“The Way of the Transgressor”: Hard Labor and Incarceration in the Marion County Workhouse

As inmates entered the Marion County Workhouse, a sign sounded the Biblical warning that “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.”  Indianapolis’ workhouse opened in 1885 with a philosophy that hard labor was the path to rehabilitation.  Most inmates pulverized a massive rock pile producing gravel for local roadways, but inmates also worked a large garden and maintained the workhouse as cooks, janitors, barbers, and laundresses.  The facility at the corner of 21st and North West Streets (the latter now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Street) was part of a complex landscape of incarceration in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis in which discipline was imposed by a network of orphanages, jails, asylums, and a poorhouse.

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York's Blackwell's Island (image NYPL).

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York’s Blackwell’s Island (image NYPL).

The workhouse was intended to house inmates who were convicted of modest crimes and had received short sentences.  In the years after the Civil War, Indianapolis’ workhouse proponents lamented that such petty criminals were prone to vagrancy, fueling a persistent “tramp problem.”  In 1875, for instance, the Indianapolis News argued that the “necessity of a work-house is too apparent to require enlarging upon.  The vagrants who loaf about the streets and saloons, the tramps who beg from house to house and watch an opportunity to steal, the drunken creatures who are brought into court daily, the able-bodied gamblers who range the streets and public resorts in search of victims or who hide in their dens until the chance to rob comes; these, and all the worthless and vicious who prey upon society, shall find a place in the work-house.”  In December, 1883 the News lamented that the County jail was over-crowded with “professional loafers or tramps” who “come here in winter from all quarters, for the reason that they know they will be sheltered at the expense of the state, and can not be made to work.”

Planning for the Marion County workhouse stretched over a decade.  In May, 1872 the Indianapolis Journal was among the first champions of a workhouse.  The paper lamented the dismal sanitary conditions and overcrowding in the existing jail, but they were more alarmed by the large number of adolescent boys in the jail.  Young men were repeatedly jailed for short-term sentences and “habitually under arrest,” all while being “schooled in vice” by the adult convicts they served alongside.  In October the Indianapolis News joined the chorus lobbying for a workhouse as a reformatory institution for “adults who have been committed for petty crimes or violation of city ordinances; for prostitutes, drunkards, vagrants, etc.”  The paper believed young men could be sent to a workhouse to learn trades, and adult men convicted of minor crimes could do hard labor rather than be sent for long-term penitentiary terms.

An 1887 Sanborn insurance company map provides the first map of the newly constructed workhouse.

An 1887 Sanborn insurance company map provides the first map of the newly constructed workhouse.

In 1873 the News proposed placing such a labor reform institution at Seller’s Farm, a southwest Indianapolis site where the city had recently contracted to discard “all offal, garbage, dead animals and bones from the city” (the site remains a city waste management site along Harding Street today).  The new landfill was sufficiently close to the city’s downtown courts to transport prisoners, and it sat along rail lines to transport crushed gravel from the workhouse.  However, in January 1874 city planners instead proposed to place the workhouse near Southern Park, literally one day after the City Council agreed to purchase the property (the park became known as Garfield Park after James Garfield’s assassination in 1881).  In November 1875 the City Council approved preliminary funds to construct the workhouse, but in November 1877 Mayor John Caven declared the workhouse proposal was dead.

The city council again began consideration of a workhouse in January 1883.  Uneasiness over vagrants again motivated public sentiment, with the Indianapolis News concluding in December, 1883 that “The tramps from every section are congregating in this city because they know they will be comfortably housed and fed, and will not be compelled to work. The county commissioners, in self defense, will soon be compelled to proceed with the workhouse scheme.”  The city began receiving proposals for the workhouse in 1884 while the News continued to complain about the “tramp nuisance.”  In February, 1884 the newspaper complained that newly freed prisoners, “instead of leaving the city, congregated in the west end, and by their carelessness were soon the objects of police attention. Twenty-seven of them were re-arrested. During the afternoon Superintendent Lange and posse made a charge upon a squad west of the river, using their clubs with salutary effect, and serving a notice that hereafter heroic remedies would be applied toward abating the vagrant nuisance, which has grown to alarming proportions.”

