Anna M. Petersen, reformatory superintendent, educator, eugenicist
by Alice W. Campbell, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries
Anna M. Petersen served as superintendent of the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls (Bon Air, VA) from 1914 – 1920. Beginning in October 1916, Petersen took part in organizational meetings that would result in the founding of the Richmond School of Social Economy, a training school for social workers. From 1917 -1919 she was a lecturer in eugenics at the newly established school, renamed the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health in 1918. During those two years, the Virginia Home and Industrial School provided social work students the opportunity for field work, as Petersen taught courses in “Heredity and Eugenics” and “Feeblemindedness and Delinquency” (Richmond School of Social Economy Announcement, 14). Her expertise supported the Richmond School of Social Economy’s curriculum specialization in Probation Work with the Juvenile Court.
Anna Petersen had extensive training in social work and eugenics. She received her A. B. from Western Reserve University, and in 1914, a certificate in eugenics from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Additionally, she had participated as a research fellow in the Psychological Laboratory of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, and had worked with Martha Falconer as an Assistant Psychologist at Sleighton Farms, Training School for Delinquents, in Darlington, Pennsylvania. (Annual Reports).
Though now discredited, at this time eugenics was still considered a promising “new science.” The February 1913 Richmond Times-Dispatch described eugenics as “the much-in-vogue science of race betterment.” Petersen’s leadership at the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, later known as Kilbourne Farm, was praised in the May 1916 Eugenical News, which reported, “We are in receipt of her ‘First Annual Report’ which displays an intelligence, an enthusiasm, and a breadth of vision that promises well for her success.” That same year, local residents were invited to Kilbourne Farm to celebrate May Day. The girls sang, danced and “rendered a tabloid version of Midsummer Night’s Dream with enthusiasm all lovers of the beautiful show.” The delighted and astonished visitors wondered if the farm was, perhaps, a boarding school; however, despite their holiday impressions, Kilbourne Farm remained a reformatory to which delinquent girls were sentenced by the Virginia courts.
In addition to her role as superintendent, Anna Petersen was professionally active, speaking on “The Menace of Feeblemindedness in Institutions” at the Children’s Conference, Richmond, VA, June 12, 1916. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 13,1916,1). In 1919, Petersen served as a delegate from Richmond to the Forty-sixth Annual National Conference of Social Work, from June 1 – 8, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1920, she served on the Executive Committee of the Juvenile Reformatory Section of the American Prison Congress.
As a eugenicist, Petersen supported efforts to pass a sterilization law in Virginia. On March 20, 1916 she commented in a letter to John R. Haynes on her hope that passage of such a law would come soon. Eight years later, the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924 was passed in the same year as the state’s Racial Integrity Act.
After leaving the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls in 1920, Petersen become superintendent of the State Farm for Women, Niantic, CT. This institution, founded in 1918, housed both women and infants on a farm that was described by the Norwich Bulletin as “not accessible.” A report submitted to the Governor of Connecticut in January 1923 indicated that the farm was at capacity and had refused further admissions for the seven months prior. A new building was expected to provide only temporary relief. Additionally, the farm’s remote location made it difficult to retain teachers. (Norwich Bulletin, 1922 January)
While in Connecticut, Petersen published “What the Community Expects of a State Reformatory” in the Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the National Prison Association of the United States, 1922. In this paper, Petersen reflected on the relationship between offenders, and the community that they arise from, but cannot function within.
The public usually expects more than the institution can accomplish. We have long since had proof that many offenders who are sent to state institutions have mental and moral defects that are irremedial or irreformable because of lack of proper facilities for transferring them to institutions such as the custodial institution for feebleminded, hospitals for insane, farm colonies for the habitual, incurable criminal, etc. The state reformatory has an apparently high percentage of failures laid at its door.
Institutions cannot make perfect what God has made imperfect—they can offer the best there is known along the lines of training for delinquents and the results will have to be evaluated in terms of other values….
In the past the public has demanded walls, bars, loaded weapons, savage modes of punishment in order to protect itself against the unsocial being called the criminal who is in reality a human being and is an outgrowth of the communities’ weaknesses. Some members of the public still feel that way, but the enlightened public is beginning to recognize that humane treatment and educational advantages come nearer to alleviating delinquency than brutality. More thorough understanding of the problem is necessary, and the millennium will be glimpsed in the distance when the public and the institution come to the realization that the constituents of one are no different from the other, that we are all made of the same clay.… given a chance to do its work without the interference of partisan politics; a board of managers who believe in reform and know the principles of penology; a staff of able, enthusiastic workers; the proper equipment and funds to maintain a progressive institution together with the cooperation of the community in rehabilitating its own unadjusted members, the public may expect a fair return on the investment it is making for the training of its delinquent members (Proceedings, 80-82).
Petersen resigned her position at the State Farm for Women in the spring of 1923 (New Britain Daily Herald, 1924, February 9). No further record of her activities has been found.
This work may also be viewed through HathiTrust.org
This work may also be viewed through HathiTrust.org
For further reading:
(1913, February 5). Juvenile court tried 410 cases…Girl problem grows. Regarded by Juvenile Protective Society as its most difficult task.”Richmond Times-Dispatch, p.7.
(1913, February 20). Eugenics topic of next lecture. Fourth University extension lecture at John Marshall High School to-morrow night. Richmond Times-Dispatch, p. 14.
(1916 June). Kilbourne Farm. Eugenical News (1)6, 42.
(1922 January 4). State Farm for Women is filled to capacity. Norwich Bulletin, p. 1.
(1924 February 9). Liquor fines assessed by judge total $2,500. New Britain Daily Herald, p.17.
Richmond School of Social Economy, First Annual Announcement, 1917-1918. Bulletin No. 1, Social Welfare History Image Portal
Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, Chesterfield Co. Annual report. V.1-5 (1914-1919). HathiTrust.org
Bush, E. N. (2020) Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, Bon Air, Virginia, Social Welfare History Project
Holloway, P. (2006). Sexuality, politics, and social control in Virginia, 1920-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Petersen, A. M. (1922). The Administrative problems of a women’s reformatory. Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 13(3), 438-445. doi:10.2307/1133934
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.