One year, the collectibles auction included two pelican skins and a Japanese carving made of charcoal.
Mrs. Richmond had a delicate pitch to make in her fundraising. The problem she was trying to help resolve was not something “ladies” could discuss openly. It was far easier to raise money for orphans or aged women in need. Newspaper reports of the fundraising appeals make an effort to characterize the young women as “innocents” who were somehow led astray by men. During the Civil War, the young girls were described as the sisters and daughters of the men “protecting our firesides” who were left to the tender mercies of a false friend. The New York Times said that “the trade for beguiling friendless and inexperienced girls is as thoroughly established in this as in any European city.”
Mr. Richmond died in 1858 but her widowhood did not seem to stop Mrs. Richmond in her efforts. She established an “intake” center downtown on Mulberry Street for the House of Mercy, right in the neighborhoods that were described by a newspaper as “in the midst of habitations devoted to the vilest of abuses.” In a New York Times article, the writer described Mrs. Richmond’s willingness to deal with the problem of window sashes in the House of Mercy as evidence of her willingness to take on all tasks related to the House.
On a Friday evening In July 1858, tragedy struck the House of Mercy. Five young girls drowned when they were by the river trying to cool off. The housemother, Mrs. Knox, had given her permission and had someone watching them, but something happened and they struggled and sank. Small boats maneuvered to help them and soon the 22nd Precinct men showed up with grappling irons. The search to recover the bodies took much of the day on Saturday. Mid-day, a cannon, owned by Mr. Scarf of Striker’s Bay, was fired every 50 feet down to West 72nd Street as a way to bring a body to the surface, and this helped locate three bodies. A fourth surfaced later, but the fifth was never found. (Firing a cannon was a British superstition that found its way to the United States; it was thought that the firing would break the gall bladder of the corpse and cause the body to float. Both Edgar Allen Poe and Mark Twain used this mechanism in their writing. Thanks to the website straightdope.com for this.)
The 1860 federal census lists Mrs. Richmond herself running the House of Mercy, along with her 19-year-old niece, Helena Richmond, and two other women. There is a year-old baby named William Richmond who presumably belongs to Helena, but no relationships are given in this census. The “inmates,” as asylum residents were called, number eleven teenage girls, both foreign and native-born. There are also two women inmates in their thirties and another year-old child whose last name does not match anyone else’s.
This description of the House of Mercy in an 1861 article in The New York Times is characteristic of the way the Home was described. The funds to purchase it appear to have been raised and the Home was free of debt.
The mansion house and grounds occupy ten acres on the beautiful slope of the Hudson, at the foot of Eighty-Sixth Street, at a convenient distance from the Bloomingdale Road … it is a means of directing to its protecting walls some sister trembling on the brink of ruin. The natural bathing facilities are charming, and all the inmates are encouraged to avail themselves of them …. There are thirty young girls in the Institution …these are all taught the plain, essential branches of education …. Sewing is a regular part of the daily routine, and much of the elegant embroidery demanded by the Southern market has been done here, but is now greatly diminished …girls whose proclivities lean towards the rougher branches of toil are employed in housewifery, horticulture, collecting outdoor material for domestic economy such as herbs, seeds and husks from the cornfields in Autumn, which latter are made into shreds and made into healthy beds for the inmates…there is a “Park Ramble” from the road gate to the main entrance which shows their gardening work … there are spacious halls and deep-windowed salons ….lights are out there is no talking allowed … the washroom is furnished in complete style by generous donations and the donated workmen who connected it to the reservoir with lead pipes which supply the stationary bowls around the room with neat copper faucets.
Despite the report of success, however, all was not well. Mrs. Richmond became ill with cancer, and, while she continued her work, the management of the House was too difficult for her to handle. (She died in 1866.) Her son-in-law, Thomas McClure Peters, reached out to another Episcopal clergyman for help, William Augustus Muhlenberg.
Episcopal Nuns take over the House of Mercy management
From 1863, until the House of Mercy moved uptown to Inwood in 1891, the Home was operated by the Sisters of Saint Mary. These Episcopal church nuns were simultaneously establishing their own organization and its work as they managed the House of Mercy. The Sisters were organized by Dr. Muhlenberg to provide nursing care at his project, St. Luke’s Hospital, originally on Fifth Avenue at 54th Street. The organization of the nuns was not working, and a few had withdrawn from their work at the hospital. Dr. Peters saw that they might be better situated at the House of Mercy and five women soon arrived on West 86th Street in September 1863. A history of the Sisters (cited in Sources listed below) describes the arrival of Harriet Cannon, Mary Heartt. Jane Haight, Sarah Bridge, and Catherine Hassett, and gives us a glimpse into the operation of the House.
