1857 Legislative Investigation into Poorhouse Conditions
RENSSELAER COUNTY POOR HOUSE
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.