The Train Unloads Its Sorrows: Scenes from Rhode Island’s Dark Days of Social Welfare

Only a little more than six miles from Rhode Island’s capital city, upon a hill rising above the urban sprawl, the vestiges of our Victorian era asylums blend almost seamlessly with the landscape in this part of the state.

The place exhibits practically all the hallmarks of a modern industrial park. Abutting the fortress-like Adult Correctional Institution — the State’s century old prison — it is the headquarters for a number of government offices; the Division of Motor Vehicles, the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, and the Rhode Island State Lottery, to name a few.

But what is today commonly regarded by most as just another rambling borough situated between the modern shopping centers and condominium complexes of Providence’s greater metropolitan area was once known as the home of Rhode Island’s destitute and insane, the criminally incarcerated, the juvenile delinquent, and the feeble-minded. It was the State Farm, known simply as “Howard,” so called for the isolated little hamlet upon which it stood.

The Rhode Island State Almshouse from the vantage point of Pontiac Avenue, Cranston, RI
“Howard! Howard! — What memories the name awakens; memories of the ball and chain, the sullen prisoners with closely cropped heads, in dirty gray uniforms; the locked step, the down-cast eye that showed, by its baleful and furtive glance, the seething mental condition of the mind that had not found itself and was tortured by the expression, ‘Justice’, which was, to the wretched prisoners, a mockery, and its very sound an echo to them of Man’s inhumanity to man.”

These are the words of Dr. Henry Aaron Jones, the English physician and surgeon who won wide recognition in the early 20th century as a leading reformer of Rhode Island’s State Institutions.

For over a decade Dr. Jones was the resident physician for nearly 3,000 inmates at the Asylum for the Insane, the State Workhouse and House of Correction, the State Prison and Providence County Jail, the Sockanossett School for Boys, and the Oaklawn School for Girls. A scholar and professional at the pinnacle of his field, he was still a young man in 1916 when he became the first Medical Superintendent of the State Almshouse, where, legend tells, the first case of appendicitis ever operated upon in the prison hospital was performed by candlelight, and where Dr. Jones himself performed the institution’s first mastoid operation “with carpenter’s chisels, upon an inmate arrested for supposed intoxication, but was found to be intoxicated with pus rather than alcohol.”

An operation at the State Infirmary is performed without the aid of electric light
Hydrotherapy room and hospital ward at the Rhode Island State Institutions

Elected to Deputy Director of the State Department of Social Welfare in the early 1940s — a position he held until the end of his life — over the course of Dr. Jones’s remarkable career he was a member of numerous Medical Societies, President of the Rhode Island Medico-Legal Society, and a retired Lieutenant-Colonel in the United States Army.

He was also an artist, and the author of one of the most critical volumes of historical sketches to ever emerge from New England in the pre-war era; a manuscript titled,“The Dark Days of Social Welfare at the State Institutions at Howard, Rhode Island.”

The Dark Days of Social Welfare at the State Institutions at Howard, Rhode Island
“While many of the other states of the Union were progressing to a higher social order in the treatment of the insane, the prisoners, the feeble-minded and the poor, Rhode Island, in those dark days, was singularly backward.”

THE DARK DAYS OF SOCIAL WELFARE

The Dark Days of Social Welfare is a book as rare as it is unique. Published in 1943, just 500 copies were printed by the E.L. Freeman Company and distributed to elected State officials, department heads, presidents of colleges in the state, newspaper publishers and organizations interested in social welfare work. Of only 23 copies known to exist today, most reside at University libraries in the northeastern United States, though examples appear throughout North America from Newfoundland to Hawaii.

Bound in a burgundy cloth hardcover with foil stamping, the copy in hand — procured in 2015 from a private seller in New York — is in very good condition. Though the cover is slightly edge-worn at the corners and the outermost ends of spine, the binding is tight, and the dust jacket is intact. The interior pages are crisp, thick and textured, showing only faint foxing at the edges. Not a hundred pages in length, the book is satisfyingly heavy in the hand. It smells like old paper, and exhibits all the other qualities of an antique and unassuming heirloom; but it is between its pages that the book’s true distinction is brought to bear.

Entrance to the State Institutions, Howard, Rhode Island, 1900
“Many of them looked with despairing eye through the train car windows to what to me appeared to be a stately castle of grey stone … but to these in the car, it was was the grim castle of despair, the place of sorrow, resignation, and of death! “

A DEPOT OF MISERY AND SORROW

Beginning with a recounting of his arrival at the train station at Howard in 1893 — a “depot of misery and sorrow where … no flag was flying, emblazoned with the legend, ‘Hope’” — from cover to cover Dr. Jones’s reminiscences of the “horse and buggy” days spare little detail in painting an odious portrait of life, and death, at Rhode Island’s State Institutions.

