1857 Legislative Investigation into Poorhouse Conditions

RENSSELAER COUNTY POOR HOUSE 

                              

This is situated a short distance south-easterly from the city of Troy, and consists of a building 50 feet by 200, built of brick, two stories high.  A farm of 152 acres is connected with the house, upon which the male paupers are employed, so far as they are able, and which yields a revenue of $2,000 a year. 

The house affords twenty-one large and fifteen small rooms for the use of paupers, which are heated by stoves, but entirely destitute of any means for ventilation.  There is a small bathing establishment which, from appearance, seemed to have gone into disrepute.  One hundred and thirty-three inmates were found in the house, sixty-seven males and sixty-six females, seven-eighths of whom are foreign and one-eighth native born, including fifty children under sixteen years of age. 

The paupers in this county are let by contract.  The contractor, Justin E. Gregory, who is also county superintendent, enjoys the free use of the county buildings and farm, and in addition thereto receives one dollar a week for each inmate, whether old or young, together with such services as they may be able to render on the farm or in the house. 

Mr. Maxon, the present keeper, placed there by the contractor, and who entered upon his duties within the present year, stated to your committee that when he took charge of the establishment he found three lunatic women in cells, who, he was informed, had been confined six months without having been let out.  He further stated that, during the cold season, while thus confined, lying upon straw as their only bed, saturated with fluids, the litter of straw froze upon their limbs, and was removed only by thawing it off.  As a result of this inhuman neglect two of them had been rendered cripples for life.  He described the cells in which they were confined as being in a loathsome condition, and furnishing abundant evidence of the multiplied discomforts to which the unhappy inmates must, from the nature of the case, have been subjected.  These cells are four and a half feet wide, seven feet deep and seven feet high, without ventilation; with a small hold cut in the top of the door to admit air and light,--to this should be added a poor quality and a small quantity of food.  Mr. Maxon stated further, that when he entered upon the discharge of his duties he found a large quantity of provisions unfit for use, such that he refused to feed it to the paupers; and that, accordingly, he threw away three or four loads of spoiled meat and fish--the same in kind as the paupers had been fed upon for seven months previous.  He further stated, that during the period the house was kept by a son of the contractor, who supplied the house with provisions, and that during his own time of service, provisions had been sent to him for the use of the paupers, so utterly unfit and unwholesome that he had felt obliged to refuse them, and has sent them back. 

A pauper by the name of Denis was called upon by Mr. Maxon the present keeper, who was instructed to answer such questions as might be propounded by the committee.  Who in reply to questions put by the committee, stated:  That the paupers had suffered very much from cold during the winter, owing to a deficiency in the supply of fuel, and for lack of clothing.  They had suffered also for want of a sufficient supply of food and complained that it had not only been scanty in amount but unwholesome in quality, consisting of dry coarse brown bread and beef shanks, boiled and cold.  The truth of which the committee could not doubt, if the fare then used, was an improvement upon what it had been before.  For the bread and the meat exhibited to the committee as the fare of the paupers, answered Denis' description so accurately that the committee, if they had not been informed to the contrary, would have supposed the paupers were being kept on the old bill of fare.  It is only just to add that potatoes are said to be added to the present fare twice a day.  In further confirmation of the above statements your committee saw at the Marshall Infirmary, a man who was brought from this poor house last winter, concerning whom the physician of the infirmary said, that on his reception "he was so reduced for want of food that it was some time before he was able to move about."  The man himself stated that he could not eat the food at the poor house it was so offensive.  The committee received information from other sources, all tending to establish the facts above set forth in relation to the diet of the paupers and in relation to the treatment of them. 

It is claimed that there is a complete separation of the sexes--from twenty to twenty-five are sometimes placed in a room or ward.  The average number of inmates is 190. 

A school is maintained during the year, and is under the direction of the board of education.  Religious services are performed every Sabbath, and a Sabbath school is maintained, and the house is supplied with Bibles.  The children, upon reaching a suitable age, are bound out by the superintendent.  A physician is employed by the year.  From April to 1st September there had been eight deaths.  The small pox prevailed during the last winter, and the measles were prevailing at the time of the committees' visit.  There is a pest house on the premises, but unfit to be used, and is therefore unoccupied. 

The keeper stated that the house was visited every month by a committee from the board of supervisors, and that the diet of the paupers consisted of salt beef, vegetables, soup, milk, coffee and tea.  Among the inmates there were thirty lunatics--four male and twenty-six females, and all paupers.  Application had been made at the State Institution for admission, which was refused for want of room, and three who were then at Utica were required to be taken away.  One lunatic had escaped from the house, and no attempts had been made to secure her or bring her back.  Three cures were thought to have occurred during last five months, and were discharged, and during the same time fifteen new cases had been received.  They receive no special medical attention, but are waited upon by pauper attendants.  No restraints employed except confinement in cells, and only one in confinement, and this one being in one of the cells already described, your committee could gain but little information how the case stood inside, from the light afforded through the small hold in the top of the door.  Your committee, upon expressing a wish to examine the case more fully, were assured by the keeper that the occupant of the cell was naked and filthy, and in no condition to receive or see company, and besides it was not quite safe, although it was a female, but upon being informed that the committee's curiosity could only be satisfied by a further examination, the keeper requested the committee to retire until she could be put in a presentable shape.  On our return we found a healthy-looking female quietly permitting, and even assisting in the adjustment of her attire, with but very little evidence of loss of reason, so far as the expression of the countenance was concerned.  The bed arrangement consisted of two boards fastened up on the side of the cell, one for the bottom, the other a front piece, filled with the litter of straw which one of the paupers, holding a broom in one hand, was sifting through her fingers upon the floor with the other, for the purpose of absorbing the fluids and filth that it might be removed.  The sides of the cell for five or six feet high or more were perfectly besmeared with human filth, and this the abode of a human being, a female, a pauper, a lunatic, for days, and weeks, and months together, until perchance frost shall cripple or pestilence destroy.  Your committee dare not trust themselves to make comments on the above, but they will inquire of that committee from the board of supervisors, who are said by the keeper to visit the house every month, if this is the standard and measure of public charity of the constituency they represent. 

Among the inmates are two male idiots and two deaf and dumb.  Seven-eighths of all that come to this house come consequent upon habits of inebriation.

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