The Indoor Pauper: A Study


IN my former article¹ I have described the general character of the indoor pauper and the treatment accorded him in our houses for the poor. The subject is incompletely discussed without a description of the construction and general management of these houses. Let me return to the typical almshouse whence I started. This house, I have said, is a sample of the average American almshouses. It is as good as the majority of large rural almshouses in the Northern States which have no legal inspectors of their local charities ; it is far better than the almshouses in most of the Southern States ; but it is in every respect inferior to at least half of the almshouses in the States having Boards of Charities. In the Western and Southern States, however, most of the almshouses are much smaller than the Illinois house. The number of inmates varies from two or three decrepit old people and an idiot to twenty or thirty paupers of all ages. These small establishments have abuses of their own, but from their very smallness they have some merits. They are homes rather than institutions. The farmer in charge and his wife are practically despots, but like all despotisms theirs is tempered by some wholesome fears. The able-bodied paupers always can protect themselves, if they care to do so; and, away out of sight in the country, the keeper has no outside assistance. Too often, in fact, the paupers, not the keepers, are the despots, and the whole ragged little community quakes before some hulking ruffian on the place. There is little order or cleanliness, but food, fuel, and tobacco are in plenty, and, during the winters, the cracks and holes in the old farmhouses supply a kind of compulsory ventilation. In warm weather the inmates work on the farm, and, on the whole, the life of the able-bodied pauper is quite as comfortable as that of the poorest class of farmers. It may be objected that the able-bodied pauper’s comfort is not exactly the purpose of almshouse taxes,, but rather the relief of the aged and helpless ; the fact remains, however, that he (or she), the able-bodied pauper, is the one being who is decidedly comfortable in our almshouses. The sick, the infirm, the very old people, have little to brighten their dim lives. Yet often, after a rude fashion, the keepers treat them compassionately; and in warm weather, with the air and sunshine, they are not altogether unhappy. Winter in an almshouse is a frightful season ; shut in by New England snow or the cold slime of Western mud, for weeks and months the inmates are virtually cut off from the world. They may sicken and die without aid, so long does it take to summon a doctor. “ We get on tolerably in summer,” said an almshouse keeper to the writer, last fall, “ but,” giving a comprehensive sweep of his eye over the desolate, treeless plain, where the withered mullein stalks were whistling and swaying in the wind, “ my God, what a life in winter ! ”

The larger almshouses may be divided into three classes : those better than the Illinois almshouse described, those much like it, and those much worse. From all the evidence before me, I fear that most of the houses in the States entirely given over to tho mercy of county supervisors belong to the latter class ; and many even in tho States with Boards of Charities cannot justly be placed in the first category. Structural defects are very common. Most almshouses in the West have not been built for their present purpose. In the East many are old and out of repair. This is the description of the Massachusetts almshouses given by the inspector of charities in that State : —

“ In 1864-5 the present writer, then secretary of the Board of Charities, visited about a hundred of these establishments, and obtained information concerning more than a hundred others which there was not time to visit. At that period there were 218 town and city almshouses ; now there are about the same number. Of these, 214 made reports, in 1864, of their age, size, number of acres in tho farm attached, etc. ; and among these 214 almshouses no less than 35 were built before 1800, and 61 between 1800 and 1830. ... Of the . . . others only 21 had been built since 1854, when the state almshouses were opened. Many more, however, had been rebuilt since that time; and perhaps half those in tho State had been considerably repaired since 1854. Probably about a quarter part of them were built of brick, and not more than that proportion have a good modern ventilation. . . . Among the brick or stone almshouses then visited were those in Boston, Cambridge, Salem, Gloucester, Lowell, Newburyport, Northampton, and Plymouth. The oldest of these was at Newburyport; it was partly built and used for an almshouse before 1800. No others had been in use so long, but several were from one hundred to one hundred and fifty years old, as, for example, those at Burlington and Carlisle. These were examples of a considerable class of the town almshouses ; they were large wooden farmhouses, with huge chimneys and few windows, built in the style of such homesteads in 1740, and of course very far from answering our modern notions of comfort and convenience. It was very hard to warm them in winter, to ventilate them in summer, and to keep them clean at any season of the year. There was another class of wooden houses built at a later period, but scarcely more comfortable than the above named; such were those of Acton, Dracut, Tewksbury, Taunton, and Cohasset. Originally good houses, they had not been kept in thorough repair, and, though there might be great neatness on the part of their keepers, it was difficult to keep them in proper condition for the inmates. A large number of the houses were built between 1820 and 1830, and many of these were excellently adapted to their purpose, although little had been done to modify their structure since. Good examples of this class were the almshouses at Duxbury and Yarmouth. Of the more recently built houses, or those which had lately been rebuilt, there were many as convenient, and some even as elegant,1 as could be desired for such uses. The substantial farmer would not need, or commonly have, a better house than these. But many of the wooden almshouses were then, and are still, much exposed to the danger of fire, and they burn down not unfrequently. The furniture is often good and sufficient, but also oftentimes old, rickety, and almost worthless. The almshouse farms . . . do not vary much in size or quality from year to year. These are known in the neighborhood as ‘ poor farms,’ and usually this term is very appropriate. The land is sometimes good and well tilled, more frequently poor and well tilled, but generally it is good and neglected, or poor and scarcely tilled at all.” 2

