Current Research in Digital History


Erin N. Bush

“Attracted by the Khaki”
War Camps and Wayward Girls in Virginia, 1918–1920

from volume 1 (2018), https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2018.07

Abstract

This article examines the reactions of Virginia’s public welfare reformers to fears about the rise of prostitution and sex delinquency near state military training facilities during World War I. By visualizing data derived from the admissions logs of Virginia’s two segregated female reformatories, this article argues that the war provided the needed rationale to fund the expansion of state institutions and their programs to reform delinquent girls. Additionally, maps of the data show that the social engineering that targeted delinquent girls in Virginia spread beyond both its war camps and its cities into the mountains and other rural areas of the state. Scholars studying the history of female delinquency have argued that the vast majority of girls targeted for behavioral rehabilitation in the early twentieth century were typically poor, urban-dwelling daughters of working-class or immigrant parents. Virginia’s predominantly rural setting complicates our understanding of female delinquency as a problem stemming primarily from the challenges of vast urbanization. The case of Virginia suggests that delinquency studies to date may have been too urban in their focus, failing to see that rural communities were also targeting girls for incarceration and reform.

When the United States government called its young men to duty to mobilize for the first World War, social welfare reformers feared that young women would also follow. Reformers worried that concentrations of young soldiers and sailors in the cities hosting the new war camps and training facilities would draw scores of young, unsupervised girls who would weaken the fighting force through the spread of vice and venereal disease. This type of “girl problem” had existed since the mid-nineteenth century, but the realities of mobilizing for the United States’ entry into World War I heightened concerns about wayward girls. “Young girls are flocking to our camp towns, attracted by the khaki, as well as by stories of the need for workers and fabulous salaries paid them,” one reformer wrote.1 Drinking and gambling posed a threat, but reformers feared the worst offenses would stem from young “charity girls” trading sexual favors for nights on the town, if not outright prostitution.

Notionally, the “program of repression” designed by the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) to manage such problems concentrated on the immediate long-term quarantine and detention of women and girls picked up near war camps, especially in the South where many such camps were located.2 To accommodate the expected influx of reprobates, President Wilson directed $250,000 into a program to help establish or refurbish reformatories and detention homes in states with war camps. During the war, seven Virginia cities hosted war camps and training facilities. At the time, Virginia was one of only a few states in the South with an existing reformatory for white girls; it was the only southern state with an institution for African American girls. Thus, in 1918, Virginia’s two female reformatories received funds from this Federal program to help them manage the burgeoning local “girl problem.” The Home and Industrial School for Girls at Bon Air (hereinafter Bon Air) received $30,000, and the Industrial Home School for Wayward Colored Girls at Peake’s Turnout (hereinafter Peake’s Turnout) received $20,000.3

The environment of war camps and concentrations of soldiers fueled public attention and Federal funds to mitigate female delinquency, but these wartime concerns actually tapped into a long history of reform and social control. The desire to control female delinquents can be traced back to the opening of the first reformatory for girls in 1856. However, between 1910 and 1920, local governmental and reformers’ investment in the custody and treatment of female delinquents increased dramatically.4 Scholars, such as Steven Schlossman, Stephanie Wallach, and Mary Odem have argued that the vast majority of those targeted for reform during this period were poor, urban-dwelling daughters of working-class or immigrant parents. Thus, scholarly efforts to understand the response to female delinquency have situated it in large industrial cities with fluctuating immigrant populations—Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.5 Recently, the field has expanded to include southern strategies for dealing with wayward girls, notably within the strict racial hierarchy that structured society in the South.6 Historian Susan Cahn has argued that as economic instability and crop failures drove internal migration to the South’s industrializing cities, black and white working-class girls became a prime target for social control and reform.7 As such, the war period, with its rapid migration to war-camp cities, provides an important lens through which to understand the Southern response to female delinquency.

Historian Nancy Bristow has observed that the perception of a wartime delinquency crisis presented reformers with an opportunity to use the Federal government as an instrument of “social engineering” that extended broadly beyond the war years and war camp geographies to other cities across the nation.8 Indeed, in Virginia, the war provided the needed rationale to increase funding to delinquency reform programs already underway. As a result, these institutions grew in capacity and size. Surprisingly however, the social engineering that targeted delinquent girls in Virginia spread beyond both its war camps and its cities. Admissions data from Virginia’s two female reformatories indicates that as these two institutions expanded, they admitted more girls from the mountain and rural jurisdictions.9 Thus, Virginia’s “girl problem” extended well beyond its city borders.

