Prison Confidential

The lesbian lovers of the Women’s House of Detention

By Hugh Ryan

Art by Chloe Scheffe

A retro image of a woman in a pearl necklace smiling and leaning over a table

Virginia McManus was many things: a child prodigy, a New York City substitute teacher, an author, a sex worker, a late 1950s tabloid star, and, although she never said it publicly in so many words, a lesbian. Like many queer people who found fame in the twentieth century, McManus mastered the art of gay vague — of communicating more with what you don’t say than with what you do.

I first encountered McManus while doing research for my forthcoming book, The Women’s House of Detention, which tells the queer history of an infamous women’s prison that stood in the heart of Greenwich Village from 1932 to 1974. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA, between 33 and 40 percent of people currently incarcerated in women’s prisons, jails, and youth detention centers identify as “sexual minorities”; in McManus’s time, that percentage was likely higher, given the widespread incarceration of queer women and trans men. During the period the prison existed, simply being out at night without a man was considered suspicious; wearing pants could get a woman arrested or assaulted; and many women’s detention facilities thought that part of their reason for existing in the first place was to inculcate the incarcerated into proper, white femininity — leading to longer and more frequent sentences for those who resisted. 

We’ll never know for certain the actual number of queer people incarcerated, as those kinds of statistics were never kept, and discussions of women’s sexuality — particularly queer women’s — received little to no attention in mainstream media … or much of anywhere else. Even when queer women were discussed, they were rarely the authors of those conversations, which is one of the reasons I was so excited to discover McManus’s writings.

Simply being out at night without a man was considered suspicious; wearing pants could get a woman arrested or assaulted.

McManus touched on the topic of lesbianism in her 1960 memoir, Not for Love. But even there she had to be circumspect, writing carefully about her “roommate” and their apartments together, without ever closely describing their sleeping arrangements or number of bedrooms. But when she was approached by the gossip rag Confidential — with its motto “tells the facts and names the names” — she used the salacious venue as a chance to share accurate, specific, and shockingly progressive ideas about queer women’s sexuality behind bars, in an article entitled “Love Without Men in Women’s Prison.” 

At the time it was published, most people would have laughed at the idea of considering Confidential a trustworthy source. But often, ideas that make us uncomfortable (particularly sexual ones) only get directly addressed in the most disreputable of venues: comedy, gossip, porn, etc. Since these publications are always considered a priori unreliable, the truth can be spoken and disavowed at the same time. In her issue of Confidential, McManus shared the cover with the headline “Car exhausts cause lung cancer!” — a fact that supposedly more reputable venues would continue to debate for another 50 years.

In McManus’s estimation, some 75 percent of the people incarcerated in the House of D were interested in sexual relationships with other women. For many people, those relationships were the sustenance that allowed them to survive incarceration, even if they had never had — or never would have — a relationship with a woman outside of prison. McManus stopped just short of discussing her own sexuality, and was clearly presented as a sex symbol for the magazine’s predominantly male audience. Still, this article is unique in its clear engagement with incarcerated women’s sexuality, from the point of view a formerly incarcerated lesbian.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about research in my career as a queer historian, it’s this: if you want to tell stories that haven’t been heard, you have to look to sources that have been disregarded.

A retro image of a woman bent over a typewriter

From “Love Without Men in Women’s Prison,” Confidential, September, 1959.

A house of detention is not a home. During the 75 days I spent in the New York City Women’s House of Detention as a convicted call-girl, I found no similarity. 

I discovered a life I’d only read about in college textbooks — but one that went beyond the life so luridly described in many best sellers. 

The prison was a breeding ground of homosexuality for the uninitiated; a Utopia for lesbians. 

Of the more than 600 inmates crammed into 12 floors of cells originally designed for 300 inmates, about 50 per cent were lesbians, and 40 to 45 percent of the rest accepted homosexuality at least during their imprisonment. The women who didn’t weren’t considered “hep.” Nor were they pursued by the lesbians. There was no need. There were plenty of willing ones. 

The uninitiated, mostly first-timers, could be taught. 

There was the 50-year-old woman, separated from her husband for the first time — starved for his love and affection and, especially, comfort — who was seduced by a lesbian for the first time. 

I saw a teenage girl, no more than 17, get her baptism of homosexuality. 