Bedford, Worcester, New-Besides these local almshouses, Massachusetts has the state almshouses at Tewksbury. They are built of wood, and accommodate five hundred inmates. They are well ventilated and warmed, with good bathing facilities, and are kept scrupulously clean. Their history is not devoid of painful episodes of carelessness, mismanagement, and cruelty ; yet, on the whole, they have been conscientiously governed, and, considering their size, are as good almshouses as our present system will allow.

It will be seen that a large proportion of the town and city almshouses are poorly adapted to their purpose. Those acquainted with the pauper habits and character know how indispensable are thorough arrangements for bathing ; but the ordinary farmhouse has no place for bath-tubs, and often only a scanty supply of water for any use. The construction of such houses, moreover, puts any classification of the inmates out of the question. The keeper locks up the men and women at night, puts the idiots and epileptics and the occasional crazy man into a strong room, and considers his duty done.

There is no provision made for labor beyond the needs of the farm and the house. It is unnecessary to say that the majority of the paupers thus supported remain permanent charges upon their townships. Nevertheless the Massachusetts almshouses are probably the best in the country. Could the able-bodied paupers, the children, the feeble-minded epileptics, and the insane be entirely removed from these places, with all their defects they would furnish a safe, decent, and comfortable home for the old paupers.

Compare the Massachusetts almshouses with those of another old State which has a central inspecting board,

— Pennsylvania. The State has sixty almshouses, which, according to the last report, had an average number of over 9000 inmates. One sixth of these were children. Of the adults forty-two per cent, were able bodied. Including those at the Bockley almshouse, 2737 were insane and idiotic, 178 were blind, and 61 were deaf and dumb. Dr. Luther, secretary of the Board of Charities, in the report for the year closing September, 1879, gives a full and minute description of what they call “ the county homes.” In this report, certainly, nothing seems to be set down in malice, while a good deal is extenuated, He mentions sixteen almshouses with commendation, as having convenient, clean, well-arranged buildings (though in some cases overcrowded) and excellent government. Some of these houses are very large, containing from a hundred to over three hundred paupers. Perhaps half of them have some kind of a system of labor : the inmates make their own clothes and their own coffins, — quite an item in almshouse inventories,

— besides doing the ordinary work of the house, tilling the farm, building stone-walls, and laying out roads. The infirm and sick are gathered into hospitals ; a school is provided for the children ; there is a small library in two or three “ homes.” But in all these picked almshouses the presence of the insane and the children has evil results which the most judicious care cannot counteract. The best of them cannot give the insane sufficient attention and liberty, nor can they properly train the children. In none of them is there, nor under present conditions can there he, any effectual exclusion of the idle, vicious vagabond, quite able but quite unwilling to work. The real stress of work comes in summer, and the crafty pauper leaves regularly with the coming of the birds, to return as regularly when they fly away in the late autumn.

Of the sixty almshouses in question, twenty-six are censured for unsuitable buildings, but commended for good government; fifteen have wretched buildings, wretchedly kept. These almshouses are for the most part structures of a former generation.

