[Wallis h&s]
[F. A. Wallis Bio]
[Jubilee mag]
 

When, as a young man engaged in church outreach, Frederick A. Wallis organized Christian Endeavor societies among inmates in the then new Kentucky state prison overlooking Lake Barkley at Eddyville, he could hardly have imagined that one day he would run New York City's jail system, including its Blackwell's Island penitentiary.
[Eddyville penitentiary]
Young Frederick A. Wallis ran Christian Endeavor programs for inmates at the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Located on KY 730 in Old Eddyville, it took six years to build (1884 - 1890). The mammoth stone structure, towering over Lake Barkley, is sometimes called, with a touch of irony, "The Castle on the Cumberland." For more on the Kentucky State Penitentiary, visit its page on the web site of the Commonwealth of Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Yet his Christian Endeavor work with inmates -- both in what was then known as Kentucky's branch penitentiary at Eddyville and in its then main prison, the state penitentiary at Frankfort -- did foreshadow a significant phase in his later life as a public official. His service as NYC Department of Correction commissioner included presiding over that agency's participation in the Silver Jubilee of the emergence of five-borough Greater New York.

Frederick Alfred Wallis was born to Allen (in some historical references spelled "Allan") M. and Albertine Ross Wallis in Hopkinsville, Kentucky March 13, 1869. His father, a grocer, was active in Hopkinsville's First Presbyterian Church that, two year's prior to Frederick's birth, had formed due to controversies stemming from the Civil War.

Hopkinsville's Presbyterian Church traced its roots back to 1813 but divided in 1867 into two groups, the Southern Assembly and the Northern Assembly. The latter took the name of First Church, retained the parsonage and with cash from the separation settlement purchased a lot at the corner of 7th and Liberty to build its own church structure. But for years both groups continued to use the old church building for services, though at different hours.

[5th Ave Church]
Major General Samuel Hopkins, for whom Hopkinsville (Frederick A. Wallis' boyhood home town) was named, had been a member of Gen. George Washington's staff in the American Revolutionary War and also served in the War of 1812. He was a lawyer, surveyor, planter, judge, state legislator, and U.S. Congressman. His genealogical ties include Declaration of Independence signer Stephen Hopkins, Patrick Henry, and President Madison.

In 1880, the First Presbyterian built a church on its corner lot at 7th and Liberty streets. In 1881, the congregation had 72 members. Its elders included A. M. Wallis. At a relatively young age, his son Frederick also became an "elder."

Lest anyone imagine young Frederick was some kind of bloodless model lad right from the pages of a 19th century inspirational book meant to edify its readers, an incident from his late teens should be instructive. Seems that, while employed in the Crescent Mill of grain dealers John T. Rabbeth & F. J. Brownell, he accidentally shot himself on March 20, 1885 when a pistol he -- at age 18 -- was carrying in his pocket discharged.

Frederick grew up during the era immediately following the Civil War. It was still vivid in the memories of the older family members who had lived through it and through the community divisions that the military conflict set in motion. As a border state in the War Between the States, Kentucky was much conflicted in its loyalties. Hopkinsville, as the county seat for Christian County, reflected this split in Civil War sentiments and contributed many soldiers to both sides.

A significant number of people in the county's southern parts had large estates cultivated with slave labor while its northern sections were peopled with self-reliant farming families who worked their own lands. The county's southern whites tended to favor the Confederate cause, but those in its northern areas were not as eager to break up the Union and take up arms in defense of slavery interests.

The city, perched upon a ridge separating the sandstone and limestone formations underlying the soil thereabouts, sharply divided the forests from the barrens in early settlement days. During the war, the line also separated people who, until they donned uniforms to meet in battle, had met at the county seat as neighbors.

Frederick's father, Allen, told of the circumstances surrounding an execution of two Kentucky men -- a Confederate soldier and a civilian -- by Kentucky Union troops in Hopkinsville when he was one of several small boys who followed the firing squad.

As the senior Wallis told the story: [We] boys climbed upon a rail fence not far away and sat on the fence while the soldiers placed the victims, stepped off ten paces and the squad made ready. When the shots rang out we boys all jumped, the top rail broke and we fell in a heap. We thought we had been shot ourselves. Undoubtedly, Frederick heard his dad tell that story more than once because the executions were long regarded locally as an example of injustice. The men had not been given any semblance of the required military hearing at which they could attempt to show their conduct had been innocence or at least not the kind of conduct that warranted execution.

