Dissertation Abstract: L. Mara Dodge


L. Mara Dodge, Asst. Professor
Current Address: mdodge@udel.edu
Criminal Justice Program, 342 Smith Hall
University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716

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HER LIFE HAS BEEN AN IMPROPER ONE:
WOMEN, CRIME, AND PRISONS IN ILLINOIS, 1835 TO 1933

by L. Mara Dodge

A Dissertation Submitted to the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of History, 1998

This dissertation is available through UMI, Ann Arbor.

ABSTRACT

This study examines the changing patterns of female criminality, the social characteristics of female prisoners, and the gendered nature of womens experiences within Illinois prisons over a one-hundred-year period. The penitentiary was never central to the social control of women: between 1835 and 1933 only 1,653 women, in contrast to over 70,000 men, were ever sentenced in Illinois. Despite their marginality, the experiences of this small group of outcast and outlaw women illuminates the many ways in which the bonds of respectable womanhood imprisoned all women. A woman who strayed too far from conventional definitions of proper femininity risked being stripped of her gender-based protections and cast into the role of the fallen woman. The bounds of proper femininity were vigilantly policed by family, friends, church, community, gossip, local institutions, and the state. Behavior that was defined as improper, such as disorderly living, alcoholism, promiscuity, illegitimate births, venereal disease, interracial relationships, or a history of common-law-relationships, emerge as central to the narratives of female prisoners. Whatever the character of their legal transgressions, it was others estimates of their characters, and particularly their moral standing, that most often determined their fate within the criminal justice system.

Divided into five separate parts, the study begins with an exploration of the social construction of female criminality based on an analysis of how the criminal justice and penal systems responded to female offenders. Prison was never viewed as an appropriate place for proper women. I argue that such factors as class, race, and ethnicity, as well as how closely a womans past conduct conformed to ideals of conventional femininity, were often more important than a womans actual offense in determining her fate within the criminal justice and penal systems.

Part two provides a detailed statistical profile of female prisoners and a decade-by-decade analysis of the changing patterns of female criminality over a one-hundred-year period. This material is based on the records of 1,653 women who were identified in the prison Convict Registers. These remarkably rich sources provide information on a wide range of variables, including the prisoners crime, sentence, race, age, occupation, education, marital status, children, nativity, and prior criminal record. Female prisoners were among the most marginalized and disadvantaged in terms of class, race, ethnicity, and social status. In the 1850s and 1860s one-half were Irish immigrant women. Foreign-born women were overrepresented until the 1890s, when race became a key determining factor. Between 1890 and 1920 African-American women, a bare 2% of the state population, averaged almost one-half (46%) of imprisoned women.

For most of the nineteenth century these women were imprisoned alongside of men at Alton, Joliet, and Chester Penitentiaries. Part III analyzes the experience of female prisoners within the context of the broader evolution of Illinois prisons. Although the nineteenth-century penitentiary rarely succeeded in providing male convicts with even a minimal standard of health, hygiene, or humane treatment, female convicts suffered an even greater degree of neglect while gender exposed them to additional indignities and abuses. Prison officials complained bitterly and repeatedly over the added burdens created by the presence of female prisoners and the great difficulties they experienced in managing and disciplining them.

In 1896 a separate Joliet Womens Prison was finally constructed across the street from the male prison. Part IV reconstructs its history from 1896 to its closing in 1933. Although the Joliet Womens Prison clearly fit the model of a custodial womens prison, mirroring the male penitentiary in its architecture, management, and disciplinary regimes, it provided a gendered space within the penitentiary where a new generation of female matrons attempted to develop rehabilitative programs based on an ideology of domesticity and proper femininity. The character of daily prison life, the emergence of a female prison subculture, and the relations between female matrons and female prisoners are explored. Although one investigator concluded in 1926 that the Joliet Womens Prison was the rottenest hole in the whole prison system in Illinois, the evidence suggests that the prison was managed by a series of able and humane female superintendents who tolerated the deviant actions of their charges, including escape attempts, drinking, homosexuality, and several small riots.

In the 1920s, spurred by female prison reformers, psychiatric and social work techniques were introduced into the prisons, resulting in the creation of extensive case files on individual inmates. Part V explores the impact of progressive-era transformations in prison policies and procedures on female convicts, focusing on psychiatric evaluations and parole board decision-making. During the 1920s prison release procedures became both much more restrictive and much more evaluative. As a result, the amount of time that women were required to serve doubled for every category of crime. Mental health reports and transcripts of parole board hearings are extensively quoted as they reveal changing conceptualizations of, and official responses to, female criminality. The majority of female prisoners were characterized as immoral, sexually promiscuous, and as having led improper lives. Officials were rarely satisfied that any reformation had taken place, and most reports concluded with the standard warning, Success upon parole is doubtful. Paroled women did often prove to be unsuccessful. Although parole board members typically admonished them that they were expected to be just a little better than the average woman, they frequently returned to circumstances--economic, social, and familial--far more limited and far worse.

