Albany’s Angel of Mercy

The Albany Almshouse, ca. 1920

In 1892, William P. Letchworth, a leading figure in the reform of New York’s care for the poor, in an address to the State Board of Charities, related the following incident of thirty years past:

“On a cold, raw day, a sad-faced woman left the door of the Albany City Almshouse. As she directed her steps toward the city, and drew her fluttering garments closely about her, she thought that the piercing winds from the Helderberg Mountains were not more chilling than the administration of public charity.  This woman was not a pauper, but was of a good family and possessed of some means with which she freely aided others.  For years her energies had been specially directed to saving and comforting the sinful and sorrowing that had drifted into the forlorn places of this world.  In pursuing her benevolent work she visited the Albany Almshouse, and was shocked at the state of things she found there.  It was the old story – utter indifference to sanitary laws, promiscuous association of the young and old of both sexes, disregard of the rules of common decency, brutal treatment, dirt, cold, foul air, putrid meat, insufficient clothing, etc.  Miss Elizabeth Knapp (for that was the visitor’s name) remonstrated earnestly with the keeper against these abuses.  He responded by shutting the door in her face and forbidding her ever to enter the place again.”

In a series of events apparently still well known at the time of Letchworth’s address, Miss Knapp surreptitiously gained admittance to the Almshouse as a pauper and reported her experiences while there. “A sharp controversy followed,” Letchworth continued, which ultimately resulted in reforms at the poor house and the choice of reform-minded individuals at the next election.  Letchworth credited these events with the establishment of the State Board of Charities, which he considered to be a great advance in the care of the indigent.

Of the incident involving Miss Knapp, apparently still well known in 1892, I have been unable to find any further details. But there is a good deal of evidence of her energies in “comforting and saving the sinful and sorrowing.”

On August 25, 1853, the Albany Evening Journal reported a shocking event – “INFANTICIDE – The body of an infant a few days old was found in the corner of the fence around Kane’s Walk yesterday. It had, apparently, but recently been abandoned by its inhuman mother.”  I can’t help but think that this awful event served as an impetus for Elizabeth Knapp, for less than three months later, in the Evening Journal, is the first reference to Miss Knapp who made an ‘appeal for fixtures’ for her “Retreat” adjoining Kane’s Walk on South Pearl Street.  The place, later known as Miss Knapp’s Juvenile Retreat, or more commonly as “The Ragged School,” was to be a place of refuge for abandoned children, personally run by Elizabeth Knapp and a few volunteers.  It consisted of a residence and school for “little orphans, who, but for the unrelenting care of this truly philanthropic young lady, would be begging and starving on the streets.”

Victorian-era English Ragged School

Elizabeth Knapp was born in 1818, the second of four children born of Mary Haring and Hubbell Knapp. Hubbell was a Connecticut Yankee who married into a very old Dutch family, eventually living at 51 Hamilton Street, a property deeded to the couple by Mary’s parents.  Hubbell was the master of the sloop Syren, which plied the waters of the Hudson between Albany and New York for the Commercial Line.  (Hubbell also lived for a time after his wife’s death at 50 Hudson Avenue, recently demolished.)  Hubbell was active in Whig politics; Elizabeth’s parents belonged to the Second Dutch Church, although Elizabeth herself became associated with the Episcopal church at some point.  Elizabeth was graduated from the Albany Female Academy with the Class of ’37.

The Juvenile Retreat was established at 181 South Pearl, a block above Kane’s Walk, the small private park where the infant had been abandoned in 1853. The building was referred to as the ‘old Salem Dutcher’ place. The building is still extant.

181 South Pearl Street

Throughout the 1850’s, Miss Knapp’s Juvenile Retreat was a popular beneficiary of the city’s charitable giving. Funds were received from the annual “Old Folks’ Concert,” which also passed along funds to the Orphan Asylum, the Home for the Friendless, and the Dorcas Temperance Society, among other good causes.  St. Paul’s organist George William Warren seems to have given frequent benefit concerts at Association Hall for Miss Knapp’s Ragged School.  In November 1857, a subscription was organized by the members of the Albany Exchange for the purchase of 20 barrels of flour to meet the needs of the forty children then resident at the Retreat.  The ‘ladies of the city’ organized a fair in 1860 at the Board of Trade for the Retreat’s benefit.  In that same year, the Legislature was moved to appropriate $1,000 to pay off the Retreat’s mortgage.

