In the early years the group rented an upper floor on Carmine Street, and the society was initially constrained to caring for no more than 10 women at a time. But according to research recently published by local Inwood historian Cole Thompson, by 1836 the Magdalen Society had moved uptown into a large wood frame structure on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.
But rising real estate values kept Manhattan's neighborhoods moving northwards and eventually made the 86th Street building too expensive to maintain. The society decided to move to Inwood, the last stop on the island of Manhattan which would later become an Irish stronghold.
“Tasked with the charge of building the new dwelling were architects Carleton Greene, W.W. Bosworth and F. H. Bosworth,” writes Thompson. “The building was to have a magnificent façade designed in the style of a French chateau. In reality it would be another asylum of stone and concrete.”
In 1907, the New York Tribune described the result: “On every side are great windows, looking out into the woods or over the waters of the Hudson. The workroom where the girls sew is like the deck of a steamer, and so are the dormitories where they sleep.”
The walls that confined the women were 40 feet high, according to The New York Times. A large number of New Yorkers sent their laundry to the society and in one year it cleared $6,000, an enormous sum at the time (the inmates worked unpaid).
“Some parents of the wayward girls are sensible about committing them; others are foolish, or worse, and want to get them out,” a woman referred to as Superintendent Harrison told the Times in 1907.
By 1913, every police detective in northern Manhattan was familiar with the Magdalene asylum on the hill, Thompson writes. “Distress calls were made by the home’s matrons with alarming frequency and usually involved either an escape or a riot that needed to be quelled.”
On the night of June 19, 1913 another desperate call from the Magdalen asylum was made to the police: a riot had broken out. When special officer William Hartigan arrived on the scene, he was staggered by what he saw.
“At least 75 girls were involved in an uprising – scratched, bleeding, clothing shredded, tossing every stick of furniture out of the windows,” in a scene of pandemonium.
The New York Herald reported: “The fight raged through the main corridors of the institution. The women guards and attendants were powerless to separate the combatants. William Hartigan, a special officer, was called in and he, too, was severely beaten by the girls.”
Six girls were arrested after the melee, and police theorized they had rioted in hopes of being sentenced to other institutions with shorter minimum commitments. A year later in 1914 16-year-old Sarah Greene was killed in an hasty escape attempt.
According to the New York Herald: “Being unversed in even the elemental theories of physics, Sarah Green... tied one end of a rope composed of ripped bed clothes to a chair on the forth floor of the Magdalen home... and started to lower herself from a window to the rocks bordering the Hudson. As soon as she changed her weight from the window sill to the rope the chair followed her out of the window and 17 bones in her body were broken when she fell on the crags.”
Two years later another young woman was killed in a similar fall. Helen Miller, a 23-year old “hunchback…known to the police as an incorrigible,” plunged, dressed in her laundry uniform, to her death from a third floor window. Magdalen administrators claimed the young woman had a habit of walking in her sleep, but they could not explain why she was fully clothed, according to a report in The Evening World.
Riots, gathering in size, continued year after year, as did escape attempts. Young Irish girl Margaret Darcy's 1916 flight became the stuff of legend.
One Friday evening in 1916, just days into her three year commitment to the home, she faked illness. Alone on the third floor dormitory, she “squeezed her thin young frame into a 24-inch tube used as a laundry chute.”
Surviving the 20-foot vertical drop into the basement, she opened a window, “cut a hole in a heavy wire screen and raced across the courtyard just as a night watchman sounded the alarm. But the girl was exceptionally agile and reached a tree near the wall,” the New York Herald reported. “This she climbed so fast that she was out on a large branch before the guards reached the yard. In a second she had dropped outside the wall and was gone.”
The laundry continued its mission in Inwood through 1929 when it was purchased by officials representing the Jewish Memorial Hospital. Although the Magdalene laundry has long closed Inwood House, as it would later come to be known, exists to this day and still pursues its mission to aid young and unwed mothers in Manhattan.