The Boekley almshouse may be said to belong to the first division of this class, the well-managed although badly arranged twenty-six. Until lately the almshouses at Philadelphia were altogether disgraceful. Dr. Luther assures the public that the “ limited diet ” of which the paupers complained has been changed ; they now get enough to eat and almost enough to wear, and they have been given shoes, formerly rather an infrequent luxury. The floors, which were honey-combed with rat holes, “have in part been renewed and repainted,” but the floors in the women’s wards are still “ much eaten by rats.” The hospital of the insane department was found clean and in good order. A range of cheap “ wooden sheds ” adjoins the main building, built on account of its overcrowding. These sheds are likely to burn down at any time. On the whole, however, Dr. Luther regards the establishment as “creditable to the managers.” 3

I rank the Mercer “ County home ” with the Boekley almshouse, because it is praised on the whole, “decayed old structure ” as it is; but the Greene County almshouse I must class among the worst.

The crowding of men and women into the same rooms has never had but one effect on pauper morals, notwithstanding the care which, Dr. Luther says, is taken to select, “ as far as possible, . . . the nearest kindred, such as husband and wife, or brother and sister, when the necessity occurs to have the rooms thus occupied.”

The institutions belonging to this last class are very like the almshouses already described. The ragged, uncleanly inmates wander listlessly through the squalid rooms ; there is little drainage, less ventilation ; in the cellars below, the dreaded lunatics howl and wail in the hot darkness ; children and idiots mingle with the “ loathly crowd ; ” and the aged paupers crawl feebly into the sunshine. Any one who doubts that as ugly sins thrive in the soil of Pennsylvania almshouses as in other States need only read the debates of the Pennsylvania almshouse keepers in their conventions, or Dr. Luther’s testimony concerning the hundred children in Berks County almshouse.4

Others of the older States make a very similar showing. Illinois may be taken as a typical Western State. It has ninety-seven almshouses. The report of its Board of Charities in 1878 gives a description of them all. Nineteen counties are praised as having wellbuilt and well-kept almshouses. Forty have buildings more or less poorly arranged, and thirty-five almshouses remind one of Dr. Chancellor’s ghastly pictures of the Maryland houses.

The Moultrie County paupers “have to eat off their laps, for want of a dining room or table.” At the Scott County almshouse, the inmates as well as the house “ needed scrubbing,” when Mr. Wines saw them; and the “ diet was scanty.” All the seventeen Union County paupers were ill of a malarial fever; there had been nineteen, but two of them had died the day before. The almshouse — an old double log house — stood on the edge of a stagnant pool. So the story goes on ; there is no need of repeating the repulsive details.

The largest almshouse in the State — that of Cook County, just outside the city of Chicago — makes the sorriest figure of all. Mr. Wines, with unusual vehemence, calls it “ an old rookery, a disgrace to the county.” A visit made there last winter assures me that the epithet is deserved.5 The insane department, a tall, ugly, rather imposing brick building, stands in the midst of the open prairie, and crouching at its feet is a huddle of cottages. These are the almshouses. One of the cottages is built of brick, the others are of wood ; all are dingy and falling into ruin. Years must have passed since they were painted their rusty clay color. The glazier, as well as the painter and carpenter, has kept away, the gaping holes in the window being mended with paper or stuffed with rags. More rags flutter from a high fence on one side : they are the paupers’ clothes, drying. The ground has an artificial rolling character, given by ash heaps, and is profusely decorated with tin cans and potato parings.

We visited the insane department first, finding it much like a state institution out of repair, and stinted in soap and water. The resident physician does his best, and it is evident that he has won the affection and respect of his patients; but his power is limited, and, such as it is, he may lose it at any election. The almshouse proper we found in an infinitely worse condition than the insane department. It contains, probably, more rats, roaches, and other small freebooters than any almshouse in the North, except that on Ward’s Island, near New York city. The rooms we entered were untidy, crowded, and heated to suffocation. In the working-women’s ward some children were running about among the women. The women themselves had no visible occupation; their hair was rough, their faces were unwashed, their gowns soiled and torn, and their whole appearance was as forlornly dingy as their environment. One does not marvel, though, when he learns that, owing to the difficulty in getting water, they dispense with baths through the winter. The atmosphere and the sights of this room were so horrible that one of our party became faint, and had to go out in the open air, while we all cut our stay short from sheer inability to breathe without nausea. Indeed, it is impossible to describe the things which we saw, or to repeat the stories told us by the almshouse officials. The houses are, as Mr. Wines says, “ barracks,” rather than cottages ; and the inmates are “ camped out, as it were, without privacy, without comforts.”

