Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Alimony Debtor’s Prison in New York City - 1913

FULL TEXT (Article 1 of 2):

The Function It Performs in the Affairs of Our City Is Essentially that of a House of Collection – It Takes Its Toll in Days and Hours, in Minutes and Seconds – Time Is Its Silver, Men’s Opportunities Its Gold.

By Theodore Roberts
Actor, author and philosopher.

I am concluding my spectacular engagement of 182 consecutive nights at Ludlow Street Jail in the domestic drama “All for the “Woman.”

In one way it has been a paying run, not exactly so much to me as to the large cause which I felt called on to represent. And it has given me a large insight into an element of life with which I naturally was unfamiliar.

In playing the triple role of star, leading man and shining mark, I began with a matter of $2,600 alimony carefully computed on the books against me.

Nut a way lay upon – one of two – to erase it. It was my privilege to pay this very considerable and disturbing amount of money in cash to the former of my joys and sorrows or to permit myself to booked at this historical home of real drama until such time as, through the thoughtful enactment of our Legislators, my personal self-sacrifice had equaled the amount of money.

I chose to make the sacrifice hit.

I decided to immure 165 pounds of perfectly good actor, to retire from the highways and the byways and whiteways and take up my residence where Tweed for other reasons found habitation and where moths, knowing they do not have a chance, do not break in and steal.

Having played in “The Barrier,” I was not without courage; and besides, $2,600 to many of us – surely to me – is like unto the opulence of the Croesus person.

But I digress.

Ludlow Street Jail is unique. It houses mostly honest men. There are no real crooks or sharpers here. Victims make up continually shifting personnel.

Take my nearest neighbor, for instance. A man bumped into him on the street and broke his glasses. When he remonstrated the bumper hit him. The bumpee had the bumper arrested, but as he had no witnesses the bumper was discharged, and shortly afterward sued the bumpee for false arrest. The bumpee was put under $1,000 bond to keep the peace. He could not furnish it and the door of Ludlow opened to receive him.

Take another case – the case of a man who has been my companion for weeks. He was paying his wife $5 a week alimony by order of the court when he fell from a scaffold – he was a carpenter – and broke his leg. He was in the hospital for weeks and his alimony payments ceased. On his recovery, as the story is told, he found that his wife had established himself in another flat and he started to bring divorce proceedings – only to find himself arrested for his failure to pay his back alimony, which amounted to $70; so here he is.

And there are others – victims of our system, or lack of it.

Architecturally, Ludlow Street Jail is imposing. It suggests, from a distance, a hotel in Sheboygen, Wis. It is large enough to be roomy and it many uniform and neighborly, as well as carefully protected, subdivisions, cozy enough to be snug, but its appointments are not entirely satisfying, being mostly political.

When I summoned a taxi to take me hither, the chauffer, knowing my custom, not less than my habit and taste, in his innocence asked “The Waldorf, sir?”

“No, my good man,” I asked him. “I am not going to the Waldorf, where there is a courteous attendant for every guest, but to that other controversy, wherein one finds time for introspective meditation and the attendants outnumber the guests two to one.

And knowing, without another word, he drove me here.

Ludlow Street Jail is generally supposed to be a house of correction. It is scarecely that. The function it performs in the affairs of our goodly city that of a house of collection. It takes its toll in days and hours, in minutes and seconds. Time is its silver, men’s opportunity its gold.

And I have paid both of gold and silver and my alimony is squared.

In the quiet of my nine by twelve apartment I have not only had a toothache, but I have constructed, line by line, entrance and exit, a play which as yet is unwanted. It may be a good play. Time will tell.

The plot has been drawn in part from life as I have seen it here, and part from incidents less circumscribed. It is a mosaic and there’s a woman in it, but no decree. And there’d a fireside, but no steam radiator.

The engagement now ending sought me, even as William A. Brady, needing the services of a good actor in another role, sought me. I am booked for his new production, “Believe me, Xanthippe.”

So I slip from this donjon and resume my interrupted life work where its threads were broken, with an added store of experience. And believe me, Xanthippe, Broadway is always brightest when it is silhouetted against the twin shadows of alimony and Ludlow street.

[Theodore Roberts, “Ludlow St. Jail as I saw It From the Inside,” The World (New York, N.Y.), Jul. 6, 1913, magazine section, p. 5?]



FULL TEXT (Article 2 of 2):

“Theodore Roberts, the Well-Known Actor, Analyzes the Famous Ludlow Street Jail, Where Mea Are Imprisoned for Unpaid Alimony and Other Debts, in an Unusual Article Written from Six Months’ Enforced Intimacy with Its Interior.”