Recollecting their origin and function, offering his observations of their daily operations, and relating personal anecdotes about their staff and physicians, the treatment of their inmates and the various methods of force used to keep them in line, in seven chapters Dr. Jones describes each in dramatic detail:

The Rhode Island State Prison

“Under the appellation of Order and Discipline,” he writes of the State Prison and Providence County Jail, the “ominous shadow of ‘Force’” follows the inmate everywhere. He is clipped, finger-printed and photographed, “made to lose his identity and personality … and compelled by armed men to tread the dreary treadmill of prison routine.”

“Sitting in his cell, viewing the massive masonry that detains him,” he says, “there creeps upon the prisoner a state of mind known as ‘prison psychosis,’” under which he dwells continuously by the threat of “the torture jacket, the black cell, the starvation diet and the ‘numbered man’”.

Hallway, Visiting Room and Waiting Room at the Reception Hospital at the Rhode Island State Institutions

At the Asylum for the Insane, he describes how a “twelve foot high, tight, board fence enclosed the area, and because of this the institution was called ‘the sheep pen’”. Inside, the “hard, straight backed, long settees, where the patients sat all day, were placed back to back, and the attendant patrolled the ward like a sentry on his beat.”

“There was no dearth of attendants then,” he continues, who “brought with them the arts of subduing patients without bruising or marking them up…. Towel strangling, rubber hose beating and other refinements of cruelty were surreptitiously used.”

Inmates at the Rhode Island State Institutions at Howard

“The State Almshouse,” he writes in another chapter, “was a lazaretto of the worst cases in the State,” where the “worthy poor and aged man and wife were in close companionship with the tubercular, the syphilitic, the feeble-minded, the pregnant, the illegitimate infants, the idiots, and the morally vicious.”

Bedridden and suffering from “every known ailment,” crowded into the ill-lighted and not well ventilated basements, “even here in this house of disease, illness and frequent death was to be found the patented evidences of repression by force and minor refinements of unintentional cruelty.”

The Rhode Island State Workhouse and House of Correction
Women at work in the laundry and garden at the State Institutions, Howard, Rhode Island

The author goes on to describe the Work House at the State Farm, where, like in a scene from popular fiction, stood a high wall along which “there was, usually, a pile of large stones where the prisoners spent a good deal of their time breaking the big ones into little ones.” Here, too, the Doctor reminds us, was the only place women were criminally confined, at the Female House of Correction, whose prisoners — procured from “houses of low amusement or of prostitution” — had fallen into the hands of police and were brought under sentence by the court.

“As their good looks and attractiveness of person diminished, through the use of alcohol and drugs and diseases in the form of gonorrhea and syphilis,” he writes, “they became the worthless chattel, the cast-off refuse of humanity … [whom] the Women’s House of Correction sought to work up into usefulness.”

The Sockanosset School For Boys’ Chapel and Hospital in Cranston, Rhode Island

Though the Sockanosset School for Boys was, in Dr. Jones’s summation, “a fairly well-organized industrial school run on a military basis,” not even the juvenile delinquent were spared the common struggles of Howard’s institutions. “With the large number of boys in those days, children’s diseases were frequent, and filled the beds of the hospital,” he recalls.

“During an epidemic of Scarlet Fever, the number became so great that the Chapel was turned into a Detention Hospital, holding sixty or more beds.” The situation called for a contagious disease hospital; and indeed, one was built; unfortunately, it later “caught fire and burned to the ground, and was never rebuilt.”

The Oaklawn School for Girls in Cranston, Rhode Island
A Classroom and Sewing Room at the Oaklawn School for Girls

At last, in the seventh chapter, the author describes the Oaklawn School for Girls; the juvenile female reformatory whose wards might have lived, by his observation, under the credo of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

“The idea of spanking the bare bottom of a girl sixteen to eighteen years of age, versed in the knowledge of the male sex, and a woman in all of her biological reasonings and demands, was certainly a demeaning procedure,” he says, while the isolation cell, with its barred windows and solid doors, “was the result of too much dormitory intrigue and love-making on the part of the girl.”

When, in 1908, isolation became a necessity for keeping the younger children from “the older girls, whose misdemeanors were of a deeper dye,” the Eastman Cottage was built on the School’s grounds. Later, in 1924, it was here, at a distance from the main building and surrounded by a high fence, that the “Girls’ Colony” was formally opened for a group of inmates who were known to be misfits in the other institutions, and “problem girls” from the Exeter School for the Feeble-Minded.

Between these descriptions, and throughout each chapter, Dr. Jones’ stories go on and on; of the reformed prostitute, disfigured by fire and reduced to destitution when she drunkenly burned down a halfway house while celebrating her release from the House of Correction on the eve of her wedding; or of the prison Warden, a Civil War General, who fired his revolver at a sleeping guard — just missing his head — to wake him to duty; or that of the young kitchen worker, an escaped prisoner, whom the Doctor ran afoul of one morning on Howard Avenue and disarmed him of a butcher’s knife by tricking the fellow into giving up his weapon.

