The Poorhouse Story  
NEWSLETTER
   
5/16/2003 
(
20th issue)
Greetings!

You say the newsletter looks different?  Well, I guess it should!  I may not clean house every time friends come over to my place; but if they were paying to visit ... I guess I would really go after those dust bunnies under the furniture.  Since those of you who are reading this have been generous enough to make a donation toward the cost of keeping The POORHOUSE STORY going ... I figured I should take the time to remodel and spruce things up.

Hopefully you will like the quick navigation aids at the top.  They will allow you to skip over whatever you are less than fascinated with (like my ramblings?) so you can go straight to whatever you consider the good stuff.

I figured that making the newsletter work better for you was the least I could do to thank you for your support. 
(Well, that and trying much harder to make sure I get a new issue out every two months. Ouch!)  

Although I was reluctant to request a fee for access to the newsletter, one very nice thing happened as a result.  Lots of you wrote to tell me how much you enjoy reading the letters (who knew!) and how valuable you think the website is.
I felt like Sally Fields.  "You like me!.  You really like me!"  Or at least you like the work of The Poorhouse Lady and all her helpers.  (Remember, you also could be a helper!)

Thanks so much!

Linda 

REFLECTIONS

Well, it finally happened.  I have reluctantly had to admit that I am ....uhm ... older ... a whole lot older! ...  than a whole lot of the people with whom I communicate.  The generation gap never really registered with me until it got to be two generations!  The last straw was actually a small thing.  You may not have noticed it.  Remember, when you came to The POORHOUSE STORY website for the first time?  In the upper right corner it started out ... "Yes, Virginia, there really was such a thing as a poorhouse." (I know, that's not technically very grammatical; but I'd rather not come across as too terribly professorial.)  I thought everybody understood who Virginia was.  But I did an informal survey and found out that practically nobody under 60 had a clue.  (Which can lead to young people simply assuming that older people are weird -- something we don't want them to think if we want to still seem relevant in our maturity. Sigh.)

I just reluctantly edited the page to remove that reference.  But here is a gift to those of you who never had the good fortune to have this read to you as a child. (I know I know.. It's not Christmas. But I'll get to the main point in a minute. That's another thing -- the older I get the more people try to rush me. Sheesh!)

The "Yes, Virginia ... " is a quote from a famous response published on the Editorial Page of  The New York Sun, on Sunday, December 19, 1897.  In its entirety the answer reads, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."  
(Do yourself a favor; click on the link and read the letter.  Seems like we need something wise and loving from the media these days.)

It was probably dumb to use that allusion here anyway; because poorhouses were really, really real. But I can never start off a sentence with, "Yes, so-and-so, ... " without a knee jerk memory making me want to insert the name Virginia.
My family was not really too much into maintaining traditions. I don't think we ever even set the table the same way twice in all the years before I grew up and left home. But we had traditions at Christmas.  The best one was that my father always gathered my brother and me around and read that letter from an old encyclopedia on Christmas Eve. I wasn't fooled. But I was reassured. And, more important, I was instructed in the indisputable reality of paradox.

An appreciation of the fact that truth may often be a paradox would go a long way toward not only world peace, but peace in our own hearts and our personal relationships. "Either/Or"  thinking gets us in a lot of trouble.  Especially troublesome is the notion that, if we disagree, and I admit you may be right (about anything), then I must be wrong.  

That awareness of the reality of paradox helps a lot when I am faced with that "most often asked" question: Were poorhouses a good thing or a bad thing? Whenever I am asked that, I am reminded of an old Bible story.  Joseph (of the coat of many colors) was sold into slavery by his own brothers.  Years later, after they were reconciled, Joseph was asked how he had ever been able to find it in his heart to forgive them.  I love his answer! -- They meant it for evil; but God meant it for good.

