Document 8B: Excerpts from letter from Kate Richards O'Hare to Frank P. O'Hare, [27] April 1919, printed in Kate Richards O'Hare, Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters (Girard, Kansas: The New Appeal Publishing Company, 1919), pp. 7, 9-11 (History of Women Microfilm, reel 914, no. 7648).


 

Dear Sweethearts:

        This is Saturday evening, and I will write a part of my letter so it will not take up too much of my time tomorrow.

        We do not work Saturday afternoon, and have almost three hours outdoors, so I am feeling fine. I am still doing nicely, eat and sleep well, and do not suffer particularly because of the work. Of course, nine hours per day at a sewing machine is no light task, but I am perfectly well, and quite efficient, so manage very nicely.

        I hope that none of you are worried about me, for I am really having a most interesting time. In Emma Goldman, and the dear little Italian girl, I have intellectual comradeship, and in my little "dope" some one to mother; in the management of the institution very interesting study, and in the inmates a wonderful array of interesting fellow-beings.

        If it were not for being deprived of my loved ones, I could fully enjoy the new and unusual experience. If I could have my typewriter, and write more often to my darlings, I would be quite content to do my work here for a time. It seems so needlessly stupid that I should be deprived of the opportunity to write, when I have paid the last ounce of flesh demanded by the state at the sewing machine. There is so much that I want to write while the impressions are vivid, but perhaps I will write better for being deprived of the opportunity for a time.

        I have received papa's nice letters each day, also the sweet little letters from Victor and Kathleen, but 'Gene and Dickie's letters have not come yet. Papa writes me that the twins were lovely, and that he enjoyed their Easter vacation, and that Dick is the dearest and sweetest boy imaginable. I know that you will all be nice and sweet and fine, so that no one can say that mamma has failed as a mother.

* * *

        I have had really one hard experience, and it was pretty bad. That was the Bertillon. I am not prudish, and not supersensitive, but it took all my poise and self-control to go through without breaking. The men who put me through the ordeal were kindness and sympathy and courtesy itself, but they could not rob it of its trying effects. When you come down, visit the Bertillon room[A], and thank the man in charge for his kindness to me. Tell him that while it was pretty hard I have recovered from the shock. I am wondering how Debs will stand it. I am afraid it will be pretty hard on him.

        Aside from this there is only one feature that is really revolting, and that is the criminally stupid mixing of the clean women with the frightfully syphilitic. Absolutely no effort to separate them is made. There is an Indian woman here from Alaska, a "federal," who is in the very last stages. Her throat is one mass of open sores, and she bathes in the same tub that I do, and the clean, healthy girls are forced to clean the tub after her baths. There is a white girl in almost as bad condition, who eats at the tables with us, and many of the colored girls are diseased. The dishes are not kept separate and no disinfectants are used.

        I have made a formal complaint to the warden, Gov. Painter, in writing, but so far have received no answer. I am writing to Judge Krum today asking him for legal advice as to my actions. I have asked him to take the matter up with Mr. Fosdick, who has charge of the campaign against venereal diseases, for the "federals." I think Julia Lathrop, chief of the Government Children's Bureau could do much by personally pressing the matter with the Department of Justice. She is in Washington, and will no doubt be glad to act in the matter. It is a particularly frightful state of affairs, because most of the federal prisoners are young women who are in here for short sentences. I doubt if anything can be done for the state prisoners. Missouri is so backward that I have little hope of anything being done to bring its institutions up to anything humane or modern. "Poor old Missouri."

        I would not be telling the truth if I denied that this phase of the situation did not affect me. It does. I can never forget the sickening fact that the country which my ancestors helped to found, and which my father gave his life to protect has forced me to live in constant danger of contamination from the most loathsome of all diseases.

        Aside from this one thing I am quite content. I am making the sort of study of criminology that never has been made before, and which could only be made in this way. I am learning things that will be of inestimable value to the world of science, and, in the future, when I speak of crime and criminals I will have a solid basis of hard-won facts on which to stand. I have such a wealth of material now that I think we will have to revise the questionnaire. I feel now that we are not ready to begin the survey. When I get out you must get in, and study the men as I study the women. It is a hard way to serve science and humanity, but it is the only way. I am afraid that you can't get sent up for an "intent," as I have been, so you must discover some crime that can be pinned on you that you do not need to commit.

        Send me down that book containing Dr. Barnes' lectures on Nervous and Mental diseases; I have a wonderful opportunity for such studies here. A most interesting case of dementia praecox in the second cell from me, and an interesting case of homicidal mania that promises some lively developments. Ask Dr. Barnes if there has been anything worth while written on Prison Neurosis. It [sic] am certainly gathering a lot of interesting material in that line. If there is anything, ask him to send it to me. Also see if he has Hart's Psychology of Insanity. If so I would like to have it for a short time.

        I am getting some wonderfully interesting stuff on "Wish Fulfillments," and the peculiar trend that religious emotions take in prison. Here in this grim cell house that battle between the old orthodoxy of the church, and the newer philosophy of Sir Oliver Lodge is being waged, and the new is winning. These poor victims of society feel that God takes no concern for them and they are not strong enough to stand alone, so they find comfort for their sick souls in the belief that their dead comrades in misery come back to care for and protect them. In the weary hours after the lights are out the cell house is peopled by many ghosts, but they are all kindly, comfortable, amiable ghosts, who flit about all night on errands of mercy and love. There is one, more interesting than all the rest, more kindly and humane; some day I will write her story.

        All in all; I find this prison life much like the world outside, only things are intensified here. I feel that most of the wrongs committed against these helpless creatures are wrongs and crimes of stupidity and ignorance, and not the crimes of brutality or even callousness. I will write more of this next time, as my paper is almost full.

* * *

                                                                                        Lovingly,

MAMMA.


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A. Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) created anthropometry, a complex system of body measurements for identifying adult individuals. The Bertillon system included three integrated parts: precise measurements of the bony parts of the body taken under carefully controlled and prescribed circumstances; the description of the body's shape and appearance, its measured parts, as well as how they related to movement, moral and mental qualities; and a description of distinguishing marks on the body's surface resulting from accident, deformity, diease, disfigurement, including moles, scars, tattoos, and warts. The Bertillon system was ultimately abandoned as it never relied on a single body part measurement for identying an individual, and was thus seen as too unwieldy to implement in a systematic way. After fingerprint identification was developed, the Bertillon system was given up because it failed to provide reliable and unique measurements.
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