[5th Ave Church]
5th Ave. Presbyterian Church in early 1900s.

At age 32, Frederick married Nannine Williams Clay, daughter of Thomas Henry and Frances Conn Clay, on April 10, 1901. The Clays were among the most socially prominent and wealthiest families in Bourbon County, Ky. The bride's great-grandfather, Col. Henry Clay, had been politically active, heading an emancipationist society to end slavery and running for office on behalf of that cause. Her grandfather, Samuel "Graybeard" Clay, had taken some 400 acres given him by the colonel and expanded that holding to more than 10,000 acres. Her parents' elegant home was called The Heights and ranked as one of the most beautiful of the entire Bluegrass state. Her father was active in the Christian Church of Paris, Ky.

Six months after the wedding, Mr. and Mrs. Frederick A. Wallis moved to Baltimore from Lexington where he had lived while working seven years as a Northwestern Life Insurance Company representative. In Maryland, he worked for the New York Life Insurance Company. In due course, he made his way to that company's headquarters city.

Wallis moved his religious ties with him to New York. There he became active in the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Frederick chaired its Pulpit Supply Committee for many years and also served as one of its elders. He was chosen to head the New York State Christian Endeavor as its president.

[Ellis Island]
Ellis Island circa 1920.

Frederick also became involved in New York civic life and political affairs. On June 1, 1920, he was appointed U. S. Immigration Commissioner of Ellis Island. That his service in the position was not likely to last much beyond a year (if even that long) -- since it had came about as Woodrow Wilson's second term neared its finish -- did not seem to dim in the least Frederick's enthusiasm to reach out and speak out on behalf of the poor immigrants.

A 1921 report to his superior, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, evidences the earnestness of Frederick's endeavors to better the situation facing the newcomers to America. One needs to bear in mind that Wallis was appointed under Democrat President Wilson's Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson (no relation), the new agency's first secretary. Davis was the secretary appointed by the incoming Republican President Warren G. Harding. Davis' request to Wallis for a report on his brief stewardship at Ellis Island and Wallis' reply to Davis should be viewed with an awareness of that political context and its cross-currents. The report's forceful and perhaps even challenging tone becomes more understandable given that background.

Nevertheless, the letter's likening attempts at forced Americanization to attempts at forced religion and his closing reference to the final day of judgment reflect the spiritual turn to Wallis' thinking and its expression.

I made my own inspections of the island. I found a guard keeping watch at a [closed] door. When I asked him why he did not keep the door open to let some air in to the immigrants, he said that they ask too many questions. I told him he should be thrown out in the Bay with a stone about his neck. When I opened the door, the hot, foul sultry air almost pushed me backward. There were several hundred immigrants in the room and seats for not more than fifty. Men, women and children were standing all day or sitting on the dirty floor...

[immigrants.]
Immigrants on Ellis Island look at nearby Statue of Liberty.

In the dining room where we serve as many as 10,000 meals some days, there was not a drop of drinking water for the immigrants...Many [immigrant - carrying] steamships were almost uninhabitable on account of the filth, lack of light and want of ordinary accommodations. . . .

I found immigrants sleeping on the tiled floors without cover and without bedding. Hundreds of men, women and children would sleep all night in this way. I induced the Department to approve of purchasing 10,000 blankets from the War Department at cost . . . .

I then supplied them with reading matter, games and other forms of amusement which helped them to while away what seemed to be an indeterminable detention... I have arranged moving picture shows for every other night on the big Registration floor. . . .

I have always believed in humane practices. If we sleep immigrants on cold tiled floors without covering, give them impure food, rob them, curse them and handle them worse than cattle, then they go out into the nation and practice what they have received here on the island. . . Americanization is not the work of pressure - it is the work of patience. You can no more cram Americanization down an alien's throat than a minister can cram religion down our throats...

I do believe that our nation is committing a gross injustice for which some day it must render an account, in allowing these hundreds of thousands of people to sell all they have, sever all connections, come four thousand miles out of the heart of Europe and other countries, only to find after passing the Statue of Liberty that they must go back to the country whence they came. Our inspection and examination should be conducted on the other side, thus saving thousands of people the suffering we see at this island daily . . . .

The last great final day of assize will disclose no sadder scenes than separation and deportation is producing at this station. Examination on the other side is ten thousand times better than rejection on this side.