… On her way to the Westfield Reformatory for Girls, J. had been put on our floor as “punishment.” She had been caught leading several other “dittybops” — teenage delinquents — in some mischief on the floor where all the youngsters were housed together. So, they moved her. 

I learned that J., an orphan, had been arrested for promiscuity. She had been caught living with an older man, a truck driver who, she claimed, was going to marry her as soon as she reached the legal age. 

When she first came to our floor, the women ignored her. Discussions of sex would suddenly cease if J. entered the group. No one, particularly the jailhouse daddies, was interested in risking an affair with a silly teenager, particularly with one whose chief crime was that she liked men too much. 

“Girls in trouble, especially, need the reassuring warmth and tenderness of another person’s body.”

But J. wasn’t to be denied. She picked out one of the favorite “bull dikes” on the floor and began passing her notes. In jailhouse vernacular, the notes were called “kites” because of the way they were folded. Although these notes are considered contraband, they were usually passed around. I saw one J. had written to a bull dike. 

“You remind me,” she wrote, “of the man I am going to marry.” 

“Won’t you come and put your arms about me? Won’t you kiss me?” 

What J. actually wanted was love and fondling from her man. But, like so many girls when they are faced with long periods of separation from their men, she was ready to settle for the nearest substitute. After several more notes, all in the same vein, the bull dike gave J. what she was asking for. The transformation in J. was remarkable. From a teenager whose chief interest had been men, she became a convert to homosexuality. With characteristic childish insecurity, she decided that homosexuality was her way of life. 

Shortly after this first experience, she was taken away to Westfield, delighted, she made it plain, with the prospects that lay before her in a reformatory full of young girls. Life in the House of Detention, was not, however, all a bowl of sex, although that was the chief diversion. 

Because of the overcrowding, two women were assigned to live and sleep in each cell, a system which lends itself to nocturnal homosexuality. But surprisingly, this was not often the case.

Most of the homosexuality in the House of Detention occurs during the period after dinner and before lights out. All the calls are unlocked and the girls can mingle, dance, play poker and go to bed with each other. Because of the layout of the floors, in the shape of an H, it is not difficult to indulge in this activity with little fear of being caught.

The cells are located in the four legs of the H, and guard’s desk is situated in the cross corridor. From this location the women guards couldn’t even look into the prison corridors, much less the cells. Their infrequent person inspections of the cell corridors were always accompanied by the noisy clanging of their key rings.

“They always let you know they’ve coming,” I remarked to a veteran prisoner one day.

“Honey,” the prisoner, a bull dike, told me, “they don’t want to catch us. They’d be too embarrassed. Besides, what good would it do?”

It was so unlike the stories told about men’s prison, such as Riker’s Island in the city, for instance. There, if two men are caught engaging in a homosexual act, the District Attorney is likely to be notified. The men may be given an additional charge to face, sodomy. 

On the rare occasion when women are caught in the House of Detention, they are punished with solitary confinement for three days which is about the limit of any woman’s endurance. It is not the solitary confinement of a man’s prison, the kind you recall from the movies. 

A retro image of a woman dipping her toe

In the House of Detention, it means being locked in your cell. 

Conversation is not restricted; with a stretch of your arms you can still play poker with the girls; you don’t have to work. 

But you are denied actual physical contact with other human beings; not allowed to sit alongside another girl without a wire mesh screen between you. There’s no brushing together at meal times, or walking hand in hand, or sitting arm in arm at the movies or before a television set. 

Oddly, while these practices would be frowned upon outside the red brick walls of the House of Detention, they are endorsed inside it. 

“You are denied actual physical contact with other human beings; not allowed to sit alongside another girl without a wire mesh screen between you.”

Inmates rarely watch television or go to the movies without a partner. And the guards condone this innocent physical contact because they realize it is as vital to the woman in prison as a man’s shoulder is to a woman outside in periods of emotional strain. 

Perhaps that explains why dancing is the most popular form of recreation in the House of Detention. Girls in trouble, especially, need the reassuring warmth and tenderness of another person’s body. 

Perhaps a better understanding of how the inmates spent a typical day might make this clearer. I’ll detail my day. 

Breakfast was at 7 a.m. Although we didn’t have to get up for it if we didn’t want to, it would be the only food served until noon so most of the girls arose on time. Besides, I had to show up for work about 8:30 a.m. anyway. 

