Complicated responsibilities

Cover for the 1895 Treasurer’s Report: Scituate, Rhode Island (Providence: J. R. Day Printer, 1895).

Seven hundred thirty-eight pounds of pork, 152 bushels of corn, 65 heads of cabbage, 3 tons of oats, and 60 gallons of cider – and, no, this isn’t a farmer’s market. These items represent just a sampling of the produce sold in 1895 by the town asylum of Scituate, Rhode Island. The whole summary of the institution’s annual revenue and expenses may be found at the North Scituate Public Library’s local history room.

I came across these documents while researching a family living in Scituate. The 1870 federal census showed a traditional family unit living alongside what appeared to be ten strangers. These people had some of cruel designations which nineteenth-century America often reserved for the unfortunate: pauper, insane, deaf, imbecile. The head of household, George W. Smith, described himself as the manager of the town asylum. My immediate interpretation was that George W. Smith and his family were running an asylum out of their home and living with the patients.

That seemed unbelievable to me. But research showed that Smith’s living circumstances were part of a common nineteenth- and twentieth-century practice. The Scituate Asylum was a poor farm, and the Smith family operated it in the year 1870.

From the 1895 Treasurer’s Report.

Poor farms in America have their roots in England. The idea behind the poor farm was that the town’s homeless, mentally ill, and elderly populations could have a place to live and work when no one else remained to take care of them. They were early institutions designed to provide social services to the needy. The poor farm was illustrative of popular nineteenth-century thinking which derided poverty and mental illness as moral failures that could be corrected through hard work. In America, these institutions were run on the county or town level and could be incorporated with county penal systems. It is no surprise that a modern look at these institutions reveals abusive relationships and a failure to provide social services.

I return to the Scituate Asylum. The documents I have seen reveal a difficult life inside. Many of the expenses reported in 1851 and 1895 accounted for burials, headstones, hospital visits, and medications. The most common expenses, however, appear to be for deliveries to and from the asylum. Reading these reports gives you the sense that this poor farm was a business concerned with sending its goods to market and taking in the income.

Table showing the state and number of residents at the Scituate Asylum in 1851. Taken from Report on the Poor and Insane in Rhode Island 1851 (Providence: Joseph Knowles, State Printer, 1851).

The 1851 report stresses that the asylum did provide social services apart from the business side. The author, Benedict Lapham, who conducted a statewide report on the state of Rhode Island’s asylums that year, stressed that the residents were kindly and humanely treated and offers some examples to convince his readers that the asylum was serving its purpose. He discusses how the children of the poor farm were allowed to attend the nearby school and that residents were allowed to worship however they liked. Lapham undercuts this point, in my view, by immediately assessing the profitability of the farm. Since the farm opened in 1844 the cost of aiding the town poor was $1,700.00. After the farm was purchased that price dropped to $400.00.

A note I found from an unknown individual described to me as a town historian illustrates the origin story of the farm very well:

Until the year 1818 the poor of the town had been kept all together, by one person, and were assigned annually at town meetings to the lowest bidder. The question of purchasing a farm for the poor first came up in 1836. Several committee reports were rejected, but on September 25, 1844, a committee agreed to buy 100 acres from Josiah Whitaker.

A superintendent was appointed to keep the poor and to take charge of the farm. The asylum continued to exist on the George Washington Highway in Clayville until the buildings were finally torn down in 1956.

The Social Security Act of 1935 started the slow decline of the poor farm. With the federal government relieving county and town officials of this burden, the practice of poor farms died off. My own research into the Scituate Asylum has shown that managers and town officials managed multiple responsibilities. Resident care, crop production, and sales were all vital components of operating a poor farm. The result of all this responsibility was that managers were forced to juggle each one and excelled in none of them.

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A special thank you to the North Scituate Public Library, Providence Public Library, and Rhode Island Historical Society for providing me with documents on the Scituate Asylum.

Raymond Addison

About Raymond Addison

Raymond earned his BA in History from Stonehill College. During his time there he worked as an archivist's aide. He took roles in digitizing record collections and in preserving and restoring 19th century business ledgers. Prior to working with NEHGS, he worked with the Cambridge Public Library as a circulation librarian. He began studying his own genealogy as a hobby and quickly started showing library users how they could explore the field for themselves. In addition to his genealogical interests, Raymond enjoys being active in his free time and is an avid tennis player.