On New Year’s Day this year Theodore Roberts was sent to Ludlow Street Jail for failure to pay accrued alimony due to the wife from whom he was separated. Mrs. Lucy Roberts. She had sued him for divorce, but told the justice that she had changed her mind. For this change of mind she received a severe reprimand from the judge, who warned her against trifling with the courts of justice. Because Mr. Roberts owed his wife $700 he was sentenced to six months in the debtors’ jail at Grand and Ludlow streets, on the East Side, in New York. Recently Mr. Roberts, having served the full term, was discharged from prison.

For the first time a man of fame and scholarly tastes and attainments and keen, trained powers of observation, tells the truth from the inside about this relic of medievalism, a debtors’ prison. Mr. Roberts utters no plaint for himself, refers to no injustice wrought him, but with broad view and judicial manner analyzes and pillories the system of a so-called justice which sends men and women to prison for poverty in the twentieth century and in the most enlightened city of the world.

By THEODORE ROBERTS, the Celebrated Actor and Recent “Alimoniac.”

A PRISON term is usually something to conceal and to bury among the closet skeletons of a life. My prison term in Ludlow Street Jail for the non payment of alimony has been so widely exploited through the press of America that any attempt on my part to conceal or minimize it would be absurd, even though I desired to draw the mantle of forgetfulness over it. I am in position, therefore, to speak without reserve of Ludlow’s Alimony Club from the standpoint of intimate association for six long months, the longest term that is allowed to a Ludlow commitment.

During my stay there were never more than twenty-three inmates and never less than twelve. Of this shifting population not more than 80 per cent were on alimony commitments, though, owing to the fact that those committed on alimony either stayed for three or six months, the other prisoners did not represent more that 50 percent of the inmates at any one time.

The Alimony Club, therefore, consisted of from six to ten members. I want to impress this fact on the reader for future reference. In alimony commitments no two cases were exactly alike. They all differed in essential details. Owing to this fact, the courts have found it expedient to boil all different contentions in matrimonial cases into the one condition, that of a fine imposed for non-fulfillment of an obligation and a prison term imposed for contempt of court for not paying that line.

Having distilled all the heterogeneous elements of multiple marital complications into the one lenient of an obligation to the court, like the physician who threw all his patients into fits because he was strong on fits, the court finds itself able to deal quite readily and expeditiously with its victims by the dictum, “pay or stay.”

Judges find it very easy to commit a victim to Ludlow. It is not a very severe punishment nor does it carry with it the stigma of criminality that other imprisonments imply, nor are three months or even six a very long time. So judges sign readily and easily a commitment to Ludlow. There are fifty reasons for commitment, some absurdly trivial; but, once in there is only one reason for release. There is nothing for the victim to do but pay.

No appeal on the ground of mercy or justice or expediency will be entertained for a moment. The crimeless victim of a Ludlow commitment is the only prisoner in the State who cannot reach the slightest clemency. His family starving – sudden death with all its horror – great physical collapse or pain – all are against that one stone wall “pay,” and if you haven’t got the money and cannot get it, “suffer.”

Let us consider Ludlow from another angle. Thousands of cases go through the New York divorce mill every year. Thousands of husbands are ordered to pay thousands of wives more or less alimony.

And in Ludlow there is a little band of six who are suffering the mighty grip of eternal justice on their throats for not paying that alimony.

Does not this suggest some ground for speculative thought?

What shall be said of that little band of six wives who have forced their husbands into Ludlow?

Are they heroic figures that stand in the forefront of the battle for the purity of the home and the sanctity of the marriage tie? Let me give just a little data:

As I write there is one young man in Ludlow whose wife had a record on the police blotter before he was inveigled into marrying her, and when he found out her past be demanded his freedom and his wife sued him for separation and the court assigned her a weekly alimony. He fled from her as from a plague and spent five years in Chicago, where, gathering proofs and complying carefully with all the technicalities the law demands, he sued and won a divorce from her. He returned to New York to find that the New York courts would not recognize the Chicago decree, and as an opportunity to force the collection of quite a sum of money from this young man, whose father was fairly well to do, was thus placed by the courts in the hand of this unprincipled woman, she proceeded against him and he was haled to Ludlow.

He has abundant evidence on which to get a divorce from her in New York, and is now trying to get his case tried that he may be divorced a second time, but in the interim he is doing his six months in Ludlow.

There is another young man, a painter by trade, whose wife secured a decree of separation with alimony. He paid this alimony until he fell from a scaffold and was laid up in a hospital for some weeks, when he fell behind in his payments, it was about this time that he learned that his wife was living very comfortably under the protection of another man.

