Home for Friendless Women
Life as an Inmate
In the 19th century, a woman who had sex outside of marriage faced social ostracism. Becoming “fallen” or “ruined” was one of the worst things that could happen to a woman. Middle-class women in many cities established homes to help these poor, unmarried, pregnant women. In Louisville, Susan Speed Davis founded the Home for Friendless Women in 1876, creating a temporary sanctuary where “fallen” women could be “instructed, protected, and cared for and restored to virtue and usefulness.”
Homes for fallen women often had prison-like atmospheres. Residents were referred to as “inmates;” they were often required to surrender personal possessions and clothing and be outfitted with uniforms. Permission was required to leave the Home, and communication with the outside world was limited. Some homes had dormitories that resembled the woman’s ward of a prison: large, bare, whitewashed rooms with rows of narrow iron bedsteads. Some even had tall, prison-like walls, with shattered glass rimming the tops.
Some women were sent to homes by their parents, while the police brought others. They were young—mostly teenagers or in their early twenties—and typically from the lower class with poor education. Inmates worked hard to master useful skills, learning sewing and housekeeping, mending garments and laundering clothing. Inmates were also encouraged to participate in religious ceremonies. Christian prayer meetings were held daily at the Home in Louisville.
Prison or Refuge?
Middle-class reformers had good intentions. But did institutions like the Home for Friendless Women really give women the help they needed? What did the inmates think about how they were treated? While some women expressed gratitude and willingness to follow the strict rules, others did not acclimate to life in the Home and escaped or were expelled.
Rosa Reans, an inmate in 1887, was expelled after leaving without permission three times. Upon her third escape, Reans found that she had nowhere else to go and returned to the Home where she was temporarily readmitted. She eventually found work in a household in New Albany.
Emma Gary was kicked out of her father’s home in 1878 and entered the Home at age 16. Gary was well liked by the Board of Managers and described as “quite desirous of doing what is right.” She begged the Board to rescue her sister from a “house of ill fame” (i.e. a brothel). Gary eventually found work as a domestic while still boarding her child at the Home.
Annie Robinson was ordered to the Home following her arrest for entering an assignation house, presumably for the purpose of prostitution. Robinson escaped from the Home after only one week. She told the Courier-Journal that she was “going to be bad and all the policemen in Louisville can not stop her.”
One former inmate, known simply as “Ida,” wrote a letter to the Board of Managers in 1889 describing her time at the Home as life changing: “Words are inadequate to express our feeling for the kind hospitality shown to us…We can thank God for saving two souls from degradation.”