Note should be taken that what Commissioner Wallis' recommended -- moving the inspection process to the immigrant's place of origin - came about when the 1924 Immigration Quota Act went into effect. Wallis' brief tenure as Ellis Island Commissioner happened to mark the last year or so of a relatively unlimited influx of immigrants. The Harding-Coolidge years saw imposition of increasingly tighter restrictions on the numbers of immigrants permitted and on places of origin from which they would be accepted.

[Mayor Hylan]
New York City's 96th mayor, John J. Hylan.

Democrat Mayor John F. Hylan's first Correction Commissioner, James A. Hamilton, appointed in 1918, was elected New York State's Secretary of State in 1922. On Jan. 1, 1923, Wallis was named his successor to run the city jail system. Wallis' background included service as New York City Police Deputy Commissioner.

One highlight of his first year as DOC Commissioner was the agency's participation in the city's celebration marking the 25th anniversary of its consolidation into a five-borough municipality known as Greater New York.

Correction and all the other major municipal agencies took part in a 25-day "educational exposition" that ran from May 26 to June 23 and filled four floors of what was then the city's premiere exhibition and trade show hall, the Grand Central Palace on Lexington Avenue between 46th and 47th Street.

[Silver Jubilee parade]
City officials and workers march in Greater New York's Silver Jubilee parade.

The Official Book of the Exposition had been prepared in advance of the exhibition and the parade that preceded it. An image of its cover appears at the top of this biography page. The publication contained a listing and layout of the displays, floor-by-floor, booth-by-booth, agency-by-agency, as well as a listing of the parade contingents and their assembly points along the line of march.

Each day of the exhibition, a Silver Jubilee Review was published and distributed to visitors. It reported on that day's schedule of events and featured updated news, photos and cartoons about the exposition.

[wallis cartoon]
A Silver Jubilee Review cartoon poking good-natured fund at a dozen DOC officials depicted them explaining their agency exhibit. Commissioner Wallis was drawn as wearing formal evening attire.
One of the cartoons poked good-nature fun at various officials of the Correction Department on the day their agency's displays were spotlighted. Commissioner Wallis' caricature was drawn as an elegantly handsome and gracious gentleman quite at ease in his formal tuxedo, even in a workaday setting. The humorous illustration apparently was not off the mark; he seemed to have just such a persona -- classy but not stuffy.

The Official Book featured reports by the city agency heads on their departments. Wallis reported on the jail system. Interestingly he included -- virtually word for word -- in his first annual report to the mayor in 1924 a large chunk of what he had written for the jubilee book in 1923. [The readers of this NYCHS brief biography of Commissioner Wallis can access that jubilee report and related materials on the NYCHS web site via a link at the bottom of this page.]

Commissioner Wallis' first annual report to the mayor on the performance, condition and needs of the municipal jail system stressed the important of replacing the Penitentiary on Welfare Island with a new facility on Rikers Island.

The construction of an entirely new penitentiary is so large a project that although it has been recognized for 20 years or more that it was necessary and would have to be done at sometime, no definite decision has been made to proceed with construction. I earnestly request that it no longer be a matter that can be indefinitely postponed but that some positive action be taken to commit the City to its construction.

That plea on Page 11 of the 1923 annual report was followed with a plan for launching the project with a quarter million dollars and extensive inmate labor. On Page 12 he optimistically predicted

The plan evolved for construction of the a new penitentiary and industrial buildings would cost the city practically nothing as the products of this institution would within a reasonable length of time more than liquidate the cost.

In the very last two paragraphs on the last page of the 87-page 1923 report, the Commissioner returned to the need for replacing the old penitentiary on Welfare Island:

At the Penitentiary there are no toilet facilities in the cells and the antiquated bucket system is still in use, pending it is hoped the construction of a modern penitentiary and industrial buildings on Rikers Island.

The abandonment of the old penitentiary as altogether unfit for its purpose under present conditions was under consideration at least 15 years ago, and if unfit at that time, it is certainly unfit today.

In his 1926 report, this one to Mayor James Walker, Wallis' arguments for advancing construction of a Rikers penitentiary had doubled over the space devoted to it in his 1923 report to Mayor Hylan. On Page 10 he contended:

The merging of three of our largest prisons [located on Welfare and Hart islands] into one institution on Riker's Island, would considerably reduce the cost of administration and make for higher efficiency.

. . . by simply concentrating on Riker's Island the custody of prisoners now on Hart's and Welfare. . . there could be released to the City for parks and other purposes . . . land worth millions of dollars.