When he came out of the hospital he enlisted the services of two of his friends and, gaining an entrance to his wife’s apartment, verified all that he had heard. He has with him now the duly attested affidavits of his two companions on that raid. His wife forced him into Ludlow and he is now doing three months, and without a dollar to employ counsel to bring the counter suit for absolute divorce that the conditions warrant.

Another man points to a jagged cicatrice of a gunshot wound that his wife inflicted. He got it in the neck. He enters Ludlow to purge himself of the life-long obligation to pay her alimony, and has just completed his three months purgation.

There is yet another case, of considerable newspaper notoriety, that went through Ludlow. A man of considerable wealth found himself subjected to what seemed to be a family conspiracy to force money from him, and he deliberately submitted to three months’ imprisonment rather than trust to the sentimentally sympathetic justice of the courts to protect him from the combination of a disloyal wife and a mercenary mother-in-law and quite a following of sisters and uncles and aunts. These cases are not traditions of the jail. They are present cases that transpired under my observation and the men were my associates.

Nothing that I say and no inference that I draw from the conditions that were around me is in any way to be taken as applicable to my own case. I do not believe that among all the wives that forced their husbands to endure the torture of Ludlow while I was there there was one honest, deserving woman.

What is to be said of the morality that employs spies to dog every minute of a man’s time?

Ludlow has been and is a club with its handle ever ready to leap into the hand extended for it. It is a weapon of revenge, not of justice. The woman who really wants to do the right thing does not use it. It is only the woman who has become a fury, who has forgotten all sense of proportion in her thirst for revenge, who is ready to destroy herself as well as the man in the desire to blindly rend and tear.

Often she has industrious moral support. The mother-in-law may be an ancient joke, but too much family has led many a man to Ludlow.

Ludlow, viewed from the standpoint of its defenders, is a necessary adjunct to county administration. Theoretically it fills an imperative need of the community. The court must have a means of peremptory enforcement of its mandates. Husbands must be made to support wives, employers must pay their employers, and men who run from their just obligations must he compelled to give some guarantee that they will appear when called to answer before the court. Theoretically Ludlow is good. I write of it, however, only as I found it, and place against those theories that justify its existence the facts that I know. As it exists to-day it is a network of robbery, intrigue and vengeful persecution. I think the judges are largely to blame for this condition by their readiness to grant an order of commitment on the slightest pretext, thus making it possible for unscrupulous collectors to force money out of claims of doubtful justification.

In writing of the County Jail of New York, more familiarly referred to as “Ludlow,” the modern imitant of that old English “Marshalsea,” where imprisonment for debt in England died three-quarters of a century ago under the scathing pen of Charles Dickens, I find it hard to avoid the personal equation that would lead me into the error of expressed rebellion against the cruelly unjust imprisonment from which I have suffered within its walls. It is not my purpose to voice a personal grievance. Ludlow lowered before me for years as a grim probability, and I faced its sure and ominous approach with that same fatalistic mental attitude that many take toward the inevitable approach of death.

Could the roster of Ludlow be opened for public inspection a mighty network of politico-financial warfare would be revealed for. While its fame is coupled with the word “Alimony,” and a weeping Cupid with broken wing is its accepted allegorical exemplar, it has been mere often a weapon of the warring factions of finance than a factor in the high cost of loving.

Ludlow, as an institution, is unique in the world. I do not believe there la its counterpart anywhere. Its functions are taken over as a by-product of the. penal and reformatory institutions of other communities. New York alone maintains a big expensive building with all the accessories of uniformed keepers, and clerks, and engineers, and cooks, and cleaners, and cells with great iron doors that clang and bolts that shoot into place to the turning of a master key big enough to drive a spike or kill a horse, maintains all of this simply as a municipal collection agency, and not for the collection of government money either, but to collect the smallest sums from the most insignificant threadbare debtors upon almost any trumped up claim that has an unprincipled lawyer to push it before the courts.

From this “House of Collection” every inmate can obtain instant release, morning, noon or night, at any hour of the twenty-four, if he has the price. It is imprisonment for revenue only. We never asked the newcomer what he was in for, but how much. And the sums at times were absurdly small. One case that came under my observation involved the payment of a dollar and a half!

Reputable lawyers know very little of the intricate legal machinery of Ludlow. There are a class of lawyers that use Ludlow as a sandbag to rob the petty tradesman and the huckster and the foreigner ignorant of his rights. The floating population of this squeezing press is almost entirely made up of strangers to our language as well as to our laws, and the babel of tongues is wonderful. We had an initiation ceremony to our midst. At the cry “New Member!” we formed ourselves into the semblance of a court of interior jurisdiction. We had our judge and attorneys for defense and prosecution, and the novice was told that he must prove himself worthy to associate with us or be relegated to an imaginary limbo termed by us “The other part of the jail.” That was the way we made the new member “ride the goat.”

