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What to do with ‘incorrigible’ boys? Minnesota State Reform School

Minnesota’s first experiment in juvenile justice operated in St. Paul from 1868 to 1891. 

Photograph of the front exterior of the Minnesota State Reform School. Taken by T.W. Ingersoll, c.1875.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota’s first experiment in juvenile justice, the State Reform School, operated in St. Paul from 1868 to 1891. During that time, over 1250 inmates, almost all of them boys, were committed to the institution, mostly for petty crimes and “incorrigibility.” The school moved to a new facility in Red Wing in 1891.

The Reform School, authorized by the Minnesota legislature in 1866, opened in 1868 to accomplish two goals: first, to keep boys (admitted no older than age sixteen) and girls (admitted no older than age fifteen) out of adult jails and prisons; and second, to provide education, shelter, and training for young people found guilty of crimes or neglected by incompetent parents.

The school began its operations in a single building on the open prairie just west of St. Paul, on a location later taken over by Concordia University. It operated there for twenty-three years. During that time over 1260 boys and girls passed through. The institution grew from a first-year class of thirty-nine to over three hundred inmates and from a single building to a complex of dormitories, workshops, and outbuildings.

The inmates led busy, regimented lives ruled by work, school, and religious instruction that started at six o’clock. They devoted four hours of every morning to work and four hours to school, prayer, and scripture. Afternoons followed the same routine. Work was considered essential. It was also necessary to keep the place going; the inmates cooked, did the laundry, made their own clothing, tended the animals, and worked the farm, which produced most of their food.

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The school’s superintendent was John G. Riheldaffer, aided by his wife, Catherine. Riheldaffer was a Presbyterian pastor and a founder of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. Inmates got a decidedly Protestant religious education at the school, to the alarm of Minnesota Catholics. In 1874 the legislature forbade sectarian indoctrination in state institutions—a law that aimed squarely at Riheldaffer. He mostly ignored it.

The Riheldaffers devoted themselves to the school. They lived on the site with their children, supervised all activities, and worked 365 days a year, from 1868 into 1885. In the earliest days they and the inmates lived in the same house. They shared hardship. When the site’s polluted water supply brought typhoid fever in 1874, four children died—three inmates and the Riheldaffers’ daughter Helen. It took three more years of lobbying the legislature to get a new, deeper well.

The boys and girls sent to the school ranged in age from three (a single case) to sixteen. The typical inmate came in at age twelve, thirteen, or fourteen. Over half of the inmates came in for theft, often petty—as little as stealing a can of oysters or a handful of newspapers. Over a third came in for “incorrigibility,” a term that covered a vast range of behavior from truancy to abusing animals and other children. Most of the “incorrigibles” were committed to the school by one or more parents; these adults asked the state to take their children off their hands.

The inmates typically stayed two or three years; they were usually released back to their families. Though the law provided that they might be kept to age twenty-one, that happened rarely. In most cases the superintendent decided when release should happen, though boys sometimes took matters into their own hands. The first of more than one hundred escape attempts occurred in 1870; more than sixty boys got away without recapture.

The school grew from thirty-nine inmates in 1868 to 162 in 1885. It also outgrew its St. Paul facility. In 1886 the legislature decided to move it. Red Wing won the statewide competition held to select a host city and a new school building opened there in mid-1891. Concordia College (later Concordia University) bought the west end of the St. Paul site in 1892. Central High School was built on the east end in 1912.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.