Harmon’s Histories: Reform schools once the sentence for ‘wayward’ Montana youth
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
They were considered unrepentant and hopeless - absolutely incorrigible. Some had “wayward and vicious” dispositions, and were constantly running away from home.
So what did Montana do with its hopeless teenage miscreants a century ago? Sent them to “reform school,” of course.
The state’s Reform School at Miles City was built “at a cost of a little more than $20,000,” and dedicated in March 1894. At the time, it was called “the largest and best of any edifice yet built in Montana for the money.”
At least 300 dignitaries attended the glitzy grand opening ceremony.
But the purpose of a reform school was to reform - and there was nothing glitzy or glamorous about that.
Case in point: 15-year-old Carrie Lawrence. Her parents were “unable to control her because of her wayward and vicious disposition.”
She would roam about at all hours of the night, visiting “places of questionable repute and indulging in habits that are bad and pernicious.”
Finally, in 1899, the Butte Daily Inter-Mountain newspaper reported the court had to issue a bench warrant for her arrest, charging her with “vagrancy and incorrigibility.” Off to reform school with her!
Then, there was the incorrigible Frederick Brown, a 16-year-old orphan in Missoula. He just wanted to run away, again and again.
In the summer of 1912, he was sent to the orphan’s home at Twin Bridges. That only lasted a few days. “He induced another boy to run away with him,” according to the Missoula Sentinel newspaper. “The runaways were later located at Alberton.”
“Because of general incorrigibility,” Brown was then sentenced “to the Reform School at Miles City by District Judge Webster.”
One of the most publicized cases of incorrigibility occurred in 1909. But the result wasn’t reform school - it was (wait for it) marriage!
“Justice of the Peace Dyson officiated last evening at 5 o’clock at a wedding of more than usual interest, as the bride gave her age as 16 and was married to avoid prosecution on a charge of incorrigibility, preferred by William Shobe, deputy in the state bureau of child and animal protection,” reported the Daily Missoulian.
It was an all too familiar back-story. Husband abandons wife and 10 children; state investigators can’t find him; wife struggles to get by; oldest child runs away from home, then returns; officer tries to take the runaway girl into custody, but can’t locate her.
“In the meantime,” reported the local paper, “the girl and Beck had obtained a marriage license at the court house, the mother appearing as the applicant for her child and giving permission in writing. The couple went to the office of Justice of the Peace Dyson and was married. So it is likely that the case will be dropped.”
Perhaps my favorite story of incorrigibility (now that’s an oxymoron) is that of Missoula Probation Officer Hoblitt who believed, “putting a boy on his honor is a step toward his reclamation.”
In 1916, when Foster Striker, a lad of 17, was sentenced by Judge Duncan to the State Industrial School for Incorrigibility, he asked that he might be allowed to find his own way there. Officer Hoblitt agreed.
The lad said, “I'll go over myself. Give me the commitment.” He was taken at his word and was placed on a train bound for the school.
Later, a telegram was received by Officer Hoblitt from Miles City, the home of the school, saying Foster had arrived all right. Mr. Hoblett said that this is the first time that such a thing had been done in Missoula County.
Unfortunately back then, reform school was viewed by the inmates as “prep school for the pen.” One ex-con who had been sent to reform school said, “That’s how I learned to be a criminal. I met older and tougher boys. My crime education began.”
Today, while reform schools still exist, many alternatives are available - and preferred. Therapeutic programs have been developed based on assessments of individual needs. Many troubled youth are able to stay in a home setting while attending specialized schools.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.