St Albans Weekly Messenger   Thursday Feb 4, 1897

transcribed and submitted by Jim Carroll

    Sixty-Three Miserable Human Beings Huddled Up in a Foul Ruin
   Buildings About Fifty Years Old And Steeped In Accumulated Filth Of Half A Century
    Mistaken Idea of Economy Has Degenerated Into Niggard Penury and Shameful Neglect of Unfortunates

The Franklin county poor-house at Sheldon is a disgrace to the humanity of the eight towns that maintain it. The building, erected nearly fifty years ago, beside being in no particular adapted to the purpose for which it is employed, is saturated with the accumulated filth of half a century and is reeking with the vilest of odors and the deadly germs of foul diseases. The word building is used here in the singular, but the institution is in reality composed of a group of miserable little structures that huddle up together as if ashamed of their own unworthiness. As a matter of a fact, the barn built to replace one recently destroyed by fire is a far better home for the stock than the crazy old poor house affords for the unfortunates who are forced to seek its shelter.

Everybody knows at the outset that buildings erected in the country fifty years ago are not likely to be very comfortable places to live in today, certainly they do not contain the comforts and conveniences of more modern structures. Take this for the starting point, add to it the rack and ruin and decay of half a century, with no improvements, and then throw in sixty-three paupers to balance and allow them to exist, not live, in a place that has been befouled for five decades by hundreds and hundreds of filthy people, and you have the situation at the Sheldon poor house today.

In these times, the matter of sanitation is a vital factor in the affairs of men. When we erect charitable institutions, especially, we calculate with great care and scientific nicety to provide every facility for maintaining health and cleanliness. Even our modern institutions of the highest grade, replete with the best and costliest of modern conveniences and improvements, managed by men trained to employ the laws of hygiene, find it difficult to accomplish all that could be desired.

Think, then, of the wretched quarters, designed and erected in a time when sanitation was an unknown quantity, bending beneath the weight of years and the inroads of the elements, managed by men elected by the chance ballot of partisans, under the immediate supervision of a farmer, think of such a combination of circumstances and picture with it sixty-three miserable creatures huddled together in quarters not big enough for half that number, remember that the inmates, from the very nature of things, are people not over sensible to the need of cleanliness, many of them in various stages of  idiocy, and ask yourself if you can, as a conscientious man or woman, tolerate longer such a mockery of civilization.

What is the cause of it? Where is the responsibility? The cause is not far to seek. It is the mistaken idea of economy that prevails in this county, perhaps not more in this county than anywhere else in the state, but, then we are not responsible for the other thirteen counties in this matter of the Sheldon poor house. It is more than a mistaken idea of economy, it has gone farther than that in the lapse of time. It is downright penury and niggardliness. The responsibility? It is collective, not individual. Every citizen in the eight towns must bear his share of the blame for this condition of affairs. Any attempt to shift it off upon the directors will be unavailing. It may be true, if doubtless is, that the directors, as individuals, are not men who would be selected to manage the Waterbury insane asylum, for instance. Their experience has not been in that direction. They would themselves admit their incompetence. But the directors for years and years have been keeping the expenses down, for fear of public censure when their report was submitted to the several towns in the association at the annual March meeting. Public opinion has been against expense at the Sheldon poor house. Why? Because public opinion in its individual representatives never took the pains to look into the situation personally and ascertain for itself whether it was right. Public opinion has been too stingy, criminally stingy.

Let us look at the figures for the past year. It is, of course, understood, that eight tons in Franklin county, Berkshire, Enosburgh, Fairfield, Franklin, Highgate, Sheldon, St. Albans, and Swanton, make up the "Sheldon Poor House Association". Each town owns its share in the farm and buildings, and each town bears its proportion of the expense of maintaining the institution on the basis of the grand list.

This expense for the year 1896 just closed was the monstrous sum of $2,118.30! Think of it, 63 paupers, a farm of 325 acres, and a manager, matron, two daughters, two hired girls, and a hired man supported on $2,118.30 a year!

