Written on November 6th 2015
Whenever I'm having a bad day, I do my best to brush it off and remember how good my life is, and how fortunate I am. On days that bring a little extra stress, or a bit more sadness, I follow what some would consider an "odd" routine. I take a walk down to Woodlawn Cemetery.
Of the hundreds of people buried there, there is one person I visit more often than most, and this person and I are not related what so ever. This person is located in what I have affectionately coined "the poor section" of the cemetery. In this section, many people (or their families) could not afford extravagent burials, ceremonies, or tombstones. It is very bare, and the tombstones that were placed are more often than not, quite small. Every time I visit Woodlawn Cemetery, I make sure to wander through this section.
I had a brief conversation with someone about the lady I am writing about. When I mentioned that I would love to write about this House of Refuge inmate, I was asked, "Well, did she do anything severely memorable or important for our community?" To which I responded with, "For our community? No." Which lead to to a second question, "Then why is she important or worth writing about?" In that moment, I smiled. This confused my friend. I then replied, "And that is the problem."
The term "inmate" throws people off, because they assume I'm talking about a criminal. In the early 1900s, the term "inmate" was used to describe quite a few different circumstances that people could be in. Anyone staying in a hospital, is an inmate to the hospital. If you were to spend a few days at a friends place, you would be considered an inmate to your friends home. That's what people at Cornwall's House of Refuge were. They were not criminals, they were human beings that needed somewhere to live because of lifes changing circumstances. How should they be thought of? As people inhabiting a building, and absolutely nothing less than that. They were no less than anyone else because they needed a little bit of help to get by. I can't go back in time to change the stigma attached to these people, but I can do my best to get rid of it in the present.
I chose to write about Clarissa Prosser, because she, like the other 905 House of Refuge inmates, have become an important part of my life. I chose to write about Clarissa because she is my "listening ear" on bad days. Most importantly, I chose to write about Clarissa because she was a person, and I believe everyone's story (even inhabitants of a House of Refuge, a poor house, or an asylum) is worth remembering.
Clarissa Prosser was born on March 3, 1856 to proud parents Eliza Ann and Henry Calvin Prosser. She had five siblings: An older brother named William, two older sisters named Colisette and Ann, and two younger brothers named Jacob and Stinsin.
1871 Census Record listing the family
Clarissa Prosser in the 1911 Census Record
Clarissa Prosser in the 1921 Census Record
The last year and nine months of Clarissa's life were spent in Cornwall's House of Refuge. Clarissa was received by the House of Refuge staff on April 29, 1935, because she was unable to care for herself. Since she had no children of her own (who would normally look after their elderly parents), she was sent to Cornwall's House of Refuge.
Clarissa died in the facility on January 27, 1937 at seventy-seven years old from a cerebral hemorrhage. Her nephew, H. Prosser signed her death certificate. Clarissa was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, the day after her death. Fortunatelly for her, she had living relatives to pay for her burial and a small tombstone. Based on her nephew verifying her death, I think it is safe to assume that he made sure she was buried with at least a small commemorative grave marker. Because of that gesture, I was able to find her place of burial seventy-eight years after her death.
Clarissa's Death Certificate: