A Life of Service: Remembering the Tombs Angel, a Heroine of the Gilded Age

B. The Life and Work of Rebecca Salome Foster

3. How Mrs. Foster’s Work Began

The specific impetus for Mrs. Foster’s work on behalf of prisoners and their families came about by the purest chance in 1884.[45] According to Rev. John Josiah Munro, a one-time chaplain of the Tombs Prison, who heard the story directly from Mrs. Foster, a story the gist of which she herself confirmed on other occasions,[46] her laundress came to her asking for help after the woman’s young son had been arrested for a theft of which he claimed he was innocent. General Foster agreed to defend the boy, but on the day the case was to be heard, he was too ill to appear. He sent Mrs. Foster with a note requesting an adjournment. When Mrs. Foster reached the court, the case was already on, and when an opportunity presented itself, she made a powerful plea on behalf of the boy. The judge presiding was greatly impressed by Mrs. Foster and he discharged the boy. The judge apparently then called Mrs. Foster’s attention to the case of a young, homeless girl who had been arrested that day for solicitation. Evidently reluctant to sentence the girl to incarceration, the judge asked Mrs. Foster to investigate the girl’s story before he took final action. Mrs. Foster investigated the case, reported her findings to the court, and had the girl paroled into her own custody. She then returned the girl to her home in another part of the country. The girl was thus saved from what would almost surely have been a life of wretchedness.[47]

Thus, Mrs. Foster found her calling. The appearance in court that day proved not an isolated instance, but an unforeseen opportunity for Mrs. Foster to do some good. She was led to make herself available to repeat the work she had done in that first case and to convince the judges that in doing so she could be of help to the court and the administration of justice and to the accused.  From that time on, for many years thereafter, Mrs. Foster frequented the courthouses, the Tombs Prison, and its environs. That judge and other members of the bench often asked Mrs. Foster to assist them in discerning the backgrounds of the defendants before them, information which was then otherwise unavailable to the judges as probation officers did not exist in those days. Very often the defendants with respect to whom the judges sought information from her were young girls and women, but there were boys too. When needed she would help men as well.

William T. Jerome, a Judge of the Court of Special Sessions from 1895-1901 and later (1902-1909) the District Attorney of New York County, who was a figure of considerable prominence in those days (his cousin was Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill), knew Mrs. Foster very well. “Her value to the court,” he emphasized, “… was in the fact that she had rare good judgment …” [48]

A woman would be brought up to the bar, plead guilty, and be remanded. We would ask Mrs. Foster to look into the case and report to us. She would find out where the woman worked — what her life was, what her interests were, who her people were, what her surroundings had been, how she came to get into this trouble …[49]

Judge Jerome added that Mrs. Foster’s “absolute sincerity and purity of motive impressed [themselves] upon every one and led them to trust her.”[50] “The judges trusted her judgment …”[51]  So it came to be that “[f]or many years it [was not] an infrequent occurrence for the presiding justice in one of the city’s criminal courts to call from the bench, ‘Is Mrs. Foster in the room?’”[52]

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