Mrs. Richmond was not there, as she had gone to Albany to bring back a runaway. The fifteen “inmates” were dressed in rags and some had no shoes. They were living on a diet of bread moistened with left-over tea or coffee. The budget called for eight cents a day for meals, an amount that would offer a main meal of cheap meat, a vegetable, bread, and molasses. Supper would be bread and tea. The milk supply depended on a cow which was preferable to buying milk that was watered down and under no sanitary code. The Sisters started making new clothing for the girls and household linens.
The girls housed there resisted their care at first. They swore and sang “ribald songs” to defy and shock the sisters. Little by little, the dirt disappeared, and the girls came around, especially after the Sisters nursed them through an outbreak of spotted fever.
The Sisters did so well in their work that by 1864, Dr. Peters asked them to assume the management of his new project “Sheltering Arms”. He had given up his own home at Broadway and 101st Street to take in children there who had parents who were unable to care for them. Parents were unwilling to surrender their children to the Catholic orphanages because they had to relinquish custody.
Meanwhile, with the approval of the Episcopal Bishop Horatio Potter, plans were drawn up to create a formal monastic Sisterhood which became the Sisterhood of Saint Mary. In February 1865, five women were “received into the fellowship” at St. Michael’s Church in Bloomingdale. The history of the Sisters notes that “not since the dissolution of the English monasteries in the sixteenth century had an Anglican Bishop dared to stand in a parish church and officially constitute a religious community. Moreover, one designed to be a true monastic body and not a philanthropic society.” He argued later at the Diocesan Convention that their vows, although regarded as a lifelong commitment, were revocable, in an effort to appease his fellow Episcopalians.
For the next 25 years, the Sisters of Mary operated the House of Mercy at West 86th Street. During this time, the Sisters were also building their own organization with some success as they grew to include “houses” in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Sister Harriet Cannon was referred to in news reports as the Mother Superior. They added to their responsibilities in New York City, temporarily taking over the management of Barnabas House in downtown Manhattan, the intake center for the House of Mercy. They started a school in the East 40s, a children’s hospital nearby, and acquired land in Peekskill, New York that eventually became the Convent of the Sisters of St. Mary.
The House of Mercy received a glowing report in 1866 when a reporter described four similar shelters for women. The Sister had created “a beautiful homelike retreat” with three dormitories with twelve beds in each all neatly arranged with snowy coverlets, a sewing room, and a schoolroom. The Catholic Church was the main provider of such help, however, as their shelters housed 200 of the 300 women and girls who were receiving help.
The Sisters’ history book described their clothing during this period: “a plainly made black serge gown with a plain, deep overcape of the same color and material reaching down to about four inches below the waist, and, on the street, a long black cloak and a black English cottage straw bonnet with a black veil.”
In 1870, when the Sheltering Arms moved uptown to 129th and Tenth Avenue, a “Grand Bazaar” was planned to raise funds to cover its debt. A number of Episcopal women whose fundraising skills were vital to this effort began to make “inquisitorial” visits to the site, checking on the daily routine of the Sisters. These women found that “they prayed seven times a day” and had “Popish tendencies.” The issue at hand was the difference in the Episcopal Church between those in the “low” church and those in the “high” church. The anti-Catholicism of the mid-century along with publications that described Catholic nunneries as “white slavery in the land of freedom” helped form the images that certain Episcopalians held. The nuns were just too conservative for the worshippers in the low church and they threatened the withdrawal of their support for the Sheltering Arms. The solution to the problem was the withdrawal of the Sisters from the management of Sheltering Arms. All of this played out in the New York press, with a great deal of sympathy for the Sisters. However, the Grand Bazaar was a huge success and the debt of the Sheltering Arms was covered.
