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.
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Frederick Alfred Wallis was born to Allen (in some historical references spelled "Allan") M. and Albertine Ross Wallis in Hopkinsville, Kentucky March 13, 1869.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
The following are among DOC developments that took place during the Wallis administration:
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.
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.
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.