The classification does not extend beyond an imperfect separation of the sexes, — so imperfect, indeed, that there have been the usual deplorable scandals. During the winter months coffin-making is almost the only industry in which the paupers are employed. The drainage and the sanitary condition of the establishment are as bad as they are in the worst tenements in New York. Nor, with the present construction of the house, is it possible for any officers, however vigilant or determined they may be, to keep the house or the inmates clean, or to prevent gross abuses which do not need to be specified. The number of paupers at the time of our visit was a little under eight hundred ; sometimes nine hundred creatures, of all conditions, are crowded into the cottages.

Such is the condition of the almshouse of the wealthiest county in Illinois. It may be said that perhaps one fifth of the almshouses in the State are exceptionally good; two fifths give humane treatment and have decent although inconvenient buildings ; the remaining two fifths are utterly unfit for their purpose. In Pennsylvania there is a larger proportion of good almshouses, and in Massachusetts at least one half are comfortable structures built for their present use, with facilities for cleanliness, classification, and some employment of the inmates. These three States, then, may be considered as fair samples of the States which have their local charities supervised by the commonwealth.

The three classes in these States represent our almshouse system as to construction and government. Take the best almshouses first. Their merits are plain ; they give the poorest of the poor a clean and orderly home ; to some extent, they employ their inmates, and thus lessen the expense to the State ; and they assure benevolent taxpayers that no hapless fellow-beings need die of want. It is probable that any one walking through the rooms of the Tewksbury almshouse, the Allegheny City Home, the Henry County almshouse, or the Cleveland Infirmary would come away with a pleasant sensation that the public charities of his country were making many unfortunate people very comfortable. And the management of all these houses deserves his freely given praise.

Yet the best almshouses have vital defects, which none feel more keenly than the men at their head. First, the system sacrifices the most pitiful objects of our charity, the old, the feeble, the crippled, the blind, the whole class of sufferers who cannot provide for themselves, however eager they may be to do so, to keep in order the thriftless, unruly vagabonds who form from one third to one half of our almshouse population. These are the people who cause three fourths of the disorder, immorality, quarrels, and misery of the almshouse ; and they do nine tenths of the grumbling, while their cunning shifts to avoid working are endless. “I can get more work out of those not able bodied ” (old cripples whom some accident has sent to the poorhouse), said a Pennsylvania superintendent to the last convention of directors of the poor. “ If a man won’t work anywhere he comes to the poorhouse, and he makes more trouble than a dozen old cripples.” To keep this class in order it is often necessary to curtail the liberty of all the other inmates. However closely watched, the undeserving paupers are sure to be causing some mischief. Their imaginations are fertile in sly persecutions ; they always get more than their share of the humble comforts of the almshouse; and in unnumbered small ways they oppress their feebler companions. It should be remembered that the most fully equipped houses have only the keeper and his wife, and perhaps half a dozen hired assistants, to govern several hundred paupers.

Secondly. All the States (partially excepting Massachusetts and New York) keep large numbers of children in their almshouses. The associations of the best almshouse will ruin the future of a child beyond chance of redemption.

Thirdly. All the States (partially excepting Massachusetts and New York) keep lunatics, epileptics, and idiots in their almshouses. Massachusetts and New York have some lunatics and idiotic persons in their houses and many epileptics. The intolerable hardships which such a course inflicts upon the victims themselves need no further portrayal ; and it must be evident, also, that the presence of these miserable creatures causes the greatest discomfort to the other inmates. The secretary of the Ohio board, in his last report, sums up the whole matter. Referring to his analysis of the effects of keeping these classes in the almshouses, he says, “ I do not think it proper to go over the entire ground again, and yet cannot forbear to repeat that so long as the insane, epileptic, and idiotic classes are distributed through the county infirmaries two facts must continue, and these I do repeat with emphasis : First, the infirmaries, with these classes present, never can be made comfortable for dependent sick and poor. Second, these classes, neither of them, can, without great expense to the counties. be properly provided for ; and so our entire system of care for the poor will be subject to the more or less frequent occurrence of those horrors of neglect and abuse which have so long disgraced our care of the poor, dependent, and helpless.” 6

Fourthly. Even the best almshouses make no provision for converting the pauper back again into the citizen. Our prisons do make an effort — whatever may be thought of its average success — to reästablish healthy relations between the discharged convict and society. Nothing of the kind is attempted in the pauper’s case. The limits of his dependence are so vaguely defined that he is usually free to stay as long as he can stand the discomforts of his situation. Naturally, the better the almshouse the longer he is inclined to stay. Nor when he himself is desirous of again supporting himself is any help given him by the almshouse authorities.