8 thoughts on “Complicated responsibilities

  1. Raymond,
    A very insightful article on how towns were responsible for their poor and the assumption that poverty was purely a moral weakness, not a misfortune. BTW RI Genealogical society did some excellent research on towns “Warning out” indigent itinerants to avoid having to provide for them.
    My great great grandfather, Frederick Warner Perry, was the Warden (and his wife Mary, the Matron) of RI State Asylum for the Criminally insane (note the title) circa 1870’s. He was large man, 6-2″, who served as an orderly at Butler Hospital in the 1850’s then served as police Sergeant on Benefit Street until a beating from thugs left him with a limp in 1866.

    HIs diaries of asylum residents and their ills are most revealing. Please contact me if NEHGS would wish me to donate them.

    DAn H

  2. Another resource, this one in Connecticut: “The Road to the Poorhouse, The Windham Town Farm and the Connecticut Almshouse System” by Michael Westerfield.

  3. At the risk of seeming anachronistic, “poor farms” – were often a source of county or community pride. They weren’t always necessarily a bad thing. They provided a closed system whereby communities could “take care of themselves” and where locals who wanted to work – and had no other means of support could do just that – work. They were often a place of security for the cognitively or physically challenged when no other family members remained to provide assistance. And yes, some were profitable – and self-sustaining – again not necessarily a bad thing. Great post Raymond – well thought out and thought provoking!

  4. Honestly farm life sounds a lot better than life in tents on the streets of Seattle, where I live. The “poor farm” model sounds like it gave people an honest living and a respectful burial too.

  5. My late mother’s collection of materials for a planned book on “These New Englanders” includes a somewhat cryptic letter, presumably from an unnamed relative (?Lavinus Warner?), complaining about his treatment in an unnamed institution, probably for the insane or socially marginal (which seems to have been his condition), probably somewhere in New England in the middle 19th century (1849). For a preliminary treatment of this material, google
    RAK1849.

    Robert (Bob) A. Kraft, Emeritus Prof., UPenn

  6. My father was the first board certified psychiatrist in the State of Oklahoma and as such on staff of Central State Hospital, where we lived during several years of my childhood. The patients, often abandoned by their families, frequently made new ‘families” with other patients. We children all attended the Saturday movie with them, all of us up in the balcony. I assume these were trustees, but I never heard of a problem. There was a dairy on the grounds, and patients by good behavior could earn the privilege of working there, and as many were farm men especially, it was an honor and a goal. It wasn’t all good, of course, but for the most part these people were safe, dry, fed, medicated and had some treatment. Towns have struggled since the beginning of time about how to care for their ill: recall the leper colonies. It’s still a dilemma: safety or freedom. Care of the individual or the community. How to do both well and on a budget. It’s always been very hard and it still is.

  7. My father was Overseer of the Poor for the town of Highgate, Vermont after WWII. The Sheldon Poor Farm was owned by the towns of Fairfield, Highgate, Sheldon, St. Albans, and Swanton. When we we children, Dad would take Sunday afternoon drives with the family to the farm to see the residents and Francis and Florence Nolan who ran the Farm for 25 years.. Dad was a friendly and caring Oveseer. The residents greeted him with obvious affection. The state welfare system, begun in the 1960’s brought about the demise of the institution.

    In doing family genealogy research, I discovered that I had a relative who lived at the farm in the late 1800’s. His father, after a second enlistment, had died from wounds during the Civil War and his mother, one of my Great aunts, died when he was 16 years old. He was buried in the Sheldon Poor Farm cemetery with over 300 other residents who died at the Farm. The cemetery is still maintained.

    The large dwelling no longer exists. The property was purchased by a Canadian gentleman who reportedly was blind. He converted the property into a nudist camp.

  8. A few years ago I came across the following book and found it very readable and absolutely fascinating.

    Heli Meltsner’s book The Poorhouses of Massachusetts: A Cultural and Architectural History is wonderfully researched and written book. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the treatment of the poor in Massachusetts as provided by the local community and state government.

    I have 2xgreat grand parents who ran the Poor Farm in Bath, New York, for several years. Your article leaves me wanting to contact the Bath Library and see if they have any Poor Farm reports in their town archives.

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