The intent of the legislation to establish poorhouses was terribly harsh ... almost draconian!  It came out of a belief that poverty was nearly inevitably the fault of the poor -- through their laziness, or hereditary character defects, or "vicious personal habits" (i.e. "intemperance").  And it was intended to get such unworthy paupers "off welfare" and to provide only the bare minimum of assistance to the "worthy" poor.  The idea was that no other type of assistance would be offered to anyone who refused to give up all their possessions, and their privacy and dignity, and to break up their families in order to reside in a poorhouse -- which was undoubtedly the most restrictive alternative in the old (and often much more humane) continuum of services which had previously been offered to the poor. That was the official policy.

But that was hard to accomplish in actual practice.  Because the agents who had to carry out that policy were real (and often personally compassionate) people -- they sometimes simply couldn't bring themselves to be so harsh.  So they occasionally continued to dispense "outdoor relief" which allowed the poor to remain in their own homes and receive assistance anyway.  And for those who had to be sent to the poorhouse, they were sometimes able to create more humane living conditions there than was the intent of the law.  

That was a paradox in poorhouse history which makes it difficult to generalize in answer to the question of whether they were "good" or "bad".  Under legislation which could be considered meant for "evil" to some extent, in practice the procedures actually carried out were often "meant for good."  That, of course, is a perilous situation.  When laws have the potential for great injustice ... and the avoidance of that is dependent upon the kindness of individuals who must exhibit great courage in mitigating the harsh intent of the law ... sometimes the outcome is just ... but sometimes it is not!

Contemplation of this is what led to the writing of the latest editorial we have published.  I recently presented information about poorhouse history to a genealogical society in the town I live in.  That's in Texas; and I had never before done a presentation in my own state.  I think I had previously unconsciously avoided that because the poorhouse history was so different here.  I had to dig a whole lot harder to find the information.  To justify (to myself) my procrastination, I used the excuse that I didn't have time to do so much research.  But the truth is -- poorhouse history here was a lot more ugly.

I had long realized that the treatment of poverty was very punitive here -- almost as though poverty itself was a crime. But when I finally dug into the unpleasant facts, I began to realize that there was a pattern of such harshness along almost all of the western frontier in the last half of the 19th century.  So I wrote the editorial listed below. It may be a cautionary tale with implications for our current times, and I hope you will read it.
 

Commentary # 2

POVERTY vs. the AMERICAN DREAM -- A Clash of Reality on the Frontier
(or How Poor Relief was Different in the West)

Table of STATISTICS and NEW ITEMS ADDED to The PHS Website

E-mail Subscribers to Monthly Newsletter -- current tabulations incomplete                        

Visits to The POORHOUSE STORY 
-- since last newsletter's stats (ended 02/14/2003) --
71,988  (791 per day
-- Total (as of 05/10/2003) since 5/8/2000 -- 610,916

 
MEET THE PRESS 

Radio Station WXXI (91.5) out of Rochester NY features a program called Salmagundy which includes a segment called "The Timemaster" with stories from American history by David Minor. On May 3rd David did a report called "Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt" which described the plight of many of the people who became indigent on the old frontier -- the one in NY, that is! --  in the 1820's. At the end of his script he told listeners about The POORHOUSE STORY website and gave us a good grade!  (We like praise so much <grin> that we are linking you to the page where he posts his scripts online.  That one -- from which we copied the article above -- is script # 314.)

   

FEATURED PROJECTS
(based on readers submissions)

Indigent Books  

Editor's note.  These extracts are from an account book of indigents that is housed in the Middlesex County Historical Society, Middletown, CT. Though the account book is undated, it covers payments 1860-1866.  The ethnic backgrounds are in parenthesis as it came from the book.  The comments regarding the recipients were copied as is from the account book and are not the comments of the contributor.  
This record provides an excellent example of the way the old "out door" 
relief system worked.  It makes the situation very real to us.   PHL 
   
 

FEATURED ARTICLES
(We didnít create them; 
we just show them!)

 

Bill Camp has created a wonderful webpage featuring a photographic history
of the Broome County (NY) Poorhouse. The views are photographs from 4x5 inch glass negatives in his collection and probably date from 1908-1910. The various buildings give us an idea of the various activities at the poorhouse and farm; but the pictures of inmates and the Keeper and his family make this history really come alive! Don't miss this one. 
 