On Page 11 he argued an industrial penitentiary would reduce crime and cited historical mandates for Correction to quit Welfare Island and to make Rikers its base:

Under the present conditions, the prisoner works on an average of less than an hour a day. If the idle brain is the devil's workshop, we have thousands of highly organized devil workshops busy day and night . . . Many crimes will be committed next week and next month that have been conceived and planned within our prison

. . . These very institutions . . . are literally incubators of crime. . .

Indeed as far back as 1893 the State Legislature passed a bill to modernize the penitentiary and the Workhouse. Five years later, in drafting the Charter for the Greater New York, Section 696 provided for the removal of the two institutions from Welfare island. Later, in 1907, preliminary plans for the new penitentiary were made, at an expenditure of $76,000 and $2,500,000 was appropriated toward the construction of the buildings. However, the building appropriation was later rescinded.

[New Hampton]
This image of the NYC Reformatory at New Hampton, Orange County, came from the only photo to appear in any of Wallis' four annual reports. It was in his first -- the 1923 report.

On Page 12, he calculated that putting the agency's sentenced inmates to work in a modern industrial penitentiary would result in generating sufficient revenue from the sale to other governmental agencies of its manufactured goods, under existing law, to make the institution self-sustaining.

One of the more intriguing ideas floated out in Wallis's 1926 report (Page 17) involved the smaller of the two "Brother" islands near Rikers:

South Brother Island is the only island in the East River not owned by the City or State. I recommend that it be acquired by the City and that the space between Rikers Island and South Brother Island be filled in by use of inmate labor with subway excavation. An additional 50 acres can be reclaimed for use by the city.

Wallis was not alone in calling for removal of Correction operations from their outmoded facilities on Welfare Island to Rikers where construction of a modern model penal-industrial complex was envisioned. A special Grand Jury committee in 1924 conducted what it called A Study of the Conditions Which Have Accumulated Under Many Administrations and Now Exist in the Prisons on Welfare Island. Its report concluded, in part:

Our Committee has completed its report . . . After carefully considering it in the light that has been thrown upon it by various sources of information, it is apparent that the conditions in these old buildings have been a disgrace to the City and a by-word all over the country for half a century or more, and that administration after administration has tried to eliminate them but for one reason or another has failed. It would be a further disgrace to let these buildings round out their century which will occur in about five years, and with proper diligence they may be eliminated and new substitutes finished within that time.

The time seems to be propitious for this administration to make a name for itself for accomplishment with its various interested Departments favoring and working together for betterment and economy, by taking the matter under serious advisement not whether to do it or not, but the quickest way to do it and for the most benefit to the City and its Criminal Wards.

The following are among DOC developments that took place during the Wallis administration:

  • The New York City women's farm colony at Greycourt in Orange County receiving its first female inmates in 1924.
  • The transferring of all women prisoners from the Tombs to the Jefferson Market Prison.
  • The construction of the 6th District Prison at 161st St. and 3rd Ave., the Bronx, in 1924. The detention quarters included six pens for men and three for women.
    [Old Jefferson Market Prison]
    Jefferson Market Prison.
  • The closing of the old detention facilities for male material witnesses at 25 Worth Street and the opening of the new detention facilities for them in the 7th District Prison building at West 53rd St.
  • Acquisition of the southern end of Hart Island that had been slated to become an amusement park.
  • Introduction of the 8-hour work day in the uniformed force.
  • Initiation of plans for erection of a Women's House of Detention on the site of the old Jefferson Market Prison.
  • Reorganization of the inmate commissaries by placing them under a board of trustees and initiating a prisoners' cash fund system. The change ended the previous practice of allowing inmates to retain money on their person and instead required such cash kept in a jail-managed fund from which inmates received tokens to make commissary purchases. The old system had created too many opportunities for graft and special favors.
  • Reduction to zero the number of escapes annually whereas previously they averaged 15 to 25 a year.
  • Initiating plans for personnel and equipment to receive and distribute on Rikers the soil and rock from subway excavations, theretofore dumped at sea. Among the projects included in the landfill plans were the Fulton Street, Nassau and Sixth Avenue subways.

Wallis was the 10th person to serve as New York City Department of Correction Commissioner since the agency emerged on its own from the 1895/6 division of the Department of Public Charities and Correction. He served under two mayors, Hylan and Walker, from Jan. 1, 1923 to August 14, 1927 -- 4 years and 8 months, the longest continuous service of any Correction Commissioner up to then. Only Francis J. Lantry had longer total service, also under two mayors, but not longer continuous service. Lantry served four years under Mayor Robert Van Wyck (1898 through 1901) and, after a two-interval out of office during fusion reform Mayor Seth Low's administration, another two years and 10 months under Mayor George B. McClellan.

