Inwood Hill Park is a tangled mass of forest located at 214th Street and Bolton Road in New York City. An aerial map from 1924 shows the image of a building, now long demolished and burned. This was once the home of the House of Mercy, built in 1891 by the Episcopalians, to house young women committed by the courts or their family. Three stories high and the length of a city block, the picturesque, rambling structure housed 150 girls.
A description from the New York Times by a reporter of the day can be found online, “The building has a beautiful view of the Hudson River and a wide lawn, but iron gratings guard each door and lighter ones are fastened across each window. Efforts are made to disguise the purpose of the bars by their artistic design; they are twisted and convoluted, but bars nevertheless. Despite its architectural beauty the place is not a cheerful one to see for it much resembles a penal institution.” The census for 1900 recorded young women from the age of 12 to 18; half were listed as “in training as servants,” and the remainder either in school or employees of the institution.
One of the women, Annie Sigalove, was taken into custody from a Coney Island dance hall in 1892 and remanded to Mercy House until she was 21. At 22 years of age, she appeared in court with her parents to request a discharge. Her claims of ill treatment in the home are the first of several recorded. She claimed that her head had been shaved, and that she was prevented from seeing her parents for months at a time.
In 1896 Charlotte Francis, 13, burst into tears at Children’s Court when she was sentenced to the House of Mercy. After four elopements with Albert Spizzuoco, her mother found her living in an abandoned apartment without the barest of necessities, and turned her over to authorities. Spizzuoco, being only 14, was sentenced to the state reformatory after a series of thefts in order to support them.
Also in 1896, Laura Forman from Asbury Park was detained at the House of Mercy against her will. After a visit to her sister in the city, her father placed her at the Inwood Institution where she claimed to be virtually a prisoner. This detention brought about without commitment or other authority from any court. Made to exist on a diet of bread and molasses, her mouth gagged, a suit was filed for illegal imprisonment asking for $25,000 in damages.
The House received just four adult “women of ill-repute” in 1912, but the juvenile population was substantial. A report published by the now defunct Bureau of Social Hygiene listed 57 girls under 16 sentenced to indeterminate terms by the court. Most, though not all of these cases were strictly related to prostitution.”
Complaining against the quality of food and ill treatment, a riot began in April of 1915. Throwing food and breaking dishes, five of the ringleaders were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, while three others escaped the grounds. Apprehension by the police was easy enough as the striped uniforms worn by the girls gave away their identity.
The storied building was leased briefly to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1921. My great aunt Elizabeth Goodwin employed with this social service agency during its early days adopted two orphan boys from the area.
Dismantling of the institution soon followed and the city began condemnation proceedings for the building in 1926. All that remains is an overgrown meadow surrounded by a thicket of forest, some crumbling cement stairs found on the edge of the brush, and a few stories in the newspaper archive attesting to the suffering found within the history.
Thanks to the New York Times archive and Myinwood.net.