What are these things doing in "Pauper" Graves ?!
(Or:  We thought these folks were poor!)

    
This is a letter written in response to an e-mail from Bill Hastings 
which you may read here.
 
  
  

by Linda M. Crannell

 
PHS Commentary  # 8

(The Poorhouse Lady)

10/31/2004

      
 I don't think we can generalize about what "should" or "should not" have been expected to be found in the graves of people buried at public expense. 
 
I have said this over and over and over again in my writings ... But I have come to believe folks just don't want to believe it! ... it was astonishingly easy to fall into abject poverty during the 19th century and even into the earlier part of the 20th century.  
 

"POTTER'S FIELD"

&


POORHOUSE CEMETERY

 
I'm not sure exactly when the term Potter's Field first came into general use, but it has traditionally had a very specific meaning. It meant the place where "indigent" people were buried at public expense because neither they nor family members (who could be expected to bear the burden of the expense of their burial) had enough resources to pay such funeral expenses. Very seldom, but sometimes, this was a cemetery physically distinct and separate from any other cemetery. (That was probably because there was a social stigma attached to being a "pauper" and nobody wanted to be buried or have relatives buried in a place that might be associated with that stigma if it could be avoided.) One of the largest groups of people buried in true "Potter's Fields" was transients who died while in a community where they were unknown. In the past more so than now it was often impossible to determine the identity of such transients or to locate their family members. If they did not have on their person (or where they were temporarily lodging) enough money or valuable goods to reimburse the community for any burial expenses, then they had to be buried at the expense of the community in whatever facility that community provided for such burials.

However, some communities chose to have "regular" cemeteries provide a separate segregated portion of their grounds for such indigent burials. So a Potters' Field could be an entire separate cemetery or a designated portion of a larger one.

Here is a very important important distinction to make: this did NOT necessarily (and often absolutely did not) mean the same thing as the burial grounds of a poorhouse! Most poorhouses had their own burial grounds on part of the land owned as part of the poorhouse parcel of land. But remember that poor relief was always at taxpayers' expense, and community leaders looked for ways to make it as economical (or "cost effective") as possible.

For that reason, they often eventually combined these two groups of people (those who died as poorhouse inmates and those who were NOT poorhouse inmates but died indigent in the community) and began to bury them in the same place. Usually that meant that non-inmate indigents came to be buried along side poorhouse inmates at the cemetery associated with the poorhouse.

In that circumstance (which is what I suspect was the case in your community) we have two different groups of people with often very different demographic characteristics being buried in the same location. It is actually then a multi-use burial ground. As such, we cannot generalize about what might typically be found as artifacts in the graves.

But for both of these groups it is truly impossible to generalize with any degree of accuracy about what their circumstances may have been throughout their lifetimes just because they were indigent at the time they died!  I have said this over and over and over again in my writings ... But I have come to believe folks just don't want to believe it! ... it was astonishingly easy to fall into abject poverty during the 19th century and even into the earlier part of the 20th century. That subject involves much more than we can take time for here; but suffice it to say that because there was NO SOCIAL SAFETY NET then ... no retirement benefits or workmen's compensation or unemployment or health insurance or even insurance to cover the cost of the loss of a home ... people who had previously in their lives been able to afford a healthy diet and receive good health care (and, yes, even dentures!) and who might have acquired high quality personal items might eventually (and even suddenly) have become destitute, especially when they became too old to work or when they outlived family members, or when the breadwinner in an isolated nuclear family died.

Now let's consider why they might have retained personal items even up to the time of having those buried with them.

Just as today when people have to "spend down" their assets in order to be eligible to receive Medicaid assistance, etc. ... officials responsible to the taxpayers for "cost effectiveness" usually consider for liquidation only major assets which will bring in substantial money by auctioning or selling them off to raise money for the public coffers to reimburse for expenses. Small personal items were likely allowed to remain in the possession of people who went to poorhouses and also might have been kept with transients who died without enough money to pay for burial.

So, you see, I don't think we can generalize about what "should" or "should not" have been expected to be found in the graves of people buried at public expense. (That said, I would be surprised only if EXPENSIVE jewelry which could have brought a good price at public auction would be found in a Potter's Field.)

Finally, I share your regret that people who died in poorhouses (or even those transients who died indigent) are often stereotyped as "worthless" ... And we know that many who died without resources had not been so throughout their entire lives. (And we also need to mention that sometimes ... rarely, but sometimes ... people were sent to poorhouses simply because there was no other place in many communities during the 19th century where people could get nursing care.)

  
I hope this has answered some of your questions.  Thanks for sharing your concerns.
 

 Return to List of COMMENTARIES (with links)      Return to POORHOUSE STORY home page