Born February 28, 1837 on a farm in Lenawee County’s Raisin Township, Emma Hall was the second of her parents Reuben and Abby’s eight children. Most of the family relocated to Ypsilanti around 1870. Reuben’s teaching background and Abby’s upbringing as a Congregational minister’s daughter may have influenced Emma’s career as a prison reformer. She became Michigan’s first woman to lead a state penal institution, and was later made a member of the nation’s top prison advisory committee.
After graduating from the Normal in 1861, Emma taught recitation at Professor Sill’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Detroit, for a yearly salary of $550 [about $10,000 in 2014 dollars]. Emma met Detroit House of Corrections prison superintendent Zebulon Brockway. Beginning with his work at the Detroit prison, which opened in 1861, Brockway would become a nationally-recognized though controversial prison reformer.
In 1868, Brockway opened the House of Shelter. This adjunct to the Detroit House of Corrections offered a radical experiment for women prisoners, many of whom had been arrested for prostitution. Instead of barred cells, the House of Shelter offered a comfortable group home in which each woman had her own bedroom. The home was furnished and decorated as a well-to-do middle-class home.
Brockway made Emma its first matron. She moved in and lived full-time with the women.
Emma instituted a program of domestic arts education and cultural activities designed to impart marketable skills and a refined character. Family-style meals were shared at a table set with good china and table linens. The women learned sewing techniques and attended evening school and religious instruction. Recreation included singing, playing the parlor organ, embroidery, and a Thursday night tea with prose and poetry recitations. At least one woman learned to read at the house.
State officials praised Emma’s work in their 1873 report “Pauperism and Crime in Michigan in 1872-73.” They said, “Culture of this kind, amid such surroundings, cannot fail to be productive of great good in preparing those who receive it for useful home life, and we cannot but regard the House of Shelter as one of the best agencies for saving those likely to fall that it has been our province to find.”
A new supervisor at the Detroit House of Corrections took a dimmer view of the venture. In 1874, Emma and Zebulon resigned from the House of Shelter. The new supervisor converted the onetime sanctuary into his private residence.
But Emma’s devotion and energy had won the attention of state officials, and she was appointed matron of the state public school at Coldwater, Michigan’s institution for orphaned or disadvantaged children.
Here Emma first encountered a recurring nemesis to her drive and vision: a supervisory board of inexperienced members who encountered not obedience but authority from Emma. She resigned after only a short term at Coldwater. In a letter to Michigan governor John Bagley, she wrote of her resignation, “I would not be a tool in the hands of the local board.” The resignation did not slow her career; she was appointed matron of the School for the Deaf and Dumb in Flint, and remained there for several years.
In 1878, Mary Lathrop read her essay “Fallen Women” at the annual meeting of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Grand Rapids, a small event that would sweep Emma into a new role. Far from a quaint anti-tippling society, the WCTU offered vote-denied 19th-century women one of their most effective avenues into some measure of political power.
Discussions about Lathrop’s topic coalesced into a goal to erect a women’s and girls’ reform school. The plan led to an energetic WCTU-initiated petition drive across the state for the legislature to create such a school. Completed petitions, with dozens or hundreds of signatures, began pouring into Lansing. “Early in the session of the Legislature of 1879 these [petitions] began to fall around the members like autumn leaves,” notes the 1881 edition of the Joint Documents of the State of Michigan.
In 1879 the Michigan legislature approved funding for a girls’ reform school in Adrian. Governor Charles Croswell appointed Emma to its board of directors, and then made her supervisor, the ultimate authority for every facet of the Industrial Home for Girls and its highest-paid staff member, with a $1,000 annual salary [$24,000 in 2014 dollars]. The three members of the school’s board of directors, including president Arthuretta Fuller, lacked Emma’s experience in managing state institutions.
County agents across Michigan began to send girls to Adrian. Criteria for selection included prostitution, homelessness, a sordid home environment, or a determination that a girl was in some way “wayward.” The girls were examined by a doctor on arrival. Many had untreated medical issues and sexually transmitted diseases. The average age was just over 13.
Emma housed the girls in the campus’s four cottages that were meant to create a less penal, more homey “family style” similar to the House of Shelter. Nearby, a farmhouse on the grounds became the residence of the school doctor, engineer, handyman, housekeeper, and of Emma.
Emma organized a regular schedule for the girls, from 5:30 a.m. to a quarter to nine at night. During a typical day, the girls attended about 2 and half hours of school and 3 and half hours of sewing class. Together with staff, the girls sewed 4,650 items in one 14-month period, including all of the bed linens, carpets, and clothing required by the school. The output included machine-knit stockings and an undergarment that combined a chemise and pantaloons, called a “chemiloon.”
In the school’s 1882 biennial report the supervisory board noted, “the influence of Miss Hall upon the girls is manifest in their love for her, and in their steady improvement under her management.” Emma’s former boss at the Flint Institute for the Deaf and Dumb remarked, “during the many years she was connected with [this] institution, her knowledge of the duties of her position, executive ability, and habits of industry made her administration most successful. The same qualities have enabled her to organize and put in operation one of the best institutions of the state.” Zebulon praised her accomplishment in an 1882 letter: “It is in advance of anything I know in the same department of benevolent endeavor.” But in another letter of the same year, he cautioned Emma, whose zeal he had seen firsthand. “The average . . . supervisor will by and by complain that the comforts and care given to your girls is greater than that enjoyed by the children of such families as his own, and may therefore be hesitant to supply you funds.”