The total grand list of the eight towns is $100,034.31, so that the rate per cent on the grand list to pay expenses was .0211758. On this basis the several towns paid as follows:

Town Grand List Proportion

Berkshire $7,05.25 $154.69
Enosburgh  10,692.21 226.43
Fairfield 7,555.07 159.98
Franklin 5,902.13  124.98
Highgate 6,479.69 137.21
Sheldon 5,890.33 124.73
St Albans 41,855.15 886.95
Swanton 14,324.48 303.33

 The towns maintained paupers at the poor house as follows;

Berkshire 3
Enosburgh 4
Fairfield 10
Franklin 15
Highgate 4
Sheldon 4
St Albans 17
Swanton 5
  Total 62


The average attendance was 61 3/4. The average expense of maintaining each inmate for the year, exclusive of the avails of the farm, was $34.304 ! Ten of the 28 children in the poor house attend school. There were two births during the year and five deaths, the latter being as follows;

Jennie Heflon  Jan 21 aged 34
Jennie Stevens  Apr 10 74
Perley Tracy  Aug 8 2
Charles Gafney  Oct 15 65
Jennnie Lee Dec 18 27

The receipts from the produce and avails of the farm were $381.15. The farm supports 28 cows, on three year old bull, eight yearlings, two horses and nine shoats, and produced 300 bushels of potatoes, 300 bushels of ears of corn, 14 bushels of beans, seven bushels of peas, 125 bushels of oats, 1,400 lbs. of pork, 1,000 lbs. of beef, 100 lbs. of lard, 40 lbs. of butter, 10 bbls. of flour, beside dried apples, garden sauce, etc.

Here is an itemized statement of the cash outlay for 1896:

Maynard & Marsh groceries and general merchandise $811.80
AF Durkee merchandise 97.83
DE Booth merchandise 142.82
GP Twigg clothing 56.28
CD Rublee groceries 46.90
EM Brown, M.D. attendance 77.25
Burdick & Holmes groceries 44.34
OK Brown clothing 24.42
PE Dodge mill product 29.32
Mansfield & Dixon  tin ware 26.27
S Lawrence coffins 14.14
Rev. WG Watt   35.00
CA Hull director 24.10
LE Lanpher manager 517.12
AD Horskins director 21.00
Daniel Leach director 99.36
WC Marsh director 9.69
GC Holmes director 12.00
James Kent director 16.75
James Scott director 6.00
Peter Medor director 6.00
  TOTAL $2,118.30

The directors get $2 a day and 10 cents a mile for official visits. Eight of the items on the foregoing statement are, it will be noticed, due directors. They amount in all to $194.81, or a little less than a tenth of the total amount expended. Add to this the $517.12 paid to the manager, and we have a total of $711.93 that never applied to the support of the paupers at all. Deduct this from the $2,118.30, and we have $1,406.37 nominally paid out for the inmates. Take out of this the money paid out for farm utensils, support of the manager and his help, and all the other odds and ends, and how much is left for the inmates? Or take it at the first figures, $1,460.37, divide by 62, and how much does it allow per capita for the support of the paupers? A princely $22.68 per year.

Now it is estimated that the farm finishes [furnishes?] half the support of the poor house. Call the total expense of each pauper $45.36 a year! That is a fraction over 12 cents a day! Will that feed, clothe, warm, light, doctor and bury them?

Rev. Mr. Watt is paid $35 a year for preaching once in two weeks at the poor house, and holding funeral services over the deceased inmates. The dead are buried in cheap boxes (five for $14.14, see account) without headstones or markers. The last one who died (Mary German, of Swanton, Jan 15) was buried without any service at all because the minister was not notified, the manager's wife at that time being ill of typhoid pneumonia of which she since died.

This Mary German was in bed for three years. There is now an old woman at the poor house who is bed-ridden with rheumatism and perfectly helpless. She groans and moans her life away in a miserable hovel on a filthy bed and her only solace and, most of the time her only company, is a quartette of feeble old women who smoke and croon idiotically away around a box stove in an adjoining room.

