Posts Tagged ‘New York Magdalen Benevolent Society’

The Medieval-like reformatory for “fallen” women on Riverside Drive

August 23, 2021

In 19th century New York, benevolent societies began springing up. These groups were typically founded by religious leaders or citizens of means to help the less fortunate or end a social evil like alcoholism, gambling, and prostitution.

The Magdalen Asylum in an undated photo

Among these new organizations was the New York Magdalen Benevolent Society, launched in 1830. The Society’s mission, according to 1872’s New York and Its Institutions, was to promote “moral purity, by affording an asylum to erring females, who manifest a desire to return to the paths of virtue, and by procuring employment for their future support.”

In other words, the Magdalen Benevolent Society catered to “fallen women,” so-called “magdalens” who found themselves in the clutches of vice and needed to be reformed.

The asylum building in 1915, surrounded by the Riverside Drive extension and new apartment buildings

In the 1830s, the Society took over the upper floors of a building on Carmine Street and then moved to a larger site far from the city center at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street.

By the late 19th century, the group was looking for new quarters for the 50-100 women they took care of at any one time, who ranged from 10 to 30 years old, states the 1872 guidebook.

In the 1890s, a larger space for a new asylum far out of town in West Harlem was secured. Built specifically for the Society between 138th and 139th Streets, this secluded, fortress-like institution overlooked the Hudson River.

“Designed by architect William Welles Bosworth (1869-1966), the attractive neo-medieval building stood on extensive grounds that led all the way to the edge of the island where railroad tracks traced the Hudson River,” wrote Bronx Community College’s Andrea Ortuño, PhD, in a post for Urban Archive.

“The new building included room for 100 inmates as well as a chapel. Adjacent to the chapel was a separate building that functioned as a laundry––the proceeds from which partially supported the operation of the Magdalen Asylum.” 

The “inmates” (a word used at the time for anyone living in an institutional setting, not just prison) worked the laundry and attended prayer sessions. They also made headlines when they escaped, as these two Evening World articles from June and July 1894 attest.

Slated for demolition in 1961

The asylum on 139th Street was short-lived. “Despite the Magdalen Asylum’s uptown relocation, continued urban development, namely plans to extend Riverside Drive, had an adverse impact on the isolation of inmates,” wrote Ortuño.

“In order to maintain the city’s grid of streets, 139th had to be extended to meet the path of Riverside Drive and hemmed in the south side of the building. The wide sidewalks planned for the east side of Riverside Drive abutted the rear of the asylum and would eventually expose the female inmates to all manner of passersby on the street.”

A replacement is announced: a new apartment complex

The Magdalen Benevolent Society thought it better to relocate once again. By 1904 they’d left for a more remote location in Inwood. Stories of dramatic escapes on the part of the inmates at this new spot, later renamed Inwood House, have been collected from newspaper archives by

The former asylum building was then turned into the House of the Holy Comforter, which accommodated “incurables,” according to a 1905 New-York Tribune article. After a period of abandonment, the asylum was knocked down in the early 1960s. An apartment complex called River View Towers is on the site now…and no trace of the fallen women once sent there remains.

Riverside Drive has a fascinating history. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour Sunday, August 29 that explores the history of Riverside Drive’s mansions, monuments, and more!

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image: MCNY F2011.33.53; third image: Evening World; fourth image, Evening World; fifth image MCNY x2010.11.3146; sixth image: x2010.11.3145]