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"A Day With Dr. Brooks"


  By  Mary E. Dodge.
Scribner's Magazine,
Volume 0001, Issue 1, November, 1870

Who is Dr. Brooks?

Ah, that is the very question I asked my friend Theophilus.       

"How strange!" he replied, mildly at first, but allowing himself to grow unaccountably indignant as he proceeded, "how very strange that any one here in New York, and in this day and generation, should have to ask that question! But I might have taken it for granted. Such men never are known as they deserve to be. What a world it is! Well, when can you go?"      
 "Almost any day," I replied, abjectly.       
"That means exactly never," said he.       

"Well, then, tomorrow."      

So, on the next afternoon, at 5.10 precisely, we took the Hudson River R. R. cars for Fort Washington, in search of the man whom it was my disgrace not to know. On, through ugly suburbs, to the shore of the beautiful river which kept alongside till we alighted at a dear little amphibious railroad station that had just crept up on the rocks to sun itself. Then came the half walk half climb up a romantic stair-path, and at last the meeting with a party of ragged Fort Washington boys, whom we accosted on their way to the river for a swim.
      They had answered our inquiry as to the whereabouts of the New York Juvenile Asylum, and vouchsafed some further conversation, when Theophilus suddenly exclaimed:--
      "He beats the children -- do you say?"
      "O awful, sir!" returned the smallest boy.
      "You bet he licks 'em!" put in another.
      "With what?" pursued Theophilus.
      "Big stick."
      "Why?" I asked indignantly.
      "Why for breakin' loose, ma'am."
      "Breaking loose?"
      "Yes'm. Lots of 'em breaks loose and runs away."

Dr. Brooks

    "Try to run away, they do;" corrected another boy, evidently a brother of the speaker; "but they gen'rally gets ketched afore they start."
     Thereupon gloom settled upon the dirty little faces of the prospective bathers, and they passed on silently.
     This looks rather bad for the doctor thought I. But I said nothing.
     "Pretty country," remarked Theophilus.
     We walked along, admiring the distance and gathering way-side flowers, until we came to a large iron gate. A shabby village street, suddenly appearing not far off at our right, made it easier to realize that, though on Washington Height, we were still within city limits-- near the corner of 10th avenue and 175th street.
     "Here we are!" said Theophilus.
     The gate could be opened readily enough, but we preferred first to peer through its ornamental open-work Nobody thinks of breaking the seal of a puzzling letter till after curiously scanning the outside.
     We spied two boys with in, raking hay; also some men at work in a distance. The general effect was that of fine private grounds.
     Loudly, as the gate clicked in closing behind us, the busy little hay-makers hardly raised their eyes.
     We halted to speak with them.
     "Are you inmates here?" I asked.
     They leaned on their rakes and answered simultaneously, in class-fashion.
     "Yes ma'am."
     "How many are there altogether?"
     "About four hundred and fifty boys, and more than a hundred girls."
     "Do you like it here?" asked Theophilus, thereby, as I feared, for the second time greatly imperiling the doctor.
     "Well, we do," said the larger boy, brightly, though not without an instant's reflection --- "we get good learning and " - --
     "First-rate learning," put in the other. "I get on better'n I did at the Ward school down in town. They're not so set in their way of teaching here."
     "Do the children ever try to run away?" I asked, not looking at Theophilus.

 "Well they do sometimes," answered the big boy, in an off-hand yet confidential way, as if to say a fellow likes his liberty, you know; "they mostly get brought right back, though, by the p'licemen. Some chaps hide away in the water-tanks, and so slip off when the way comes. But there's lots of chances all the time if you're sharp."
     "All us boys out at work are watched," interposed his companion; "you see those two fellows working over there -- they're on the lookout."
     "Their back are turned away now," remarked the first boy dryly; then added after a moment, "What's the sense of running away from a man that's good to you? I don't see it."
     "We're hurryin' now," said the other, tugging violently at a tangle tuft as he spoke, "for cherries. All who get through their job before the bell rings can spend the extra time up in the trees."
     We moved on, following a wide, well-graded carriage road, passing grass-plots and rows of vegetables in various stages of growth, and noting by the way that the men working there turned right about face as soon as we left our young hay-makers. As we advanced, now in full view of the fine buildings constituting the Asylum, we saw a forlorn-looking girl outside the grounds, who had climbed up and was peering over the fence. She was ragged, dirty, and wretchedly thin.
     "Do you belong here:?" I asked, much shocked,
     "No indeed," was her haughty reply as she slid out of sight, "nor do I want to neither."
     "That's it," said Theophilus. "Of course there's a strong outside prejudice against the Asylum among the children of the poor. They use it probably as a 'hangman's whip' to keep the little wretches in order."
     Just then we heard a familiar sound -- the clicking of wooden balls.