Medical attendance for one year $77.25! And in that time five deaths and several cases of sickness, beside this poor old unfortunate who is helpless!

The inmates, feeble old women and all, have to hobble out through the snow to a filthy old privy.

It took 20 tons of coal and between 400 and 500 cords of wood for fuel last year. It took more wood because it was green and sappy.

Over 20 children are growing up in this miserable place, exposed to the awful influence of the misery and degradation about them, seeing nothing, day after day, but feeble old idiots, and want and suffering and the characteristics of vice.

What is needed? Modern buildings, built upon advanced sanitary ideas, such as are followed in the erection of a hospital or insane asylum, where filthy people can be kept clean after the most hygienic methods. It wants buildings that are calculated to keep naturally filthy and shiftless people warm and healthy, with conveniences and fixtures for the care of the sick and helpless.

It wants a management of experience, rules and regulations based upon the principles which govern all such public institutions, a thorough management and system.

It wants plenty of help, more attendance upon the sick, trained matrons and nurses.

The children should be taken out of there and placed in some institution where they can learn something beside shiftlessness and depravity.

It wants a public investigation and wants it now.

And last of all it wants a more generous spirit on the part of the towns in the association.

Raze the old buildings to the ground, build new structures, place them under experienced management, and support them with enough money to render the care of the inmates humane and not a reproach to civilization and decency.

Three Messenger representatives visited the Sheldon poor house the other day. One of them has already told his story. The next will describe the situation more in detail. ...

(Description of the Institution)

As most people know, the poor farm is situated in Sheldon about two miles from the railroad station at Sheldon Junction. It consists of 235 acres of land, divided into about the same proportion of meadow, pasture, and woodland as other farms in that locality. Besides the buildings occupied by the keeper and the paupers, there are barns, sheds, and other buildings necessary on a farm of this size. 

The main building, the home of 65 human beings, is no way suitable for the purpose for which it is used. It is built part of wood, part of brick. There is a main part running east and west and an ell part extending north from the west end of the main building. Beneath the east end of the main building is a basement used as a kitchen and dining room. Here all the cooking, except for the manager and his family, is done, and here those of the inmates who can leave their rooms assemble thrice a day for their meals. This basement is warmed only by the wood fires that are built to prepare the food.

Directly over the basement are the apartments of the manager and his family. His rooms are but little better than those occupied by the paupers except for the instinctive cleanliness and air of refinement that comes from a man in his condition.

The paupers live in what is termed a hall over the manager's apartments, the ell part, and an out-building designated as the "Old Ladies' Home", a few yards from the main building. These halls are long, narrow, poorly lighted corridors, with bed rooms on either side. One stove is the sole source of heat, and around it the wretched inmates huddle to keep warm. It is their only alternative from staying in their bedrooms. There is absolutely no place where the inmates can congregate to enjoy light and air, the little comfort they can extract from each other's company, books, or papers, knitting, or such humble tasks as they can perform.

Worse than all this is the lack of sanitary provisions that must necessarily exist in such a building. In the bedrooms disease breeding matter remains day after day because there is no convenient way of disposing of it. All about the building the fresh snow gives evidence of how such matter is disposed of, not because it is allowed but because the manager cannot keep his eye on all the 63 inmates at once. They take the easiest way out of it.

The hall over the manager's apartments is occupied by women and a few children. This hall is, if there can be any choice, the most desirable place the institution affords. The corridor is wider and the heat from the two floors below makes it more comfortable. The rooms are furnished, as are all the rooms, with iron bedsteads and a nondescript collection of bedclothes, plenty of them apparently to keep the occupants warm. In the afternoon, when the institution was visited, few, if any, of the beds were made up. They looked as though the occupants had just left them. There appeared to be no regulations to govern this sort of thing. In fact, there seemed to be no regulations pertaining to any of the duties of inmates such as one would expect in a modern institution of this sort. The occupants of this hall can reach the basement dining room without going out of doors.

