NEWSLETTER 8/31/00  (Third issue) 

Greetings! Well, sixteen weeks have passed since the “official” opening of the website (when the counter went up) – and The Poorhouse Lady can no longer resist the temptation to reflect a little on what she has learned, and how she feels about it. So … fair warning! … you can skip down to the dotted line below where we will resume our usual reporting of the statistics and additions and changes to the site.


Working with The POORHOUSE STORY has recently become a more contemplative and emotional experience.  As more and more historical facts and personal stories have been submitted by readers and explored for publication on the site, the reality of the way poor people (and those responsible for their care) lived their lives in the 19th century  has become much more vivid. While I promise not to become maudlin about this and hope to not dwell on it excessively, please let me share some of that poignancy here. Maybe sharing some of the feelings this has aroused in me while sitting by myself in front of the computer will help me shake off the somberness and let me go on to celebrate with you the fact that these ancestors who may have become caught up in the poorhouse system will be less anonymous now and we can honor their lives despite their obscurity. And there were many people, often very humble people themselves, who were employed in the system but managed to impart some humanity and loving concern for their fellow human beings. 

First, I would like to share an image with you. Recently we have discovered that many poorhouses were photographed or sketched and put on postcards. (I still can’t quite grasp the context in which these were produced! Was it felt that the paupers living in the institution would use the postcards to write to their friends, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here!” …. ???) At any rate, many of them now frequently come up for sale on eBay. (How the world turns!) Fortunately, this has provided me with the opportunity to purchase these to add to my private collection. Then I can scan and post them on the appropriate pages on the site. 

So….one of the images is truly amazing. On the Wisconsin page you can find  "Monroe County Almshouse and Insane Asylum, Sparta, Wisc." at Go look at it now! Despite being larger than most, that layout is quite typical. I had not realized until I got more involved in this research that the mental hospital as a distinct institution quite literally grew out of the poorhouse physical plants. (The need to separate the “insane” from the rest of the poorhouse population was what gave rise to the development of special facilities … and later specialized treatment … for the mentally ill.) The starkness and isolation of these side-by-side institutions is very strongly evoked in this postcard image. 

But even when the setting was more rural and pastoral … the emotion was the same. Andrew Wyeth painted a picture entitled “ Chester County Farm.” . [Note: Prints of the painting are available at many sites on the internet. Just go to your favorite search engine and enter the title of the painting together with the artist’s name. But here is the best on-line image to which I can refer you.  Please go look!]

 While I have not yet been able to get more information about the painting, it seems to be the portrayal of a solitary couple with very few belongings walking up a country lane to a “poor farm..” The similarities between the two images illustrates the universality of the atmosphere of despair 

One more somber note and we will go on to our usual reporting of changes on The POORHOUSE STORY. 

In the July-August issue of Modern Maturity magazine there is an article by Renee Kemp entitled “Appointment in Ghana”. It is the story of an African-American journalist’s journey to unravel the mystery of her ancestors who likely were “processed” through  “the infamous Elmina Castle [which] was formerly a slave holding pen.” At the conclusion of the trip (she writes)-- I reach down and scoop up a handful of Ghana’s rich, deep red soil to bring home with me.  If I don’t see these shores again, I tell myself, this handful of home will remind me of the ancestors’ requirement of me: “Tell them that you know of us,” they say. I give them my word. 

While I would never minimize the atrocity of what happened to black people who were enslaved in that system by drawing too strong an analogy … something in the heart of this pale white lady really resonated with those sentiments. I really think that one of the tragedies of the human condition is the fact that the history of which we know has always been almost exclusively the history of only the richer and more politically powerful among us.

So I took the liberty of using this writers words and quoting them on the homepage of The POORHOUSE STORY…down in the lower right-hand corner. There I hope it will remind us that we want (and need) to know and respect the history of the less powerful among us. 

 ---------------------------WAKE UP! The Reflections are finished. ------------------------- 

VISITS TO THE SITE: We last reported to you that during the previous 4 weeks there had been 2200 hits (taking the total to just over 3700). Well, in the past 6 weeks we have topped 9100 – which means that over 5400 people visited our homepage during that interval! 

NOTE (for people who REALLY understand about websites): Duh, we recently learned that the statistics we are reporting probably represent only the “tip of the iceburg.” ( I TOLD you I am a novice at this website publishing process!) So…our counter is located only on the homepage of the site. Since, given the way the site is organized, many people may enter at the homepage but move on to the state in which they have a special interest and bookmark THAT page only; they may subsequently return directly to that page … and thus not be counted. Yikes! As a result we are changing to a web host who can provide us with a more detailed report of site visitation. 