Upon returning to Kentucky as a fulltime resident, Wallis transplanted his Presbyterian activity from New York back again to his native state. He was received into the Paris, Ky. Church November 23, 1930 by certificate from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York and elected an elder of the Paris church Dec. 21, 1930.

[Alben W. Barkley]
Wallis' fellow Kentucky delegate to the 1932 Democratic National Convention, U.S. Senator Alben W. Barkley, was the keynote speaker picked by then NY Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, leading candidate for the Presidential nomination. Barkley, after later serving as Senate majority leader, became Vice President under Harry S. Truman.

Wallis was a member of the Kentucky delegation to 1932 Democratic National Convention that nominated New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for President. Frederick attended the convention, held in Chicago Stadium June 27 to July 2, 1932, as one of four delegates from Kentucky's 7th district. The delegation leaders included U.S. Senator Alben William Barkley who had been picked by Roosevelt to deliver the convention's keynote address.

The New York governor had previewed the keynote speech in Albany a fortnight before it was given. Roosevelt's selection of the Kentuckian as keynoter reflected the fact that the then-incumbent New York governor drew most of his delegate support from the South and West. FDR's convention strength did not came from the industrial states of the North and East where the traditional big city political machines remained loyal to one of their own, former New York Governor Al Smith, the Tammany Haller who was the party's unsuccessful 1928 Presidential candidate. Smith had been New York governor throughout Wallis' service as New York City Correction Commissioner.

On the first three ballots, Smith and various favorite son candidates were able to keep Roosevelt from reaching the two-thirds vote count required to win the nomination under the rules prevailing. But then House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas released delegates pledged to his candidacy. That sufficed, in effect, to give FDR the presidential nomination. In the process, Nance became Roosevelt's running mate as the party's vice presidential nominee.

[Wallis home]
The former Wallis estate in Paris, Ky. now serves as the headquarters of the Garden Club of Kentucky. The house and its seven acres are known as the Nannine Clay Wallis Home and Arboretum. For more on it and other interesting attractions in beautiful and historic Bourbon County, visit the web site of the Paris-Bourbon County Tourism Commission.
[Wallis home sign]

In 1935, Frederick was an unsuccessful candidate in the Democratic primary for his party's nomination for governor of Kentucky.

Prior to that year, party nominees for statewide office had been chosen by the convention method. Just such a Democratic state convention had selected, as its governor and lieutenant governor nominees, the two men whose falling out over a sale tax issue after their election led to establishment of the primary system. While Gov. Ruby Laffoon was out of the state in 1935, Lieutenant Governor A. B. "Happy" Chandler seized the opportunity to call a special session of the legislature to push through a law mandating selection of statewide candidates by party primaries. The law was aimed at Laffoon. He was favored by party leaders who controlled the conventions. Chandler enjoyed more popularity among the party's rank and file.

Besides Chandler and Wallis, two others also ran for the governor nomination in that primary: state treasurer and former sheriff of Logan County Thomas Stockdale Rhea, who also had been a Kentucky delegate to 1932 convention in Chicago, and Bailey P. Wootton, state attorney general and chairman of the state Democratic committee. Rhea garnered the most votes in the first go-round but not enough to prevent a two-man runoff with first runner-up Chandler. "Happy" won the runoff and became governor by defeating the Republican nominee King Swope -- 556,262 to 461,104 -- in the general election. Chandler later became U.S. Senator, then major league baseball commissioner, and eventually governor again.

In 1944 Wallis was elected Moderator of the Synod of Kentucky, being one of the seven ruling elders who had served in that capacity since the organization of the synod in 1802.

In 1948 Frederick was given the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. The college traces its roots back to the early 1780s when a group of Presbyterians started a Transylvania Seminary near Danville to train young men for the ministry. Today Centre College maintains its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church but welcomes students, faculty, and staff of all faiths.

Frederick Albert Wallis -- formerly a U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, an NYPD Deputy Commissioner, an NYC DOC Commissioner, a Democratic National Convention delegate, a Christian Endeavor leader, a synod moderator, a church elder, and ever a Presbyterian outreacher -- died December 21, 1951. He was 82.


Go to:
Commissioner Wallis' Silver Jubilee report and links to related NYCHS web pages.
Correction Commissioners: 100 Years

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