The inspector of the Massachusetts charities told the following story in the writer’s hearing: A colored woman injured her leg in such a way that it had to be amputated below the knee. She was taken to Tewksbury. She recovered from the operation, and was soon as well as ever, and anxious to leave the asylum. She asked the officials for a wooden leg. Could she have had one she would have been able to go out again and earn her own living. She asked in vain. One officer referred her to another. There appeared to be no one in the almshouse who had authority to relieve the State of Massachusetts of this woman’s support, at the cost of a wooden leg. Greatly against her will, she remained in the almshouse for several years, continually begging for her wooden leg. At last she appealed to Mr. Sanborn, who inquired into the case, and, not without difficulty, got her the desired aid. By this time, however, the State had spent enough money on her to have bought dozens of wooden legs.

Sometimes, even in the best almshouses, there are blind paupers, — paupers solely because they are blind, — who might work again in the light if a good oculist could treat their eyes. The one physician of the almshouse is not a specialist, and he is not encouraged to recommend expensive operations by outsiders. In the end, to be sure, the present course is by far the most expensive, but that is not his affair. Apparently, it is not any one’s affair. The same thing may be said about cripples and many deformed people. There is, also, another side to the matter in question. It is not to be expected that paupers will insist upon supporting themselves in the teeth of the opposition of the almshouse officers. The persistent negro has few imitators. Most paupers after a first rebuff sink back into the fatal torpor of almshouse life.

The second class, the average almshouses, have been sufficiently indicated for the reader to perceive for himself some of their evils. In addition to the faults which they share with the better constructed and disciplined houses, they offer to their keepers very tough problems of their own. They are so built as to make good government very nearly a result of genius. Their steep and crooked stair-ways, their small windows, their warped wood-work, their uneven floors, their cracked ceilings with great patches of shaggy laths where the plaster has fallen, and their innumerable corners and crevices and holes to catch and grimly hold the dust make the keeper’s wife despair of cleanliness. They give no facilities for employing the paupers, who spend most of their time gossiping and grumbling over their pipes. In these almshouses there are often no separate buildings for the men and women. Such houses defy the vigilance of the most untiring keepers. There is no need to dilate on the immorality of our almshouses. Every vice which has scarred humanity hides its ugly head there beneath the shelter of the State. The fate of the children born and reared in such houses is like that of the viking of the legend in his cave of snakes. Only the almshouse snakes sting the soul to death, not the body.

Another danger, ghastly enough, but of a different kind, menaces the indoor paupers, because of the construction of their homes. The almshouses are commonly built of wood, or built very slightly when of brick. They are heated with stoves, and lighted with kerosene lamps. To cut off the last chance of escape from fire there is seldom any adequate supply of water. Of course fires are frequent. When they occur the building usually burns to the ground. If in the day-time, only two or three old cripples are burned alive; if at night, there is what the newspapers call a “ holocaust.” The recent tragedy near Dover, New Hampshire, is a good illustration of an almshouse fire. The officers stood helplessly by while the paupers perished. The firemen came from town, but there was no water, and they were as powerless as the others.