The lower floor of the ell part is where the men live. The conditions for existence here are about the same as the other inmates are afforded. To reach these quarters from out of doors it is necessary to climb a flight of slippery stairs, no mean task for the aged men who have to do it. It is by this flight of stairs that most of them have to reach the dining room. Sunday afternoon the men were gathered about the wood fire, their only apparent interest being an intense listening for the sound of the dinner bell. With the conveniences it was about all they could do. Maybe they would not avail themselves of anything better. The people of this county will never know until they give these poor unfortunates the chance.

Among these men was an old resident of St Albans, Jerry Lyon, a man almost blind and possessed of an intelligence beyond the average inmate of the place. He spoke very highly of the way in which the manager, Mr. Lanpher, ( he is called the "boss" by most of the inmates) treated him. Lyon has been at the farm many years and said he never wanted to leave as long as Mr.Lanpher stayed. He did say, however, that the conveniences at his disposal taxed his feeble strength many and many a day.

There is another St Albans man there. His name is Michael McCarthy. He is 56 years old and has lived there 12 years. Mr. Lanpher says McCarthy is one of the three men he depends upon to help him carry on the farm. Mr. McCarthy had no particular complaint to make otherwise than the general condition of affairs. He thought the food was not just such as would enable a man to do a hard day's work. He also complained of the lack of accommodations. He had plenty of clothes such as they were, enough to keep him warm and was far from being badly dissatisfied.

Over the men's hall is about the worst place in the institution. To get there you go out of doors, you can't get there any other way, climb a flight of stairs and you are where more than a dozen children, two of them infants on the bottle, and a few women exist. The hall is narrow and lighted by a window at only one end. Half the glass in this window is gone and a pillow and an old hat or two vainly struggle to keep out the cold. Like the other halls a single stove, wood burner, supplies all the heat.

In one room lives Mrs. Selina Jacobs and her children, six of them. They come from St Albans. Mrs. Jacobs is 32 years old. She is afflicted with a perpetual earache and has to wear a bandage about her head continually. She sleeps in one bed with her baby, about eight months old, Alfred, two years old, and Renie, four years old. Arthur, six years old, Perlie, eight years old, and Jennie ten years old sleep in the other bed. The room would be small for two persons.

Among the children was a flaxen-haired boy about three years old who had fallen on the stove recently. His little cheek was one great blister that was almost a running sore; apparently nothing had been done to relieve the little one's sufferings.

The sanitary conditions in this "hall",  possibly owing to so many children, were worse than the rest of the place. Still it must be said, that all the children were fairly comfortably dressed. None of them complained of Mr. Lanpher's treatment and they seemed as happy as children could under the circumstances.

In the "Old Ladies' Home" live five old women. One of them is Jane Donovan of St Albans, bed ridden and totally helpless from rheumatism. She is practically alone, dependent on the ministrations of the other four old women. She lacks most of the comforts that would enable her to pass her declining days in comparative peace. The "home", it should have been said, is a large wooden building and to heat it is a task for the one stove. The half story overhead is used as a room for drying clothes. The heat that escapes up the open trap door is at the expense of the comfort of the old women. A few boards and nails would close up this opening and keep the heat where it is more needed than for drying clothes.

In this building are located the only steps toward sanitary conditions the institution has made in 50 years. Two bath tubs, one for the women, the other for the men. There may be regulations governing their use by the inmates, but the appearance of the paupers did not indicate a constant use of the tubs. As a matter of fact the cold renders these tubs practically useless during the winter.

There is a school house located a good mile from the poor house by the road. It is nearer when the children can go across lots. Some of the children attend more or less regularly. It is too far for the younger ones to walk in the winter and they are not clad for long exposure to the cold. One robust looking boy said he went to school some days, when he felt like it, and he admitted he did not like to go to school. There seems to be no provision for regular attendance or facilities to allow the children to do so should they desire.