The Doctor is out playing croquet," exclaimed Theophilus, radiantly -- "Ah, here he comes!"
     A tall, fine looking man, of perhaps fifty years, emerged from the shrubbery and advanced to meet us.
     You're not the hard and stern looking man as one might suppose, thought I, as with a cordial welcome he led the way up the massive steps of the main entrance.
     Leave us for a while, good reader, taking supper in a pleasant room, with the sweet breath of flowers stealing in at the window, the rustle of waving trees outside, and pleasant sounds of song and laughter in the distance. Go back to the busy beautiful, wicked city, pierce it showy surface, and descend into the depths where hundreds upon hundreds of little ones are dwelling in places of misery and vice.

      You will find very bad children there. Such hardened little hearts! Such horribly wise little heads. You will find children made by your Maker, who have been taught to steal and lie and fight and curse, whose currents all are setting prison ward who know not the sweetness of home, the love of kindred, nor the holiness of God -- poor, dreadful little creatures seething in viciousness, favored when some expression of their individuality, recognized as crime, puts the law on their track to take them away, anywhere.

       There is another class of little New Yorkers -- it would be a pity if your sweet little girl in a white frock and pretty sash knew anything about them -- who are not quite so bad as the worst children, but who are taking in wrong impulses at every pore; who now are known only to be lazy, disobedient, given to truancy and disorderly ways; children who in their tender years strike cruel blows, crippling the energies or breaking the hearts of honest, hard working parents.

      Still another and third grade of little ones is found in the midst of these. You will know them by their pitiful faces, by their neglected, suffering little bodies, or by appalling ways and habits that are imitative merely, not vicious. Their young lips may utter oaths -- but it will be just as simply as the baby in your home might repeat snatches of Mother Goose. They laugh at a street fight as the other laughs at "This little pig went to market."

     These are the partially unpolluted children of lazy drunken, degraded mothers, or of desolate, neglectful fathers; or, it may be of honest parents forced by destitution to live among the vicious and depraved. When we think of the over-crowded tenement-houses of the city, where from seventy to one hundred and forty, and even as many as a hundred and eighty human beings have been found living under the same room, on a surface are of 25 by 50 feet, with only four or five stories above the cellar, we may well shudder at the chances of the little ones who live there.

     Twenty years ago, if any city child, whether vile or simply neglected, committed a legal offense, the only place except a prison to which the courts could send it was to the institution popularly known as the House of Refuge. This, virtually, was a penal institution, though its conduct embraced the disciplining and training of its inmates. It aimed then, as it does to-day, to be truly a refuge from vice. Good men were interested in its success, and it was recognized as being just what was needed.  It had already been in existence twenty-seven years, and during that time had received over five thousand young offenders -- a big number until you divide it by twenty-seven and count the thousands outside who needed to be snatched from their dreadful surroundings. The necessity of additional means of breaking up the juvenile vice and crime of the city was keenly felt by the authorities as well as by all thoughtful philanthropists. Not only vicious, but homeless, deserted, and truant children, wandering about the vilest districts of the town, needed to be wisely sheltered and trained. Especially was it deemed important to provide a reformatory home for disobedient children voluntarily surrendered by parents unable to control them.

     Out of the wants and considerations grew the New York Juvenile Asylum, in the year of our Lord 1851.

      The institution proposed to receive all destitute or vagrant children between the ages of five and fourteen, legally committed to its charge by the courts, or by parents or guardians, to rescue them from the consequences of their evil surrounding and train them to ways of goodness and usefulness. They were to be retained until, in the opinion of the managers, their condition warranted their being released on application of friends, indentured to suitable employers or consigned to homes of Christian families in the country. Even afterward, the institution would follow up its young charges, by correspondence and personal visitation, until right habits were established and the children "saved from becoming burthens to themselves and a curse to others." Twenty-four well-known benevolent merchants of this city obtained their charter as a body corporate under the title of "The New York Juvenile Asylum." The extensive building on 175th street and a House of Reception on 13th street were erected by voluntary subscription from citizens and an equal appropriation for the city supervisors. Then the Society set to work, the annual expenses being met equally by private donors and the city government.