A still better illustration is given in the burning of the almshouse in Steuben County, New York. The whole story so vividly indicates the methods of local management of almshouses that I give it in full. In the spring of 1878, the Steuben County poorhouse was overcrowded in all its departments. At best the house was not fit to shelter human beings ; the main building was likely to tumble on its inmates’ heads, any day ; there were huge fissures and holes in the walls ; the ceilings were black with cobwebs ; all over the house the plastering had given way ; the grimy walls swarmed, in every crack, with the small tenants which infest such places, and were spattered with tokens of the paupers’ hopeless warfare upon them ; the stairways were steep and narrow, the stairs worn into hollows ; the doors were “shrunken and misshapen through age; ” there were no clothes-presses, and the rags of the paupers dangled against the dreadful walls. They warmed this ruin with stoves, and lighted it with tallow candles. The other buildings were in somewhat better repair, but none of them were clean, nor was there any provision for sewerage or ventilation. The keeper said that he did his best, but he had only “ one hired man ” to help him, and “ only one third ” of the hundred and twenty-five paupers “ could he trusted to care for themselves.” As for the moral atmosphere of the place, it matched the physical condition of the paupers. The keeper said that he could not help it; probably he spoke the truth.

The management of the house is in the hands of a board of superintendents of the poor, responsible to the board of supervisors. These gentlemen at the time of which I write were in the habit of visiting the poorhouse once a year. A few months before, they had made their annual visit. Their report runs in this wise : “ The different departments of the poorhouse we find in good condition. The different apartments are clean and well kept, the food for the paupers appearing good and sufficient ; the buildings in good repair and fences in good condition ; and from all appearances the poorhouse is under good management.” Considering that the superintendents had both eyes and noses, it seems hard to account for the reportThe explanation, however, is simple ; they were determined to manage the poorhouse cheaply. Repairs were costly, attendance was costly, nourishing food of good quality was costly : they dispensed with all; and, in consequence, they were able to report that the county paid only ninety-seven cents a week for the support of each pauper. One circumstance connected with this policy did, it is true, make a certain amount of rebuilding imperative: the stoves and the candles together caused a number of fires. At intervals, parts of buildings or single houses would burn down ; but usually the expense of rebuilding was offset by the diminished number of paupers left to the county to support, since more or less of them would be burned with their habitations. In 1839 a crazy man set fire to the house, and lost his life in the flames. Twenty years later there was a large fire, in which two old men, three lunatics, and an idiot woman perished. Then came several fires which did little damage. Two of these were in the same building, a two-story brick house, built originally for the insane. The windows were heavily barred, and the partition walls were of unplastered pitch pine ; thus the house at once offered every facility to any accidental fire, and gave the inmates the very smallest chance of escape. This was the house which was burned in 1878. At the time of the accident it contained forty-three persons, eighteen men and twenty-five women and children. The men were on the first floor ; the women and the children (eight in number) had the second floor.

Among the men was an insane epileptic, Ford by name, who had fits of frantic excitement, occurring about once in two months. At such times he was locked in a cell, and left there until he grew quiet again. His sole attendant was an old pauper, infirm and half blind, the keeper of the men’s department, whose notion of attendance was simply to shove Ford’s food, daily, through a hole in the door. On April 4th Ford became violent, and was promptly locked up in his cell, the old pauper keeping the key. No one ever again opened the door. Ford was allowed to carry matches, but he was not searched previous to being shut in his cell. For three days he was left alone, the aged pauper, as usual, pushing his food through the door. On the night of April 7th he was observed to be in a state of furious frenzy, tearing his bed to pieces, and flinging the straw about the room. A few hours later, smoke pouring from his room filled the lower floor and awakened the paupers ; he had set fire to the straw in his bed. The wooden floors and walls were dry as tinder, and the flames raced along them ; there was no water at hand ; and when the keeper reached the spot the lire was beyond control. The door of the men’s department was not locked, and those who could rushed out. One hapless paralytic crawled forth on his hands and knees, his clothes blazing about him. But the door to the women’s rooms was locked, and the women flung themselves against it in vain. The keeper had forgotten his keys, and stood scared and helpless, their shrieks ringing in his ears. To add to the horror of the moment Ford was seen at his window, his head thrust through the bars, jumping up and down in his agony, and screaming.

Then occurred an incident which shows how the mightiest human emotion may lend a touch of heroism to the lowest natures. One of these wretched women had a lover in another house, — the old, old miserable story. This man had run with the rest to the fire. Now, while the keeper and his man hung hack, half stunned, he plunged into the smoke. With the desperate strength of fear he dashed in the panel of the door, and pulled the woman whom ho sought through the opening. His example brought the keeper to his senses. He found a piece of timber, which he and his assistants made into a battering-ram ; they broke down the door, and saved those of the women near by. But the smoke and flames drove the rescuers back. They retreated, and eight feeble old women and two children were left to die. Five men, crippled, insane, and paralytic, perished with them. The paralytic who crawled out of the house died the following day. In all, sixteen per sons perished.