In this last section the voices of Illinois female prisoners emerge clearly from the obscurity of the historical record. It is impossible to select a typical or representative case. Female convicts represented a diverse assortment of women, including first offenders, habitual shoplifters, prostitutes who robbed from their clients, and women who assaulted or killed husbands, lovers, or other women in fits of rage. They also included abortionists, bigamists, burglars, con artists, drug addicts, embezzlers, forgers, and grand larcenists. Some had stolen or forged large sums while others had stolen only a few items--a clock, underwear, dress, or goods from a local grocery store. Their criminality was often a response to dire financial hardship and limited economic opportunities, abusive husbands and lovers, misfortune and simple bad luck, all combined with the even greater burdens of race and class. Although the crimes that they committed were often relatively minor and had usually not resulted in grave social, economic, or physical harm, they had traversed the boundaries of acceptable femininity and thus earned a sentence to the penitentiary.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

PART I - HISTORIOGRAPHICAL AND THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES.....13

Chapter 1: To Discipline and Punish: Historiography of Crime

and
Punishment..............................................................................14

Chapter 2: The Jury Was Prejudiced against Negroes: The Social

Construction of Crime and Criminality..............................86

PART II - PROFILES OF FEMALE PRISONERS AND PATTERNS OF

CRIMINALITY IN ILLINOIS, 1850-1930

Chapter 3: Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind: Female Prisoners and Female Incarceration Rates in Illinois, 1850-1930....159

Chapter 4: Lured Traveling Salesman to Her Room: Patterns and Characteristics of Prosecuted Female Felonies.....................236

PART III - WOMEN IN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY MALE PENITENTIARY

Chapter 5: One Female Prisoner Is of More Trouble than Twenty Males: Women at the Alton Penitentiary, 1835-1859..........................312

Chapter 6: The Most Degraded of their Sex, if Not of Humanity: Female Convicts at the Joliet Penitentiary, 1859-1896......................363

PART IV - THE JOLIET WOMENS PRISON, 1896-1933

Chapter 7: Entirely Separate and Apart: Female Convicts

at Hard Labor, 1896-1913.................................................................419

Chapter 8: All Desire to Have Happy Homes: Domestic Ideology

at Joliet, 1913-21................................................................................456

Chapter 9: The Rottenest Hole in the Whole Prison System of Illinois:

Assessing Conditions at the Illinois Womens Prison

in the
1920s.............................................................................................492

PART V: PROGRESSIVE PENOLOGY AND FEMALE PRISONERS.............................581

Chapter 10: We Seem to Be Dealing with a Psychopathic Personality, . Emotionally Unstable Type: Psychiatric Constructions of Female
Criminality..........................................................................585

Chapter 11: Her Appearance Is Very Much in Her Favor: Women

Before the Parole Board, 1920-33..................................................638

EPILOGUE

APPENDICES

        Appendix A: Methodology - Convict Register Data Collection
        Appendix B: Establishing Racial Identification
        Appendix C: Records of the State Reformatory for Women
        Appendix D: Sources of Data on Male Prisoners
        Appendix E: Miscellaneous Tables and Graphs     Appendix F:
Photographs and Illustrations
        Appendix G: Examples of Mental Health Reports

BIBLIOGRAPHY

VITA

LIST OF TABLES

TABLE

  1. ILLINOIS COUNTIES: RANK IN STATE POPULATION COMPARED TO

    RANK IN NUMBER OF FEMALE PRISON COMMITMENTS, 1890-1930

  2. WOMEN AS A PERCENTAGE OF THE TOTAL U.S. PRISONER

    POPULATION PRESENT ON DATE OF CENSUS, BY TYPE OF INSTITUTION 1850 TO 1923

  3.            COMPARISON OF TOTAL NUMBERS OF WOMEN AND MEN ARRESTED 
        AND THE PERCENTAGE CONVICTED FOR THIRTEEN CITIES IN
        ILLINOIS IN 1915

  4.            PERCENTAGE FOREIGN-BORN: COMPARISON OF ILLINOIS STATE 
        POPULATION, MALE PRISONERS, FEMALE PRISONERS, AND FEMALE