     Thus sprang to life one of New York's noblest institutions. It is nineteen summers old to-day. Dr. Brooks has been its superintendent and physician for the twelve years.

     We are rising from the supper table when our host say:--
     "Will you come into the chapel? The children are about to begin their evening exercises."
     Without claiming remarkable susceptibility, I must say I have a dread of seeing child-paupers. The feeling was especially strong now, as Theophilus whispered while passing through the hall -- "You mustn't expect to find little saints, you know."

      Little saints indeed! How could they be little saints? I gave him a look, and hurried in as the Doctor opened the door leading from the hall into the chapel. It was a very large room, with broad, high windows on each side, through which the evening sun shone brightly, lighting up rows upon rows of little square desks.

     There sat the children! more than five hundred of them. The drift of the Five Points and all the dirtiest streets, docks, and alleys of the city! Five hundred little truants, thieves, vagabonds, and beggars!

     Who said so? Not Theophilus. He was gazing at them with shining eyes. Not the Doctor. He was quietly standing on the platform. It must have come through the windows, from New York.

     As for myself, I was listening and looking. The little creatures, one and all, were singing their evening hymn. Somehow, I could not see their faces on account of the music, and I couldn't hear the music on account of their faces. Committees may not feel like crying on such occasions; but every one is not a committee.

     As a general thing, melodeons are hardly to be commended. With their gallons of grandeur "sharpened to a pint," they are apt to confound harmony and small measure in a peculiarly exasperating way. But the melodeon that accompanied these children behaved well. It put on no airs, and allowed the little ones to attend to the vox humana.

     The performer, a young girl, was nearly hidden from where we sat upon the raised platform. As her head bent over the keys, she seemed to be whispering coaxingly -- "Now don't try to do anything but breathe."

     So it breathed a soft, rich half-sighing accompaniment while the childish voices sang:

"On the sweet Eden shore, so peaceful and bright,
The spirits made a perfect are dwelling in light:
Their white wings are wafting them gently along.

through the beautiful regions of glory and song."

After this, a little evening speech from the Doctor -- just a few simple, fatherly words. Then with clasped hands and closed

eyes, the children said the Lord's Prayer in concert, and then stood up in their places, and looked straight at the Doctor.

"Good night!" said he cheerily.
"Good night, sir!" they answered as heartily, and in perfect order quietly filed out of their places, and so went off to bed.
It was settled that we should stay all night and "go through" the institution the next day.

NY Asylum       Back again into the pleasant parlor, where hangs a full-length imperial photograph of Apollos R. Wetmore, the President of the institution as well as one of its founder -- a philanthropist of whom New York may well be proud. We were glad of the picture -- firstly, because the grand, hearty, benevolent face did us good; secondly, because it formed such a capital text for the Doctor. He is so provoking modest that it is only by his extolling the sort of thing he reveres one can surmise his own quality or estimate his enthusiasm in his life-work -- at least, it is the only conversational way, since we must in the end judge a man by what he accomplishes, and rate his opinions, not by what he makes of them, but by what they make of him.
     I felt in a peculiarly positive and practical frame of mind that day. Had the Doctor looked stern, forbidding, or worn a pompous institution expression -- had he had the slightest contradictory shade of conceit or hypocrisy, or even of

downright assumption, I might have been very much more receptive. As it was, I resolved not to let the goodness in his face bias me. Perhaps, after all it might prove to be no great loss not to know all about "such a man," Theoph to the contrary nevertheless. 

  It is hard though, to withstand a bright eye that is mild when it speaks of conquered difficulties, and flashing when it recalls righted wrongs; to wait for proof when an earnest, glowing face, wearing the peculiar, grieved look which such faces always acquire after years of philanthropic labor -- very hard when such a face looks into yours not to invest it almost with the realization of the beatitudes.

 But I wouldn't. I drank in every word of the conversation, felt happy and inspirited, but determined to wait till we had gone over the institution. How about that "big stick?"

     Meanwhile, we had gratefully obtained a good deal of information concerning the Asylum and its two very important adjuncts, the House of Reception and the Western Agency.

      To the former the children are in the first instance taken, either by their friends or by a policeman, as shone in the illustration. In the latter case, their parents or guardians are duly searched for and notified, if possible, ten days being allowed in which application for surrender will be heard. Sometimes several children are brought in during a morning; and often it happens that a solitary wretched, frighten little vagrant, taken in all his rags and dirt by one of the truant-police force, finds himself standing in the reception-office a prospective victim, as he believes, of every horror this side of hanging.