   
  Jim Snyder,  President of the  Blair County (PA) Genealogical Society, sent us a fascinating illustration of that county's poorhouse.  It includes an annotated floor plan which gives us many clues to the way the inmates lives were regulated. Clicking on the smaller picture will expand it, and doing so is necessary to see those details. Depending on your computer system, that can take quite a while ... but we think you will find it worth your wait!
NEWS ALERTS

 

In previous newsletters, we have been reporting a controversy over the highway department's plan to run a highway exit through an old cemetery (which was used for the old poorhouse, a mental hospital, and a jail) -- relocating those 3500+ remains to a mass grave. That resulted in a court decision requiring a month long delay to study alternatives.  Two descendents protested and a petition was circulated in print and on-line.  For more information, click on the link to NEWS ALERTS.

But Wait! ... The story is not finished.  

April 11, 2003    The online publication NorthJersey.com featured an article from
                     the North Jersey News to which we have received permission to link below.

Relics unearthed from forgotten graves under turnpike

The article tells a very poignant story ... including the following encouraging note:
"Disinterment is expected to be done by the end of summer, and by late fall the bodies will be reburied in the Hoboken Cemetery in North Bergen, with a memorial listing the names of the dead. The turnpike will also pay for upkeep and landscaping at the cemetery."
We think you will find this article fascinating.  Yes, it is a little sad and grim.  But it is also very rich with small clues to the lives (and sometimes the way of life in these institutions) of those buried here.
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Historical Documents     

 NY   
Historical Memorabilia


Here is a bill  from 
"Horace Bush Druggist & Apothecary
And Dealer in Everything Pertaining to the Business"
No. 88 State-street
Lowville N.Y.
for 

Supplies
purchased for the LEWIS COUNTY POORHOUSE
November 31, 1867 through February 19, 1868 

                     This one is really FUN! >>>>>
                         (Check it out!)
Poorhouse Records
  MI Kent
Cemetery Lists (or notes)
  MI Iona

 

NJ Morris
This is the most amazingly detailed transcription of poorhouse burial records we have ever seen anywhere.  They apparently still need volunteer help with the transcribing. NJ Hudson  (see News Alerts above)

Burial Records

Poorhouse Resident lists from CENSUS
(
new material or off-site links to the web)
  1880 IL Kane
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  1910 MI Houghton
  1920 MI Houghton
  1930 MI Houghton
  1850 MI Morris
  1860 MI Morris
  1870 MI Morris
  1880 MI Sanilac
  1900 MS Montgomery
  1880 NH Strafford
  1860 NJ Middlesex
  1880 NJ Middlesex
   1930 NY Chautauqua
  1860 PA Berks
Recommended  BOOKS

 

See Also
The Poorhouse in Literature

WorkedOver_Cover.jpg (47920 bytes)

Cornell University Press
It's really exciting when a friend publishes a book ...
especially when it is a great book! 

WORKED OVER:
The Corporate Sabotage of An American Community

If you click on the link above, you will go to the page on Amazon.com where you can read more about it. 
Note: Guess who wrote the first reader review!  

For this book, we also created a new category on our Recommended Reading List  

I don't usually recommend a book before I have even had a chance to read it.  But I am really excited about this one!  Hopefully I can get my hands on a copy (budget won't let me buy one right now) and review it for you myself.  But for now -- see excerpts of the book review available online. Click for  more information.  PHL

UnwelcomeAmericans_Book_Cover.jpg (66669 bytes)

Unwelcome Americans
Living on the Margin in Early New England
by Ruth Wallis Herndon

University of Pennsylvania Press

"Through this remarkable reconstruction, Herndon provides a corrective to the narratives of the privileged that have dominated the conversation in this crucial period of American history, and the lives she chronicles give greater depth and a richer dimension to our understanding of the growth of American social responsibility."
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Thanks for your continued support.
Linda Crannell                                                        
(aka=The Poorhouse Lady)

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