Insistent and Persistent Demand?

Anna Petersen, Superintendent of the Home at Bon Air, reported in her annual letter to the Board of Directors in 1919 that the growing demand to receive larger numbers of girls has been “insistent and persistent.” She stated, “we have turned away several hundred girls in the past year because we had neither buildings nor equipment to care for them.”10 Indeed, Petersen’s noted space issue seems to have affected their ability to house more delinquent girls during the war crisis, as the admissions data shows that until 1919, the admittance rate for both Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout remained relatively consistent. The unexpected timing of an admissions spike in 1919 (as shown in figure 1) indicates that instead of using the grant funds to immediately incarcerate more delinquent girls, the reformatories took the year to expand their institutions and reaped the resulting benefits after the war ended.

Figure 1. Total Admittance by Year. Admittance totals by year signal a significant shift beginning in 1919. After 1919, admittance rates tripled for Bon Air (blue) and doubled for Peake's Turnout (red). This shift created a new baseline admittance rate that held steady throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Although the perception of a wartime delinquency crisis increased public attention and funds to reformatory institutions, Virginia’s two reformatories for girls had been admitting inmates since before the war. Between 1915 and 1918, both institutions averaged an admittance rate of 20 girls per year. After the war, Bon Air averaged an admittance rate of 61 per year, three times as many as the years prior. Peake’s Turnout averaged 38 admissions per year, nearly double the rate it had been prior to the war.11 It is important to note that these reform schools admitted, paroled, transferred, or discharged inmates on a rolling basis. Most inmates stayed in residence for at least 18 months before parole; some were transferred earlier. This means that the actual capacity at each school remained constant while the admittance numbers would fluctuate pending available beds. The administrators could parole girls to create the needed space, but only at the risk of sending an “unreformed” girl back into the environment from which she came.

Evidence suggests that both schools used the wartime grants to improve upon their physical plants and add more cottages. At Bon Air administrators repaired their existing dormitories and offices, built a new cottage, and for the first time, lit their facility with electric lights.12 At Peake’s Turnout, the staff contracted the construction of two new cottages and made other much-needed improvements.13 These construction projects increased their capacity, which ultimately allowed them accept and support more girls, a trend that continued until well into the 1930s. In 1917, both Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout reported a maximum capacity of 50 inmates. In 1921, they reported a capacity of 95 inmates and 80 inmates, respectively. By 1921, Bon Air also boasted 50 more acres than it did before the war.14 Federal funds provided for the growth and expansion of Virginia’s two female reformatories, but did the wartime delinquency crisis ensure more girls were picked up in war camp cities across the state?

War Camps and Wayward Girls

Virginia hosted war camps in three main areas of the state. In Northern Virginia in the city of Alexandria, and the towns of Fort Belvoir, and Quantico; in the city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond; and in the Norfolk region, in the cities of Hampton Roads, Newport News, and Portsmouth. At the time, Virginia’s largest city by far was the capital city of Richmond with just over 171,000 residents recorded in the 1920 U.S. Census.15 The war mobilization effort spawned rapid industrial growth and expansion in Virginia’s other cities across the state, especially in areas with a war camp. The Army’s Camp Lee, near Petersburg, was constructed in only three months with accommodations to house and train over 60,000 men.16 The city itself experienced a population increase of nearly 30 percent between 1910 and 1920.17 The ports and Naval bases near Norfolk at Hampton Roads, Newport News, and Portsmouth moved massive quantities of men and goods overseas. Members of the American Expeditionary Force, totaling approximately 288,000 soldiers and sailors, sailed from Embarkation Hampton Roads during 1917–18.18 The cities near Norfolk expanded with the growth of the camps. Norfolk and Newport News experienced an average population increase of 74 percent between 1910 and 1920; in Portsmouth, the population grew by 64 percent during the same period.19 As the host cities expanded, they became targets for concern over a growing delinquency problem.