“ And I find from the evidence produced.” says the coroner’s verdict, “ that Edward Hudson, L. C. Ford, David Curtis,” — here follow the names, — “ came to their death through the gross negligence of the board of supervisors in not providing suitable buildings for the accommodation and protection of the paupers kept at the county poorhouse ; and I find the board of supervisors and each member of that board guilty of manslaughter in the fourth degree.”

It is only fair to add that the Steuben County poorhouse belongs rather to the third than the second class of houses.

Upon this last class I shall not dwell. Any one who cares to know what is the condition of the mass of almshouses in the South, and of at least a quarter of the houses in the North, is referred to Dr. Chancellor’s description of the Talbot County almshouse in his last report,7 or to the description of the Somerset County poorhouse in Dr. Luther’s last report,8 or to the reports upon the condition of the almshouse and hospital connected with the city of New York.9 Regarding all the houses of this order, it may be said in soberest earnest that they are worse than none. They destroy both the bodies and souls of their inmates. If we build almshouses from humanity, to give a comfortable home to the helpless poor, we have thrown away our money ; these are noisome prisons, not homes. If we build almshouses from fear, to soften the sullen jealousy of the poor by showing the sympathy of the rich, and to convert the impoverished laborer rather into the pauper than into the criminal, we have thrown away our money ; such charity is hateful to the poor ; the impoverished laborer becomes a “ tramp,” not a pauper.

Look at them in any light we may, a large proportion of the almshouses of the country are the ghastliest failures. The best houses do not win the poor from pauperism ; the worst do not frighten them away. The idle and vicious pauper makes shift to indulge his vices, get his liquor and tobacco, and avoid work in the worst almshouses. The worthy poor starve quietly rather than enter them. The large body of paupers, not altogether depraved, although idle and thriftless, have every lingering impulse of manliness extinguished in the almshouse atmosphere. The insane are tortured in the majority of almshouses, and children are hopelessly corrupted in every almshouse which keeps them, the best as well as the worst. Under these circumstances, can we say that our present system of caring for the indoor pauper helps more than it harms the poor ? We spend every year millions of money to support a system which persecutes the most worthy class of paupers, — a system which the poor themselves abhor. We educate the poor man to believe that the shelter of the almshouse is his right. “ The world owes every man a living ” is the appropriate motto for an almshouse door. The generality of people will grant that any belief in rights which carry no duties with them is fraught with ruinous consequences to the State ; yet this is the belief our system of charity directly teaches. And at the same time that we thus by our laws, from our pulpits, in our daily journals, persuade the poor man that the alms we give belong to him by right we madden him by the harshness of our giving. What can be done to help matters, and who are so blame for the present state of things?

In the first place, it is evident that an almshouse is no place for children, for the insane, for epileptics, for idiots, or for able-bodied paupers. What shall be done with these classes (excepting the last) is the question. It will naturally suggest itself to most people that by building cottages instead of palaces for the insane the State may be able to care for a greater number. By using the labor of the insane it may care for them at less expense. As for the able-bodied paupers, there is no reason why they should be supported in idleness. Their sphere is the workhouse, not the almshouse.

In the second place, a thorough system of classification of inmates is demanded. The need for this has already been made plain. The inmates should be classilied not only with regard to sex and age, but with regard to behavior.

In the third place, discipline can be more effectually maintained by the deprivation of privileges than by the infliction of penalties : it is better, for instance, to deprive worn-out old creatures of their tobacco than to beat them or lock them up in the dark.

In the fourth place, the labor of the paupers should be used. Although no able-bodied inmates are supposed to be allowed in the reformed almshouse, it by no means follows that the inmates shall not work ; on the contrary, light occupation is good both for their minds and their health. By giving them a small proportion of their earnings their coöperation could readily be secured.

In the fifth place, buildings should be erected or repaired for these ends, and keepers should be chosen because of their fitness for the position, not to gratify political henchmen or to save a few hundred dollars of salary.

And in the sixth place, local government unmolested having proved a most disastrous failure, there should be rigorous inspection of almshouses by some central authority ; and the entire management of charity should be taken out of politics. At present, in our large cities, the offices in almshouses are part of the spoils of a victorious party.