     All new-comers, after the required legal formalities are attended to , are medically examined, bathed, and provided with clean clothing before being permitted to join the other inmates. From that time their personal traits and habits are carefully studied; they are admitted to the chapel and schoolroom exercises, and every care is taken to fit them for entering the Asylum. For twenty days the magistrate has the unconditional right of discharge. After that time commitments become final, and the children are removed to the Asylum in a covered wagon, every precaution being taken that no mistakes or informalities shall occur.

    Detentions at the main institution are governed in each instance by the time required to accomplish a reform. Sometimes a few weeks will suffice to render it safe and wise to return a child to its parents, or to sent to a good western home; sometimes more than two years; the average period is about five months. European reformatories retain children for much longer period than ours -- four years for boys and five for girls being with the former considered the normal term.

    The importance of the present Western Agency can scarcely be over-estimated. Formerly the agent who attended to the indenturing of asylum children to western farmers or other employers, and who was expected to find good Christian homes for scores of girls and boys, had no local habitation or post-office address. His "head-quarters" were on the railway or in the saddle, and of curse under these circumstances it was impossible for him to fully meet the demands of such a work. Through the suggestion of Dr. Brooks a Western Agency is now firmly established at Chicago, and under its admirable organization an incalculable amount of good is being accomplished. Theoph and I have since read the reports of it principal, Mr. Wright. The Agency has constantly under its charge about fifteen hundred minors, scattered all over the State, concerning whom it is his duty to keep himself informed, ready to hear complaints from either side, adjust difficulties, or remove dissatisfied wards to more congenial homes. Added to this are the cares incidental upon transporting, receiving, and distributing fresh installments of children, as often as circumstances require. Thirty-four gatherings of the wards have been held by the agent during a single year at various points in the West. Our illustration represents a group of boys and girls who have thus fallen in with each other after having been happily located by the agency. "Number of the former wards of the asylum," he says, "are now married and owners of farms or prosperous reputable citizens. Numbers are in, and others preparing themselves for, the several professions of law, medicine, and teaching. One, a lawyer, although but twenty-four years of age, hold the office of State Attorney, having been duly elected thereto by his district; and another is Assistant Superintendent of a prominent Reform School. Others are partners and clerks in prosperous mercantile firms, engineers and mechanics, leading useful lives, and enjoying an average measure of lives blessings."

     Think from what a life most of these probably have been rescued! True, not all of the children indentured are vicious, or even

  friendless and neglected. In many instances they are orphans, well cared for in earlier years; or their parents have suffered reverses, and have chosen to consign them to the Institution for the express purpose of having them indentured. A great many of the Asylum children are bad enough; but Theoph quite shocked the Doctor that night by speaking as if all of them were little vagrants, more or less criminal. Not so at all. "The parentage of some of our inmates would astonish you," said the Doctor. "We have had the children of lawyers, merchants, clergymen, and high dignitaries here, to say nothing of descendants of noted men, all voluntarily sent from comfortable homes for reform. Again, a number of our children are innocent of any known offense. They are brought simply on account of destitution, and are sent away as fast as suitable home can be obtained.
     Quoting the Doctor from memory, I may not give his exact words. He spoke of institution life as a necessary evil at best, allowing, as a governing principle, that as soon as it can be safely done, asylum children should be removed to the more natural conditions of a private

home. Above all, he deprecated any set system that unfitted inmates for subsequently mingling with the outside world. Rules and fixed regulations are entirely thrown out of his scheme of management; he prefers to deal with the individuality of the children, creating and acting up to a high public sentiment among them.

    His distinction between order and discipline interested us. There is order in a time-piece, he says, in military movements, in the tides, in a statue, in the planetary movements, the seasons, and the processes of Nature generally; but none of these exhibit the vital characteristics of true discipline. 

Reception Hall           

 The most perfect order may exist in a school-room without a particle of discipline. Discipline comes from a different law, and is wholly dependent upon the higher qualities of our being. Discipline is culture, embracing education, instruction, amusement, labor; chastisement, or consequences of neglect. Order is effected by timing, promptness, regulations, adjustment, bells, signals, gestures, and the like.

    How many curious facts our host told us! How he unconsciously opened our eyes to the difficulties of presiding over this constantly changing household of hundreds of children; of so managing them that they shall feel like members of one family -- the Institution truly a home to them, to be looked back upon in after-life with pride and gratitude, never with a sense of disgrace! How he revealed the inner live of such an asylum; the varied characters with which he had to deal; the incongruous, almost hopeless material to be harmonized and elevated!*

    Many of the inmates are boys who, as "dock-rats," house-thieves, peace-breakers, and horse-stealers, have grown preternaturally quick-witted in certain directions and correspondingly stupid in others. They are keen at dodging the police and mastering complicated systems of signaling; adept in arts of deceit and low cunning, yet almost witless in simple every-day matters. When the better nature of such boys is really touched, they seem to lapse into an almost infantile condition, so utterly ignoring their bad line of progress that the result is wonderfully like childish innocence. Some very bad children appear subdued and good as long as their self-esteem is fed and love of approbation satisfied; but the instant their self love is wounded, the real character revels itself. All their badness appears in their faces, and every promise of reform is forgotten. Others, outwardly well-behaved, take pride in seeming inwardly vicious, stubbornly, holding out against better influences. But the good seed is sown, and sooner or later it comes to fruit. Such children, strange to say, are reformed against their will. The soil is good enough; it is only that the early planting were bad.

    Certain boys the Doctor said, hold to their subtle ways, putting on the appearance of contrition while they are doing their best at getting up plots among the children, heading secret organizations, and showing a wonderful degree of shrewdness and diplomacy in ill-doing. These are apt to select the dullest looking boys as tools. Indeed, it often happens that the burden of some mighty scheme among them rests upon a pudding-faced, gaping-mouthed youngster, who seems never to have had an idea in his head.

    In the Doctor's experience, a moderately bad girl is more easily reformed than a moderately bad boy; but of very depraved children, girls are the hardest to cure. Nearly all, good and bad, boys and girls alike, are quick at weighing the character of the officers, and keen at detecting shams of any kind. Sentimentalism they abhor. Not long ago, a member of the Truant Police was giving the children rather a flowery account of his experience in saving a vagrant child. "That's a lie!" exclaimed a girl to her neighbor during one of his most brilliant passages. She had been deeply interested until suddenly she detected a flaw and felt there was a falsity somewhere.

    If in any way they feel themselves injured or unfairly dealt with, they invariably manage to have "satisfaction," as they term it. Their great delight is to try a new teacher, who is certain, at the outset, to be given some exasperating nick-name suiting none but himself. Sometimes as many as fifty secretly agree to be disorderly for the sole purpose of testing him. Woe to the officer -- man or woman -- who under such circumstances gets confused or angry. There is no retrieving the lost position. The only escape is in absolute abdication.

    Lately three male teachers failed successively in governing the main room -- that is, it was evident insubordination would result from their continued presence. On such occasions the charges has been given to Miss Stickney, a lady who has labored in the Institution eleven years. Her control is always perfect. She need not speak -- her glance is sufficient. [I looked for the lady that night when the officers assembled in the Doctor's room for evening prayers, but there was none who corresponded with my idea of such a woman.]

    In controlling even the worst children, violent measures are never allowed -- not even corporal punishment, beyond, a few strokes with a light ratan ("cracks," the children call them), and these are not administered except by the Superintendent, who assured us that frequently many weeks would elapse without even this slight correction being required. Such a thing as any officer shaking a child, cuffing it, or jerking its ears, is not to be thought of. Any act of the kind would be considered a fair cause of dismissal.

     The word punishment, Doctor B. insists, should be banished from institutional nomenclature. Chastisement he considers the right word and the right thing -- chastisement, adopted as a stimulant or correctant, administered upon general principles -- that is, not for any special acts, but simply for not improving. To whip for special offenses, such as stealing, lying, impudence, he says is merely to doctor symptoms -- a false and short-sighted system in reformatory practice.

     When Dr. Brooks entered the Asylum twelve years ago, he found lock-up cells there, which he demolished with his own hands. Floggings, bread-and-water fare, and forcing culprits to lift heavy weights or stand in painful positions, were among the authorized forms of punishment.

     Nothing of the kind is possible now. Yet the Doctor aims to subdue all cases; to confront opposition and secret organizations with moral force; to starve discontent by depriving it of the sympathy of the mass; to create a love of study in children who at first will make their own eyes sore, and otherwise maltreat themselves in order to be unfit for school duties. He expects to conquer hatred with love, and overwhelm bad tendencies with Christian firmness and charity. Failure must meet him sometimes; but how can he succee?

     From all these points and considerations, Theophilus and I came to sundry sage conclusions -- chief among which was, that it was no joke to carry on the New York Juvenile Asylum.

*14,622 children have passed through the Institution since it's opening. The annual average is now about 750.






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