The D.A. Bohlen & Sons Indianapolis buildings include the Schmidt-Schaf House at 1410 N. Delaware St (now Propylaeum), shown here in 1893 (Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Image Collection)

In addition to the Marion County workhouse, D.A. Bohlen & Sons designed a host of Indianapolis buildings including the Schmidt-Schaf House at 1410 N. Delaware Street, shown here in 1893 (Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission Image Collection)

In April 1884 $12,000 was allotted to secure the real estate for a workhouse at 21st and North West Streets.  The building was designed by Diedrich Augustus Bohlen, who also designed the Morris-Butler House, Crown Hill Cemetery’s Gothic Chapel, and the Indianapolis City MarketContractors began construction in July.  The workhouse opened October 20, 1885, and 12 prisoners were sentenced to be the first inmates.

On February 3, 1886 the Indianapolis News included its first notice that a local court had sentenced somebody to the workhouse: “chronic drunk” James Dougherty was sentenced to 30 days hard labor.  Nine days later “petty thieves” Grant Armstead (stealing clothing) and James Conway (stealing a pair of boots) were sentenced to six months.  Many inmates appear to have been convicted of vagrancy, public drunkenness, and a host of misdemeanors like petit larceny, and an 1887 federal study reported that the average sentence was just one month.  Some inmates could not pay court-imposed fines, so they would end up in the workhouse or have their sentences extended.  The most ludicrous example of this may have come in July, 1895 when John Cohen was fined $1 for having an unlicensed dog.  Unable to pay the fine, Cohen was sent to the workhouse.

An 1889 image of the Workhouse. In 1889 what is now known as 21st Street was then numbered 12th Street. The gravel pit in this image was where prisoners' crushed stone was placed onto rail cars.

An 1889 image of the Workhouse. In 1889 what is now known as 21st Street was then numbered 12th Street. The gravel pit in this image was where prisoners’ crushed stone was placed onto rail cars.

Petty criminality delivered many inmates to the workhouse.  In 1900, for example, teenage friends John Finley, Patrick Moran, and John Duffy were serving a workhouse sentence for a series of store burglaries.  They had been initially arrested for vagrancy and posted bond before being implicated in a series of saloon and shop burglaries, receiving a six-month workhouse sentence.  Finley was involved in a shooting in October, 1900 and arrested again for stealing his own shoes from a repair shop.  A month later Finley was described in the newspaper as “a well-known police character” after an arrest for a street robbery, and in January 1901 he began another six-month sentence in the workhouse.  In October, 1901 he was once again arrested for stealing his own shoes from a repair shop.  The 23-year-old Finley’s life of crime ended in March, 1902 when he died of tuberculosis.  John Duffy likewise was re-arrested in October 1901, receiving 30 days in the workhouse for theft; in February 1902 he was arrested for burglarizing a Washington Street saloon; and in April 1902 he was arrested with a group of men trafficking in goods stolen from the railroad yards.  Patrick Moran would go on to become an Indianapolis police officer.  In June 1916 officer Moran was charged with assault and battery for breaking a man’s jaw with his club.  Moran was cleared of the charges, but he died of encephalitis in March 1917.

The workhouse often included prisoners with long sentences, which taxed its capacity at the turn of the century.  In 1890 a census found that 88 men and women were being held in the workhouse, but in April, 1899 the workhouse’s 160 single-prisoner cells held 178 inmates, and more than half were serving more than 180-day sentences.  The stone quarry could only accommodate 100 prisoners at a time, so many inmates were idle.  Nevertheless, most prisoners appear to have been convicted of misdemeanors.  A 1912 study of the 1,860 inmates who served time in 1911 reported that the most common conviction was for “idling and loitering,” with 640 convicted of that charge; 512 were committed to the workhouse for drunkenness, 196 for petit larceny, and 141 for assault and battery (48 convicted of assault against their wives).   Two years later in 1913 the workhouse had 1,988 inmates, with the most common convictions for drunkenness (675) and loitering (523).

Women were among the inmates until a women’s workhouse opened in April, 1908 as part of the Indiana Woman’s Prison (later Indiana Women’s Prison) on North Randolph Street (now home to the Indianapolis Reentry Education Facility).  Far fewer women were sentenced to the workhouse than men, and they were put to work on needlework and craft projects rather than stone breaking.  In 1890 14 of the workhouse’s 88 inmates were women, and in 1900, just 24 women were being held at the workhouse when the census keeper toured the facility (there were 136 men).  In the year ending in October 1904, 271 women served time in the workhouse, with an average sentence of 32 days.  On October 31, 1904 the state reported that the workhouse had 31 women among its 192 inmates.