With the growth of the war camps, the superintendents of the two reformatories for girls expected to see an influx of inmates as a result. Janie Porter Barrett, Superintendent of the Home at Peake’s Turnout expressed the importance of protecting war camp cities from the scourge of disease in her 1919 Annual Report. “Since the day the special appropriation was given to our school by the Fosdick Commission and our State to take care of the girls who would be harmful to the War Camp community, we have felt that we had a very important part in winning the war.”20 Yet, the admissions data from both reformatories indicates that neither institution incarcerated proportionally more girls from the war camp cities. Instead, data from the sentencing jurisdictions, which were scattered across the state, shows a surprising volume of girls originated from the mountains and other rural areas of Virginia.21

Figure 2. Wartime Admittance. Wartime admittance logs indicate that despite efforts to address war-related delinquency, war camp cities sentenced less than one-third (12 of 42 total) of all girls incarcerated during 1918. Instead, 52 percent (22) of reprobates originated in Richmond. The remaining girls originated in the western mountains along the Blue Ridge. Total admittance is scaled by volume and is represented by green points; gray points represent the seven war camp cities. Click on all points for more information.

During 1918, 42 girls were admitted to a reformatory. As indicated by figure 2, less than one-third (12) of the inmates incarcerated during the war came from the war camp cities. By comparison, the Richmond courts alone sentenced over half—52 percent or 22 total—of all the girls incarcerated during the war. As the largest city in the state, this dominance is not unexpected. Additionally, Petersburg’s Camp Lee was located less than 30 miles from Richmond, so it’s possible some of these girls were caught with enlisted men. However, without detailed court records, it is impossible tell whether the girls admitted from Richmond during the war were “caught” keeping company with a soldier or a sailor.22 The remaining girls incarcerated in 1918 came from locales along the Blue Ridge Mountains, far from the war camps.23

Figure 3. Post-War Admittance. After the war, commitments from Norfolk and Petersburg, both war camp cities, increased. Richmond's influence decreased from 52 percent (22 of 42 total) during the war to only 31 percent (57 of 182 total) after. Rural cities and towns in the western mountain areas and to the southwest of Petersburg committed more than one-third (61) of the delinquent girls admitted in 1919 and 1920. Total admittance is scaled by volume and is represented by green points; gray points represent the seven war camp cities. Click on all points for more information.

In the two years following the war, 182 girls total were admitted to the girls’ reformatories in the state. As seen in Figure 3, Richmond’s overall influence fell as other locales around the state began committing girls with greater frequency. After the war, Richmond committed only 31 percent (57) of the total girls admitted, down from 52 percent during the war. War camp cities show a jump in admittance compared to the patterns seen in 1918. After the war, the war camp cities sentenced approximately 35 percent (64) of girls admitted. Of these, more than 75 percent originated from either Norfolk (28) or Petersburg (22). Of the two, Norfolk saw the most significant growth during this period, jumping from a population of just over 67,000 in 1910 to well over 115,000 by 1920.24 Norfolk’s geographic proximity to the camps at Newport News, Hampton Roads, and Portsmouth, may account for the jump in sentences, but without detailed court records, it is difficult to tell for certain. Surprisingly, following the war, the mountains and rural areas south of Petersburg grew in dominance, sentencing more than one-third (61) of girls admitted to a reformatory.

Based on the available evidence, Virginia courts never sentenced one hundred percent of convicted delinquents to its reformatories. The State Board of Charities and Corrections, the oversight organization responsible for Virginia’s reform institutions, usually reported to the Governor that an average of 75 percent of all convicted delinquents were either paroled or fined and released.25 They usually accompanied this statistic with an appeal for more parole officers across the state, so separating the politicking from the reality remains difficult. Counties and cities were encouraged to adhere to “juvenile court ideas,” but in 1918, only Richmond and Norfolk had a sitting juvenile court. Richmond’s size and presence of a separate juvenile court could explain its dominance during the war, but not its drop in influence after the war ended. This theory should also hold true for Norfolk, which also saw rapid growth and had the only other juvenile court in the state in 1918. Yet, during the war, the data indicates that Norfolk sent only 3 (of 42 total) delinquent girls to a reformatory.26