PRISONERS BY COUNTRY OF ORIGIN, 1850 TO 1930

  5.            PERCENTAGE AFRICAN-AMERICAN: COMPARISON OF ILLINOIS 
        STATE POPULATION, FEMALE PRISONERS, AND MALE PRISONERS, 
        1850 TO 1960

6. OCCUPATION OF FEMALE CONVICTS: PERCENTAGE DISTRIBUTION

BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930

  7.            EDUCATION OF FEMALE CONVICTS: PERCENTAGE DISTRIBUTION
                BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930

  8.            MARITAL STATUS AND AVERAGE AGE: PERCENTAGE OF FEMALE 
        PRISONERS COMPARED WITH THE STATE FEMALE POPULATION BY 
        RACE, 1860 TO 1930

  9.            NUMBER OF CHILDREN AND PERCENTAGE OF FEMALE CONVICTS                    
        REPORTING CHILDREN BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930

10.             AGE WHEN FEMALE PRISONERS LEFT HOME AND NUMBER OF LIVING

PARENTS: PERCENTAGES BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930

11. PERCENTAGE BORN IN ILLINOIS BY RACE: COMPARISON OF FEMALE PRISONERS, MALE PRISONERS, AND ILLINOIS STATE POPULATION,

1850 TO 1940

12.             FEMALE PRISONERS: PERCENTAGE ADMITTING PRIOR COMMITMENTS 
        AND PERCENTAGE WITH HUSBANDS OR ACCOMPLICES IN PRISON, 
        1880 TO 1930

13.             ABSOLUTE NUMBERS OF WOMEN COMMITTED FOR CRIMES OF VIOLENCE 
                BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930
 
14.             AVERAGE TIME SERVED IN YEARS FOR MAJOR CRIMES BY RACE, 
        1860 TO 1930

15.             PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN PARDONED, PERCENTAGE SERVING MORE 
        THAN FIVE OR EIGHT YEARS, AVERAGE SENTENCE, AND LONGEST 
        SENTENCE, 1850 TO 930

16.             COMPARISON OF FEMALE PRISONERS IN THE 1850S AND 1860S
                WITH MALE PRISONERS AND ILLINOIS STATE POPULATION

17.             COMPARISON OF JOLIET FEMALE PRISONERS IDENTIFIED AS 
                WHITE, BLACK, AND UNKNOWN, 1860 TO 1889

18.     NUMBER OF WOMEN COMMITTED TO JOLIET, IDENTIFIED AS 
        WHITE, BLACK, AND UNKNOWN, 1850 TO 1900

19.     PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN COMMITTED TO PRISON FROM COOK COUNTY, 
                (CHICAGO) 1850 TO 1940

20.     NATIVITY OF FEMALE CONVICTS, PERCENTAGES BY RACE, 
                1860 TO 1930

LIST OF FIGURES

FIGURE

  1. TOTAL WOMEN COMMITTED TO PRISON IN ILLINOIS FOR FELONIES,

    1850 TO 1950

  2. NUMBER OF WOMEN COMMITTED TO PRISON IN ILLINOIS FOR

    FELONIES BY RACE, 1850 TO 1945

  3. AFRICAN-AMERICAN PERCENTAGE OF FEMALE PRISONERS COMPARED

    WITH ILLINOIS STATE POPULATION, 1860 TO 1950

  4. PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN COMMITTED BY TYPE OF CRIMINAL

    OFFENSE, 1850 TO 1930

  5. FEMALE PRISONERS AT JOLIET: ANNUAL TOTAL COMMITMENTS

    AND AVERAGE DAILY POPULATION, 1850 TO 1930

  6. AVERAGE DAILY POPULATION, WOMEN IN PRISON IN ILLINOIS,

    1860 to 1980

  7. TOTAL NUMBER OF MEN AND WOMEN COMMITTED TO PRISON

    IN ILLINOIS, FELONIES ONLY, 1840 to 1954

  8. TOTAL WOMEN SENTENCED TO PRISON, FELONY AND MISDEMEANOR,

    ILLINOIS, 1860 TO 1970

  9. TOTAL NUMBER OF WOMEN COMMITTED FOR MURDER BY RACE,

    1860 TO 1930

  10. TOTAL NUMBER OF WOMEN COMMITTED FOR ROBBERY BY RACE,

    1860 TO 1930

  11. TOTAL NUMBER OF WOMEN COMMITTED FOR ASSAULT TO KILL

    BY RACE, 1860 TO 1930

  12. DRAWING: BIRDS-EYE VIEW OF JOLIET PENITENTIARY IN 1883