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

B. The Life and Work of Rebecca Salome Foster

5. Mrs. Foster’s Work in Her Own Words

Some greater sense of the nature of Mrs. Foster’s work and her character can be gleaned from her own words as she summarizes the activities of a typical day:

I began at 9 A.M. in the vestibule of Calvary Church, where seven persons were awaiting me. To two I gave money for food, to one rent money, and to two orders for shoes. The others I took to superintendents of two Department Stores for positions.

Then to the Court of Special Sessions, for the Case of B.H. (previously investigated), accused of petty larceny, whose sentence was shortened to only 30 days. Met in the corridor a young woman, homeless and penniless, with month old baby in her arms, whose husband had just been sentenced for 3 months, and paid $2 rent until I can get her work.

In the Court of General Sessions, four cases: M.C., aged 19, had stolen $5, her first crime. Inquiry proved previous good character, and she was let off with ten days. A.B., 17, suspected of stealing [a] ring, was discharged in my custody. I took her to her mother, who will report to me regularly. M.N., when drunk, had broken a window. As it was her first offence, she was allowed to go on suspended sentence and her mother took her home. M.B., 20, servant, accused of theft. I had found all her employers for her three years in this country willing to take her back, but as the Court considers household thieves a most dangerous class, I was able only to get her sentence shortened to three months, on the ground of previous good record.

Next, in District Attorney’s office, was promised speedy trials for three cases in prison. Then to 17th street and 10th avenue and to 87th street and Columbus avenue, inquiring [of the] characters of two girls whose cases are to come up to-morrow.

I then returned to the District Attorney’s office, by his request, to consult about a young girl, a victim of the “Cadet System [prostitution].”  Saw the girl there, only 16, pretty and ignorant, an easy prey to vicious designs. Took her to St. Barnabas House, where she will be safe and whence I will take her back and forth daily to Court till her trial is over, and afterwards I will care for her as long as she needs help and until she can get work. Then, summoned by Prison Ward officer to Bellevue Hospital, to see a young girl just brought in for having attempted suicide. She was unwilling to talk until the nurse explained who I was, when she readily confided all her griefs to me. I comforted her as best I could and promised to stand by her in Court when tried, and to ask the Judge to put her in my care.

Then home, at 6 P.M., to find a Subpoena Server waiting with two subpoenas for me to serve on two women I had taken into my care on parole eight months before, agreeing to produce them in Court when needed. As they were wanted the next day, I dined hurriedly and went to 106 Essex street and 82 Eldridge street, served the subpoenas, arranged to meet the women in Court the next morning, and returned home, my day’s work done.[102]

In 1896 Mrs. Foster recounted this story:

In the early summer there came into the court a young woman, scarce eighteen years old, accused of stealing $ 1,800, in open daylight, on the street. She was engaged to marry a man who made her help to him in getting this money a condition of their speedy marriage, and she consented to and did help him — afterwards repented, and confessed. On my promise to care for her the judge suspended sentence, and gave her to me. I found work for her in the country — a place which she has kept.[103]

Mrs. Foster described three more of the cases that touched her that summer:

A young man, not yet twenty, but with a wife and babe, came to New York from Lowell, Mass., leaving his wife and child with his mother until he could find work, and send for her. The first day, while looking around for board — a stranger in a strange city — he met another young man in a restaurant, and told him what he wanted, and asked him if he could direct him to a good, cheap place. All the money he had with him was $9.00.  This man said he too was poor, a peddler, but he had a good room, and would gladly share it, and so help both. This was agreed on, and my man from Lowell went home with him. That very night both were arrested as receivers of stolen goods, and it was the peddler’s business to sell them. I wrote to Lowell, got letters from the clergyman who baptized and married my boy, also his mother and wife, and so proved his innocence, and obtained his discharge. I was anxious he should go back home, and he was willing, so I got him a ticket, and he returned to Lowell. Afterwards, through a friend, I obtained for him, work in Boston, which place he still has.

Another; a young woman, twenty-two years old, was employed in a boarding-house as waitress. One of the boarders accused this girl of stealing a ring, and had her arrested. The girl protested her innocence, and I saw every employer she had had in the seven years she had lived at service. She had only had three places, and every one declared her honest and faithful in every way. The ring was not found on her, but she was held for trial. I then saw the people in the boarding-house, and finally learned that this ring had been missed and declared lost before this girl had entered the house. On that evidence and her good character she was discharged. I found her service in the family of one of the people who were in the court house at once. She is still there.

Another case is that of a young girl who tried to take her life in Harlem, and, on her promise to never try it again, was discharged. She went out again just as destitute, friendless and homeless as before, and after two or three days more of suffering, tried it again. This time I was in court. I got suspended sentence for her, and sent her to Pelham Shelter for rest and quiet till she could recover herself and be able to work. There she was in safe, tender hands …[104]

Another story of Mrs. Foster’s work was reported by one of her friends to the parishioners of Calvary Church:

So, it happened that one afternoon, several years ago, when [Mrs. Foster] came out of the Tombs Prison, she was at once accosted by a young woman whose general appearance only too plainly indicated her manner of life, and whom Mrs. Foster had never seen before. At the girl’s earnest request, Mrs. Foster accompanied her, without knowing where she was to be taken, to an apartment house up-town, in one of whose rooms a girl of twenty-two lay dying. She died, in fact, an hour and a half after Mrs. Foster’s arrival, but in that time was able to tell the outlines of her sad history, and to express her one great desire of being buried beside the grave of her heart-broken mother, in the cemetery of a small country town at some distance. When her health had failed, the three or four girls, her companions, did all in their power to give ease and comfort to her last days, and when she and they all knew that she was dying, they begged her to see some clergyman. She, at first, persistently refused, but said, finally, seeing their distress, and feeling her own terrible loneliness, “If you could find Mrs. Foster, I would see her.” So, as Mrs. Foster… can always be found by those who need her, this poor betrayed, forsaken, dying girl was able to have a little comfort, falling asleep with her hand tight clasped in that of the only true friend she knew.[105]

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