this holiday season for
and a New Year happy.
--- Tom McCarthy.
Think "prison reform" next time you see a bell-ringing Volunteers of America Sidewalk Santa inviting Christmas season shoppers to toss coins or dollars into his donations "chimney."
In early 1896 Sing Sing Prison Warden Omar Van Leuven Sage’s attention was called to a letter that an inmate had submitted for mailing to the noted street evangelist, Maud Booth, daughter-in-law of Salvation Army founder General William Booth.
In the letter, the convict asked Maud’s help for his family whose members were in dire financial straits as result of his imprisonment.
Warden Sage pondered the possibilities. He saw opportunity in the situation beyond the well- regarded preacher receiving and responding to one individual inmate’s plea for help
Perhaps the good lady -- whose charitable endeavors with her husband Ballington Booth were widely known -- could be persuaded to address the plight of prisoners in general.
Sage was well named. He had seen much in his 62 years.
From bookkeeper in New York City to the general store keeper in Prattsville to owner of a Catskill coal business to bank director and insurance company president; from captain to major in the Civil War; from Prattsville Town Supervisor to Greene County Clerk to New York State Assemblyman, and, since October 1894, Sing Sing Warden, Sage certainly knew the ways of this world.
At 31, Mrs. Ballington Booth practiced on the streets of New York what she preached there: the ways of the Lord in this world – loving service to one’s neighbors, especially those poor and downtrodden – as the way to the Lord in the next world.
When she turned 21, they wed and were soon en route to America, assigned by General Booth, to expand Salvation Army activities there.
But from the apparent British perspective of General Booth, the couple went native.
From abroad, their increasing emphasis on adapting the East London-founded Salvation Army to life in the United States was seen as "Americanizing" the Army.
There came a falling out and a parting of ways between father and son over the issue. On March 8, 1896, Maud and Ballington Booth, who had become naturalized U.S. citizens the previous May, formally launched what they first called "God’s American Volunteers" but later renamed "Volunteers of America."
They made the announcement in the Great Hall of Cooper Union to an audience of thousands. The couple dedicated their new organization to serving the spiritual and material needs of the poor and disadvantaged.
Ballington and Maud's use of the word "Volunteers" in the name of their new organization was something of a return to an earlier name for the Salvation Army. Founded in July 1865 by William Booth as the East London Rivival Society, it soon became known as "The Christian Mission--A Volunteer Army." In 1878 the general replaced "Volunteer" with "Salvation."
Certainly Warden Sage would have been aware that the petite preacher was high profile, a celebrity who found welcome among the powerful and the powerless alike, at home in a skid row soup kitchen as in a mansion dining room.
He would have been cognizant that her and her husband’s numerous supporters included New York Central Railroad president Chauncey Depew whose tracks sliced right through the prison.
Like the trains that roared through on those rails, these background facts most likely raced through Sage’s mind as he held the inmate’s letter, pondered the possibilities and saw opportunity in the situation.
Then, before giving the letter to an assistant to include in the prison’s outgoing mail, the warden scribbled on its envelope a brief note inviting Maud Ballington Booth to address the inmates.
Thus, on May 24, 1896 -- less than three months after the formal debut of God’s American Volunteers -- the little lady preached at Sing Sing the first of many prison sermons that she would deliver in New York and across the country in a long lifetime committed to the reform of prisons as well as the reform of prisoners.
In the Sing Sing chapel, she told the convicts:
"I do not come here to prevent you from paying the just penalty of your crimes; take your medicine like men.
“When you have paid the penalty, I will help you.
“I will nurse you back to health. I will get you work. Above all, I will trust you.
“It depends on you whether I keep doing so or not."
These five became the initial nucleus of what they called the Volunteer Prison League. Essentially a mutual support group of convicts committing themselves to change for the good, they adopted as their motto "Look Up and Hope."
This first of what eventually became scores of Volunteer Prison Leagues around the nation was founded on Christmas Eve, 1896, at Sing Sing.