There was little problem of what to wear, although underwear was optional. I wore it. 

My job was to mop and scrub a few square feet of floor near the prison library. (It is true, as some newspapers reported, that a prison official decided that because of my educational background I should be near the library!) 

The job didn’t take me more than an hour daily. Then I was free to join the girls on the roof if it was a nice day, or in one of the recreation rooms. The chief daytime activity was playing poker for cigarettes. 

… After lunch we were given a few hours more of recreation, then locked in cells until dinner time. I spent this time reading. When dinner was over, we were permitted the run of the floor. This was the time, when girls were able to hop from cell to cell, when sexual urges were gratified. Usually some of us would put a blanket down at the end of the corridor nearest the guard’s station and sit there while a couple of girls went to a cell at the end of the corridor.

A guard trying to get down the corridor would have to step over half a dozen girls to do so. If she insisted anyway, I’d holler back: “Getting those cigarettes Mary?” And by the time the guard reached the end of the corridor, Mary, and whomever she was with, would be on their way back with the cigarettes. 

Although the girls were well aware when I was placed on their floor that I was Virginia McManus, call-girl, they didn’t accept me in the sorority immediately. All newcomers are treated warily.

I recall the first time any of them spoke to me. 

In the two weeks I’d spent in a lower floor cell with no duties, just waiting for my sentence, I’d taken up knitting. By the time I was taken to the 10th floor and put in Cell 32, I had knitted a monstrosity about a foot wide and 10 feet long. It was mottled gray from being dragged along the floor whenever I changed my seat.

I went to the recreation room, knitting in hand, on my first day with the girls. I didn’t talk to them and they didn’t talk to me. 

I was knitting away, furiously, when one of the girls approached. 

“What,” she asked, are “are you knitting?” 

“I’m not knitting anything,” I answered truthfully, because actually all I was doing was passing time with a needle flitting between my fingers. Stretching the project to its ultimate and dirty length, I added, “I’m just knitting.” 

Everyone laughed, and the ice was broken. My education began. 

It wasn’t long before I started receiving “kites,” little love notes tightly folded so that they could be hidden in the crook of a finger. 

Anyone caught with a “kite” or writing one could lose what we called “good days.” All inmates got five days a month taken off their sentences if they were good. Although I was sentenced to serve 90 days, I was released after 75 because I was “good.” 

Except for the basic language, and proposition, contained in the “kites” they were little different from the notes passed in early school days in the period of puppy love. The writing was purple, but the intention was the same.

“Virginia,” one to me began. “As soon as you were put on this floor, I knew we were meant for each other. At lunch today, I couldn’t think of the food because you were so near. I know, the way you looked at me, that you feel the same.”

“Let me make you happy here.”

There followed an invitation to attend the movies together Saturday night. That was the night, I later learned, that was “shack-up night.” 

A retro image of a woman lighting a cigarette with a matchbook

Why “shack-up night?” 

Well, mostly because it was the one time in prison that girls were herded together in a darkened atmosphere. When the lights went out for the movie, girls who had pre-arranged dates would sneak back to vacant cells to make love while the few guards on hand were preoccupied with a Hollywood version of sex on a heterosexual basis.

At first I was amazed that the guards didn’t see what was going on. But I came to understand that the guards didn’t want to see. 

In a laissez-faire attitude compounded of sympathy, condonation and fear of embarrassment, they didn’t interfere. Of course, there was no such thing as outright endorsement of homosexuality, but on the other hand there was no crusade against it either.

As Mrs. Kross was quoted in the New York Post, “Can we put a guard in front of each cell?” 

Obviously not. And, another important reason why more rigid safeguards aren’t taken is because sex actually keeps the lid on the House of Detention. Without it I’m sure there would be many more reports of riots and rebellion among the inmates. Women need an emotional outlet, perhaps more than men, and because of the prison system the only outlet is sex, homosexual sex. 

Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator. His first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, won a 2020 New York City Book Award, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice in 2019, and was a finalist for the Randy Shilts and Lambda Literary Awards. He was honored with the 2020 Allan Berube Prize from the American Historical Association. In 2019–2021, he worked on the “Hidden Voices: LGBTQ+ Stories in U.S. History” curricular materials for the NYC Department of Education.