A 1908 Baist map image of the workhouse.

A 1908 Baist map image of the workhouse.

Many women sentenced to the workhouse were sentenced along with husbands or male partners.  In 1900, for instance, the inmates included Laura Lennon, who had been found guilty of receiving stolen goods stolen from express wagons by her husband Peter.  When Laura Lennon was arrested in Indianapolis, the police tracked Peter down in Cincinnati, where he unsuccessfully claimed to have no relationship with Laura.  In March they each received three months in the workhouse; Peter told the census keeper he was married, but Laura appeared as divorced.  Adultery sentences were a common charge imposed on both men and women.  In 1893, for example, Emma Gallimore was sentenced to six months for adultery and fornication along with Henry Jones.  A year later Lizzie Deal and John Miller served 30 days for adultery.

While women were routinely arrested for prostitution in turn of the century Indianapolis, very few women were sent to the workhouse for prostitution charges.  Two of the first to be sent to the workhouse were 14-year-old Estella Kenton and 13-year-old Nettie Keener, who were given workhouse sentences for prostitution in September, 1886.  Kenton was again in court for prostitution in May 1887, when she was sentenced to the Indiana Women’s Reformatory.  In 1899 Bertha Shields had been touring with the Digby Bell Opera Company when it went bankrupt in St. Louis, and the stranded chorus singer came to Indianapolis.  Shields moved into Lizzie Ensley’s “resort” on Pennsylvania Street and received a 30-day workhouse sentence for street walking.

Some women who managed “bawdy houses” did time in the workhouse, but most of them escaped with fines.  In August 1892, for instance, Minnie Miner was arrested for managing a “resort,” along with seven women.  Miner was sentenced to 30 days in the workhouse.   In March 1893 Miner was again fined for “enticing” women into prostitution, but she escaped a workhouse sentence and “fainted, became hysterical, and had to be carried from the court-room.”  A month later she was charged $20 for “keeping a bawdy house,” but she again escaped a workhouse sentence.  In May 1895 she was arrested for “keeping rooms for immoral purposes.”  Two women were found in Miner’s house, and the police pledged to return them to Cincinnati where “they have families in that city and are well connected.”  Men who orchestrated prostitution usually escaped prosecution, but in September 1903 saloon keeper Albert S. Griswold received six months in the workhouse and a $100 fine for “keeping a resort.”

A 2016 Google view of the former Workhouse site. Interstate-65 was placed along its eastern edge (the right side of this image) in 1967. The former gravel pit is still visible in this image at the bottom of the picture.

A 2016 Google view of the former Workhouse site. Interstate-65 was placed along its eastern edge (the right side of this image) in 1967. The former gravel pit is still visible in this image at the bottom of the picture.

Workhouse inmates often served sentences in the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and the workhouse sometimes sent inmates directly to the asylum.  Charles McLanahan was sentenced to the workhouse for an unknown crime in 1901, but when he became “noisy and violent” he was sent to the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane.  His admissions records indicated that he “Has delusions concerning his friends conspiring against him that he refuses to eat and at times shows signs of violence.”  Charles would never leave the hospital, dying there in July, 1943, with his death certificate indicating he had been cremated at the Indiana University Medical School.  Oliver Clay was sentenced to a 60-day workhouse term in 1903, convicted of assault and battery when he resisted a police officer who was ejecting him and his mother from their home.  Three days later Clay was at the workhouse when a massive train crash on the tracks alongside the workhouse killed 17 people, including 14 members of the Purdue football team traveling to Indianapolis for a game.  The crash “seemed to increase the mental disorder” of Clay, who was declared insane in December and sent to the Central Indiana Hospital; his admission records indicated Clay believed officers of the workhouse caused the Purdue train crash.  Like McClanahan, Clay remained in the hospital until his death in December, 1923.  Gertie Grant was in the workhouse in 1900, and she was committed to Central Hospital for the Insane in September, 1900 as a “kleptomaniac,” diagnosed as being unable to control her material desires.  Grant died in the hospital in March, 1901 and was buried in an unmarked grave adjoining Mt. Jackson Cemetery (Clay is also buried in the same cemetery).