While the State Board of Charities and Corrections did require the juvenile courts to report on the number of children tried, details about these cases and their disposition are inconsistent from court to court and from year to year. In 1918, Norfolk reported only that they saw 608 total juvenile cases involving boys and girls. It provided no breakdown of the charges or disposition of them. By 1919, the Norfolk juvenile court began reporting more details. Out of the 86 cases involving girls in that year, 70 percent (60 cases) were dismissed, fined, suspended or placed on probation. The rest were committed to various other institutions in the state; only 10 cases (12 percent) were committed to the girls’ reformatories.27

Observations and Conclusions

These visualizations based on admissions data from The Home and Industrial School for Girls at Bon Air and the Industrial Home School for Wayward Colored Girls at Peake’s Turnout indicates that although the war supplied the financial support to help them expand, the grants did not ensure the long-term detention of wayward girls picked up in war camp cities. Instead, admittance rates remained relatively constant during the war, increasing only after these reformatories had time to use the funds to expand their institutions and increase their capacity. Despite Federal and State reformers’ concerns over the alleged wanton reprobates flocking to camp cities, the evidence shows local courts were incarcerating girls from all over the state. At the time when Virginia’s cities were expanding thanks to the war effort, nearly one-third of the delinquents confined to one of the state’s two reformatories originated from a mountain or rural area.

Virginia’s predominantly rural setting complicates our understanding of female delinquency as a problem stemming from the challenges of vast urbanization and immigration. By visualizing both the volume of admissions and the geography of where girls were arrested and sentenced, we get a clearer picture of how the rhetoric of a wartime delinquency crisis may have translated to Virginia’s local communities. The case of Virginia seems to indicate that delinquency studies to date may have been too urban in their focus, failing to see that rural communities were also producing female reformatory inmates. Further research is required then to understand how Virginia articulated and managed this unique “girl problem,” especially in terms of race and class.


Bibliography

Additon, Henrietta S. “Work Among Delinquent Women and Girls.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 79 (1918): 152–160. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271621807900116.

Alexander, Ruth M. The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900–1930. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Barrett Juvenile Correctional Center (Hanover Va.), Records, 1915–2001. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia.

Bon Air Learning Center (Va.) Office of the Superindentent. Minutes and Reports, 1913–1926. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia.

Bristow, Nancy K. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Bush. Erin N. Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918–1920. Unpublished raw data. 2017. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1cssV5hVD1Y9aCWVpvUWWimHgISmptHkVgfIO230hKFM/edit#gid=0.

Bush, William S. Who Gets a Childhood: Race and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth-Century Texas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Cahn, Susan K. Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 

Dabney, Virginius. Virginia the New Dominion: A History from 1607 to the Present. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971.

Falconer, Martha P. “The Segregation of Delinquent Women and Girls as a War Problem.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 79 (1918): 160–66. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271621807900117.

Odem, Mary. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Rembis, Michael A. Defining Deviance: Sex, Science and Delinquent Girls, 1890–1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

Schlossman, Steven, and Stephanie Wallach. ”The Crime of Precocious Sexuality: Female Juvenile Delinquency in the Progressive Era.” Harvard Educational Review 48, no. 1 (Feb 1978): 65–94. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.48.1.t62068326050748q.

Trost, Jennifer. Gateway to Justice: The Juvenile Court and Progressive Child Welfare in a Southern City. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.

U.S. Census Bureau. *Census 1910–1920. Population and Housing. https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.

Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls. Annual Reports. Richmond, 1918–1919. The Library of Virginia.

Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections. Annual Report of the Board of Charities and Corrections to the Governor of Virginia for the Year Ending…. Richmond: Davis Bottom, Supt. of Public Printing, 1917–1921. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/mb?a=listis&c=1239185609.

Zipf, Karin L. Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2016.


Notes

  1. Additon, “Work Among Delinquent Women and Girls,” 152. 

  2. Bristow, Making Men Moral, 91–136. 

  3. A condition of the grant required the State of Virginia to match these funds. The General Assembly offered $10,000 to Bon Air if they could raise the other $20,000 in private funds; $20,000 was granted to Peake’s Turnout outright, so no additional fundraising was necessary. In total, Bon Air received $60,000; Peake’s Turnout received $40,000. 