While the disruption was going on at Sheltering Arms, the State of New York granted funds to the House of Mercy to build a new building next to the Howland mansion, a building that included a dining hall, a chapel, school rooms, and more sleeping space. The new building was designed by architect Charles Haight who was just getting started in his career after service in the Civil War. He also designed the new building for Sheltering Arms.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the newspapers reported on the Annual Reports issued by the House of Mercy. With the expanded space, there were more inmates. The Sisters no longer maintained the downtown intake center, called St. Barnabas, but another branch of the Episcopal church did. The courts in New York assigned a young woman to the House of Mercy after an arrest and the City paid for her support. An 1871 report showed the movement of young people through the House of Mercy: 18 were sent to service; 32 were sent to friends, 8 were sent to hospitals, 19 to other institutions, 32 left with permission, and 19 without permission, 4 were “sent away” and 6 died. A news article in 1873 mentioned that the laundry was the chief occupation of the inmates. By this time, the State of New York had withdrawn from contributing to denominational charities because the Catholic Church with their extremely high number of asylums and their inmates was taking too large a large part of the appropriations.
In 1878, newspaper reports of the case of Grace Hagar revealed details of the House of Mercy that were not as charitable as before. Grace had been sent to the Home at 12 years old; she was an orphan and “disobedient” so her two aunts had somehow committed her there —- although a search for the court order doing so was never found. A writ of habeas corpus brought her into court when she was 17 years old and the details of her treatment were given by a woman who reportedly was an unhappy former employee of the House of Mercy. Allegedly, Grace was kept in a cell in the cellar for days, and fed only bread and water. The “Lady Superior” from the Home reported alternatively that Grace was treated kindly. (Although no article about the final deposition of Grace’s case was found, she may have been released to a guardian.)
In this news story, the dresses of the inmates were detailed as well: brown dresses for those assigned to the Home with “an inclination to reform” and blue dresses for those who had not shown evidence of reform. This description touched upon one of the original dilemmas of those seeking to save “fallen women.” Should they be punished for their sins by shaving their heads and starvation, or should they be shown kindness and allowed to live in some comfort, taught Christian morals, trained for a job, and encouraged to change?
In 1889, the House of Mercy announced that it had been able to sell their site on West 86th Street for $225,000 and this would fund a new building on land they had purchased in Inwood. The new building would have space enough to separate the inmates who were newly assigned there from those “undergoing the work of reformation.” The House of Mercy was joined in the Inwood neighborhood by the Magdalen Benevolent Society home and a tuberculosis hospital.
On West 86th Street, the House of Mercy buildings were taken by Miss Ely’s School for Girls, a private school for upper-class young women. Later, the School moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and the buildings were demolished in 1906.
After the move to Inwood, the press began to report on individuals at both the House of Mercy and Magdalen Benevolent Society, stories of mistreatment and punishment that no doubt sold papers. The National Police Gazette presented an image of young girls trying to escape their “capture” at the House of Mercy. These institutions became what today we call “Magdalen laundries” which typically refers to Irish homes for wayward girls run by the Catholic church.
In 1895 a news story told of Annie Sigalove who had been “taken from a Coney Island dance hall at age 18 and committed to the House of Mercy until she is 21.” The news reported that her head had been shaved and she was prevented from seeing her parents. The parents were trying to free her, and said she was 22 years old. Another case, Laura Foreman, was sent to the House of Mercy by her father, and punished by being fed only bread and molasses.
By the 1920s, the Sisters were unable to raise funds for the support of the House of Mercy and it was closed down. The building fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished when Inwood Hill Park was developed.
The Sisters of St. Mary are still operating today in three separate organizations in a number of locations. The Sisters of the Community of St. Mary, Eastern Province, is located in Greenwich, New York. Recently, they left the Episcopal Church to become part of a more conservative organization, the Diocese of the Living Word in the Anglican Church in North America.
Hilary, Sister Mary, Ten Decades of Praise: The Story of the Community of St. Mary During the First Century 1865-1965, Devoken Foundation, 1965
Peters, John P. Annals of St. Michael’s 1807-1907 New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1907
Richmond, John Francis New York and Its Institutions 1609-1871 New York E.B. Treat 1872 (accessed in digital format 4/11/22 at googlebooks.com)
Seymour, George “History of the House of Mercy” Fortieth Annual Report of the House of Mercy, New York, 1899
Theodora, Mary “The Foundation of the Sisterhood of St. Mary” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Volume 14, Number 1 (March 1945) pp. 38-52