Like many Civil War veterans who passed through the workhouse, Moses M. Paddock would also spend time in a variety of state agencies serving veterans and the mentally ill.  Paddock was a farmer in Knox County when he enlisted in July 1861.  He served as a Private in the 26th Indiana Infantry, and during the war he received gunshots to his shoulder and hip.  Moses, his wife Jennie, and daughter Ella were living in Arcola, Illinois in 1870, and they moved to Indianapolis in 1872.  In October, 1887 he was charged with deserting his wife and choking his 16-year-old daughter; unable to pay the court fines, he spent 40 days in the workhouse.  Paddock had just been released from the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and in 1889 he was committed to the Cook County Insane Asylum in Dunning, Illinois.  In April, 1901 his wife had Paddock committed in a Veteran’s Home in Illinois, citing his two-decade record of mental illness and alcoholism.  Paddock complained that his wife had gone to live at John Alexander Dowie’s religious community of Zion outside Chicago, and Moses Paddock was not allowed to join his wife.  Moses stayed in the veteran’s home for a decade and returned afterward to Indianapolis, where he died in City Hospital in 1912.

A 1937 aerial view of the former workhouse site showed many of the workhouse buildings still in place, but they would be torn down around the beginning of World War II.

A 1937 aerial view of the former workhouse site showed many of the workhouse buildings still in place, but they would be torn down around the beginning of World War II.

The workhouse was not simply an assemblage of common criminals doing short-term visits to the rock pile.  In March 1899, for instance, former police officer Charles Shortridge was sentenced to six months in the workhouse for slashing the throat of a woman who had rebuffed his marriage proposal.  The prosecutor defended the light sentence, arguing that Shortridge’s inability to pay $700 fines would likely keep him in the workhouse for nearly three years.  An African-American barber, Horace Helm, was likewise convicted of assault with intent to kill for a knife attack, and he received six months in the workhouse and a $500 fine.   After serving his sentence Helm continued working as a barber in Plainfield and then in Ohio, where he died in 1948.

In 1900 the census keeper found Alonzo Strange at the workhouse after he had been convicted in January of unlawfully living with Ella Bybee.  That offense brought a 120-day sentence and $35 fine to both Strange and Bybee.  The couple had two children who they brought to court, and her sentence was suspended, but the judge still “became very indignant over the apparent efforts to appeal to his sympathy on their account. He told Strange that should he appear before him again and be proven guilty he would be sent to the workhouse for at least two years.”  After he was released Strange was arrested for another assault charge, then for gambling, again for an assault charge on Bybee, and finally in July 1902 he slashed her ribs during an especially vicious knife attack.  He received a 2-14 year sentence in the state penitentiary in October, 1902.

A 2016 Google view of the former workhouse site with 21st Street in the upper left corner of the image.

A 2016 Google view of the former workhouse site with 21st Street in the upper left corner of the image.

In July 1914 roughly 250 prisoners were in the workhouse, and the inmates began to be placed on chain gangs conducting road labor.  A year later the county began plans to close the poor house and potentially merge it and the workhouse with the asylum in Julietta, on the city’s southeast side.  Some observers had been skeptical that workhouse inmates were actually reformed.  In September 1886 the Indianapolis News already appeared to be skeptical, arguing that “in all essential respects, the work-house is a penitentiary.”  The paper asked its readers to imagine “a picture for those who love justice: A school-boy—a mere child— dressed in prison stripes, sitting among grand larcenists, thugs, old and tough, and other time-hardened criminals, breaking stone, while over him stands a guard, Winchester rifle in hand, and blood In his eye. … What awful crime has he committed that he is punished as a felon? … The lad violated the ordinance prohibiting jumping on moving trains!”  The same complaints would resurface throughout the workhouse’s life.  In 1910, for example, Indianapolis Police Court Judge James A. Collins addressed the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society and dismissed the workhouse rock pile as “a mere relic of barbarism.”

Support for the workhouse gradually eroded, and local observers suggested that prohibition made the workhouse unnecessary.  Indianapolis adopted statewide prohibition on April 2, 1918 (national Prohibition officially followed in January, 1920), and ideologues argued that arrests had decreased exponentially.  In June 1918 18 men were pardoned from the remainder of their workhouse sentence, marking the final inmates officially incarcerated in the workhouse.  The workhouse’s structures remained in place until at least 1937, when they are visible in an aerial photograph, but by 1941 the workhouse had been razed.



Blackwell’s Island (1866) image from New York Public Library

Schmidt-Schaf House (1893) image from Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission image collection


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