William Bartell was arrested in 1897 on a charge of “maliciously and willfully” breaking windows and smashing doors. Martin Leddy was arrested in April of that same year, charged with being “disorderly.” According to his mother, he “remains away from home late at night and associates with idle and vicious companions.” In 1902 Thomas O’Shaughnessey, Jr., was charged with vagrancy, having “no visible means of support, lives without employment… and does not give a good account of himself.” He was twelve years old.
What was to be done with such hardened criminals? Since they were under fourteen years of age, they were sent to the Brooklyn Disciplinary Training School for Boys. Located at 18th Avenue between 56th and 58th Streets, this nine-acre estate was previously home to the Villa de Sales Academy, a Catholic boarding school for young ladies. By 1897 it was filled with hundreds of boys, all of them remanded by the court for committing misdemeanors. There the youth were taught military drills and battle hymns. They received practical instruction in a variety of trades, such as printmaking, cobbling, carpentry, and baking. They were given an education, a warm place to sleep, clothing, healthcare, and good food. There was discipline, of course, but it was to be fair and just, managed without corporal punishment. All of this without walls and fences, locks and bars. This was reform for a new era.
If you read the papers during the school’s tenure, you would be hard-pressed to form a differing opinion. Politicians, businessmen, and journalists extolled the virtues of the institution. The Reverend William Nichols of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities said of it, “I do not know any school in our community where the boys are better cared for and instructed under better conditions. I thought as I listened to the beautiful music that every one of those boys in that band has a trade with which he may be able to earn his living some day when he leaves this institution.” While Justice Robert J. Wilkin commented, “I never went through a dormitory where the air was so sweet and clean…” And yet, over the course of its thirteen years there were numerous stories of mismanagement, neglect, and violence, as well as reports from multiple city agencies detailing poor conditions and extravagant costs.
The Brooklyn Disciplinary School for Boys was established by Chapter 235 of the New York State Laws of 1896. It was governed by a Board of Managers chosen by the Mayor of the City of Brooklyn. It was not, however, placed under the jurisdiction of any specific department. This became an ongoing point of contention when Brooklyn became part of Greater New York. The Charter of 1897 did not address the issue and instead let the original law stand as written. While the State Board of Charities had a nominal say in all such institutions, the actual governance was left to the Board of Managers and those they appointed as President and Superintendent of the school. For over a decade, the school was left to its own devices.
Toward the end of the 19th century there were few options for wayward youth. Religious institutions were ill-equipped to act as reformers and even less-equipped to handle the hundreds of children sentenced by the courts for short-term care. Institutions like the House of Refuge were for felony cases and boys who had reached the age of maturity, while the majority of the other public and private charities focused on adult poverty or the care of infants. Thus the Brooklyn Disciplinary Training School for Boys was born out of a necessity to address the rising number of troubled children convicted of minor offences, without resorting to harsh sentences. The solution to recidivism was to be holistic: discipline, education, instruction, with free time for play and, on occasion, brief visits home with their families. Typically the boys were charged in the Police Court (and post-consolidation, in the Children’s Court) with misdemeanors ranging from vagrancy to petit larceny. Their time at the school could run from a few months to five years or more, depending on the severity of the crime, their behavior, and their home situation—the sentence was entirely determined by the Superintendent and Board of Managers. If the boys received good marks for their military drills or work in the shops, they may be offered parole. If they ran away, no parole or consideration of release would be offered for a full year. Parents or guardians could also secure release if they needed help around the house or for family emergencies by writing directly to the superintendent, though this was often denied.
Unfortunately there were difficulties from the outset. The buildings were in poor condition and required continuous maintenance. In March, 1899 a fire broke out necessitating the removal of some of the students to the Catholic Protectory. In 1900 one of the buildings was condemned, again forcing the school to temporarily remove students to other institutions. As the population rose, at times exceeding 400 boys, the dormitories became overcrowded and the facilities degraded. It seemed that no matter how many improvements were made, there was never enough money to properly fix the problems, and the money that was granted was done so begrudgingly.
Then there were the scandals. Typhoid broke out in October of 1900 killing two children, forcing the school to address its consistently appalling sanitary conditions. In 1909 long-time Superintendent James P. Farrell was excoriated in the press and investigated by the Board of Managers for using city funds to pay for imported bacon, grapes, and game. This was followed by an investigation of the use of corporal punishment. Children, parents, and employees came forward to say they had witnessed countless acts of violence. In one instance a witness recalled hearing of a punishment known as the “Star-Spangled Banner,” wherein the child was stripped and beaten with a stick “for the number of stars and stripes on the flag.” There were even rumors that Farrell and house mother Anna Hutchinson were involved in a very tawdry affair. On top of this were the constant escapes. It was not uncommon for 50 or more children to decamp over the course of the year. While most were apprehended, there were always a few who succeeded.
There were also positive aspects. Children were housed and trained together without regard to skin color or nationality. A banking system was instituted in order to teach responsible financial habits. The skills boys learned in the various shops allowed them to find employment upon release and help support their families. At the end of their sentence, an agent was even sent to their homes to make sure that conditions were such that the boy would not turn again to crime. In general, the school appeared invested in the well-being of the children, arranging for medical care or offering recommendations for employment. “I am anxious that the boy should profit by this opportunity, for I consider him deserving, and will look forward to a bright and prosperous future for the lad. It is assumed that you are as good as your word and that you will furnish him with shelter and support.”
Calls to close the school grew steadily after 1910. Due to the lack of oversight, the rising costs, and the need the replace much of the infrastructure, many politicians had decided the school had run its course. There was talk of purchasing land on Long Island to recreate the school on the “cottage plan,” wherein the boys would be placed in smaller houses instead of dormitories. A report by the Commissioner of Accounts in 1913 all but ended that chance. Instead a new State Disciplinary School was proposed. The plan called for a merger with the House of Refuge and the creation of a new, conglomerate institution in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County. That plan was eventually abandoned after residents fought to keep the facility out of their community and it wasn’t until 1932 that a new school was finally established further upstate in the town of Warwick.
The Disciplinary Training School for Boys officially closed its doors on September 1, 1914. Its tenure may have been brief, but the records tell a compelling story of a unique institution existing at the cross-roads of a new century. From intake files to correspondence, bills of lading to financial reports, it is apparent that the school had a hand in almost every facet of the city and borough of Brooklyn, as well as the larger conversation of youth reform.