“The Train Unloads Its Sorrows”
“I was startled to see the train disgorge itself. Out upon the wet snowy platform, a handcuffed group were hustled, slipping and clanking down the slippery steps of the car … save for one poor female, who, clanking her shackled wrist as one would a bracelet, screamed out some unintelligible language which showed she was insane.”

THE TRAIN UNLOADS ITS SORROWS

But while the total of Dr. Jones’s recollections are too many, and too richly detailed, to be related here, a series of black and white reproductions of the author’s oil paintings which separate the chapters of The Dark Days of Social Welfare tell their own story.

Melodramatically captioned, long lost scenes from the early days at the State Institutions emerge.

One illustration depicts a string of prisoners and insane asylum inmates manacled together as they trudge in snow from the station at Howard to the institutions. The captions reads, “The Train Unloads Its Sorrows.”

“The Lockstep, Ball and Chain Gang”

Another reproduction, titled “The Lockstep, Ball and Chain Gang,” shows prisoners weighted across the state prison grounds under the eyes of armed guards. This reproduction also appears on the yellow jacket of each volume.

“Judge! He is my Only Child”

“Judge! He is my Only Child,” says the caption of another illustration showing a feather-hatted mother on bended knee before a judge seated under a statuette of a blindfolded Justice, while in a corner a rather large boy shrinks from a prison guard standing before a door marked “Cell Room.”

“Their Last Meal At Home”

Opposite the first page of the chapter dealing with the State Almshouse, there is an illustration of an aged and poorly couple in a very bare room sitting at a tabletop upon which is a package of corn flakes. “Their Last Meal At Home,” says the caption.

“Their First and Final Parting”

Later, another picture depicts an even older man and wife holding hands outside a door to the female ward at the State Almshouse. Two attendants stand authoritatively behind them with keys in hand. The caption reads, “Their First and Final Parting.”

“Their Last Ride to Potter’s Field”

In the third and last painting of the series — “Their Last Ride to Potter’s Field“— the artist captures poignantly the a pauper’s funeral, crowned by the “plumed panoply of woe”. At the edge of a vast and empty field crows perch atop a rotted tree as an undertaker removes a coffin from his horse-drawn hearse, accompanied by the only other witnesses to the dismal scene; a priest, and the gravedigger who stands at the open grave before a row of wooden crosses.

“There were no bouquets,” Dr. Jones writes, “save for those surreptitiously placed on the coffin by a feeble-minded boy, who gathered buttercups, daisies, and other weeds from the grass grown area of this forlorn last resting place.”

Today the Sockanosset School for Boys’ Chapel and Hospital is a restaurant
“As I stand there upon the remnants and ashes of the past … I realize that the world is a better world than it was; Howard is a much better place than it was….”

THAT LEGEND, ONCE OVER HOWARD

One must wonder, if Dr. Jones was still alive, whether he would recognize the place he once called Howard. Like a monument to days gone by, the State Infirmary miraculously still stands; and though in modern times it houses the offices of the Department of Labor and Training, in appearance it is identical in almost every way to the institution where Dr. Jones found his life’s calling more than one hundred years ago.

Perhaps the only other place at Howard that remains as unchanged — in aspect, at least — is the State’s maximum security prison; the Adult Correctional Institution, better known as the “ACI”, which still resembles the “stately castle of gray stone” the Doctor observed upon his first arrival.

And yet, the Pawtuxet Valley Branch of the New Haven Railroad line which, at Howard Depot, the train disgorged its “sorrows,” no longer runs through here. Now along one of the busiest highways in Rhode Island, the State Farm has long given way to urban and commercial redevelopment. Where the Oaklawn School for Girls was once surrounded by a high fence, a public park takes its place. The chapel at the Sockanosset School for Boys — for a brief moment in history a scarlet fever hospital — is now a modern restaurant. In more recent years, the abandoned Reception Hospital — a centennial feature of the former insane asylum — was razed; an empty lot, bordered on its North side by Jones Avenue, remains in its stead. And it is anyone’s guess how many unmarked graves of the potter’s field are still buried beneath the Route 37 off-ramp by the Garden City shopping center

Today, this place — now called the John O. Pastore Center — resounds not with “the cry of the straight-jacketed prisoner” nor the “clang of the ball and chain,” but with the commotion of a workaday world bustling about Howard Avenue; a world unaware that the street below is paved upon a roadbed of broken rocks laid by the labor of the State Workhouse prisoners in the dark days of social welfare.

“Never again, by the grace of God,” said Dr. Jones, in his closing words, “will the intelligence of the State be insulted by the things of the past nor by that legend once over Howard that was written over Dante’s Inferno:

Leave Hope behind, all ye who enter here.”