VISUAL EFFECTS: Yessss! Something to brighten the site. PICTURE POSTCARDS! As we mentioned above, poorhouses seem a strange subject for postcard art; but there seems to be almost always a couple of them on sale at eBay. So…my private collection is growing (and my budget crashing) as I purchase those when I can. Then I can share them with you on the site by scanning them. There are now postcard photographs posted to the following state pages … in case you want to catch a very slow slide show! We hope to get a photo album up on the site sometime soon.  Postcards at:


PERSONAL STORIES: You can’t get more personal than this:     

Just wanted to pass you a quick note of thanks, I just visited your website and found two of my relatives listed      in the Rensselaer County poorhouse.” 

We have not yet had many site visitors discover “Cousin Connections” – which is a major goal – but there is irony in this. She found her relatives the very day we posted new information to the RENSSELAER County (NY) page. The information included an excerpt (for that county)  from the 1857 report of a state legislative investigation into poorhouse conditions. The report of the conditions in that particular poorhouse was especially gruesome. And we have a pretty accurate idea who the people were who were subjected to those conditions; because we were also able to post the list of residents from the 1855 NY State Census. 

The reader quoted above has agreed to research and share with us what biographical information she can find about  her ancestors who were in that poorhouse at that time. Hopefully we will acquire more and more of these personal stories about poorhouse inmates. [As you may recall, my own great-great-grandmother was taken from a poorhouse at the age of seven; she went on to consider that family “her own”, married, never returned to the poorhouse, and had several children (of whom, the ones in my line lived in terror of ever being “poor” even up until the 1990s!) … but it appears that the vast majority of those who were sent to poorhouses fared much less well.] 

ADDITIONAL DATA has been added to the following states: NEW YORK (several county reports – excerpts from an 1824 state legislative survey of ways poor relief was being done in then, and excerpts from  another state legislative investigation into poorhouse conditions in 1857); RECORDS (such as census listings of poorhouse residents and also listings of archival holdings about poorhouses) – DELAWARE, MISSISSIPPI, SOUTH DAKOTA, KENTUCKY, ILLINOIS, NORTH CAROLINA. 

FEATURED ARTICLES is a link off the homepage  which takes you to a page where we feature special projects or stories or even other websites which we think have great significance.  (It ain’t purty yet, but we are working on it!)

There you will find these descriptions of the two major projects we worked on during August:

[This is a wonderful article which the Pope County [ARKANSAS] Historical Association Quarterly gave us permission to copy. It has a fascinating and well-researched narrative along with excerpts from historical records which are rich in local color and which give much deeper insight into just how the poorhouse system worked ... and sometimes didn't!  An interesting thing about this article is that it shows examples of how all three systems of poor relief worked ... "outdoor" relief (direct "welfare" payments), contracting with people to take paupers into their homes to care for them, and an actual poorhouse owned and run by the county. This article makes poorhouse history more up-close, personal, and real!]

KAUFMAN COUNTY POOR FARM by Kathey Kelley Hunt, Kaufman County Historical Commission
[Kathey sent us an article which she wrote specifically for The POORHOUSE STORY. She also sent photographs and cemetery lists. This challenged us to collaborate on formatting a layout that would look good and be really effective. We think we all did a good job! This served as a prototype project and we hope others will send in data which we can work up in a similar manner. Thanks to Kathey for doing a great job. (By the way, she taught us how to take an aerial photograph of the site of a former poorhouse and label it to show the status of old and new buildings as the site exists now.) Special congratulations on their plans to create a POORHOUSE MUSEUM in the remaining buildings!]

THE POORHOUSE IN LITERATURE is a link off the history page. We added comments about an excellent new book!   (TALES FROM THE POORHOUSE) It is by an Irish author and is a work of fiction which takes place during The Great Famine. 

NEWS ALERTS! Is another link off the homepage. We referred readers to a story from The Detroit News about  how  Macomb County Michigan officials are considering whether to raze the county's 1868-vintage poor farm -- one of the last remaining in Michigan -- or convert it into a museum. 

Hope we didn’t forget to mention the contributions of anyone who submitted items to The POORHOUSE STORY during August. It was a very busy month! 

Linda Crannell
(aka=The Poorhouse Lady)