Some of the children are as bright as a dollar. They are aged far beyond their years and their way of living has sharpened their wits to a degree where they could easily give a child of the streets of the great cities points.

Conversation with many of the inmates showed conclusively that although they had nothing in particular to complain of they could understand and would appreciate a better general condition of affairs. They want better air, better light, better attendance, better food, better clothing, more comforts, a better chance to eke out their unfortunate existence.

The inmates are clothed in raiment of all colors, style and description. While it is fairly warm and of good quality it is not such as those who have a trace of pride left would take any care to keep clean or decent. It has not the first thing about it to suggest cleanliness or tidyness.

What do they have to eat? Sunday dinner January 31, served at 3:30 o'clock (they only have two meals Sundays), consisted of wheat and rye bread, boiled potatoes and salt pork with milk gravy and tea. Everyone had all they wanted, but the variety was the same for the child of four years old, and the person 80 years of age. They have about two kinds of meat pork and beef, part of the summer the beef is fresh. Meat and potatoes are served twice a day, butter once, several times a week they have cabbage, turnip, or some kind of vegetable, baked beans afford a variety and griddle cakes with sugar, are a rare delicacy, tea, coffee, and milk, are the drinkables. Most of the butter and eggs are sold. Some of the more sickly ones, Mr. Lanpher said, had extra dishes.

The table wear of the institution consists of a single tin or granitewear dish, a cup, knife fork and spoon for each inmate. Some were seen Sunday drinking their tea from basins but it may have been from choice.

The names of the St Albans inmates are Jane Sharp, Rose Laberdee, Jerry Lyon, Laura Ladue, Michael McCarthy, Jane Donovan, George Adams, Lydia Satwil and three year old son, Mary Unwin, Selina Jacobs and six children, and Adolphus Dennis.

One of the worst features of the present institution is the presence of the children. Out of 63 inmates 28 are children ranging from infants to 12 years of age. To be obliged to live under such conditions and amid such surroundings at the impressionable age to which many of the children have attained must have an influence for evil on their whole life. Not only their minds but their very bodies are dwarfed and stunted by reasons for which they are in no wise to blame. Do what you may, every tendency is toward evil when they are compelled to live as they do.

Another pernicious feature is the lack of inspiration afforded those of mature age, feeble minded though many of them are. The absolute hopelessness of their lot must be apparent when they are placed within those dismal walls. With scarce an oasis of brightness, they drag out their weary existence, each day like the one preceding only a little worse. There are mighty few if any incentives to shake off that lethargy of mind that deepens as the days crawl slowly past. One man who has been there a decade looks back today to the time he went to St Albans to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. It is the one bright spot in 12 long years of existence at the Sheldon poor farm. He dates everything from that day.

There is one very solemn thought that must come to every one who gives this matter reflection. No mortal being can look far enough into the future to say, "It is not possible I may be there myself one year from today."

(A Third View of It)

In talking to the inmates it was easily seen that they complained of no ill-treatment but thought that the superintendent was doing as well as he could under the circumstances. They did complain of the old, rickety, cold building, the cold kitchen, and the lack of help. One man, when asked about the quality of food said, "Oh, it's good enough, but it isn't the right stuff to do a day's work on."

There is certainly a lack of attendants at the Sheldon poor house. Old women who are in bed suffering intense pain from rheumatism and kindred ailments should be separated from the other inmates and should have better nursing and care.

The children said that they were treated well and that they attend school when the weather is pleasant but, when it is bad, so they expressed it, "the 'boss' will not let us."

The poor farm buildings are a disgrace to any civilized community. They are old, the rooms are small, the windows are broken, and the whole thing has more the appearance of a wreck than of buildings intended for the purpose for which these are used. The inmates have no place to congregate except around the stoves in small narrow corridors where it is hard work for two persons to walk abreast. In one small room, containing two beds, a family of seven sleeps but the inmates do not complain of being crowded.

If every tax-payer in the eight towns that support the poor farm could visit that institution it is certain that a great and sudden change for the better would result.

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