As it were

Home reached out to city's 'fallen women'

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It was a concern that simply would not go away: What was Columbus to do with its "fallen women"?

It certainly was not a new concern. Ever since Columbus was established by the Ohio General Assembly as the new state capital in 1812, there had always been a few local residents who made their living on the other side of the law.

Early in the city's history, when the boundaries of the town ended at Nationwide Boulevard, a criminal gang led by a man named Jones established itself on Cleveland Avenue near what is now Fort Hayes. In due course, local residents played a bit of the vigilante and drove the rascals out of town.

Over the years, local histories would find references to gamblers, confidence men, thieves, pickpockets and fallen ladies. But in a town of only 5,000 or even 10,000 people, there were not all that many of these people. Small towns can support only a limited amount of vice.

But the Civil War changed everything. Columbus, a town of 18,000 people, found itself playing host to Camp Chase. The camp was a mobilization and training center for about 25,000 soldiers of the Union Army.

As might be imagined, all of those virile young men in one place attracted the attention of a rather large number of ladies. Many of them made their living in ways that were neither very legal nor very moral.

With the end of the war, the upstanding residents of Columbus thought that maybe, just maybe, the bad folks would leave town with the departing soldiers. It was not to be the case.

Columbus at the end of the Civil War found itself to be a railroad hub and a major center of transportation and trade. With that economic success came continuing problems with vice and crime.

On Dec. 3, 1869, a number of local ladies gathered to discuss how they might help the "fallen women" of Columbus. After research and observation, the group decided that what was needed in Columbus was "a house of Reform in this city."

A later account related how they ladies went to work: "Soliciting a dollar here and five dollars there, asking for help from the churches, the women went ahead and rented a house at 346 East Rich Street."

The Woman's Home had a number of interesting early residents. "One girl, Fanny, was taken from the penitentiary to the home, but she was too homesick to stay and was placed on the cars to go to her friends." Another was the case of a girl "to secure whom, the committee had spent two days. She was taken to the Home, but made her escape from a window the first night of her stay."

Learning from these examples, the home put stern rules in place. The rules were prominently posted when the home moved to a new location at 171 E. Rich St. a few years later:

* No girl shall be received who does not show a sincere desire and purpose to lead a new and virtuous life.

* She shall promise on being admitted to the Home to remain as long as the Committee on Admission think best for her good.

* She shall promise to try faithfully, with the help of God, to keep all of the rules of the Home.

* She shall resolve as far as possible to forget her former life.

The Rules for Conduct were lengthy and stringent. A sampling of the first few will give an idea of their scope and content:

* She shall not at any time talk to the other girls, about, or in any way allude to her past life of sin.

* She shall not use profane, impure or improper language.

* She shall be careful to speak the truth at all times, and try in no way to deceive.

The list goes on at considerable length and in some detail.

The home had its successes. Some of the girls who stayed for a time left their former way of life and went on to some personal success. The minutes of the home noted in May 1873 that "Jennie, the first girl admitted to the Home has also been to see Mrs. Desellum (the matron). She has married well and is living a virtuous life."

There were disappointments as well -- girls who left the home and returned to their less-than-respectable ways. But for each of them, there was also a Jennie with a virtuous life.

The work of the woman's home continued until June 1873. This is not surprising, since the Panic of 1873 at that time sent the entire country into a deep economic depression. A number of good organizations did not survive.

But the success of the woman's home was not forgotten. Over the years since 1873, a number of other Columbus organizations have stepped up to help women in moral as well as social need. Their good work complements the pioneering work of the "Ladies of 1869."

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek News.

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