These suggestions make no claims to originality ; they have come to most experienced almshouse keepers and directors, and their substance may be found in almost any report of the various Boards of Charities.

Nevertheless, the old system works on, undisturbed by hostile criticisms, in much the same old way. Who are to blame ? Not the keepers ; they, almost as much as the paupers, are victims of the system. Not the supervisors and directors, either, although their measure of responsibility is greater; they are men much like other men, good citizens, kind fathers and husbands, most of them. It is not their own money which they are trying to save, — I do not now speak of the boards of commissioners in our large cities, who eat up the poor as if they were bread, and make fortunes out of their wards’ misery, — they are honestly eager to lighten the taxpayer’s burden. Usually, the charge of the almshouse is one of the smallest of their duties. Once a year they visit the “ poorfarm.” The keeper has a very good notion of the time of their coming, and they find the house swept and garnished. Next morning appears the usual declaration in the papers that the board has “ carefully inspected the almshouse, which they find in its customary satisfactory order. Neatness and comfort are everywhere visible ; and the keeper and his estimable wife ” — sometimes it is “his estimable lady”—“are evidently doing all in their power for the unfortunates intrusted to their care.”

Should an inquisitive supervisor arise, who makes unexpected visits and sees for himself, that misguided man probably will want to spend money, He argues that a small present expenditure may prove a great future saving, forgetting that a present expenditure will be set down to the account of himself and his colleagues in office, while the future saving will all fall to the credit of their successors. The consequence for him of such an oversight is that he is dropped at the next election, and a less extravagant man takes his place.

Directors of the larger almshouses have a slightly different experience, but the end is the same. Here the responsibility is so ingeniously subdivided that no one has any uncomfortable load to carry. However great the abuses, there is no one who is conspicuously to blame. The directors and commissioners and superintendents unite in a kind of roundrobin, like mutinous sailors. The directors, also, being elected as representatives of parties, are fettered by the help which has won them their places. They are expected to appoint the brothers or cousins of friends of the “ workers ” to the positions at their disposal; for of course any one is fitted to be an attendant in an almshouse. They must give the provision and clothing contracts to friends of the workers, unless the contracts are very well worth having, in which case they have their own interests to consider.

Direct robbery of paupers is not uncommon ; suspicion of such robbery is the commonest thing in the world. A system which exposes honest men to the basest insinuations, ■while it ties their hands should they make any motion towards cleaning the Augean stables of their office, cannot attract many honest and able men. Moreover, the terms of these offices are usually so short that the occasional clear-headed, clean-handed man — elected in some deadlock of parties where a fair name was needed to attract the waverers — has barely learned the duties of his office and acquired the skill of habitude before he has to yield the place to another beginner.

What wonder that the directors under such a system are what they are ! It is the system, not the men, which defies reform. And this will never be changed until the people themselves comprehend the atrocity of the wrongs done daily in their name. For behind lavish politicians and niggardly officials stand the real though most ignorant promoters of the oppression of the poor, the American people. They have, with the kindest intentions, permitted the firm establishment of a system which destroys men, ruins women, and corrupts children ; a system which tortures helpless lunatics, and sends into an overcrowded world hundreds of children, doomed to the long horror of lives of hereditary vice, deformity, and madness; withal, a system as expensive as it is cruel. This system having been established, it rests entirely with the American people to decide how long they will permit the costly disgrace of its existence.

Octave Thanet.

  1. 10 See Atlantic Monthly for June, 1881.
  2. 11 Query: Is “ elegance ” a requisite in an almshouse?
  3. 12 Supplement to Twelfth Annual Report, pages
  4. 13 Report Pennsylvania Board of Charities, 1879, pages 119, 120.
  5. 14 Report of Fifth Convention, page 48.
  6. 15 See Report Illinois Board of Charity (1878), pages 223-229.
  7. 16 Ohio Report (1880), page 31.
  8. 17 Report State Board of Health, Maryland (1880), page 83.
  9. 18 Report Pennsylvania Board of Charities (1879 ), page 121.
  10. 19 Report New York Board of Charities (1878), pages 207-234. Report New York Board of Charities (1880), pages 137-169.