Even earlier that year, Maud had followed through on her May 24th promise to the Sing Sing convicts. In September, she opened at 189th Street in the Bronx what she named Hope Hall, believed the first halfway house for released prisoners in America.
Before the New Year, Hope Halls had been set up in San Francisco and Chicago. Later New Orleans; Waco, Texas; Hampton, Florida; Columbus, Ohio; and Walla Walla, Washington, also had Hope Halls – in effect, a national parole program. Within six years, 3,000+ ex-cons had passed through New York and Chicago Hope Halls.
By the first anniversary of her Sing Sing talk, seven more state prisons, including San Quentin, had Volunteer Prison Leagues with 1,200+ inmate names on its rolls. By the 26th anniversary, more than 100,000 inmates had enrolled in the leagues at 46 state and federal prisons.
Released Volunteer Prison League members evidenced an extremely low rate of recidivism – only about 20 percent.
In 1943, the American Prison Association – later renamed the American Correctional Association -- elected her Honorary National Vice President for life.
The recognition by the national society of correction professionals of her 47 years keeping the Sing Sing chapel promise she made must have been particularly gratifying to the 78-year-old woman fondly called “Little Mother” by the prisoners for whom she had labored so long.
Those personal labors on their behalf continued another five years, ending only at death August 26, 1948 in Great Neck, Long Island.
But the Volunteers of America continues the tradition of her Hope Halls with halfway houses, restitution centers, alternative sentencing projects and special programs for women offenders, particularly mothers. In 2004, some 19,000+ men and women were helped.
The organization reports that contributions dropped in the Sidewalk Santas’ chimneys have helped fund such correction-related services as well as its many other social service programs for more than a century.
Two years later Sidewalk Santas made their New York debut. Their early appearance here would likely have caught the eye of Omar V. Sage, who in 1899 left Sing Sing and became Superintendent of the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island, a post he held until July 1904.
Soon the Sidewalk Santas were a common yuletide fixture throughout the country.
However, changes in the ways Americans shop at Christmastime in recent decades -- by Internet, in malls, through catalogs and 800 numbers -- has led to a decline in the number of metro areas featuring the Sidewalk Santas.
But the Volunteers of America of Greater New York still maintains the tradition. It even conducts what it calls Sidewalk Santa College with full-costumed commencement the day after Thanksgiving. The Santas-to-be, both male and female, dressed in full Claus attire, do bell and "Ho-ho-ho" drills, pledge to the Sidewalk Santa code of good conduct, and are presented their diplomas.
Thus trained and armed, they go forth with their chimneys and bells to ring in Christmas contributions for the many Volunteers of America programs and services aiding the poor and needy, including current and former inmates and their families.
For how many hundreds of thousands did new directions for better lives open up, in part
How fitting their motto to their purpose and to the season, then as now:
| © Copyright by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York Correction History Society as to text aside from indicated quotations. New York. 2005.Non-commerical use permitted, provided that the society and/or its web site are acknowledged as the source.
We wish to acknowledge the web sources from which the images used above were derived and to refer our readers to visit those sources to view the original images, other images and additional related information. Clicking an image will take the reader to a web page related to the respective image's source.
The captions in five of the eight image boxes above cite their web sources. They are the web sites of the Ohio River Valley Volunteers of America, the British Columbia Salvation Army Pro Bono Lawyer Consultant Program, the Extra Mile — Points of Light Volunteer Pathway, and the University of Iowa Libraries' Collection of Redpath Chautauqua.
The captions of three of the eight image boxes do not cite their web sources. We do so here. The sepia Sidewalk Santa from the 1920s in the top-of-the-page image box is from the web site of the Volunteers of America of Greater New York as are the page's two other images of Sidewalk Santas, these of more recent origin. The sepia Maud Booth portrait in the top-of-the-page image box is from the web site of Ohio River Valley Volunteers of America. The sepia view of the Sing Sing chapel is from Guy Cheli's Images of America: Sing Sing Prison. Clicking it will take the reader to our own web site's excerpts presentation of his book.