A Home for America’s Bad Boys

Including one wayward youth named Charles Manson.

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am fascinated by old maps. Especially maps of our neighborhoods here in the northeast part of the city. I like to see how the region developed over time, and often get ideas for the blog by noticing something intriguing on one of them. That’s the case with this post. Any number of maps from the 1870s onward show “The United States Reform School Farm,” or “The National Training School for Boys” at the site of the present-day Fort Lincoln neighborhood at the intersection of Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue NE. Curiosity aroused, I started doing some research into it.

1891 Hopkins map showing the Reform School. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

In the early days of this nation, there was no separation between juvenile and adult criminals, a situation loaded with obvious problems. Social reformers soon took up the task and in 1825, the country’s first House of Refuge for lawbreaking children opened in New York City. The idea quickly spread. Houses of Refuge were usually large institutional buildings located in urban areas, and designed primarily to simply house delinquent and often poor children as well. Work was always part of the regimen, but by the second half of the 19th century, education and training began to be emphasized, as seen in this illustration from 1868:

Illustration from Harpers Weekly, May 23, 1868. Courtesy HathiTrust. Click to enlarge

Washington was a little slow to get started with juvenile justice reform, largely due to a complacent national government that controlled the District’s pursestrings. It wasn’t until 1862 that the Guardian Society began raising funds through subscription for a house of refuge. In 1865 the society was given an old army hospital building and permission to move it to a patch of government land near today’s Dalecarlia Reservoir on the far western border of the District. Finding sufficient funding was difficult and stretched the Guardian Society’s capabilities. In 1866 Congress finally passed a bill to establish a “House of Correction for the District of Columbia” and took control of it. The first few boys were assigned there in 1870. Within two years, deeming the soggy western location unhealthy and the buildings uninhabitable, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to purchase a new site. He chose a 150-acre tract where the Civil War Fort Lincoln had been located, with the option to buy 100 adjacent acres. It was on high ground with clear views and fresh breezes.

The interior of Fort Lincoln in 1865. A few houses on the outskirts of Bladensburg can be seen in the distance. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

It was a historic hill. Though it saw no major action during the Civil War, it did during the War of 1812: The Battle of Bladensburg was fought on these slopes against the invading British. It was an embarrassing defeat, with most of the American militia scattering in a rout. But at the top of the hill Commodore Joshua Barney’s sailors and marines fought with tenacity, holding the redcoats off for hours until they too were forced to retreat. The British went on to burn the Capitol and the White House. Fort Lincoln was built on the spot Barney had defended.

When the House of Correction moved to the Fort Lincoln site, they quickly began construction. First came a barn that would temporarily house the boys, then they contracted with Edward Clark, Architect of the Capitol, to build a grand main building that would sit at the apex of the hill.  

The main building of the Reform School of the District of Columbia. Mathew Brady photo, probably taken in the late 1870s. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

In 1876, the name was changed from the House of Correction to The Reform School of the District of Columbia, making it sound a little less penal. Throughout the next decades the school grew steadily as the nation’s system of juvenile justice evolved. The dormitories were called cottages and each held sixty or so boys. Author Paul Keve, in his book Prisons and the American Conscience, describes the living quarters there.

In accord with the practice of the times, the buildings were designed to discourage escapes; the dressing area, with showers and closets, was on the first level, while the sleeping area was an enormous dormitory on the third level. Its windows were high above the ground and all clothing was locked up two floors below. Each dormitory had a raised balcony on one side where a staff member sat all night to oversee the sleepers and prevent any escape attempts or other mischief.

By the end of the century, the average daily population of the school was 219. Two-thirds of those were from the District, but the others had been sent from federal courts around the country. DC’s Reform School had always been a hybrid, housing both District delinquents, and non-District boys convicted of breaking federal laws. Early in the country’s history, federal crimes such as counterfeiting, treason, or postal violations were almost exclusively committed by adults. By the dawn of the 20th century, new crimes were changing that. Driving a stolen car across state lines was a federal offense, as was making moonshine; both pursuits in which boys readily engaged. In 1908, Congress changed the name for a final time to the National Training School for Boys, which better signified its growing role housing federal delinquents. 

Military discipline was a major part of the regimen at the National Training School for Boys. 1910 photo from Willard R. Ross Postcard Collection at the DC Public Library.    Click to enlarge.

It was not an easy life for the boys. Daily work routines were often exhausting, and discipline could be harsh. The NTSB housed both African American and white youths, but they were segregated. Corporal punishment was the norm, though counseling and group therapy became more prevalent by the mid-20th century. There were also reports of sexual abuse, though it did not seem as widespread at the well-regulated NTSB as in many state institutions across the country.

The original main building burned down in 1905. The boys helped extinguish the blaze, and none tried to escape during the hubbub, according to the Evening Star. A new administration building was erected and remained for another sixty years. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

By mid-century, the reform school was an established part of District life. There was an occasional escape, but none that threatened nearby neighborhoods. Still, some residents were wary of the types of kids being brought into the area. One boy, assigned to the NTSB in 1951, had a checkered past. He had been in a number of reformatories from the age of 12. After escaping from the Indiana Boys School in Plainfield, he stole a car, crossed state lines, and robbed a number of gas stations before he was caught. His name was Charles Manson, and he was 16 years old. 

An angelic looking Charles Manson at age 14, when he was sent to Father Flanagan’s Boys Town after convincing authorities he was Catholic. He escaped after four days there. He was sent to the National Training School for Boys in Washington two years later, after stealing a car and crossing state lines.

Upon his arrival at the National Training School, Manson was tested and judged illiterate, with an IQ of 109. After a month, one of his caseworkers wrote: 

This boy tries to give the impression that he is trying hard to adjust although he actually is not putting forth any effort in this respect…I feel in time he will try to be a [big] wheel in the cottage.

Actually, Manson was on his best behavior while at the NTSB, because he desperately wanted to be transferred to the Natural Bridge Honor Camp in Virginia, a minimum-security facility. His skills at manipulating people were already in evidence, as he got the transfer he wanted. Shortly after arriving at Natural Bridge, a parole hearing was set for early 1952. But Manson couldn’t hold it together, sexually attacking another boy while holding a razor blade to his throat. Instead of parole, he was sent to the Federal Reformatory in Petersburg, and from there to a maximum-security facility in Chillicothe, Ohio. Finally, in April of 1954, Manson was released at age 19. His seven years in six different reform schools did not rehabilitate him. Instead, he became one of the most notorious criminals in American history. Manson died in prison on November 19, 2017 at the age of 83.

The cottages of the National Training School for Boys, seen from South Dakota Avenue in 1949. Historical Society of Washington.

The National Training School For Boys was nearing the end of its days as well. After nearly a century at the Fort Lincoln site, the school was closed in 1968 and moved to West Virginia, where it is still in operation. There were many different ideas for what to do with the Fort Lincoln property. One man who had his eye on it was President Lyndon Johnson. He thought it would make an ideal site for an experiment he had in mind to illustrate what he meant by “The Great Society.” But that’s another story.



“The Proposed Reform School For Boys,” Evening Star, May 19, 1866.

“District Matters,” Evening Star, December 7, 1872.

Shannon, J. Harry. “With The Rambler.” Sunday Star, June 4, 1916.

Proctor, John Clagett . “National Training School Has Created Loyal Spirit.” Sunday Star, March 3, 1935.

Miller, Hope Ridings. “National Training School for Boys Far Cry From Punitive Pen of Yore.” Washington Post, April 4, 1937.

Keve, Paul W. Prisons and the American Conscience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Guinn, Jeff. Manson. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2013.

Juvenile Justice History,” Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s