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"The House of Refuge"

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In the course of our peregrinations about town yesterday, to see the humors of election,1 and the improvement in the uptown wards, we dropped in at the very admirable establishment adjoining the almshouse, which is known as the House of Refuge, but which is solely under the control of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents.2

We saw above two hundred young lads, some of whom had been incipient thieves, and all, perhaps, more or less steeped in that vice, which runs through the Atlantic cities—loaferism—reduced to a state of the most perfect discipline. At a signal from the superintendent, Mr Terry, they were all mustered in less than two minutes, and formed on parade, "en militaire," and after going through some portions of the drill exercise, they marched into their dining hall with the most admirable precision. Inside these salle et manger3 they took their places, standing at the table, until all were mustered, and then, at a signal from the chief officer of the establishment, grace was said, and the boys all sat down to a plain but plentiful meal. Many of these boys we recognised by their countenances as having been paraded in the Sessions and before the Police, and were pleased to see a marked improvement. For the meagre hang dog look of the loafer,4 they have exchanged that of the student, and instead of the phisiognomy of the incipient abstractionist, we beheld the orderly demeanor of the rising mechanic. The male portion of the establishment—which is the only portion we were permitted to see—appears to be admirable in his discipline and arrangements, and we should say highly satisfactory in its results. Such of our citizens who take an interest in the welfare of the rising generation—and who is there that is not constantly shocked by the sight of the youthful banditti which infest our highways and byways?—should pay a visit to the House of Refuge.


1. Whitman is referring to the recent elections for New York city council. [back]

2. The "Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents”" was incorporated on March 29, 1824. It was funded by subscribers and overseen by an elected board of thirty managers. Managers had the discretion to "receive and take into the Refuge . . . all such children as shall be taken up or committed as vagrants, or convicted of offences in the said city, as may, in the judgment of the Court of General Sessions of the peace" (Mary Carpenter, Juvenile Delinquents, their Condition and Treatment [London: W. & F. G. Cash, 1856], 216–217). [back]

3. Whitman most likely means "salle à manger," French for "dining room." [back]

4. The pejorative use of the term "loaf" here stands in stark contrast to Whitman's embrace of "loafing" in the first edition of Leaves of Grass thirteen years later, where he famously writes, "I loaf and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass," and later asking his readers to "[l]oafe with me on the grass." [back]

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