So-called by the media, the federal prison at Alderson, W. Va., and former place of confinement for Martha Stewart, had another name in the far-away years of the 1930s. In 1934, the press called it the "College for Female Cons." Alderson played a major role in the commitments of the women who harbored the 1930s Public Enemies. Women from the Dillinger Gang, the Barker-Karpis and Nash/Holden Keating Gangs, and the assemblies of family members who helped Bonnie & Clyde, served time at Alderson between the years 1934 to almost 1940. They were all convicted of the Federal Harboring Law, Section 246, Title 18, U.S. Criminal Code, aiding and abetting in the escape of a fugitive. It was used to prosecute wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters of the notorious offenders of the 1930s Midwest and Southwest Crime Waves.
Officially named "The Federal Industrial Institution for Women at Alderson," it was conceived and designed in 1924. Offering religious services, women’s health clinics, vocational aptitude testing and classes, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Because of it's progressive direction, it was originally considered unsuitable for the women running with the violent public enemies of the Depression.
Sanford Bates, then Director of the Prison Board, said, "We cannot risk the possibility of an attempt to rescue forcibly the wife or sweetheart of any organized gangster. Alderson is not designed and is not equipped to handle women who are desperate and incorrigible.”
The alternative "steel-cell" facility, that of the Federal Detention Farm at Milan, Michigan, accepted Kathryn Kelly and her mother, Ora Shannon; Evelyn Frechette; Patricia Cherrington, Dolores Delaney; and Helen Gillis. Gillis, wife of the notorious Baby Face Nelson, pictured here, did not go to Alderson, but served her time at Milan while being shuttled out to San Francisco to testify against the remaining factions of the gang.
Although Kathryn Kelly, Wife of Machine Gun Kelly, and her mother, Ora Shannon served out their life sentences for a time at Alderson, in the bleak years of 1933/1934 they were, in the words of Sanford Bates, "adequately guarded by armed officers and housed in the more traditional type of steel cells."
So desperate was Kathryn Kelly to join the "College for Female Cons," she wrote to Sanford Bates begging for a transfer. On September 1, 1936, after almost 3 years of confinement in a steel cell, she wrote to Bates, "Please extend the many benefits of Alderson to us. I assure you we both will live up to that privilege. I would love the classes." Eventually, Kathryn was transferred to Alderson with Ora Shannon, her mother.
Dillinger gangster Patricia Cherrington, hoped to remain at Alderson.Originally sent there upon her commitment due to serious health concerns, she was transferred over to Milan. Doctors at Milan wired urgently to Alderson for the findings of the medical diagnostic tests performed on the ailing Patricia.
At Milan, the women of the public enemy era were housed in an annex of the men's prison, aimed at a moderate-security level but designed for men only. The pull of Alderson was a strong one, but not all were fortunate enough to go there.
At that time, Alderson was in its heyday of progression. After women won the right to vote in 1920, the remaining activist factions undertook a new challenge: a model for humane treatment for federally convicted women. On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act, caused female bootleggers to join the legions of female federal prisoners. They were incarcerated with men and suffered untold personal violations at the hands of male guards. Their special needs as women, i.e., pregnancy, female health problems, drug addiction, were ignored. By 1923, 19 state institutions refused to house these prisoners. In the days before the social reforms of 1930s New Deal legislation, the job of helping indigent women usually went to private charities. Educated and resourceful socialites, tried to come up with solutions. Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the Assistant Attorney General, developed a 3-pronged "pressing need" plan to present to the Federal Department of Prisons. The result was the 1924 Enabling Act, which sent Alderson into motion.
The Congressionally-approved architectural plans by 1925 contained communal cottages, with progressive names like "Jane Addams Hull Cottage." Dr. Mary B. Harris, the first warden, decided to staff the institution with an all-female staff of corrections officers. Eleanor Roosevelt, a prison-reform powerhouse, pictured here performing one of her humanitarian gestures toward female prisoners, visited Alderson in 1934. Mrs. Roosevelt visited prisons in the hope of exposing the prevailing terrible conditions for incarcerated women. At Alderson, >inmates went to religious services, and classes. There was a book club, and courses in typing and stenography, which were state-of-the-art skills for women in 1934. They compare today to office-geared computer skills.
Historically, Alderson granted rights to oppressed and imprisoned women, in an era before legislation would truly address these concerns.
Women imprisoned at Alderson from
the Era of the Public Enemy
Jean Delaney Crompton, June 11, 1934, parolled March 31, 1935.
Patricia Cherrington, June, 1934, before transfer to Detention Facility at Milan, Michigan.
Marie "Mickey" Comforti, September 12, 1934, paroled on Ocbober 11, 1935, and re-arrested on December 7, 1936, for additional Federal harboring of Dillinger Gangster Homer Van Meter.
Beth Green, May, 1934 - Aug. 22, 1935.
Kathryn Kelly and Ora Shannon were transferred in 1939 to Alderson, where they served time until their transfer to Terminal Island, California. They were paroled on June 17, 1958.
Billie Jean Parker, sister of Bonnie Parker; Mary O'Dare, girlfriend of Raymond Hamilton, sentenced February 22, 1934 to 1 year and 1 day.
Verne Miller Gang
Vi Matthis, girlfriend of Verne Miller, sentenced along with Bobbie Moore on November 29, 1933 - paroled in late November/early December, 1934.