American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

"The Tombs Angel"

Early in the morning of the 22d of February, 1902, a fire occurred in one of the large hotels of New York. The flames broke out so suddenly, and spread so swiftly, that many of the guests were unable to escape. Among those who perished was a woman whose life for many years had been given to the doing of golden deeds.

Men knew this woman as the Tombs Angel. The name was a title of honor which queens might well covet. It was a strange epithet, but it described in two words the work and character of her to whom it was applied. It was in itself, as one of her friends most aptly said, a patent of nobility.

How had she earned that title?

By her good works.

There is in the city of New York a famous prison known the world over as The Tombs. Massive, gloomy, and strong, it is a place of sorrow and tears and dread forebodings.

Men and women who have been accused of crime are confined there to await their trial by due process of law. The most of them will go out to suffer in the penitentiaries and workhouses the punishment that is due for their wrongdoings. A few may be found innocent of crime and permitted to return to freedom, disgraced, perhaps, for life by the fact of having been confined within prison walls.

Here many of the world's most famous criminals have spent days and months behind the bars. Here also have been confined hundreds of unfortunates, men and women, whom want or evil companionship or momentary weakness has driven into crime. If you have never visited a prison, you cannot imagine the woe, the misery, the hopelessness of such a place.

It was here that Rebecca Salome Foster labored unselfishly and unceasingly for many years, cheering the downhearted, comforting the distressed, and sowing good seeds even in the hearts of the most depraved. Her bright face, her comforting words, her cheerful manner, carried sunshine into the gloomiest cells, gave hope to the despairing, and uplifted the most unfortunate.

Is it any wonder that these poor creatures gave her the noble title of the Tombs Angel?

"For many years," said District Attorney Jerome, "she came and went among us with but a single purpose—

" 'That men might rise on stepping stones

Of their dead selves to higher things!'

"There is a word which is seldom used. It is the word 'holy.' To us who are daily brought into contact with the misfortunes and sins of humanity, it seems almost a lost word. Yet in all that that word means to English-speaking peoples, it seems to me that it could be applied to her. She was, indeed, a 'holy woman.' "

In winter and in summer, on stormy days as well as on fair, Mrs. Foster was always at her post of duty. She served without the hope of reward, and solely for the good that she could do.

Numberless were the hearts which she cheered; numberless were the weary ones whose burdens she lightened; and numberless, too, were the erring men and women whom her sweet influences brought back to paths of virtue and right doing.

Not only was she loved by the prisoners, but she was esteemed and venerated by the keepers of the jail and especially by the judges and officers of the city courts. And many kind-hearted people, hearing of her good works, lent her a helping hand. Every year a certain charitable society placed in her hands several thousand dollars to be expended in her work in such ways as she thought best.

Often the money which she received from others was not enough, and then she drew freely from her own means, never expecting any return. To help a poor outcast to a fresh start in life, to give relief to the innocent family of some convicted criminal, to put in the way of some unfortunate man or woman the means of earning an honest living—to do these and a thousand other services she was always ready.

Many are the stories that are told of her golden deeds. Perhaps none show more clearly her self-sacrificing spirit than the following: —

One day a poor woman, the wretchedest of the wretched, was brought to the prison guilty of a crime to which her weakness and her extreme want had driven her. She was cold, she was staring, she was in tatters and rags.

Here surely was work for a ministering angel.

Mrs. Foster hastened to give her such immediate comfort as she could. She removed the poor wretch's bedraggled dress, and gave her her own warm overskirt, instead.

Was there ever a nobler example of Christian charity?

We are reminded of Sir Philip Sidney on the field of Zutphen and his gift to the dying soldier, "Thy necessity is greater than mine."

And so, untiringly and without a thought of self, the Tombs Angel went on with her work, little thinking what men would say, dreaming nothing of honor or fame, caring only to lighten the burdens of the heavy-laden. Then, suddenly and with but little warning, she was called to pass out through fire into the kingdom prepared for those who love their Lord.

Who would not sorrow for such a woman?

Even the officers whose duty is was to prosecute the prisoners in the Tombs wept when her death was announced. The eyes of the judges were filled with tears. The city courts adjourned for the day in honor of the memory of the Tombs Angel. And on the following Sunday, in more than one church, a well-known parable was read with a meaning that was new and strangely forcible to those who listened:—

"Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat. I was thirsty, and ye gave me bring. I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me. I was sick and ye visited me. I was in prison, and ye came unto me.'

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, 'Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?'

"And the King shall answer and say unto them, 'Verily, I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me?' "