They came in bubbling over with their wrongs, and it was our delight to get them to pour them forth. A very few suspected that it was not all a necessary part of their catastrophy [sic], but for the most part overawed and frightened by the sound of the closing door behind them they were ready to believe anything that was told them, and they took their oath on the book without ever discovering that the tome was the Farmers’ Digest for 1805.

Probably the most amusing part of our inquisition came when it was all over and the new member was told it was all a joke, and we watched the feeling of indignation at being made a fool of change to gleeful anticipation as the next new man came in.

But always and always the foreigners! The very zest and seasoning of our sport lay in the struggles of injured innocence to tell his woes in an unknown tongue while our inquisitor deliberately tangled him in a perfect network of variegated language.

Poor devils, they had for the most part run up against these sharpers and shysters to find themselves in jail without the remotest idea or shadow of understanding of why they were there.

These tricksters of the legal profession swarm about Ludlow as ambulance chasers do about the municipal hospitals, and they have at their finger-tips every cunning little device, every sharp little technicality and trick, and they use Ludlow for their treacherous ends as shamelessly as a card sharper uses his paraphernalia of his calling. Sit as I have sat, over and over again through several months, a toy judge at a mock trial of real prisoners, I have seen foreheads beaded with the sweat of a great fear while wife and babies are waiting at the portal wondering where food is to come from.

We, the little band of “Alimoniacs,” were the aristocracy, the first families as it were. We knew why we were there, many of us had come very willingly as to an insolvency hospital to have our obligations softened or amputated, and we knew, too, how long we were to stay, and none that I met while I was there would have gone out if the doors had been left wide open.

But the cases of commitment on “order of arrest,” on account of breach of promise, or irregularities in bankruptcy, or partnership disputes, or claims for wages, or failures to respond to subpoenas, or failure to secure immediate bonds, or even as in one case for impertinence to a judge, all came in uncertain as to how long they should stay and what the law was in regard to their cases.

I have seen a tailor come into Ludlow with thimble still on his finger and an assortment of needles fully threaded sticking in the lapel of his coat. One day an engineer came in with the grease of his engine still on his hands and face, and his pockets bulging with cotton waste. There was a teamster with his driving gloves still on and a whip in his hand.

I recall a pathetic figure who took off an old overcoat to disclose the white linen coat and apron of a baker taken from his bread pans. Nothing could be more eloquent of the very nature of Ludlow’s function as a weapon of the summary collector of bills. And a noticeable fact in all Ludlow’s activities that should strike the economist is that with all this tremendous machinery, the game is so small, the amounts collected so petty and trifling, that I do not believe the total enforced payments won by this judicial blackjack would pay the expenses of one of the keepers, let alone the score of others who are part of the machine.

The Sheriff’s finger, like that of Fate, beckons and they must go!

There are incidents that live with me now of my long martyrdom. The Grim Reaper took son from father, brother from brother, and in one instance took from our midst one of our associates to a suicide’s grave.

“Old Murphy” had earned the title by nineteen years faithful guardianship of the grim portal of Ludlow. An old soldier, he held his position as a sort of pension, more desirable than a billet to the Soldiers’ Home. When I entered Ludlow his was the most condemned name in it. Few of the prisoners had a good word to say of “Old Murphy.” Carrying over the army discipline into his work he carried over also the army roughness, and there was an inexorable finality in his refusal to let visitors stay one minute over the half hour the regulations allowed that gave many a frightened wife or mother a nerve-racking knowledge of what imprisonment of her loved one meant.

It came his turn to suffer the loss of his life’s companion, and when his wife was laid away the old man’s mind and nature seemed to undergo a complete metamorphosis.

It was some time before we realized that the old man’s mind was senile, though events proved that he realized it himself, and from little remarks he let drop we saw a growing fear in his mind that he was soon to be locked up as he had locked up so vast an army in his time. On April 7 he bade us a cheerful good-night, and on the following morning ho threw himself in front of a subway train and was cut to pieces. We heard of it with a numbing sense of horror that afternoon.

It was an unique picture of prison life to see the prisoners to whom Murphy had stood as an unyielding Cerberus at the outer gate dipping deep into their pocketbooks to buy a wreath of flowers for his funeral. Is there anywhere in the world a replica of Ludlow?

[Theodore Roberts, “New York Still in the Dark Ages with Its ‘Bastille for Husbands?” The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Va.), Sep. 7, 1913, color section, p. 7]


For more revelations of this suppressed history, see The Alimony Racket: Checklist of Posts


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