Magdalene asylums, also known as Magdalene laundries, were institutions from the 18th to the late 20th centuries ostensibly to house “fallen women”, a term used to imply female sexual promiscuity or work in prostitution. Asylums operated throughout Europe and North America for much of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, the last one closing on September 25, 1996.
The institutions were named after Mary Magdalene, in earlier centuries characterized as a converted prostitute in the Bible.
The first Magdalen institution was founded in late 1758 in Whitechapel, England, which led to the establishment of a similar institution in Ireland by 1767. The first Magdalene asylum in the United States was the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1800; other North American cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Toronto, quickly followed suit. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Magdalen asylums were common in several countries. By 1900, there were more than 300 asylums in England and more than 20 in Scotland.
United States asylum records show that in the early history of the Magdalene movement, many women entered and left the institutions of their own accord, sometimes repeatedly. Lu Ann De Cunzo wrote in her book, Reform, Respite, Ritual: An Archaeology of Institutions; The Magdalene Society of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, that the women in Philadelphia’s asylum “sought a refuge and a respite from disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances.”
In its early years, the Magdalen Society Asylum functioned as a refuge for prostitutes. Most of these stayed only a few days or a few weeks, just long enough to get reclothed and recuperated. Attempts at rehabilitation met with little success. In 1877, the asylum was changed into a home for wayward girls, with a rule requiring a stay for twelve months. As the Magdalen Society Asylum became more selective, relaxed its emphasis on personal guilt and salvation, and standardized in some respects the treatment of the inmates, its rate of failure diminished.
The Female Penitent’s Refuge Society of Boston was incorporated in 1823. Manhattan’s Magdalen Society was established in 1830 with the purpose of rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice— sometimes kidnapping them from brothels. In 1907 a new home in the Inwood section of the Bronx. This was the second time the Society found it necessary to move to a larger facility. Many of the young women who passed through the doors of the Inwood institution had worked the taverns, brothels and alleyways of lower Manhattan before being “rescued” by the Society.
Girls were generally committed for a period of three years. Through the years several girls were killed or injured climbing out of windows in failed escape attempts. In 1917 the Magdalen Benevolent Society changed its name to Inwood House. In the early 1920s bichloride of mercury was commonly used to treat new arrivals for venereal disease, resulting in a number of cases of mercury poisoning. The property was later sold and the agency relocated. Inwood House continues to operate, with its main focus on teen pregnancy. The administrative office is in Manhattan.