That Christmas the school featured a program of music and recitations, a dinner of chicken pie, and a welcome visit from University of Michigan alumnus Reverend Joseph Estabrook, president of Olivet College. A Christmas tree was covered in presents for the 91 resident girls. Additional presents that the girls’ family members sent were distributed – though not many. Emma later noted in a report, “Some girls [were] remembered.”
In the fall of 1883, delegates from almost every state attended the National Conference of Charities and Corrections in Louisville, Kentucky. Penologists, prison officials, and representatives from state institutions for the blind, deaf, orphaned, insane and “feeble-minded” gathered at Louisville’s Polytechnic Institute for eight days of presentations and discussions.
On the morning of Sept. 26, Ypsilanti resident and Normal School graduate Emma Hall faced a distinguished audience. “The reformation of criminal girls,” she began, “is no longer a doubtful experiment.”
Shortly thereafter, National Prison Association secretary William Round, asked Emma to serve on its board of directors and advise on issues affecting penal institutions nationwide. Her colleagues on the board included former President Rutherford Hayes and future president Theodore Roosevelt. Emma wrote in reply, “To be associated with such distinguished and successful workers in the interest of humanity and to be one of two ladies chosen first gives me new courage and inspiration.”
This high honor may have sparked a different reaction in Adrian. The following spring, the school’s board of directors unanimously asked Emma to resign. Emma did so on April 14, 1884.
One hint that this action may have resulted from petty politics lies in an April 27, 1884 letter from Emma’s friend Theresa Burrows, apparently in reply to a letter that Emma sent to her. Theresa wrote from her home in San Bernardino, “How could, even as vindictive, unprincipled and selfish a woman as [board president] Madam Fuller accomplish such a fatal thing to all their interests as your resignation!”
The following day, Emma received a sympathetic letter from onetime Ann Arbor resident Reverend George Gillespie, chairman of the state’s Board of Corrections and Charities. He told Emma that in such cases with an inexperienced board of managers the supervisor often receives the blame. His letter was followed by a “letter of esteem” signed by numerous Adrian residents. Written in an elegant, almost calligraphic script, the letter had been hand-carried to each person who signed it, judging by the signatures’ varying pen nib effects and ink colors.
Emma left Adrian and embarked on a tour of the Western states. Within a month she was writing postcards and letters to her family in Ypsilanti, marveling that she was 2,600 miles away and praising the comfort of Pullman cars. Her July 7, 1884 diary entry reads only, “Yosemite!”
Emma secured a position teaching at a boarding school for Native American children in Albuquerque, a lowly job compared to Adrian. Teachers were paid little, housed poorly, and even had to purchase some of their own food. Emma wrote to her family in November, “I did not expect ease or many comforts hence am not disappointed.”
Emma’s situation was worse than was apparent. She experienced heart trouble. Her diary entry for November 29, 1884 reads only: “Could not get up.” The next day: “Not able to get up.”
Most of her letters to her family had heretofore been signed “Your affectionate Emma” or “Your loving Emma”; on November 30 she signed one “Goodbye, with love to each one.” In tiny script at the bottom of this letter Emma wrote, “Some things are intolerable.”
Among her surviving papers is a receipt from Albuquerque’s Sloan and Mousson Co. for “one oak air tight case, embalming, &c., $95.” After her December 27, 1884 death, Emma’s body was returned to Ypsilanti.
Her many friends sent letters of condolence to her family. Henry Hurd, medical superintendent at the Eastern Michigan Asylum wrote with his wife Mary, “We sympathized with her in the undeserved trials of the past year.”
Local lawyer C. R. Miller said, “It affords me some consolation to think I was not entirely useless to her and her work while she was at the head of the reform school. I gave her what aid and strength I could because I thought she was right and was doing a good work well.”
Reverend Joseph Estabrook recalled “the Christmas day of two years ago, a part of which I spent with her in the girls’ reform school in Adrian. Her work was a grand and glorious one there. No one can compute the good which she accomplished while there, and the immense loss to the state when she was removed. No mistake could have been more sad, and my sense of the great wrong done to her and to the unfortunate girls of Michigan was never so keen as now.”
The history of the Adrian school darkened after Emma’s departure. Conditions deteriorated and rumors of cruelty spread, so that the school was investigated by state officials in 1899. Twenty years later it had reached its nadir, and the Michigan legislature heard horrific descriptions of neglect, solitary confinement, and vicious abuse that at least resulted in a thorough overhaul of the incompetent staff.
Emma Hall had created a much different reality for her girls, and earned the respect of prestigious colleagues. It is an honor to the people of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County that she rests in our Highland Cemetery.
Source: Laura Bien, “In the Archives: Criminal Girls”, Ann Arbor Chronicle, May 2, 2014.