Josephine Wentworth

By Alexandra Richmond

In the 1860s, many girls found themselves at the Industrial School for Girls because they were left in the care of one parent who could not provide for them. Such was the case with Josephine Wentworth, whose father, Jeremiah Rich Wentworth, abandoned his wife and four children. Josephine, born October 17, 1849 to Suzanna Huse Wentworth and Jeremiah Rich Wentworth, an engineer, was the third child; she joined her older siblings, Mary and Owen, and a fourth child, George, was born two years later in 1851.

Reform School

A newspaper illustration from 1881 depicting the desired transformation of a young girl into a well-behaved member of society through a reform school process. (Courtesy of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspapers)

Jeremiah, an engineer, left Suzanna with four young children; unable to support them, she brought one of them, Josephine, to the Industrial School for Girls in Dorchester on April 1, 1861 on the advice of Mrs. Cora (Lyman) Shaw, a member of the school’s Board of Managers.

Mrs. Shaw continued to look after Josephine throughout her stay and even offered her a trial placement at her home in Somerville in August 1863. As with many aspects of Josephine’s life, however, this trial was short-lived, and full of trouble.

From the very beginning of her stay at the ISFG, Josephine was reported for her bad temperament, which prompted “some discussion about whipping and other punishments,” as well as time spent isolated in her room. Although the managers appeared to care for their young charges, the evidence suggests that they used discipline over empathy to shape the behavior of the girls. Parents relinquished the rights of guardianship to the school, until the girls turned 18, giving the managers ultimate authority over their lives. Separated from her family when she was barely into her teens, Josephine likely felt confused and abandoned, and overwhelmed by loss.

In 1863, when Mrs. Shaw found Josephine “deficient in application and very careless in her personal habits,” perhaps Josephine had recently learned of her father’s death in March 1863, and felt especially desperate.

Indeed, regardless of the potential causes of her behavior, 1863 was a troubled year for Josephine. That same year, she “ran away to her mother in Boston,” and later, with the help of the police, was found at her aunt’s house on North Russell Street in Boston’s West End. The School managers and staff decided that Josephine was not fit for the school anymore and contemplated her future. While they debated, Josephine was sent to Penitent Females Refuge, otherwise known as 32 Rutland Street, where it was located, to await her placement. Rutland Street was a home for white girls who had fallen from the good grace of society.

The managers and staff deliberated about Josephine’s placement–at one point they considered the House of Reformation on Deer Island. Finally, they decided to send Josephine to the State Reform School for Girls in Lancaster, where she arrived on July 19, 1864.

Lancaster Poem

Poem written by “H.W.” for the magazine “Prisoner’s Friend” in 1856. Describes Lancaster State Reform School where Josephine lived from when she was sent there from ISFG in 1865 to about 1867-68 when she was released at age 18. (Courtesy of H. W. “Prisoner’s Friend)

In 1864, the State Reform School in Lancaster was designed for young girls, ages six to sixteen, who were considered “reckless and drawn to sin”. They served girls who were leading an “idle, vagrant and vicious life,” or “found in any street, highway, or public place within this commonwealth in circumstances of want and suffering, or of neglect, exposure or abandonment, or of beggary.”

At the same time, the Reform School also took in girls whose behaviors were “punishable by fine or imprisonment for life.” Their broad mission encouraged the intake of children with a broad spectrum of troubled histories.

Defiant and assertive, and retrieved by the police far from her proper station, Josephine’s behavior may have alarmed ISFG managers. In Victorian America, women were expected to be pure, pious, and submissive. The home was a woman’s sphere, where she was responsible for creating a moral and stable environment for her family, safe from the evils of the world outside. Women, it was believed, were especially vulnerable to sin and expected to protect their virtue at all costs. Drinking, disruptive behavior, resisting authority, and certainly sexual behavior all signaled depravity in young girls.

The State Reform School, known for its innovations, offered a place where young girls could learn new habits, and begin life again as respectable women. Nature and a home-like atmosphere provided a foundation for Lancaster’s early program. Located in rural Worcester County, the girls had access to the natural environment, providing them a space clear of temptations and sin associated with impoverished life on city streets.Matrons served as house leaders, similar to the ISFG, and the physical space inspired moral healing rather than imprisonment. Matrons served as mother-figures who modeled the moral behaviors and domestic skills they hoped to instill in their young charges.

Despite the whirlwind of Josephine’s early life, and her stay at Lancaster, Josephine apparently maintained some important family ties, as she later reunited with relatives.

After leaving Lancaster around 1866-1867, 19-year-old Josephine married a Irish man, Francis (Frank) Fitzpatrick, who was born in New Brunswick and then made his way to Boston. On October 23, 1868, Josephine and Frank married at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church located in Boston’s West End, a church established in the early 1860s to serve the many Irish immigrants who settled in the neighborhood. In 1870, Josephine and Frank lived at 7 Blossom Court in the West End, with Frank’s family and Josephine’s younger brother, George. One of Josephine’s aunts, possibly Sarah Wentworth, also lived nearby on North Russell Street; perhaps this was the same aunt the police had retrieved Josephine from when she ran away from the Industrial School.

Josephine gave birth to a son, Patrick Francis Fitzpatrick, on November 17, 1870. Her life was tragically short, however, for Josephine died at the young age of 23 from what was officially reported as smallpox, a devastating disease that was hard to control in crowded neighborhoods. Josephine Wentworth Fitzpatrick died in a pest-house somewhere around Boston. Pest-houses, also known as plague-houses or fever-sheds, were established to to isolate the sick and keep them from spreading disease.

Josephine's West End

The West End was Josephine’s home for a time up until her death. This Map, made in 1890, includes North Russell Street where Josephine was found after running away in 1864. Also shows St Joseph’s Catholic Church where she was married, and her final home on Blossom Court. Most of this impoverished neighborhood has since been cleared away to make room for development that is now the home of the Celtics and Bruins. (Courtesy of Bromley, George Washington, and Bromley, Walter Scott.)

Josephine’s life, shows struggle but also perhaps strength and the determination. She lived and died in a time when women were considered the “gentler sex” and the poor often suspected as sinners. Despite her disrupted childhood and journey through the reform system, Josephine still managed to stay close to her family; perhaps Josephine found her way home.

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