Out of Time: The Curtis-Wells Anomaly and the History of American Corrections

Article excerpt

Joseph Curtis was the superintendent of the New York House of Refuge from its inception in January of 1825 until June of 1826, the first 18 months of its existence. E.M.P. Wells was superintendent of the Boston House of Reformation from 1828 until 1834. Although there does not appear to have been any working relationship between the two, the tenure of both men represents something of an anomaly in the history of American corrections. Sutton argues that Curtis and Wells were both "at least nominal Pestalozzians," and credits them with placing "romantic childrearing ideas within refuge walls" (Sutton, 1988: 80). Mennel (1975: 25) identifies both as "humane men, more interested in developing each child's individual capacities and talents through programs emphasizing self-government and education than in compelling children to follow an inflexible workshop routine." Though crediting Curtis and Wells with early experiments in inmate self-government so crucial to Progressive correctional philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century, Mennel notes that Wells and Curtis did not set the standards for rules of care and discipline in their own time (Ibid.: 199).

Holl (1971: 239-240) identifies Curtis and Wells as "forerunners of the new penology," "overlooked" and "neglected" by historians. He praises Wells and Curtis for being "willing to subordinate system to personality as a method of education. Each stressed the development of character rather than fixed routine or curriculum." He adds that their work was of "greater significance than was recognized at the time" (Ibid.: 248-249).

Yet what was that significance? It is generally granted that neither Curtis nor Wells had a significant influence on the correctional theory or practice of their contemporaries. Curtis felt it necessary to resign his post after 18 months. When Gustave Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville visited Wells' Boston House of Reformation in 1832, they compared it unfavorably to the Philadelphia House of Refuge and to New York's House of Refuge under Curtis' successor, Nathaniel Hart. Orlando Lewis argued that Wells and Curtis influenced the self-government principles of the George Junior Republic, but neither George nor Osborne acknowledge the influence (Ibid.: 249-250; Lewis, 1918: 13). Wines (1895: 380) argued that Brockway's correctional practices at Elmira were influenced by the practices of Wells and Curtis, but Brockway himself explicitly denied any such influence. Holl (1971: 249) concludes that "anti-institutionalism" like that of Wells, Curtis, Osborne, and George is by its nature ahistorical. Yet if that is so, why were George and Osborne celebrated in their time as correctional and educational leaders, with their methods not only applauded but also applied in a wide variety of contexts, while Curtis and Wells were attacked and then largely ignored in theirs?

This article will attempt to evaluate the significance of the reform school regimes of Wells and Curtis. It begins with a description of the utilitarian correctional theory and practice dominant in America during the 1820s and 1830s - Curtis' and Wells' time. Next, a summary of the Progressive approach to corrections dominant in the United States during the first 20 years of the 20th century is presented. Then, the regimes of Curtis and Wells are examined in sufficient detail to distinguish them from those dominant in the 1820s and 1830s and to demonstrate their similarity to Progressive correctional theory and practice. I conclude by suggesting that the correctional methods of Curtis and Wells failed to be institutionalized on a wide scale during the 1820s and 1830s because they were incommensurate with the utilitarian ideology and disciplinary techniques favored by the ante-bellum reformers who controlled correctional institutions during this period, though many of their correctional techniques and practices were later reinvented by Progressive reformers.

Corrections in the Utilitarian Era

Despite the great controversy over the meaning, purpose, and function of the transformation of American correctional institutions during the 1820s and 1830s (see Cohen and Scull, 1983; Rothman, 1970; Foucault, 1979; Griffen, 1967; Heale, 1968; and Lewis, 1970), the nature of this transformation is clear enough. …