  4. Schlossman and Wallach, ”The Crime of Precocious Sexuality,” 70. 

  5. Schlossman and Wallach, ”The Crime of Precocious Sexuality”; Alexander, The “Girl Problem”; Odem, Delinquent Daughters; and Rembis, Defining Deviance

  6. Trost, Gateway to Justice; Cahn, Sexual Reckonings; W. Bush, Who Gets a Childhood; and Zipf, Bad Girls at Samarcand

  7. Cahn, Sexual Reckonings, 18–19. 

  8. Bristow, Making Men Moral, 106. 

  9. E. Bush, Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918–1920, unpublished raw data, 2017. The dataset supporting the visualizations for this article consists of 224 inmates admitted between January 1, 1918 and December 31, 1920. This is a subset of a larger dataset gathered from the complete admissions logs of the two reformatories at Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout. I transcribed the full admissions data from the opening of each school until April 1939. My dissertation project evaluates Virginia’s reform efforts more broadly between 1910 and 1942 and includes direct comparisons between the experiences at the institution for white girls and the institution for African American girls. For this article, I evaluated only the broader trends irrespective of race. Names and identifying information have been removed to protect the privacy of inmates. Full admissions books are available at the Library of Virginia; the full dataset is available upon request. 

  10. Superintendent Anna Petersen’s letter to the Board of Directors of Bon Air, dated September 30, 1918. Bon Air Learning Center (Va.) Office of the Superindentent. Minutes and Reports, 1913–1926. State government records collection, The Library of Virginia. 

  11. E. Bush, Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918–1920, unpublished raw data, 2017. 

  12. Bon Air Fifth Annual Report for the Term Ending September 30, 1919, Bon Air Learning Center (Va.) Office of the Superindentent, Minutes and Reports, 1913–1926, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia. 

  13. Third Annual Report of the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls 1918, The Library of Virginia. 

  14. Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction 1917, and Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction, 1921, in Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections, Annual Report of the Board of Charities and Corrections

  15. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 1920, Population and Housing, Virginia, https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html, accessed October 2017. 

  16. Dabney, Virginia the New Dominion, 463–464. 

  17. Calculated from U.S. Census Bureau, Census 1910–1920, Population and Housing, Virginia. 

  18. Dabney, Virginia the New Dominion, 463–464. 

  19. Calculated from U.S. Census Bureau, Census 1910–1920, Population and Housing, Virginia. 

  20. Fourth Annual Report of the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls 1919, The Library of Virginia. 

  21. In order to understand the relationship between war camps and reform school admissions, I geocoded the sentencing jurisdiction for all inmates admitted to Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout between January 1, 1918 and December 31, 1920. The War Department promoted the claim that they detained 18,000 individuals between 1918 and 1920, so I matched this time frame. See Bristow, Making Men Moral, 270, 145. For ease of comparison, I split the data into two time frames: “War-time” spanning all of 1918, and “Post-War,” covering January 1, 1919 to December 31, 1920. I mapped the total volume of inmates originating from each locale during these two time frames. 

  22. Early juvenile court reports contain little in the way of details. In 1918, Richmond’s juvenile court reported only the total “juvenile cases disposed of” by the child’s sex and race. Tenth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction, 1918, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/mb?a=listis&c=1239185609

  23. E. Bush, Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918–1920, unpublished raw data, 2017. 

  24. U.S. Census Bureau, Census 1910–1920, Population and Housing, Virginia. 

  25. Juvenile courts and their records are notoriously spotty in Virginia. When they did report, they reported statistics to the State Board of Charities and Corrections, which recorded them in their Annual Reports. See the digital collection of Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections Annual Reports at HathiTrust

  26. E. Bush, Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918–1920, unpublished raw data, 2017. 

  27. Tenth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction 1918, and Eleventh Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction 1919 in Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections, Annual Report of the Board of Charities and Corrections. The Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) argued extensively against parole as counter-productive to the war problem and instead pushed localities to choose long-term detention. This was the underlying rationale for gifting money for detention homes and reformatories. See Falconer, “The Segregation of Delinquent Women and Girls,” 160–66. 


Appendix


Author

Erin N. Bush, Department of History and Art History, George Mason University, ebush3@gmu.edu, ORC ID logo0000-0002-5958-9038