Beyond fundraising, there were other ways to support Miss Knapp’s work. In 1858, the Ferry Street Methodist Episcopal Sunday School organized an annual excursion to Newton’s Hook (‘a most lovely place’) for children from the Orphan Asylum as well as from Miss Knapp’s Ragged School.

Despite the community support, Miss Knapp struggled to provide for the children’s needs. At the beginning of 1861, she reported that while the Retreat had brought in $1570 during the previous year, expenses had been $1590. As the idea of debt was ‘intolerable’ to her, she announced that she would close the Retreat, “the failure of means is God’s sign, to which I have uniformly referred, as marking the period of suspension.”  The receipts she reported for 1860 are interesting in their own right: $260 for groceries, including cornmeal, butter, rice, beans, molasses, etc.; $100 for bread; $60 for milk; $15.30 for gas; $17.62 for coal (beyond what was donated); for shoes $15.  Miss Knapp continued at the school, so it seems that the crisis was averted for the time being.  There were surely other gifts in kind as well.  A Mr. Featherley of the Central Market was recognized as a leading benefactor for providing, over the course of several years, a supply of fresh meat on two days of each week.

The continued need for the Retreat was made apparent in February 1862, when it was reported that an eight month old girl had been left at the doorway of Mrs. Knapp’s Ragged School at 181 South Pearl Street. Neighborhood children said they saw two women in a sleigh drop the baby off and then head toward Ferry Street.  This particular child was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Fanyou, being the third foundling taken in by the couple.  In March of the same year, another infant was left abandoned in the doorway.

But in spite of the continued need for the Retreat, by December 1864, Elizabeth Knapp had left Albany. It’s not clear where she moved, but there is a reference to her being in Hyde Park, Massachusetts in 1884.  Nor is it clear why she left, although ‘lack of means and failing health’ were cited years later..  There is no reference to her being married.  The Retreat seems to have been in a somewhat precarious financial situation in the 1860’s.  Miss Knapp’s father Hubbell had died in 1862.  Perhaps he was a key source of financial and moral support, the absence of which became unbearable for Elizabeth.

In any event, Albany was left scrambling to fill the gap left by Miss Knapp’s departure. A Miss Carpenter, who already worked at the Retreat, took charge, at least in the short term.  Apparently, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church tried to take the Retreat under its aegis, but it soon became apparent that the congregation could not support the work.  In 1864, there was organized the Orphan’s Home of St. Peter’s Church.  It took charge of fifteen children formerly of ‘Miss Knapp’s School.’  It remained incorporated as the Albany Juvenile Retreat until 1876; the location was moved in 1865 to 59 Chapel Street.  In 1864, St. Peter’s appropriated $1,700 for the support of its “Orphan’s Home.”  The rector of St. Peter’s served as the president and governed it together with a board of female managers who supervised a matron.  The institution was to accept girls only, who were ‘indentured’ to the Home until the age of sixteen.  The girls were to be trained in housework and sewing.

There is no further mention of Miss Elizabeth Knapp until 1896, when the City Directory lists one Elizabeth Knapp boarding at the Home of the Friendless at 553 Clinton Avenue. In March 1898, she died in the Home for the Friendless, what the Evening Journal called a ‘travesty of fate.’  There were still many of her children “who today in their maturity ‘rise up and call her blessed.’”  “In her old age, she yearned for her native city, the scene of her early labors, and she returned here to die among friends in whose hearts the memories of her blessed work were still living.”  An obituary called her the ‘loving mother who never forgot her children.’  It also noted that “before she slept her last sleep one of the children she had raised sat beside her until her eyes closed.  To wake up and behold the heavenly vision of the little ones who shall welcome her into the Father’s house.”  Her funeral services were held at St. Peter’s Church.   Miss Elizabeth Knapp is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Grave at Albany Rural Cemetery


One thought on “Albany’s Angel of Mercy

  1. I have bad eyesight, but even with my reading glasses I found that the font and background you chose for this story made it difficult to read. Love this kind of stuff


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