Inwood Home for Wayward Girls

Last night I was browsing the New York Public Library’s digital image collections looking for a picture of Isidor Straus’s “summer” estate that used to be in Inwood Hill Park, in the northern most neighborhood in Manhattan.

I was recently in Inwood attending a reading by Mary Elizabeth Williams from her new book Gimmie Shelter.  (Great person!  Great book!)  Her reading made me very curious about Inwood, just the way she described it.  Plus the walk to the place where the reading was held got me all excited, I’d never seen anything like it.  In Manhattan. (More below.)

I fully plan to go back there to explore and take pictures, and then yesterday I start this new book, Cemetery Dance, and some of the action takes place in Inwood and Inwood Hill Park! There was also a small description of the ruins of the Isidor Straus mansion.  Isidor Straus was this wealthy man, owned Macy’s, but he’s probably most famous as one of the people who died on the Titanic, along with his wife Ida who refused to leave his side.  So I was looking for a picture of the long gone mansion when I came across the photograph above. It’s a 1932 shot of The Episcopal House of Mercy, aka The Inwood Home for Wayward Girls.  It looks so foreboding, doesn’t it?

I learned about the existence of “homes for wayward girls” while researching The Restless Sleep. These were places where they sent girls who were young and in trouble, but not yet prison material, and they wanted to get them on the right path.  Ideally.  It didn’t always work out that way as you can imagine.  It turns out my grandfather, who was a family court judge, wrote this bill which allowed the court to become custodians of these girls, with the parent’s permission. They meant well and plenty of times it did work out well.  Half the time it wasn’t a matter of the girls being in trouble at all, but they were pulling them out of a terrible family situation.

I’ve wanted to write about homes for wayward girls ever since.  There’s already been at least one book about them that I know of, and lots of papers and articles, but still.  I know I could do a great job with this subject.  Anyway, here’s another picture I found and loved of a house in Inwood Hill Park. It was also taken in 1932.  (More below.)  

From the NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation website description of Inwood Hill Park: “Evidence of its prehistoric roots exists as dramatic caves, valleys, and ridges left as the result of shifting glaciers. Evidence of its uninhabited state afterward remains as its forest and salt marsh (the last natural one in Manhattan), and evidence of its use by Native Americans in the 17th century continues to be discovered.”

Even better, I found this Inwood blog where this older person posted about what it was like there in 1932, when the pictures were taken. One thing they said was, “At that time, what is now known as Inwood Hill Park was called the Indian Resevation. Two Indian families still remained. There were no paved paths.”

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

18 thoughts on “Inwood Home for Wayward Girls

  1. Wow! The Magdelena Sisters comes to mind when we speak of “homes for wayward girls”.
    Sounds like a great subject!

  2. Ooooh, this sounds like excellent book material! I can’t wait to read more about it. I wonder if ‘wayward’ could be interpreted as pregnant, too? In any event, go for it. This history has YOU written all over it. I wish you well on this project if you decide to write this story.

  3. Interesting. And also amusing when one reflects on the fact that today almost every girl would be regarded as a “wayward” girl by earlier standards.

    (I mean, have you seen The Gossip Girls?)

  4. Stacy, I hate to sound like the Amen chorus but this has you written all over it, Social History with all the “forgotten”. You could do a local, regional, national treatment, or a combo. A lot of ways to slice this subject. What’s the state of these placements today?


  5. I am one of the owners of Indian Road Cafe, located on 218th Street and Indian Road at the edge of Inwood Hil Park.

    I am an amatuer neighborhood historian and have a group of similar like-minded friends.

    We meet on the first Monday of every month at the cafe at 7:30PM. The next presentation will be a series of “then and now” photographs of the neighborhood, on July 6th.

    Come on in if you are able.

    Thanks for a neat post! Jason

  6. Hi there–

    Just thought I’d let you know that the commenter above is incorrect (partially). While Inwood House is still around, (180 years old this year!) That’s not our building. Our building was at 139th Street and “North River” and we left it in 1890 because the city reclaimed it during aqueduct construction. For this reason we moved down to 55th Street, but kept the name Inwood House, confusing everyone for over a century later….

    The Inwood Home for Wayward Girls became the House of Mercy, which was shut down for its treatment of “inmates” and had mulitple lawsuits against them. The building then became home for a residence for Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

    Great site by the way!

  7. Thank you so much for the correction! So the Inwood Home moved to 55th Street and the House of Mercy took over the space they vacated?

  8. I grew up in a school for “wayward girls” the term is tantilizing but the reality is not. I went to St. Germaines in Peekskill NY run by the Good Shepherd Sisters those were the happiest years of my life. I grew up emotionally and mentally and graduated from their HS in 1968 to this day I keep in touch with them and with the young women that once lived there. It ashamed that the country nor the state thought enough of the good work being done by these courages women to continue to support it. It closed and the girls that need to be taken out of their situation today have limited resources. It takes more then a couple of sessions or weeks to help heal years of damage. Yes write about what happened let people know the healing and hope that took place especially with the Good Shepherd sisters. They are still operating today in somewhat limited capacity, but still doing their courages work.

  9. My Grandmother was an orphan dropped off at the House of mercy at inwood when she was 7. She is listed as an inmate on 1915 census and 1920 census. Have you done any additional research on this subject?

  10. Just read a great book, written in 1931 called The Dragon Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine that is set in what was to become Inwood Hill Park. You might want to read for your research!

  11. Hi!do you have any idea where the old records are for this place? my great aunt was a resident , her life was largely a mystery and anyone who might remember anything about her is long dead, but I’m very curious about her and I’m trying to piece together any details about her life that I can, Thank you!

  12. Hi Emily. I don’t know offhand, but if I was looking I’d start at the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library. This person did extensive research (great research!), you might reach out to him:

    Oh, I see you found him already, I was reading through the comments and your name popped up! Good luck on your search.

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